When I was growing up, nothing simply happened.
“But what’s the story?” My mother would ask with a disappointed frown if I
failed to provide one. “Is that all you have to say?” Because, of course, there was always a story. There had to be. How people looked, what they said, and how they said it. Where they came from and where they were going. Even strangers were not exempt from this. They were described in detail. How they were encountered, or who they reminded her of from the past. People I had never heard of might suddenly appear in her mind, as though they had suddenly come to life in front of her eyes. Long-dead relatives from “the other
side” danced in the shadows around our kitchen table, as though, they, too, had suddenly taken up residence, and would join us for a cup of tea while she ruminated on stories long laid in the dust and forgotten. Nameless relatives that were gone years before I was born were still determined to have their say and tell their side of an argument. Tempers flared. Family quarrels from long ago reenacted, still hot with tears, occasional fists, and anger. Sorrow welled up as babies were mourned again and children who had sadly not made it to their third birthday, as though time had not moved forward.
In my story, “The Con Artist,” I described those stories of my childhood: “My
mother’s stories resurrected the dead as though they had not been silent for years. Passions felt long ago might have happened yesterday and time itself faded away as if it did not exist. She spoke of her father as if she had just seen him the other day and incidents in her childhood could have taken place that morning. Relatives appeared like apparitions from forgotten worlds that had suddenly come to life. My mother always complained that unlike her children she couldn’t write anything if her life depended on it, but her stories gave meaning to phantoms and filled my past with people I had never known who might still appear and claim me as their own. I did not belong only to my
parents, then, but was part of a long chain of people who stood behind me and strangely, I thought, had already lived their lives before mine had begun.
My father ‘s stories were different than my mother’s, but no less fascinating. My
mother was not interested in history. The first child born in this country, she did not know where her family came from, besides a vast country called Russia. But my father’s stories were full of historical importance, his awe at simply being alive, and wonder at the nature of the universe in which he, a young child, found himself. He was born in a small town near Riga, and even though he left at a young age, he remembered so many details that I always felt that I had been born there, too: the smell of newly harvested rye and wheat
and the color of the darkening sky after the Sabbath when he was sent forth to find three stars in the sky.
In “My Grandmother’s Eyes,” I wrote, “Often he would be so stricken with that
splendor, the sharp-pointed brilliance of the evening, so overtaken in the hushed silence of that starry expanse that he would forget to come in and someone had to scold him into returning. In that lost country where he was born, the frozen beauty of the sky filled him with respectful silence. Hazy bands of powdered snow stretched across the galaxy. On clear, dark nights, a burst of fireworks burned occasionally across the heavens, the slim crescent of moon gradually unfolded its cratered face, and spiral arms of luminous fields stretched overhead, punctuated by the reddish disk of Mars and the swirling opalescent clouds of Jupiter.”
His impressionable mind remembered everything: the horse that nearly trampled him as he made his way to cheder to learn the alef-bet, and the teacher, whose beard was yellow and whose breath stank, his childhood fear of the night riders who might decide to suddenly appear and terrify Jews. Those images and others were so vivid that I would see them again and again, as well as descriptions of people and events I would never know who became more real to me than those I had known all my life. I felt the frigid frost before winter set in and then the dark nights of the winter festival and the dazzling light of the candles that shone a path through the opaque gloom. He had been born on one of those nights, he was told, the second child, but the first to survive in a place where their family had lived for generations. Then where, he asked, had they found their blond hair, their light blue eyes, their fair skin, even though they had been in the same place, rooted in the soil, and would have stayed except for the silent turn of history?
Stories traveled like wisps of fog across the ocean and took root, remembered, but changed, embers from another time of people long gone and names soon forgotten. But now there were stories, too, in another language and in another place. My father found them in the new world after he journeyed over a storm-tossed sea that he never forgot and described to me in such detail that often, falling asleep, I would imagine myself in an abyss of endless gray water, instead of my own secure bed, certain that I would never find land again. Here, families dissolved and grew other branches; some became wealthy; others, like my father’s parents, barely survived. Yet, somehow, the stories of another time and place continued to live, even if the people did not. What was life without stories? And so, they were given new forms, became a part of my childhood, and were added to the stories he found here.
A “liberry” full of stories,” although he could barely pronounce the name, a magic place which contained all of the books a child like himself would ever want to read. Although he was a child of poverty, they were free, and each week he brought back the ones he had read and took out another stack. As an adult, buying books was his greatest pleasure. The opening of a new book, the lure of the rich smell of paper and ink, the promise of a story that he had not yet heard filled him with anticipation. Throughout his life he read them all: the English masters of prose and poetry, history and philosophy, theories of economics and books of math that read like poetry. But his favorites were biographies, stories of men and of their lives, the obstacles they had endured as they made their way and triumphed over adversity. And of those, he admired Benjamin Franklin as one of the most remarkable of self-made men. Among other accolades, Franklin was a founder of the first library in Philadelphia, in the same state where my father’s family had come after they arrived from Riga. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was often taken down from the shelf to ponder Franklin’s life and repeat his maxims and observations to me as a guide to my own life.
I spent my childhood making my way through my father’s library, which he
housed by each subject in glass cases. He bought me many books of my own and a bookcase to hold them. But of all the books my father gave me the one I remember best was a collection of stories about our people. I read it over and over again until the pages were bent and filled with thumbprints, the binding fell apart, and the pictures were so smudged they had lost their color. But the stories remained with me the rest of my life: Josiah, the boy king, Rebecca, who felt two nations in her body, hateful Jezebel who fell to her death, Elijah who never died, Joseph, the favored youngest son who was sold to a caravan of traders, breaking his father’s heart, Leah, who only yearned to be loved by her
husband. I read them over and over again. Along with my parents’ stories, I never forgot them. They stayed with me a lifetime. A lonely child, they were not merely stories, but tales about real people I knew, beloved companions, shaping my ideas about the world and what I would encounter. They taught me about kindness and cruelty, power and callousness, compassion and love. I thought of them when I began writing my own stories. I learned about the beginning and end of life, how the world began and how it might end, people’s desires and their secret suffering, a tangled web of history and memory that found their way, in one manner or another, into my life, and eventually, my work.