I have been struggling these last weeks to complete a post about an altogether different topic. At last, I decided to scrap it. It’s not the story I need to tell right now. The stories I need most to tell are my own, and if I could beg your indulgence, I have one to share. This has been an exceptionally challenging year for nearly everyone. Now, with the holidays here (and today being Thanksgiving), I admit the search for gratitude has been like searching for a needle in a stack of needles. Then, in an instant, life in the strange and unexpected way that it does showed me that instead of searching for one needle in a stack of needles; it may serve me better to appreciate the whole pile.
I remember holidays growing up. I remember how Thanksgiving at times was an enormous production. There were years we had two or three long tables set up in our house for people to sit and eat. One year, my mother single handedly prepared a meal (which included a 26 + lbs turkey) for over 20 people. My father worked odd shifts, and I was far too young to be of use (save staying out of the way). She brought out the good china, the silver cutlery, centerpieces, the nice silk table cloths, spent hours slaving over pots and piles of ingredients; and despite the hours of work she would put in, no matter how good the food was or how beautiful the table looked, someone had a complaint.
The trouble was all of the fine china, silk table cloths and silver cutlery in the world couldn’t draw the attention from the elephant in the room; the shadow of dysfunction that pervaded our home and loved to ruin the holidays. I remember my mother standing alone in the kitchen washing piles of dishes and hearing the laughter of my other relatives in the other room. Seeing pictures from these holidays years later, it occured to me that she was seldom if ever in them. If I pan back further, I realize that those photographs are small prints that create a much larger photo mosaic.
Speaking of small prints, I laugh as I write this, because I’m willing to bet that very few people can say that either they or another family member still owns a Kodak Carousel slide projector. I’m certain my grandparents bought it in the late 60’s early 70’s. Every 10 years or so, we dig it out of antiquity, set it up and look at all of the old slides. The last time was somewhere between 2010 and 2013. I was living in a condo in Alexandria, VA with my family and in the early years of my sobriety. We set it up on the dining room table and projected the images onto the wall. Not long before, my uncle had found a place where they could convert photographs into slides for the projector, so we had some new additions. I can still hear the fan in the machine, the shuffle and click as the wheel turned, not fully comprehending that each shuffle and click was the rewinding of time with a sole purpose to come back forward.
Each image had a story, and that story begot other stories. I listened in earnest, still unaware that what I was being told was my own personal Book of Genesis. My great grandparents made their exodus from eastern Europe in the early 1900’s to come to the Promised Land., which turned out to be Trenton, New Jersey. My mother’s paternal grandparents were simple people, humble people. My great grandfather Ignaz worked in a factory, my great grandmother Pelogna spoke splintered English, practiced folk magic and once threatened a local brothel owner with a pistol. Yes, I know. You’re thinking “don’t you mean broken English?” No, I don’t. The only word I can think of that could describe more broken than broken is splintered. Despite the language barrier, she always managed to make her point.
There aren’t many stories about my mother’s maternal grandparents. Michael and Helen arrived in New Jersey around the same time as my other great grandparents. The difference was Michael and Helen were from a more rural part of Poland. Mind you, rural doesn’t mean “rustic” or “backwater”. It would be more likened to the class of people living on the English moors whereas Ignaz and Pelogna would be likened more to urchins from the streets of London; at least that’s how they were viewed. My mother called Helen “Stonewall Jackson” because my mother swore she was made of stone. “Her face would crack if she smiled!” my mother would say. I imagine it was true, since every image of her showed nothing but a stern, stoney visage. She died in the house where I grew up.
My grandmother was one of four children, and she was never one to speak of her family history. She was immensely proud of her sons, tore up my mother’s application to be a stewardess for United Airlines and appeared to me in a dream to tell me of the birth of my second son. She died three years before I was born. My mother told me that I would talk to a lady with white hair and a blue gown in my room when I was a little girl. I wish I could remember those conversations.
My grandfather was one of eight and a teenager during the Great Depression. He once fist fought a neighborhood kid in a Jacobian battle for a broken vacuum cleaner to bring home and fix for his mother. He always smiled in photographs, and my mother once pointed out that my smile is his. He spent many weekends fishing in Barnegat Bay. I can point out the place in the inlet where he lost his boat (and nearly his brother) when a squall came through. A part of me deeply regrets never having the chance to fish with him by the lighthouse. He was born on September 16, 1915. I’ve truly only fallen in love with two men in my life; one was born the day after my grandfather’s 58th birthday, the other died on what would have been my grandfather’s 93rd birthday. My grandfather died March 25th when I was eleven. The first person to greet me at my first AA meeting was born September 18th and died on March 5th at the age of 58. My grandfather was never a subtle man.
My mother and I sat at the kitchen table during dinner and started going over the slides again.
We projected the images into each other’s minds with stories and questions.
She had called last week and insisted we eat on nice paper plates, and I indulged her. After dinner it only took me about 25 minutes to finish the dishes, and we kept going over the slides.
After she and my father left, I sat in my living room and cried. I had found my gratitude.
I was grateful for splintered English and folk magic.
I was grateful for fist fights for vacuum cleaners.
I was grateful for my mother’s insistence on paper dishes and the way her hyper criticism shows how fragile, how vulnerable she really is.
I’m grateful now for all that these things have given me:
An understanding of the language of my ancestors
The will to fight
The ability to see past aesthetics and appreciate the beauty of simplicity
Integrity, and no longer having to compare my insides with another’s outsides
Compassion and empathy
Not feeling an iota of shame for where I’ve come from
What’s greater still is that the photo mosaic is still creating a larger picture. As time passes, they will expand to the pictures of my children, their children, and on and on.