Plums from the family tree
IN a few months I will make what seems to have become an annual visit to Tennessee, to join the staff of a writing workshop offered to the state's elementary and high school teachers. Those teachers become my students, writing about themselves, their experiences, and most often about their families - not just the daily doings of spouses and children, but about the adventures, secrets, and scandals of grandfathers, wayward uncles, flirtatious great-aunts, and the spunkiest of great-great-grandmothers. Anecdotes drop like ripe plums from a fecund family tree. As we work together, I ask my students questions to help them illuminate details and to shape their stories into literature. They ask me questions, too, of course, not only about writing, but about my own life. There is one question, especially, that they ask every year, one question that convinces me that however long I might spend in Tennessee, I will never belong. The question is: ``Where is your home?''
By that, the questioners do not want to know that I was born in New York City, not that I have spent more than a decade in New England. They do not want to know my current address, or even the neighborhood where I learned to ride a two-wheeler. They are asking something quite different.
``Do you have family near you?'' a woman asked me one day over lunch in Knoxville. When I said no, that my family was scattered all over the country, she asked if I have many friends. Many, I replied, and they have become like family. ``It's different with us,'' she said. ``Here you have lots of family and you go to them for everything. It's hard to let friends in.'' It seemed to her that what I experienced was enviable. It seemed to me that I was an orphan.
My grandparents on one side came from Poland, on the other from Russia. My maternal grandfather came over first, stayed for two years while his wife and infant son waited in a small village outside Warsaw. In 1912, he sent boat fare, and my grandmother and uncle arrived in New York.
My grandfather was a tailor. My grandmother, born into a wealthy family in Warsaw, had been educated as a tutor. When her own father encountered hard times, he became a roofer and moved, with his family, out of the expensive city to a rural village. It was there that my grandmother married and began to raise a family.
They came to America to live in a future that would never, as far as they could see, come to Poland. When they had enough money, they bought a house in Brooklyn. My grandparents and their four children - my mother was the youngest - lived in a five-room apartment on the second floor.
My mother lived at home when she married, and stayed at home while my father spent four years in the Army during the World War II. When he returned, they continued to live with my grandparents. I was born while my parents lived there; and four years later my sister was, too. We all stayed until - in a daring act of independence - my father decided to buy a house in Queens. I was nearly 6.
I lived in Flushing with my parents for the next 13 years. It was clear to me that Flushing, for my parents, was an accomplishment more than a home. We had a sturdy house, tastefully decorated and well kept. It was the place my father came to from work, where I came to from school. And every Sunday we went to my mother's home, and, not far away, to my father's.
My grandmother's apartment was more familiar. Crowded, old, and oddly furnished, it was filled with artifacts: the wooden sewing machine powered by a large, ornate iron pedal; the heavy couches upholstered in dark green damask; the huge, mahogany dresser that dominated my grandmother's bedroom. The apartment was so solid, the walls so thick that it seemed eternal. There were no decorations: Everything there had accumulated and, once set down, remained in the same place for all the Sundays I visited.
My memories of these visits are largely visual. I was a quiet child. It was remarked, often, that I seemed to be ``taking it all in.'' And while I remember ``taking in'' news, gossip, and recitations of family events, I remember no family stories. I know nothing of my grandparents' life in Poland, little of my mother's youth. Past was past. In America, after all, one looked ahead.
My grandmother spoke Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and English, but in none of those languages did she ever say, ``Let me tell you a story.'' Perhaps she thought her stories would not interest a young girl growing up in America. More likely, I think, she did not want to burden me with memories of her past.
Memories, though, are alive in Tennessee, in the stories that connect each of my students to deep roots. They are alive in the houses that have been passed from mother to son, father to daughter. They are alive in the graveyards where kin have been buried for a hundred years and more. When a Tennessean asks, ``Where is your home?'' he means, ``Where are you memories?''
After my grandmother died, more than 20 years ago, it seemed to me that those memories died with her. But now, inspired in part by the literary celebrations of my Tennessee students, I am not so sure. If my students have taught me one thing, it is this: Roots are hardy and, with some care, can begin to nourish again even the most desiccated family tree.
``Where is your home'' is not so simple a question for me as it is for a family whose ancestors farmed the same acreage since the 19th century. But there are, I think, many stories that await me - in Warsaw, perhaps, or in a small village whose name I will never pronounce correctly; in all those places my family has scattered to live. Slowly, painstakingly, and not a little painfully, I can discover those stories.
When I do, I will no longer be a stranger in Tennessee.