There’s a curse, erroneously attributed to an old Chinese proverb, that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” I find myself living now, in the last part of my life, in an interesting time, and wishing that things were a bit less interesting. Actually living history is nowhere near as much fun as reading about it. Times of political unrest and instability, pandemic, and economic collapse with their attendant tension and uncertainty is definitely not what I would have wished to experience in my old age. It occurs to me that my grandmother’s life was exactly the opposite of my own in that respect. Thankfully, her old age was peaceful and secure, but much of her life, well into late middle age, was conducted amid just such uncertainty. She lived in very interesting times.
I never quite realized how tumultuous my grandmother’s life was until I started writing her “memoir” a few months ago. Researching my book, Riva’s Journey, has been a fascinating journey of discovery for me. I always loved my grandmother but now I also admire the incredible courage and resilience that got her through her “interesting times” with all her love and humor and compassion intact. She would have said her life was unremarkable, no different from millions of other women who came from the same time and place. In a way, that’s true, but that’s also the point; that’s what makes her a hero in her own way. She just put one foot in front of the other, all the way through. Truly a Woman of Valor. Thanks, Grandma.
I’ve been researching and writing the fictionalized memoir of my Grandmother Riva’s life since the beginning of this crazy year. Since I have scant documentation, there are enormous gaps in my knowledge, so I’ve resorted to extensively researching the history of the times and places she knew as a girl and young woman. While I can’t know many of the details of her actual experiences, at least I’m now able to put what I do know into an accurate context.
This experience is endlessly fascinating for me, especially since I’m old enough now to have a broader perspective on history and life than I would have had as a young woman. I’m telling myself the story I wish she could have told me when she had the chance, if only life and language barriers hadn’t intervened. I’m hoping the end result will be something my own adult grandchildren will be able to appreciate as the story of where they, themselves, began.
On the most basic level, my grandparents always said they came from Russia, but when I looked at a map, the towns they were born in are in present-day Ukraine. However, delving into the history of the area, I discovered that this was known as the Pale of Jewish Settlement, originally part of the Kingdom of Poland, which was partitioned by the great powers of the late eighteenth century between the Prussian (or German) Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire. Suddenly, previously inexplicable aspects of my grandmother’s life, such as her education in an Austrian gymnazia, began to make sense. My grandmother lived in at least three different countries before she left home to come to America, even though she never moved from the Tarnopol Oblast! The borders of those countries remained in nearly constant flux for well over a hundred years.
So with this, my latest book, I’m on a journey of my own, only now, it’s personal. I know how the story ends, but it’s the in-between parts that are making this a journey of discovery for me. It’s challenging but it’s also an exciting adventure. I’m just going along for the ride!
I’ve just been working on a sketch of one of my granddaughters from a photo that’s about 18 years old. She was a baby then, bright and smiling and totally gorgeous. She’s still bright and smiling and totally gorgeous, but now she’s a college freshman, looking to the future with confidence, ready to make a difference in her world.
All five of my grandchildren were born at the turn of the century, this new century now entering its third decade. Yet when I think of that term, it conveys an image to me of the turn of the prior century, the period that began more than 100 years ago. For my grandparents, the turn of that century began in Europe and their journeys took them to a world unrecognizable from the one in which they’d started.
I remember my grandmother, Riva. I think of how she came to America in 1921, with two little boys and a teen-age niece, to meet her husband who’d arrived seven years earlier, just as the First World War broke out in Europe. I imagine how terrified and lonely she must have been on that journey, leaving the only home she’d ever known, understanding she could never go back and would never see her loved ones again. Yet she must also have been full of courage in the hope that she could make a new and better life for herself and for her children. She never tired of marveling at her new country. I often heard her exclaim in wonder, “Oy, America!”
I don’t know much of her story. She dropped a few hints here and there, yet basically, the past remained in the past. But I’m the grandmother now, and I remember her with love and I wish I knew more about her life. So I’ve been reading and researching and I’ve decided to fill in the gaps for myself as best I can. In this new year of 2020, I plan to write “Riva’s Journey,” a memoir for someone who’s no longer around to write it for herself.
So as we turn the page into this new decade, may we all be blessed with health and joy, and look forward to the future, while remembering where we came from. Happy New Year!