In Brazil

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Sea

For many years, my dad never talked to me about his own father. The reasons were varied: I was too young; his father died young and it was painful; he simply didn’t know how to. But sometimes all you need is a trigger to set off the stories. I think everyone has some sort of role in their family, whether they’ve chosen it, or it has been thrust upon them. I view my ‘role’ as a fragment collector. There are so many family stories that just seem to hover above us all, aimlessly, and each year I get older I try to pick a fragment and place it in some coherent narrative. The other day I found out my great-uncle’s name was Liebe Wiesenstern. A fragment I could only collect when my dad allowed himself to talk about his own father.

But I collected a bigger fragment a few weeks ago. I was watching a travel show set in Brazil with my dad, when suddenly he began to talk about his father. I knew, vaguely, that my grandfather had spent some time in Brazil, but I assumed it was a short visit. I was wrong. He spent a decade there, moving from Jerusalem as a young man to work in Brazil. When he left, he was an orthodox Jew, ready to join a long line of Rabbis. When he returned, he was an atheist socialist who sang socialist tunes to my dad before bedtime.

Those ten years are filled with mystery. My dad knows his father had an affair with a nurse, for example. And this relationship lasted a long time. But what came from this affair: children, a whole family I don’t know of? There’s so much I don’t know, about my family, and about my own parents. I guess this is true of most people. But considering we define ourselves against the backdrop of our families, the compulsive need to know is always there, hovering above my head like those fragments I’m supposed to catch and turn into narrative. This is why I found Jean’s post so timely. Because in order to move from simply collecting fragments to turning them into a story with meaning, I have to give myself permission as a writer to ‘capture’ my family in words. This sounds easy, but it’s a process fraught with doubts and fears, and questions to yourself about yourself, and where you belong.

This may sound strange, or unrelated, but I think my growing confidence in turning fragments into narrative sits side-by-side with my growing love of the sea in Australia. At first, the sea here was alien territory for me. I resisted going to the beach when we first moved to Australia, and for many years after. I didn’t like the beach culture, the overly tanned bleached easiness of all the girls and guys. Going to the beach was a pointless and superficial ritual to me during my school days. The focus wasn’t so much the sea, and the breeze, and the sand between your toes, but the endless parade of bodies on display. Maybe I was being unkind, as we often tend to be as kids and teenagers, but I deliberately set myself apart from it all – so there I was, dark-haired, incredibly white-skinned, saying no to the beach on the weekends. I remember one really hot day in school when I wore short shorts (something I hated doing too). We didn’t have air-conditioning in my high school, so those shorts were a necessity. One girl I knew turned around in class and pointed at my legs and said: ‘Hila, you’re so white!’ Sun-loving Australia resists the non-tanners. It wasn’t a big deal at all though, I remember this story fondly.

I love going to the beach now. Not during the day when everyone is sun-baking, or on the weekends when there are crowds, but at the close of day, in the evening, on those rare days when I have time to go gaze at the sea.

It must be the lulling affect of the sea, and the sense of being kept company in your aloneness. I often feel alone in crowds of people, but sitting by the sea on my own, I feel full, like I’m sitting next to a good friend. In those moments, I feel the closest to my family on the other side of the world. In those moments, I allow myself to think about all the fragments I’ve been collecting, and how to shape them into words. Maybe the lulling affect of the sea acts like a lullaby, taking me back to childhood, when I felt enveloped by my family, and when I wasn’t old enough to differentiate myself from them, or see the differences between us. It’s a nice feeling. I know I can’t live in this feeling, but it’s good to have it there. It makes the process of turning things into narrative seem less daunting – it just feels right. So I’ve moved from Brazil to the sea, and that’s where I’ll leave you, for the time being.

14 comments:

Jane Flanagan said...

I am in love with this post.

I feel a connection with the sea, too. Though it was always there like a voice in my head and I notice it more when it is absent and when we're reunited it feels right.

And I think I understand the mystery of family too, though I'm pretty sure there are fewer secrets in mind. Still, I recently realized that I'd rewritten an entire and important phase of my childhood in my memory. And I find myself wondering if I do that to my own life, what must we do generations apart. And, in that way, it's ours to create as well as to discover, I feel.

Rambling Tart said...

Once again, I could hug you. :-) My family past has been shrouded in silence and mystery until a second cousin - the blackest black sheep of the family - befriended me on Facebook and opened the chest of stories that bring amusement, delight, shock, sadness, and most of all, understanding. It was so amazing to me discover that fundamentalist extremism runs back for generations (sadness, anger, grief) but so do strong women who speak the truth, stand tall, and forge their own trails (pride, belonging, comfort). It is so good to know these stories, even the fragments, but you're also right - it is hard to write them down somehow. I'm so glad the sea is your beloved friend now. Just last night my soul was positively CRAVING it. :-)

rooth said...

