I have two mothers, now both dead, I have three fathers, one unknown, one buried outside Washington and one lost in a corner of his shrinking mind. I am growing older, I have aches and clicks and pops and groans, which each remind me that I am aware and alive and that isn’t a bad way to start a new day.
I’d like you to tell me about the village in which you grew up, and how odd it must have been for you to have met my grandfather so far from any village in the heart of Lithuania. I suspect you left with your parents, exhausted by pogroms, exhausted by the Jewishness that to them defined you. I’d love to know about my mother who I never got to meet, the seventh of your eight children, but like you, she is silent and all I have left is a small photo and a volume of imagined memories.
It’s difficult enough, Mom, that I never got to meet you, to see your face save in a college yearbook, to have only a few relatives acknowledge my existence despite the DNA test that clearly links us, one to the other. What makes it more difficult is trying to figure out my heritage, my geographic roots before our family arrived in West Virginia, back in the old country which for most was Lithuania, but for some Poland and still others Russia, as though their village was loaded onto a horsecart and dragged around Eastern Europe always heading to the next pogrom. Couldn’t our place have settled on a country, rather than riding the tides of the insanity the leaders then?
I always imagined it would somehow be romantic, not in the Hollywood sort of way, but in an idyllic, picturesque manner, even if that denied basic reality. Reality, when it comes to origins discovered is overrated, for the normal percolation time is denied, and the impact is sudden with no restraints to temper the blow. Way back when, you learned by stories told by the elders, who know, or led you to believe they did without question, who painted word pictures, drew out fading photographs that barely seemed real. You believed them because they knew, knowledge directly proportional to their age. For me it was the inside of my cheek, a wait, and an email, and then news, place names barren of detail, Lithuania. Later, village names, and only then visions of pogroms, of flight, of a desperate search for freedom and West Virginia. Details were added, but the picture was monochrome, a barren, wordless palette and no brush to be found.
It was scrawled on the back of a grocery receipt, barely legible. Charles H. Boustead Tunnel, fryingpan river. The river is lower case, its capitals dangling by serifs in one of the tunnel grates that constricts the water’s flow.
Outside the full moon is ensnared in the gnarled, barren branches of the white birch. She struggles vainly to break free, but the maple wraps its limbs around her. It is only when she retreats into the earth, covers herself over, that the trees cede their grasp.
When Luna curls against you, is she chilled from the night sky, or does she reflect the warmth of the distant star? Does she press against the shredded satin, wrap herself in the fringe of your kittel? And when she tires of you, does she leave by the rotting, split pine boards through which you, bit by bit, return to the soil to nurture her captor?
I stand outside, shivering under a full January moon. Fading impressions of you are shunted into the tunnel of my memory. I never know where or when they will emerge, what they have gathered, what has been lost along the way. I hope for their return, regardless of form. The Boustead Tunnel carries about 54,000 acre feet of water annually from the river to the Turquoise Reservoir.
Even when I was briefly in Edinburgh I dreamed of walking the streets of Lisbon or Porto looking into the faces of older men and wondering if this one was my father. the father I had never seen, never known. Was the one my Jewish mother described in detail to the social worker who took me from her shortly after she gave me life. It is many years later, now, my mother has a face, discovered in the twisting path of a double helix, good West Virginia Jewish stock, Lithuania left far behind. I may someday visit Lisbon, I hear it is a lovely city, but the faces will all be alien to me, and there I will dream of my day touring the Highlands of Scotland, the Isle of Skye, and which of the McDonald’s and McAllister’s might be kin and which Tartan I can now rightfully claim is my own.
What I want to tell her is this: it’s fitting, perfectly, that you who so assiduously hid the past from me, your past and mine, now bars your entry, refusing you even the briefest glimpse. You want so to grab onto it to have it carry you to a place removed from here by time and distance, where it is warm and most of the time, cozy. It is also fitting that you call out his name, as though he was in the yard pruning a tree, delaying dinner, the same he you cursed glad to have him out of your life and out of your house, you wished him dead so that you might call yourself a widow and share condolences with the other black draped women. You never mentioned the six months of foster care or the little sister who came and went so quickly when he had the audacity to drop dead on you one morning. This is what I would say to her, this is the curse I would place upon her but she no longer recognizes me, I am no more than a well dressed orderly come to remove her lunch tray.