Archive for May 2010
Last night I went to see The Moth Grand Slam at BB King’s Blues Club in midtown Manhattan. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Moth is a storytelling organization. They have a podcast and host events at which people tell true stories from their lives. The stories vary widely from funny to tragic to cute to poignant. I recommend you check it out at themoth.org. The Grand Slam was a competition between the last ten storytelling winners.
Last night’s stories were often very moving. I’m often shocked at how willing people are to stand up in front of an audience of strangers and share deeply personal narratives. But it’s true that telling a story is as important as hearing one. Some of the storytellers were trying to pass on lessons that had taken them a long time to learn and process. This, I think, is the most significant function of storytelling. I appreciate that these were not stories that were told off the cuff. They were carefully constructed, which made them all the more powerful. The art of telling a true story is complicated. Decisions like which details to include and omit drastically alter the meaning that someone walks away with. I’m sure that while the events people described were taking place their meaning was not clear. So these narrators were doing us a favor by making parts of their lives into a coherent whole for the rest of us to understand.
There isn’t always a lot of room in our daily lives to hear a complete story. These narratives were only about 5 minutes long but they enabled me feel like I knew a complete stranger. I was glad to be part of a forum that blurred the line between the personal and the public. And, because the show was in New York City, it felt more like it was a showcase of people fighting against anonymity.
So keep sharing stories everyone!
Is everyone concerned with fading into nothingness?
I’m taking a brief respite to address why I decided to make this project something public. I believe that this process of reading letters and understanding the past is enhanced by its being shared. This forum is allowing me to create something new with records of the past that are both historical and personal. These are records that I view as valuable to the world beyond my family. On a logistical note I am pushed to continue reading and thinking about this project because the blog posts are time sensitive. I am regularly making someone else’s work public, piece by piece, causing the events of my own life to play more directly into how I read the documents.
I’m one of those people who has kept journals (on and off, of course) for most of my life. And yet I would be mortified if they were to be made public. Well, not even if they were made public but if anyone read them. I save, collect, and document the world around me fairly regularly. Who am I keeping these records for? I’m largely keeping them for myself, yes, but having re-read a lot of these journals I’m pretty sure that I was also writing to some imagined audience. Thirteen year-old Molly was certainly concerned that Future Molly (or whoever) might think that she was shallow or naive. So from time to time she takes a moment to write something “deep” and “thoughtful” with words that she may or may not understand. She does all this in an effort to assuage her own harsh judgment. Of course, this is all for naught since she ends up sounding, well, even less clever.
Herein lies the danger of a blog. For many people a blog can become (or is created to be) a personal diary explicitly designed for the public viewer. There isn’t anything wrong with that but it makes me consider how I utilize this blog. I wonder if I am being hypocritical by sharing private letters that two people wrote to each other while I would never want my own personal writings to be made public. These letters were not written for the public eye. While this presents certain moral ambiguities, I think Alex and Sylvia’s assumption of privacy is part of what makes the letters so important and worthwhile. The confidential nature of the letters contributes a new narrative to the story of an era that is entrenched in myth and lore, a time known for censorship and propaganda but also for democracy and righteousness. And so we persevere.
Motherhood is, in the end, one of the most tangible ways to leave your mark on the world. Your children represent parts of you regardless of whether they carry on your political and ideological beliefs. Your children represent you whether or not they are genetically tied to you.
Since starting this blog I’ve spent more time than ever thinking about someone I have never met. Walking around Brooklyn, I try to imagine a woman who was my age when she lived here with a young daughter and her husband away at war. Even though she has always been a mysterious presence to me I can’t help but look for how I am connected to her and how I might resemble her. But I don’t want to get caught up in the notion that my family, or its legacy, is important just because of my biological connection to the people in it.
I always felt lucky, growing up, to have four living grandparents. There was my mother’s father, John, who shouted “Don’t come back with any holes in your body,” when I was seven and walking out the door to go get my ears pierced. Of course, this caused me to anxiously turn to my mom and ask if he knew what I was about to do. There was my maternal grandmother, Joan, who was straightforward and loving; laughing at my one pathetic attempt to embroider and miraculously not hurting my feelings. (She was also exceptionally good at “The Price Is Right.”) Then there was Alex. But I can’t talk about motherhood without introducing Sophie, Alex’s second wife, and the woman that I grew up knowing as my paternal grandmother.
