Thursday, March 17, 2016

Remembering Across Time and Distance

Last Friday night, memorial plaques for my mother were lit in both Glen Rock, New Jersey, and Savannah, Georgia. It was the second anniversary of my mother’s death, based on the Hebrew calendar. Both my brother and I stood to say special prayers to honor our mother’s memory in synagogues 800 miles apart. The fact that there are memorial plaques for my mother in both locations speaks both to the geographical spreading of our small family and to our desire to stay connected in memory across long distances and long periods of time. After all, those plaques are presumably going to be lit every year at this time even after my brother and I are no longer there to see.
Memorial lights are illuminated on the anniversary of relatives' deaths.
The way people come together from various locales to form families and then move apart or expand in the next generations is an important part of every family’s history. My father left Arkansas and went to Savannah, where he met and wed my mother. They had two children, one of whom stayed in Savannah while the other moved to New Jersey. My brother’s kids live in Atlanta and New York. Mine live in different parts of New York now but could relocate in the future to anywhere. My wife’s family fled from Germany after Hitler rose to power there and spread to places such as China and Brazil, as well as New York and California. Audrey’s parents came from towns in Germany only a few miles apart but didn’t meet until they were in New York, more than 3,000 miles from their original homes. It’s not a new story, but the geography does get complex.

How do we deal with all of this movement and flux? How do we try to keep our families together across time and distance? Sometimes we put up memorial plaques and light them to keep our memories alive. Sometimes we go exploring back in time.

Here is an example. For a week in May, Audrey and I and our kids are going to travel to Germany. This is not a long-planned vacation, but it is an important trip and one touched a little by mystery. We have been invited by an academic organization whose mission is to restore meaningful family books left behind by Jews who escaped the Holocaust. How did they find Audrey? The chairperson of the group had read a blog I posted two years ago in which I described how my mother-in-law had helped her family get out of Germany following Kristallnacht. I mentioned my mother-in-law’s maiden name, and the group had some religious books, published in the late 1800s, that belonged to that family. The books are not rare, but they are all that tangibly remains of Audrey’s family inside Germany, as far as we know. So we are going to northern Germany to receive and retrieve the books. Then we are driving as a family to southern Germany to find the towns where Audrey’s parents and grandparents (my children’s grandparents and great-grandparents) were born and lived. We’ll visit cemeteries, and we’ll drive by former homes and businesses, which now belong to other people. We’ll try to visualize what those places were like when Audrey’s family lived there, which it did for many generations.

As if to anticipate this trip, Audrey and I recently added another memorial plaque to the walls of our synagogue in Glen Rock. The plaque is for Audrey’s grandmother, whose yahrzeit (the Hebrew word for the anniversary of one’s death) we will honor tonight. The lights will be lit on both sides of her plaque tonight and for the next seven days. We don’t need the plaque to remember Oomi, but turning on those lights and saying a prayer to honor her memory will help us keep our family together for another year.
Oomi never came to Glen Rock but she is well remembered there.

No comments:

Post a Comment