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.