I spent too much time looking backward, looking into the past, looking into the mirror to frame a dream history of my desires and fears. He called one morning, left a message, “Mother died, more details will follow.” A mother his by birth, mine by legal act. I should have felt stunned anger, I said quietly to myself he’s cocky, has issues, and went about momentary mourning. That is the psyche of the adoptee who was never family, always an adjunct. Later my antediluvian dreams gave way under a torrent of deoxyribonucleic acid rain. She who I imagined in the mirror took name, took shape from and old yearbook, offered a history, a family, a heritage. When I knelt at her grave she told me her story in hushed tones, or was it the breeze in the pines on the hill overlooking the Kanawha? I bid her farewell that day, placed a pebble on her headstone, stroked the cold marble and mourned an untouched mother.
I have never been to Liszkowo but I have been to Charleston, West Virginia and visited the B’nai Jacob Cemetery and for me, that is as close as I need to come to Liszkowo for I don’t speak Lithuanian though it runs through my veins. I have visited the Highlands and the Isle of Islay but I never saw my father’s kin reach out to me, although they speak to me in my dreams.
It wasn’t lost on me, mother, that this year on the anniversary of death, you had been gone eighteen years, Chai in your beloved Hebrew, a lifetime for me, having never met you save in the half of my genes you implanted in me when I was implanted in you.
As you aged, alone, did you wonder what became of the closest family you had after your parents were interred in the soil of Charleston? Did you ever regret not knowing, or were you comfortable that the Jewish Family Service Agency would make a selection of which you would have approved had your approval been sought.
You have grandsons and greatgrandchildren who will mourn me, carry my memory forward, but know that I do the same for you, and you never aged a day from that one when the photographer took your college yearbook photo, a grainy copy of which is tucked in my wallet and heart.
I approach it slowly, overcome by fear and desire, warned to step carefully over the uneven earth that on this hillside haven set behind the rusting wrought iron fence , its master lock dangling askew, peers out through the trees to the Kanawha river flowing unknowingly through the valley.
The stone is set in line with the others, neatly incised, a name, English and Hebrew, two petunias, cornered, in perpetual bloom, a beloved sister and aunt, and unstated, unknown perhaps, a mother whose son, gently touching the stone, washes her with my tears, and we speak of love in silence, and I, a child of sixty-seven, embrace my mother for the first time, and I am finally and for the first time, complete
Aunt Tzipporah hated her name, detested it really, came closer to the truth. “What the hell were my parents thinking?” she said, “like being Jewish in West Virginia isn’t going to be hard enough. On a good day I got away with being Zippy, but you try spending your Junior year in high school hearing “Hey Zipper” or having some jerk come up to you, cigarette dangling from his lip and saying, “hey, Zippo, got a light?” and you can guess why getting out of state to college, any college, was something I wanted so badly.” I told my aunt I fully understood, and she smiled, “I guess you do. It couldn’t be a party going through life with the name Shadrach Shamnansky.
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.