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WARNING - adult content, not suitable for children
a short story by Mark Kolke
September 26, 2011
My genealogical detective Steve Miller has proven what I suspected for a number of years, that my grandparents on my dad’s side really were Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia – not German Lutheran immigrant farmers as they had portrayed themselves.No doubt their motives were not renunciation of their heritage, but protection of their families from persecution.
His call, this morning, was a shock. Not scary shock – but blunt just the same.
Hard, grounding, thud, bump – not hurt, but profound sounding.
Suddenly, inspiration springs out of nothing.What is the cost of knowing?What does learning your truth cost?
I rolled over, bumping into Joan who was asleep, oblivious to all, she murmured slightly, rolled a quarter-turn and resumed snoring in a slightly lower key.
I was sleepless, not calm – tossing and turning in a disorienting cold sweat. It had been a disconcerting day of revelation.
The windows were open – a storm force hot wind, intermittent and strong, pummeling the house with grit and occasional spits of rain-threat.My palms were sweaty. I couldn’t sleep.
I went for a run.Running at 1AM is peaceful therapy – even though the wind was whipping power lines into a frenzied hum, the run calmed me. I came back without having figured anything out, but now it seemed to fit, in its place.
Sky was clear but moonlight had taken the night off.
I wandered empty streets for a while, in search of answers and understanding – wondering what brought me to here, and what would take me away from here.
It is strange not knowing who you are; and stranger yet, after so many years of not knowing, to finally confirm what I’ve suspected for so long.
I returned home, crawled back into bed and promptly fell asleep.Then I woke suddenly.In a cold sweat I sat up and yelled my answer to some question I’d been asked in my dream.“Suffering”, I yelled out.
Joan, awake now, responded immediately, “Is it bearable or has it gone too far for that discussion?”
“Of course it is suffering. Bear-ability is a place on the continuum we passed a long time ago”, I snapped back.
Who were we to be picking a fight – at 2:30 in the morning? Both half wakened, disoriented.I wondered, did we really know each other.Joan and I were not permanent – but we were convenient. Our relationship was warm, but not deeply passionate. It was convenient, comfortable. But it had never enjoyed the high-highs I’ve known before.
Maybe this new information is a clue, a semiotic message of sorts, directing me to re-examine everything.
Awake now, early in the morning, drinking coffee – waiting for the sun to come up or for the paper to come – whichever comes first.
Going back, in my mind, to my conversation with Steve Miller, I found myself thinking back. About twenty years ago, and several Joans ago – when I was dating Dalya Rivkin.
We had it all, but she wouldn’t live with me or marry me.
I lived at my end of the street, she at hers, but that well-worn path grew over many years ago.We had a hot relationship for a while.So much so, that I agreed – stupidly – to buy a house nearby. It was her alternative to living together. Rather than saying her truth – that she wasn’t prepared to shack up with me because I wasn’t Jewish, she suggested that a well worn path between our houses was smart business. For her, I suppose it was. She got what she wanted from me without committing to me at all.Safe. Yes, it was safe.
But it was flawed; it ended more than twenty years ago. When I first met her I didn’t understand it.After a lengthy friendship, intense for a while but one that grew estranged and distant when I moved from Des Moines to Chicago.I think I understand it even less now.
How many faces can one person have, and how many compartments can they shape their lives into without having one compartment touch the other, without having people from one compartment ever come in contact with one another.I was good company, except for the high holy days – and then I was persona non grata as she spent time with family and friends, went to shul and shut me out.
Two people.That is all we were. Two people in search of happy.
I never fully understood her reluctance. We got along in so many ways but, for her, it was incomplete.
And now I know that it didn’t have to be that way. Life has now dealt new cards. Actually, there is nothing new – just a truth revealed to me for the first time. But, at my age, that’s quite a shock. Actually, not so much a shock, as an adjustment.I’ve only known this for a day, so maybe it will take time to understand.
My name is Norman.
This is my story, and the story of my cousin Myron.
I wrote this letter to my cousin Evelyn, on my mother’s side of the family, explaining this story a few months later . . .
Sunday, October 13, 1997
I just made a cup of tea.It is a glorious afternoon here.
I am sorry to be so slow in writing.It has been too long.When you were here visiting I promised to write you a letter, explaining our history as I understand it.
I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. But, you know how it is.If it was just a short note, I would have done it many months ago. But the story is longer – more difficult in the telling and now, I have news for you as well about my father who passed away recently.
