Sunday, June 5, 2011

Real things

My father recently told me this story:

At some point, his mother, Chai Gittel/Gussie, had broken her hip. The doctors repaired it, but some time later, it became necrotic (he thinks this is the word they used), and she was hospitalized for an extended time, while the doctors treated the problem. He was living in Ohio at the time (this would have been the mid-1940's), and came to see her in New York. Knowing that she could only read yiddish (not English), he stopped at a yiddish book store and bought her a book of Shalom Aleichem stories, so she would have something to read in the hospital. She read a few pages of the book, and told him: "Take it back." "But mama," he said, "this is Shalom Aleichem, the greatest yiddish writer there is." "I don't want to read about the life I lived. I want to read about real things. Go back and get me a book about the miracles of the Baal Shem Tov." And so he did. And she was happy, and read the stories in that book over and over again.

Researching family history is like this. We are not interested in the stories we lived. We want to know about the "real things", the miracles and mysteries, the things we can never fully know or understand, the people we never met, or the stories that show us that we never really knew the people we thought we knew. Those are the real things. Those are the stories we seek.

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