Sophie, the last of my grandparents who is still alive, doesn’t posses quite the same sharpness of her younger years. She is without a smidgen of doubt my grandmother. The term step-mother doesn’t get a lot of use in the family and its “evil” connotations have no place here. She was a teacher, having earned a PhD is childhood education. When she joined the family she had a son named David, too. (Yup, that’s how my dad and his brother came to share the same name). A notoriously bad cook, we relied on my grandfather’s culinary skill for our weekly Sunday dinners in New Jersey.
While this blog may have grown out of an attempt to understand Sylvia, it is also about understanding a heritage that has little to do with genetics. My family, like so many families, is a network of people that is not constrained by biology.
Without replacing Sylvia, Sophie became another mother to the family and has helped me understand that above all, family is about inclusion – not exclusion.
After all, it was Sophie who saved the letters that Alex and Sylvia wrote to each other so that they could be passed on. It is Sophie’s handwriting on the box of letters that says “For David and Adrienne.” That’s motherhood.
Sometimes Sylvia wrote to Alex as a wife and sometimes she wrote as a mother. This is a letter from 1945 that Sylvia wrote out in the voice of Adrienne (Cookie). Still, she can’t help adding some of her own adult language. At this point Sylvia was living at 133 Navy Walk in Brooklyn. Alex was stationed abroad on the S.S.Pennsylvania.
Mothers are complicated entities. Sylvia shows how in the span of two pages a mother can be loving, caring, forthright, honest, and pragmatic.
Wed. March 7
Hello daddy –
Here are some more pictures of me – Hope you like them. We took these in that park on the lower east side – near Bubbie’s house where you and Mommy used to take me when I was a baby. When you come home, we’ll all go there together to take pictures.
Yesterday Mommy splurged – she bought me a blackboard and chalk so that I won’t write on the walls – well, I write on the floors instead! Some fun. Today Mommy couldn’t resist 2 ivy plants (75cents + 75 cents) and with all this spending she says we’ll be broke soon. Anyway, we wouldn’t have had enough until the end of the month as I need new shoes (so does Mommy, but she said she’d wait until she had her new suits and then maybe you’d come home with some money.) And I needed some new overalls. Mommy bought me 2 pairs – and they’re so damn big on me – size 6! But Mommy says we have to be practical not beautiful. She says I’ll grow into them. Anyway, daddy, I’m still a well dressed baby, as you can see from the photos. And Mommy doesn’t look so bad either. But whatthehell [sic] do you look like? How about sending us a picture of yourself?
Darling daddy, Mommy can’t write you as she had a bad toothache – but she’ll go to the dentist tomorrow and have it taken care of. That tooth has kept her awake for 2 nights now and she’s acting a little groggy today.
All my love to the grandest dad in the world.
Happy Mother’s Day!
I really mean that. I like to think that I refrain from giving in to commercially based holidays but once they arrive I can’t help but get swept up in the mushy family love fest. There is so much to say about mothers that I’ve decided to make this week Mother’s Week on the blog. Over the next week I want to pay some true respect to mothers, grandmothers, and women in general. But while it might get pretty corny soon, allow for some of the skepticism included in today’s post.
My mom is pretty great, if I do say so myself. Her numerous professional, academic and personal achievements are certainly what I admire her for the most as a woman and a role model. But it might also be mentioned that she is a three-time cancer survivor. Today, much more than in years past, it struck me that Mother’s Day has become a vehicle for talking about breast cancer. Today, even the Yankees were batting with pink bats and wearing ribbons. Because it seemed so much more prevelant than ever before I began to wonder about what it means. Are we, as a culture, more comfortable talking about illness on a national level? I hate to be too cynical but I don’t think this is the case. Our ”discussion” of breast cancer is still painted pink and made as feminine as possible. The talk about finding a cure is couched among words like faith, love and hope. These words are fine in their own right. Everyone can use faith, love and hope every day of their lives. But breast cancer is consistently linked with the domestic, not the scientific. (I will add that I’ve seen some sassy and creative breast cancer awareness slogans of late that I quite like.) Are cancer rates rising to such a degree that when anyone in the country thinks of mothers they also think about cancer? Or is this solely a product of excellent branding of the Susan G. Komen foundation? Whatever it is, breast cancer is second only to lung cancer in the deaths of American women (I won’t address the disparities in mortality rates based on economic class and race). For now, I’ll just say get mammograms and stay healthy, ladies.