When you are hunting for truth, don’t look on the surface. It isn’t there. Truth, in buried obscurity, lives alone. Truth lives and dies with those who know.Even if a record is left behind, who knows which is truth – and which is good fiction peppered with truisms, real story parts?
And now, it has changed some more. I got news from a detective I hired to research my genealogy on my father’s side of the family. He has determined that the family history is Jewish. I am Jewish.OK, half-Jewish.
I am not sure what that means just yet, but it has me in a state of malaise – wondering who I really am, and how I feel about it. And, a new development – he located a cousin of mine, Myron, from Akron.
But I digress. First, let me tell you my dad’s family story.
Poverty. Farming. Setting and history – a long time ago, is probably not relevant to my life today, but I do not know what I came from, where I came from.I know my parents and how they raised me, but I have no certainty about where my forefathers were displaced from. Oddly, I don’t have a strong desire to trace roots on my mother’s side. I know her mother was a domestic servant who emigrated from Sweden. Her husband was from Norway. He was older, came upon the scene, started a farm and after fathering five daughters and depositing two sons from his previous marriage, promptly died. I am sure your history lessons from your mom were substantially the same as I got from mine.
But I always wondered about the other side of the family.
I vacillated over the years, from wanting to know – to not caring, to not knowing or caring.But I kept coming back to it, wanting to know.I needed a sense of belonging.It wasn’t about religion.I don’t practice religion – or care to, but I need to know where I am from.I wanted to know the truth. No matter how incredible or destructive it might be, I needed to know. I wanted to know.
What I am leading into – is that I thought I would learn more from my dad, if I could just get him on one of his good days, maybe he would remember more. But that can’t happen now . . .
One night, he got away from the home. I guess one of the exit doors wasn’t completely closed. He’d been out before, but it was different that night.Like any other Alzheimer’s patient, he tended to wander without purpose, direction or memory. And, he usually went out without shoes or a coat.
That night he didn’t come back.Police found him the next day, over by the tracks at the edge of town.They supposed he had either been hit by, or walked into, a moving train.The good news is, he wouldn’t have suffered. They told me it would have been quick.That’s what the doctor and police said. I needed to believe them.
He was neither benign nor hostile. He often stood there, in my way, his true demeanor disguised in hunched shoulders, a brow furrowed so deep you could plant carrots there. I remember his final days, not knowing who he was or who I was.He wasn’t that old – just 76, but his mind was gone. His messed head sat atop a rather robust body.He was not ready to go, but it seemed almost fruitless for him to stay.
Anticipation that his memory would come back to him were delusion, fantasy and simply wishful thinking on my part, hoping for spontaneous combustion.
My last connection was now gone. I wondered, how would I find the answer?
Where would I find it?
He was my last connection, youngest and only remaining sibling in his family.I had hopes that one day, in a moment of clarity, he would remember something his father had told him – to give me clues of where to look. Those days never came.
After his passing, I began doing some research. With the help of Steve Miller’s firm, I found that the Ellis Island records showed my grandfather had arrived at Ellis Island, August 13, 1903.He was listed on the manifest, departed from Bremen, as German.That is how my father knew him, German, Lutheran.He came alone at first, then his brothers – and then their wives.His early farming days in Minnesota didn’t work out so well, so they moved to Canada.They settled, as so many did from Europe in those days, arriving in the farming communities in the midwest and in the Canadian prairies on the basis of free land in exchange for hard work.Work they did.Farmed, raised horses and children.But where were they from, really?
I remember the first time I saw Fiddler on the Roof, I wondered if the pogroms of the Czars in Russia were the true cause of my grandparents coming to a foreign land.Really, it wasn’t for the great weather and the easy life.What would drive someone to move half-way ‘round the world, to a life of hard labour and miserable winters if they were not fleeing something? It wasn’t like they were leaving Ireland due to a potato famine.
The story I remember hearing from family, as I was growing up, was that the family name was changed to Fahl by my great grandfather – because the mail was mixed up all the time. And, that the place they were from hadn’t moved, but the borders had. At one time it was Russia, at one time Poland and at one time Germany – but as I researched old maps at the library, I found no such place.
When I was in my late thirties, you may remember that I dated a Jewish gal, Dalya Rivkin – and, through her – began learning about customs, practices and rituals that rang bells from stories my dad told me of recollections from his childhood.Mirrors covered when someone died, candlelight dinners on Friday and other customs suggested that my family were, perhaps, Messianic Jews who kept their true religion and heritage a secret when they moved to a foreign land.
