In some spiritual traditions, at this time of year, people remember and celebrate their ancestors. We acknowledge our honored dead on All Hallows Eve, Day of the Dead, and All Saints Day.
I always see a lot of, “I honor my grandparents,” and “You are here because of the love of thousands” sorts of posts at the end of October. And they always give me pause because I neither honor my grandparents nor believe in their love. I don’t know much about my ancestors before them. They died long before I was born.
For those who don’t know, I was born in the former Soviet Union. When we emigrated in 1973, it was with the knowledge that we would never again see those we left behind. Intercontinental communication was possible but calls into the Soviet Union took a great deal of doing.
I was six years old when we left and understood that I would never see or likely hear from my grandmothers again. And I didn’t mind one bit. That sounds harsh, I know. But that is the way of things.
I recall only missing one person after we left, my great grandmother, Golda (after whom my sister is named). Both my grandfathers died in World War II (my maternal grandfather was apparently a kind man and a fabulous musician. I am sorry I never met him). So, the only ancestors we ever knew were both grandmothers and my maternal great grandmother.
To say my grandmothers (coincidentally both named Rose) were evil, wicked women is both an understatement and a misnomer. Neither was particularly warm, kind, or giving.
Both had the pinched and mean quality of someone who has suffered greatly and never healed. Then again, they lived through the hell that was post World War II Soviet Union. Both lost husbands. Both endured traumas I can’t even imagine. And yet both survived. That must count for something.
And yet, I remember one time in particular when my paternal grandmother showed her colors. My cousin, both boys, my sister, and I were all at her house. My grandmother placed my sister and me in front of the refrigerator. She opened the door to reveal a big bowl of a style of Russian salad.
“This is not for you,” she admonished us. “This is for your cousins.”
“What do we get?” My sister asked.
The favoritism inherent in this exchange does not feel like a reaction to trauma. Rather, it feels like something darker and more tragic. Although I understand the general reasons for my grandmothers’ treatment of us, I never heard specifics. I only knew we were not worth feeding when we were hungry. I fear that sometimes, children are just simply not wanted or loved. They have done nothing to deserve this treatment. Heck, they are children. They deserve our care and our nurturing, but sometimes for whatever reason, that does not happen. It is not unlike a bird whose chick falls out of the next. It no longer recognizes its own baby and therefore rejects. The only difference is that humans are recognized and rejected regardless.
Allow me to give another example of their lack of kindness towards me, personally, I became my own babysitter when I was two years old. Allow me to explain. Both women worked at home when I was born. Both lived a few blocks from my family. Neither wanted to watch me when both my parents went to work. I was watched by my sister, Emily until I was two years old (thanks for that, Em). Why the change? She started school at seven. My parents asked both grandmothers to watch me. Neither would. Great grandma Golda would have but she lived with my grandmother and had little power to sway opinion in either direction, from what I understand. I don’t know the details of their reasons. I only know that my parents sat me down, told me what was going to happen, explained what I could and could not do (don’t play with the electrical sockets, do put on your clothes, don’t go outside) and then left me to my own devices all day while my sister was in school.
As a result, I never had any sort of loving feelings towards either grandmother. In fact, I feel a sort of indifference to both. When we left the FSU, I shed no tears for anyone we left behind except my great grandmother.
Grandma Golda was as kind as she could be under the circumstances. But I view her life and kindness through the lens of being in the FSU in the early 1970s. Few had anything. Most had nothing. We made do with what little we had, and children grew up fast.
Grandma Golda taught me how to read cards (regular playing cards not tarot) and stones. She talked to me about the traditions and for lack of a better term superstitions of our people. Some would call what she did folk wisdom or folk magic. She just relayed them as the way we did things. I was a sponge back then and I soaked her wisdom up. I still use a lot of what she told me in my work, and for that I am grateful.
Grandma Golda passed away when we were living in Israel on our year-long journey to immigrate to the USA. I remember the day clearly. It was hot in Dimona, in the middle of the desert. My father held my mother as she keened her grief. We had received a letter that Grandma Golda had passed away within a month of our leaving. It had already been a few months so we didn’t know of her death for a long time. I think that was part of my mother’s grief. She hadn’t been there, and it had already been months.
As adults, my parents had both known the full impact of leaving everything they knew. They had known they would likely never see any family again (untrue in our case but we didn’t know that at the time). But, my great grandmother had been 84 years old when we left. It was certain we would never see her again.
Nowadays, the immigration experience is likely different. People can email, whatsapp, text, and heck skype across continents. Communication is much simpler for many. But back then, it took months to get word. And with the border guards often keeping what they felt like keeping, many letters and packages never arrived. When you left, you often said a permanent goodbye to everyone and everything you had ever known.
I can’t imagine the impact that sort of knowledge has on the psyche. We are generally social, family-oriented creatures. Even the nomadic societies traveled in family-centered groups. But immigration? That’s a whole different ballgame. It requires a separation and chasm that must impact and influence the lives of those who leave and those who remain behind.
I am not a nomad. As someone who loves to travel, I also love having a home base. I want to leave and return with the certainty that I will come home. Immigration requires you to make a home wherever you settle. It amazes me how many people have done it and survived and thrived in the aftermath. My parents (who have their issues but that is for another essay) did the best they could as they embarked on the journey that brought them and their children to a new world.
A few years ago, I took my mother on a trip to New Mexico. We were going to drive around to the cool sites and spend some time together. As part of the journey, I decided to get some insight into our history. I brought a tape recorder and a list of questions. While we drove, I asked her the questions, and she recorded her answers. I still have some of those recordings. They illuminated, for me, the arduous lives my family and everyone led after the Iron Curtain cordoned off a chunk of the world. I listen to them periodically to remind myself of what we are capable of as a species and as people. We can cause each other unspeakable pain. That, I grieve. And we can muster up the will and resolve and strength to survive just about anything. That, I respect.
So, I guess if I am going to honor my ancestors, this last is what I choose to celebrate. I bow my head in remembrance and raise my eyes in hope that I will always have the will and resolve and courage to thrive.