Finding my place in history: A love letter for Father’s Day
It is not enough to thank my father privately for the best gift he’s ever given me, because his own humility interferes with my every attempt to express sufficient gratitude. “Dad, I don’t know how to thank you enough for this,” I say. “I tried a new restaurant last night,” he says. His eyes tell me he’s received my gesture, but because he never allows me to lavish him with praise, I’m writing this article instead—for I am equally as stubborn, and I insist on sharing just how much I value his efforts.
Since 1998, my father has been researching our family history. Initially, he gave his parents a hand-held tape recorder, hoping they’d impart the past into an easily preserved format, but when his mother dismissed the idea out of hand, he realized he’d have to do any recordkeeping as he always had: on lined, yellow legal pads with his dark blue felt pens. In addition to interviewing his parents and as many relatives as he could reach, he consulted a wide range of sources, including the National Archives, the Ellis Island Passenger Search, newspapers, genealogists, doctors, translators, websites, court documents, state and school and military records, cemetery markers and gravestones, old photographs and old letters and old tickets still tucked into burlap envelopes, new photographs, emails, voicemails. He transformed our family tree into a Table of Contents, composed a 206-page narrative, and for Father’s Day last year, had it printed and bound, and gifted one copy to me and one to my sister.
At first, I read it looking for evidence of what made us special: the time my father let then-Senator JFK borrow his clipboard to sign autographs, the time my great uncle Max (aka Mackie) spent as an arranger for the Sev Olsen Band featuring Peggy Lee, or playing trombone at a burlesque house with chorus girls known as the Alvin Adorables. Then I became more interested in what makes our family story just like many other immigration tales: one guy in 1907 with few resources and even less money who travelled steerage across the Atlantic looking for a better life; then later his brother, my great-grandfather: first a stevedore on the docks unloading cement ships, then a fruit peddler selling oranges door-to-door from a bushel basket until he could afford a horse and cart, until he could afford a Ford one-ton truck, until he could afford a grocery store.
The family genesis and introductory paragraph is as follows:
There were originally four brothers, Mendel, Samuel (Sholom), Bencha, and Zalmon, and also sisters Reva and Hannah. There was a half brother, Samuel (Schmuel), and another sister, for whom there is no record of her name. The original family name was Metelitza according to some immigration records; however, according to Al Mattenson, a son of the half brother, the original Russian family name was Metelitzi (“blizzard”). Records of Ellis Island, however, state Metelitza.
Dad attempts to offer the facts unfiltered, and yet, just like biblical genealogies, there are gaps and ghosts in the story. Nothing is known of Bencha, Zalmon, Reva, and Hannah, who are believed to have remained in Russia. Was my great-grandmother born in Kluisi, Klency, Klinzcy, or Kleentsi? We’ll likely never know, though the town is believed to be near Kiev, Ukraine. Why did my Jewish great-grandfather, when asked to submit his Petition for Naturalization in 1918, list Christmas as the birthdate for two of his sons, and then change his own birthdate to December 25 in a World War I draft Registration Card, when he was born on January 25, as stated in his Declaration of Intention upon entering the country?
Perhaps my grandfather inherited his father’s sense of humor, because when asked to provide a birth certificate in order to get a job selling shoes, he obtained a fake one and selected Friday the 13th as his day of birth. He never knew his original birthday until my father consulted the Deputy Clerk of St. Louis County District Court, but even after we discovered that he was born on August 23, 1912 (assuming his father didn’t make up that date too), we continued to celebrate on September 13th. We like to call my dad Sherlock Holmes because he is such a thorough researcher, but there are just as many questions and discrepancies in our story as there are moments of clarity.
In school, we are taught to learn history by memorizing names and dates and fixing our understanding of events around something certain. Our family story reads more like the way history actually happens: some of it is recorded and some is not, some is understood only in context and only by the people living it, and everybody has a different view about how and why and even when and where things occur. These tensions are entry points into history. They demand our participation, and offer us a means of knowing ourselves by inquiring after our forebears.
In junior high school, I had to create a family tree in English class, and for the first time found out that my grandmother’s maiden name was Glass. I immediately recalled one of my favorite episodes of The Brady Bunch in which Jan invents a fake boyfriend named George, and when pressed to give his last name, sees a drinking glass on the nightstand. “George Glass! And he thinks I’m super cool,” she exclaims. I thought about my grandmother. I knew her as Sarah Mattenson, so Sarah Glass seemed as fictional as Jan’s George. Her history was not real to me; it was far away, in some other time and place. I was naturally inquisitive and wanted to know more about her life, but she chose to protect my innocence, so she never told me she wore dentures since early adolescence because her family, rather than spend money on dental care, extracted all her teeth instead. She never told me she was addicted to Miltown and other tranquilizers for 28 years until she voluntarily entered a chemical dependency center. She never told me she failed eighth grade three times and then dropped out of school altogether, or that she was traumatized when her family sold the piano, her one source of joy and confidence. Now that I know, I long to talk with her and let her tell her story. She had a lot of secrets.