Celebrating mothers can be traced back to the most ancient civilizations but – according to our reliable friends at Wikipedia - it was Anna Jarvis who is credited with “creating” the holiday to honor mothers in the United States. Woodrow Wilson made it an official holiday in 1914. Ms. Jarvis herself, however, soon came to deeply regret the commercialization of the holiday and vocally criticized the greeting card industry and the people who bought those greeting cards. This is what I find most interesting: Mother’s Day is the most popular day of the year to dine out (National Restaurant Association). What does this say?
Moms still do most of the cooking. So when it is their day off, we all go out to eat.
Let’s back up a few years. Alex and Sylvia were married in late 1941. Alex was a union organizer for the New York City sanitation workers and for the Russian War Relief, a leftist anti-fascist organization. Even before he went into the Navy Alex traveled to various Hungarian communities around the United States. Alex visited these communities to raise money and support for the Russian War Relief and for the Hungarian paper he worked for (and would become Managing Editor of in the 1950s) called Magyar Szo. This translates to “Hungarian word.” This is a letter that Alex typed to Sylvia on June 2, 1942. I think it captures his humor and interesting use of the English language.
This letter was sent to “Ms. Sylvia Kotin Rosner” at “East 31st Street.” Kotin was Sylvia’s maiden name. I think that his inclusion of this name on the envelope speaks to Alex’s progressive ideology and belief in equality. Maybe I’m reading too much into this envelope but in a world where people still might call me “Mrs. Husband’s-First-Name Husband’s-Last-Name” I can’t help but think that Alex included Sylvia’s maiden name deliberately. (Then, take note that the letter begins “Dear Woman” and ends with a joke that he is faithful “perhaps because no woman wants to start out with an old married man.”)
Part two of my analysis of the envelope: A number of letters and stationary contain the address E. 31st Street. As of yet, no one in the family recalls them living there or knows anything about what the living situation before Brooklyn might have been. There are a number of these kinds of “discrepancies” scattered throughout the letters. This brings me to a point that I must address; the gap between written and oral history. This subject was bound to come up, as I am a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History MA Program.
So often we trust only what is written about the past. Putting pen to paper seems to give infallible authority to opinions while the spoken word gets all kinds of flack. But we need only look at examples of the name changes at Ellis Island, or the dated and prejudiced categories in the US Census, or the poorly transcribed interview to see how easily so-called objective history can be fudged, misread, and outright misleading. My whole life we celebrated my grandpa’s birthday on March 17th, the day before my own. Just today my aunt sent me his identification card and it states that his birthday is March 16th. Was the ID card right and my grandfather wrong about his own birthday?
This blog is the product of written documents and living, oral sources (aka family members). I’m not out to reconcile them or force one to fit the other. I don’t believe I can figure out a “truth.” The truth, like history, is a living and ever-changing thing. My reading of these letters changes them, changes our family myth and changes their meaning. It changes how I see someone whom I felt I knew very well, but it doesn’t make my “truth” of who Alex was defunct.
Okay, this topic will have to be revisited. Here’s the letter!
“Here is a clipping from one of the local papers, I wonder whether you will like the fact that I took the picture with the gorgeous looking dame, but what can you do when people think that only a prettygirl attracts attention.
Well it is only one day from that fateful meeting night and let us hope that the think will come off as we wish is [sic]. I know it must be hard on you to be all this time without a man, but we will make up for it shortly. Or are you? (I am kidding) …
…Incidentally we had a fine collection in Mich. and I think I made on of the finest speeches in my life, of course I prepared myself, and I was the big shot, in small town so I really had give my best. [six] …
…Yes, I am typing this letter, don’t you recognize my scatter brains? It is because there is so much to tell you and so little time for it. And I have a tremendous weakness for the pen.”