I don’t know my origin. Sure, I knew my parents.I knew my paternal grandparents, but my mother’s folks were both gone before I was born. I heard the stories; my grandparents came here, from over there – they had a name, a religion and an explanation.I had no reason to mistrust it.My parents either didn’t have a reason or the curiosity.
By the time I started to wonder about the issue, all my old aunts and uncles who might have any knowledge of the real family history had died. I thirsted for it.
I was explaining this to Steve Miller – explaining that I have lots of knowledge of my generation – aunts, uncles, cousins and life in this country, I know nothing at all about anything that matters at all about who I truly am if I don’t have certainty.
Well, he’s given me certainty.
But I am not sure yet how to use it. I am not dazed and confused – just plain confused.And, as I’ve explained all of this to Joan – she doesn’t seem to relate to it at all. Maybe that is a symptom of a relationship that has run its course. I’m not sure.But really, how could she understand? Her life was orderly, explained and un-confused.Strange, mixed up – but she has always known who she was. I never had that comfort.
Truth lives in cracks of life. Sidewalk cracks, between toes. And on my thumb. Breaks in the skin get like sandpaper when the air gets dry in the fall.No amount of humidity or skin cream can cure the deep creases that are my cracks.Working tire machines for so many years takes its toll on hands and lower back muscles.
And all those other cracks - wisecracks, smart cracks, sarcastic cracks – made to me, about me and toward me are nothing when measured against my tally toward them. Toward them all. I’ve piled up quite a record you know.There were young ones and old ones, fat ones and skinny ones, kind ones – sweet ones and terribly self-serving mongers of jealousy that I recognized for those failings only because I had them myself.
And I must also tell you about my cousin – I found him while doing research on the family tree.His name is Myron Fahl.From Akron. His father was my grandfather’s younger brother I’d never heard of before.
I’ve talked to him on the phone a few times – and hope to go meet him sometime soon.
He told me his story.He has Myron’s Tire Shop, on East Market Street in Akron. Ironic, isn’t it, to run a retail tire shop in a city where every third person is employed by a tire manufacturer?
In the old days, they all got deals on their tires. It didn’t matter where: Firestone, Goodyear, Uniroyal, Goodrich – they all gave a set of tires a year to their employees, but somebody had to mount them.That’s where his father, Leopold, came in.
He used to work at Goodyear, but one time he got laid off. He was a better worker than a lot of people with seniority who stayed in their comfortable jobs.He swore he would never let that happen again.Sure, he went back but he never looked back after that. He scrimped and saved every nickel he could until, in 1952, he opened the shop.It was in a former dry goods store. The grade level loading doors at the back became the drive-in bay for installations. He named that shop for his only son, me.
So much business has gone offshore now that the companies who dominate the tire industry are spread all over. Akron is a not a has-been, but certainly not the Rubber Capital of America any longer.
But the population of Akron and area all drive cars.Their tires go flat or wear out, so there is always going to be a stable business here. That was Myron’s dad’s theory. So far, it seems he was right.
Evelyn, I’m less sure of anything than I’ve ever been – not the feeling I would have expected from finding out new information, verifiable facts, which should give me comfort and security in knowing.But I don’t. I’ve not felt this unsettled in a long while.
The whole thing has me wondering about truth – its meaning, its importance and the delusion that it sets us free.I am becoming more convinced that truths fall into cracks; or come from there.
Life, unfortunately is not like fiction, because fiction makes sense.
Life, is another matter entirely.
Some people flow by us in life, scarcely bumping our elbow on the way by, some bump into us – and after we get up from the fall and pick our dumped packages, we move on.
Others we encounter are different beings, ones who disturb us very little and disappear into the past like old clothes we discard leave an impression more akin to a leaf in riverbed clay you find in a fossil millions of years later, a spine and limbs left like an x-rayed skeleton unchanged, unaffected and long lost.
Dalya left such an impression. I can’t go back.We parted twenty years ago. She moved on, met and married someone. I never met him, but heard from a mutual friend that they were a good fit and making a happy life.
I can’t imagine anyone who is not a Jew wanting to be one, but now that I know I am one, I’m not sure how I feel about it.I’m not feeling instantly religious, but I am feeling part of something – for the first time in my life – and I need to get to know what that is, learn how it feels and make peace with it.
I am feeling like my life is now fitting into compartments – not sure how I’ll separate them, but it is feeling like something I must do alone.
Maybe I’ll write a book about it, a book of revelation.