My grandmother started writing about her life when it was almost over, and my father included those letters, knowing his mother wanted to be heard, and knowing his daughters wanted to listen. Dad included everything: the happy and sad times, detailed evidence and elusive memories, and everyone’s presence from the progenitors to Mr. C, the family dog. Dad regards everyone equally; there are no minor characters. Everyone is part of the story. This family history gives me access to human history in that sense: everyone is part of the story. It’s what my ancestors wanted—to be part of a new story—and American life. Maryascha became Minnie, Dweire became Dot, Gootel became Gertrude, and Metelitzi became Mattenson. Reading about all of them in this manuscript allows me to see them both intimately and from a distance, and thus myself the same way. Who am I and what is my place in history? Is it enough to be part of the story? My ambition drives me to stand out and make a name for myself rather than to fit in.
My grandfather’s ambitions all had a purpose. He wanted to be a dance instructor in order to meet women. He took on jobs in order to make enough money to survive. He polished Ford nameplates in a factory, sold sewing machines and flavored extracts (vanilla, lemon, and orange) and eventually shoes, and once ran away at age 16 to join the Marines. I once asked him, “Papa, why did you decide to be a salesman?” He laughed and said, “There was a job. If there was a job to be a fisherman, I would have become a fisherman.” He dropped out of school before ninth grade because his father died and he had to help support the family. It’s in part because he struggled so much that I have the luxury to choose a career and craft my own ambitions.
I took particular note of my father’s description of Samuel (born in 1873), who came to this country in 1911 and took the Grand Trunk Railway to Duluth, Minnesota to be with his brother and my great-grandfather. He was a tailor, and he executed his Declaration of Intention “by making a mark.” We can only assume he was illiterate and could not read the form, so when asked to sign his Petition for Naturalization, he must have made some sort of X or checkmark. Dad’s phrasing stuck with me and I started to wonder how all these people felt about making a mark in the world. This document itself is one way my father is making his mark. He is keeping our family alive. He even brought some people back to life; my grandfather never knew he had a fifth brother until my father’s research revealed that Louis died at age 5. Since poor families couldn’t afford gravestones, Louis was likely buried along the perimeter of the first Jewish cemetery in Duluth. He probably would have survived appendicitis if he had been born after antibiotics were discovered. His family never talked about him, and there’s only one known photo of him, now included in our collection.
For some reason, as I read, I’d keep turning back to Louis’ photo. He looks so sweet in his little black coat with his soft, golden curls, and his tiny hand resting on his brother’s shoulder. He’s holding some sort of staff and his brother sits upon a tricycle. I think about Louis. He never got to “make a mark.” The phrase reminds me of a moment, years ago, in my grandfather’s kitchen when we were making lunch. He took out a small notepad used for phone messages and drew a few lines. “Here’s the alley,” he showed me, “and here’s where our house was—522 E. 8th St. in Duluth, and here’s where I made my mark!” Apparently he had carved his initials into the cement a few feet from the garage. I’ve always wanted to travel to Duluth and see if the inscription is still there.
I, too, want to make my mark in this world, so I was honored to represent my department in a competition for a distinguished award this year. Many of my colleagues have been nominated but not selected over the years, but I assumed my dossier would be strong enough to transcend committee politics and rise above the other candidates. When I did not win the award, my ego was bruised. How will I make my mark if I’m not on the official high-achievers list?
I went home, made some strong coffee, reread all 206 pages of the family history, and emerged transformed. I’ve been so focused on being the star of my story that I’ve forgotten I’m a part of a much larger narrative, from family history to Jewish history to human history. I’ve started to think more about my life in context as opposed to being primarily distinctive. It’s a relief. I’ve got a lot of angels in these pages sending me messages: think Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. “You’ve been given a great gift, George,” he says, “a chance to see what the world would be like without you.” In the film, it is only when George Bailey sees his life from a distance that he can then reenter it with a renewed enthusiasm. He learns what really matters to him. That’s the gift my father has given me as well. I am merely one entry in the Table of Contents, and I can see the value of my life even as it slowly slips away. I don’t mean for that to sound melancholy. To the contrary, the subtext of impermanence throughout Dad’s offering makes me want to love and learn in as exuberant a way as possible, for as long as possible.
At dinner last week, my father made a joke about his own mortality, and my eyes filled with tears at the mere thought. I see him as too youthful to be in his seventies, and similarly, I think he has trouble believing he has two daughters in their forties. He sent us “Happy 29th Birthday!” cards for at least a dozen years. I can’t pass for that age anymore, but the older I get, I understand Dad’s humor and even the denial. I want him to live forever. He will—in the pages titled Our Family—and no doubt, I’ll return to them many times, for my father’s love is in every word of the text. It’s hard to imagine a more meaningful gift from father to daughter.
Dad’s last line is excerpted from a prayer book on the page after the Mourner’s Kaddish: As we remember our departed, we perpetuate their presence among us. By remembering them, we confer upon them the gift of immortality.
Immortality is conceptual; the reality is that my father’s father, for example, is gone, and we miss him. But his legacy is alive, and there are things he said and did that remain with us. Every time we talked on the phone, instead of “goodbye,” Papa said, “you’re a good person.” When I was younger, I’d laugh and say, “No, You’re a good person!” Sometimes, I’d say, “I love you, Papa” or “see you later.” And then he’d repeat: “you’re a good person.”
Dad, I get to be the one to bestow Papa’s enduring blessing this time: I love you dearly. Thank you for this gift. You’re a good person!