Friday, May 15, 2015

Comfortable Shoes

Today, I'm here not to write something creative or clever, but to tell a story.

My grandparents were immigrants, as was my father.

I have never given much time to researching my ancestry, but relied instead on stories my father told me. I love his account of what the prior generation--my grandparents I never knew--were like, and what they did. However, come to find out from relatives who are better at research and more devoted to truth than I, some of what my father said was only tangentially related to the facts.

I always believed we were Russian, and that my father came to this country hand-in-hand with his older brother, Peter. I always believed that the two of them missed getting on the Titanic because they never got out of Russia, because my father, as a wee boy, told officials they were emigrating to America.

Some of that didn't make sense, as they came in Pre-Russian Revolution times. But it was a good, romantic story, and I liked it. It made me feel special, too, because what if they'd gotten on board? My very existence hinged on the honesty of a child.


My father also told me his limited memory of Russia was of a long, one-story house with a red tiled roof (a big deal at the time in Ukraine), of a shoe factory the family owned. My father always wore expensive well-fitted shoes, even when he could only afford one pair. He insisted that we do, too.

Only recently did I learn that my grandmother's family were Ukrainian landowners who farmed. Their land attracted my grandfather, who was descended from Cossacks. Yes, there was a shoe factory, and workers, but none of that would have happened without my grandmother's land.

My grandfather was the first to leave for America. He sought a better life--which was wise, because shortly after that, the Russian aristocracy starved the Ukrainians, and the rest of my grandfather's family didn't fare very well. They wrote letters to my grandfather and my father and uncles, pleading for just a few dollars to keep them fed through the last harsh winters of their lives.

In my grandfather's search for this better life, he got a little distracted, at first. Maybe it was the Cossack in him that gave him Wanderlust, and also a resistance to adhering to rules?

Just a year or so after Grandfather arrived in this country to establish himself and then send for the rest of his family--a family already consisting of three young sons--my grandmother learned by letters from friends in the Boston Russian Orthodox congregation that he had "taken up with" another woman.

My Baba got herself on a boat post haste, my father in her arms. She tracked him down and before long was pregnant with my Aunt Olga, who left this earth last summer at 103 years old.

Last week, the youngest of that generation, Sophie (for whom my daughter is named), also left us for whatever is next. She made it to 102 years old.

Sophie and Olga both were at profound peace when they left. Both had unflagging faith and had stayed true to the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Every time I imagine the experiences of the generation just before mine, it blows my mind.

None had the easiest life for the first, oh, 40 or so years. First of all, they had my more than slightly unhinged and volatile grandfather as their dad. At one point, he pitched himself into the Boston Harbor, a desperate man plagued by depression, a man disappointed, I'm sure, that his better life in American involved laboring in someone else's shoe factory. Someone fished him out of the Harbor, but it didn't go well after that. Second, they had a martinet for a mother. But at least they didn't starve.

My father? He did pretty well! He got involved with politics--his lifelong passion--as a very young man. He started law school, and was close to finishing when the Great Depression hit. He was disappointed not to finish, but he had an interesting life, played politics for decades, and watched three amazingly wonderful daughters grow up ;-) The eldest fulfilled his dream in becoming an attorney; the second daughter a dentist and professor of dentistry. I ended up a writer, but oh well, someone has to be the artist (loosely used term). My mom was pretty awesome, too, and beautiful, and he loved her with abandon.

That generation of my family grew up in Jamaica Plain way before JP was hip. Far too young, Aunt Olga lost her one true love, her husband--a post office worker but also a poet, yay him! Aunt Sophie lost a child, and had a rotten first husband, something she confirmed, as the story goes, by hiding in the back of his car while he was on his way to pick up his paramour. Sophie's second husband's family wouldn't accept her because she was Russian Orthodox and they were conservative Jews. For years, they kept their marriage secret and lived in two different households. When his parents finally learned about their marriage, they disowned him, not to reappear until his funeral. Naturally, this loss was something they bore together. She must have been quite a gal for him to have made that sacrifice.

Both of my aunts loved to laugh, as did my father, although he carried with him the family depressive gene. At least he never pitched himself into any large bodies of water ... but when I was a young teen, he sat for months in a darkened room, questioning his life. I guess I am a lot like him and my grandfather. I'm no stranger to Wanderlust, resistance to rules, or depression. He became much happier, perhaps only by learning the dark was not for him.

Me, too.

Despite their humble beginnings, my aunts lived well, and for so long! Their lives ended up very different. Aunt Olga's life remained modest; she worked for the Boston School Department, while Aunt Sophie traveled the world and kept a gorgeous home in a beautiful, upscale community south of Boston, Hingham.

Aunt Sophie had the best shoes. I always wanted "Aunt Sophie shoes," and eventually, I got them, but they didn't fit my inner self. Now, I wear comfortable shoes, as Aunt Olga always did. Surprise--I'm more like her than I thought. But I carry all of their traits.

Aunt Sophie, after losing her second husband (he smoked too much), followed her faith and a "spiritual advisor" to a Russian Orthodox community in California, starting life anew after 60-some years. What a woman. She only moved back to New England when her daughter insisted that she be close by in the years when she might have to be cared for--in her "declining years." She was in her late 80s then, and lived on her own for another 10 years.

My aunts were both inspirational women. Both never missed a day of life. They showed up for everything.

I don't always show up for everything in the outside world. At times, I've been severely disappointed by it, just like my dad and grandfather were, and sometimes I just need to remain cloistered so I don't get to the point of pitching myself into the Harbor. Once, my life required that I be public, and before that, a socialite, if only on a small scale. Now, I'm a recluse at times, but mostly every day, I show up for writing, just like for more than 20 years, I showed up every day for my kids.

Perhaps Aunt Sophie eventually chose quiet and retreat in California because she, too, was done with frippery and outside expectations. I'm not sure--she never said. But I wonder what kind of shoes she wore in California.

I learned from that generation to accept life as it is, to carry on with determination, and to find great joy. My father found it in the garden, my uncle his farm, my aunts their families, friends, and faith. The last of my uncles went to WWI, survived three of the most deadly battles in that war, and ultimately sacrificed his joy. But that's another essay. Suffice it to say I owe him quite a bit, too.

My hope is not that I can live to 100, but that I feel a similar peace when it's my time to go--not a Russian Orthodox kind of faith, or even a Roman Catholic kind, but instead a peace of faith that like the prior generation of my family, in living every day to its fullest, and trying to pass their courage and grace forward, I too have done what the universe sent me here to do.

That generation is now in the next world, whatever it may be. Will I see them again? If so, I hope they will forgive me my frailties. I hope they can see now how much they taught me, and how much I try to put it to use.

I am blessed to have been theirs. I am grateful for my birth into this family. Because of them, and the lessons they gave me that I've finally learned to apply, I am never starving, in any meaning of the word.

Word, Walter, Olga, Sophie, word.

Off for my day in my Sauconys. And prior gen--it's never goodbye. To paraphrase that celluloid font of wisdom, E.T., you'll always be right there.

To those of you who read my blog for prompts, please write about the prior generation in your family.

1 comment:

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