It's funny how as you get older, these little family stories just start cropping up and you finally start hearing the little secrets that everyone has kept. Hopefully you'll be able to continue to collect these fragments until one day they form a story that helps you explain yourself and how you came to be the person you are as well

Sally said...


In my family, it's understood that half of us are drawn to the mountains, and half to the sea. My mom and I are in the beach contingent. It's hard to explain since I love the mountains (they're home) and it's not as if something's missing when I'm not there. But when I return to the coast, I realize it's a necessary pilgrimage. I feel refreshed, reborn. (Though despite those feelings of newness, I always feel the age of the world by the ocean, feel connected to the past when I lie beside it with my eyes closed.)

I've never thought of myself as a collector - I'm a purger of the things I accumulate. But your post has made me think I'm a collector after all, of my thoughts and memories but also our family's. Something within me is obsessed with cataloging stories and experiences, almost converting them into something physical, "just in case."

Teresa said...

Such a beautiful post Hila.

My family isn't overly talkative and stories from my family history have odd ways of popping up too.

(I also had and still do have white non-beach going legs!)

Caitlin Christie said...

What a beautiful post! I often identify the sea with my family as my grandparents on my mom's side are from Newfoundland, Canada. I've never lived near the ocean but whenever I go visit their summer home I feel this deep connection with the ocean. It's very powerful and this post made me think of that.

louise said...

Hi Hila, I love that you are the fragment collector of your family. It's a lovely description. I also love your description of the sea. I can very much relate to this. xolj

Hila said...

Jane: I was so hoping your would like it. Honestly Jane, I had the best time writing this - you know, when writing feels so right, and all is right with the world for half an hour? That feeling.

Krista: I think there's something deeply restorative in turning these family fragments into narrative. There's a reason why we like to share these stories amongst ourselves and within our families - it provides balance, somehow. And I could hug you right back :)

Rooth: I find it really interesting how family members are trusting me with stories now - it must be a sign I'm getting older!

Sally: I don't really collect 'things' myself (unless we're talking about books). Like you, I purge stuff all the time, quite ruthlessly, especially clothes. But I hoard stories, too much so, I think. I want to be able to do something with them.

Teresa: Thanks :) Oh my, glad to find a fellow white-legged gal, ha.

Caitlin Christie: The sea must have a way of sucking us all into its beauty.

Louise: Thank you!

Fiona M said...

I really like the concept of a 'fragment collector' - I feel like so many families could do so well from having one of them!

I feel like I'm a bit more like your father however - having a chunk of my family I don't think I'll want to share with any potential future offspring. My mother is a strange 'fragment' in my life, one that even at 29 I've still not found the appropriate place for.

I love the image of you gazing at the sea. I don't do it nearly enough.

Betül said...

such a lovely post Hila!

Since last year, I feel the urge to ask questions about my past and my family to know better who they were, and thinking that my grandparents are getting too old, I went back to my home country (Turkey) with a newly purchased notebook this summer, to take notes on what they can remember and tell me about their childhoods and difficulties they went through. We all (my family, my aunts etc.) had intimate moments when my grandparents were talking about their past, because everybody noticed that they never asked any questions about these!

I think it is always the case, that when you're born, you're too little for your parents to be told these kind of stories, and when you get older, arrive at an age that you can appreciate them, your parents forget talking about it..

Since it seems like I might be away from where I lived for two decades for the rest of my life, I thought it is always interesting to have things to tell my future kids (if I have any).

We all have stories!

Hila said...

Fiona M: I think having grown up in a pretty stable home, I can never really know what my dad felt like. Maybe that's why I'm able to be a 'fragment collector'. I think this is also why I was drawn to interview Holocaust survivors. I like the idea of helping people turn fragments and things that remain too hidden into narrative. It's only now that I'm able to do this with my own family.

Betul: There are so many unspoken stories in families - I have a tendency to dig and want to research (sometimes too much of a tendency), so I've made it my personal mission to dig through my own family. I do know what you're saying about timing though - now that I'm 'old enough' to begin to understand, I feel my grandparents, for example, are too old to want to go there.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. Not only it makes me think about things, but it's just so relaxing to read your words. Thank you so much for blogging. :)

Hila said...

Anonymous: Thank you so much for reading :)

micheliny verunschk said...

I'm a reader for some time. And I'm a Brazilian writer. Loved your story and your connection now with affective my land.