Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fading Memories



As Alzheimer's disease relentlessly robs my mother of her memories, and me of her, I think of opportunity lost. Youth, rightfully, is centered on itself. It's a rare young person (and I wasn't one of them) who recognizes the wellspring of history and of connection that resides in the minds of one's elders; by the time we do, it's often too late. I wasn't entirely tardy with my parents; I pried some stories loose before they were gone forever. But about my grandparents I have many questions, and, now, no way to find the answers. It's hard to flesh out the details in family lore. But there are some good stories. (Other than the mention of a disease in the opening line, there's not much medical here. My muse is meditating. Or worse.)

I only knew one grandfather beyond my childhood. Born in Russia around 1890, he went to Moscow as a teenager, where he got some sort of degree from an agricultural school (he kept it, must have brought it on the boat, and I saw it once.) While there, so the story goes, he caught wind of the revolutionary whispers and brought them back to his village. Down with the tyranny of the Tsars! Fortunately for him, his father -- the village Rabbi -- was friends with the chief of police who came to him one evening saying he had orders to arrest my grandfather the next day. Get him out of town tonight. So -- and this is the part I'd love to know more about, including the truth of it -- he up and left, in haste, around sixteen years old, somehow finding his way to a port. Somewhere. With money from whom? Getting a ticket how? Still in his teens, he shipped to America (in steerage? In a cabin?), checking in through Ellis Island, spending a while (how long? In what sort of place? A tenement? With whom?) in New York City. He made a friend (Polish? Jewish? Met how?) and (somehow) the two of them got a job on a farm in Pennsylvania, owned by former US Senator Flynn. After a period of time, he and his friend, the westering spirit filling them, saw an ad in a newspaper for help wanted on a ranch in California, and hopped a train (hoboes? Scraped together the money? Confirmed the job before they left?) to Valley of the Moon. The ad was placed by, and Grandpa was hired on by, none other than Jack London.

Some stories I recall hearing from Grandpa himself: he became a trusted hand -- livestock foreman -- of Jack London, and rode the range with him, chasing and shooting coyotes. Many times he showed me the pistol given him by Mr. London: a five-shooter Smith and Wesson (or was it a Colt?), kept in a leather box and clean, oiled, beautiful. He'd let me break it open, an umbrella-like contraption lifting up from the center of the cylinder to pop out the spent shells (never saw any bullets.) The gun has disappeared, as have letters to Grandpa from Jack London when in Alaska. The story goes that while away, London entrusted Grandpa with looking after his wife, a young beauty, his former secretary, named Charmain (after whom he named his yacht, on which my grandfather sailed a few times.) Staying as he did in the bunkhouse, he got a call one night from the main house, from Charmain, asking Grandpa to come there. The knocked-on the door was answered by the lady, fully unclothed. I believed Grandpa (because he was an impeccably honorable man) when he said (or was the story told to me by my mom?) that he repaired immediately back to the bunkhouse and never mentioned it to Jack.

After Jack London's premature death, my grandfather made his way to Portland, Oregon, where he got a job (how, exactly?) with Metropolitan Life. Trustworthy from the first knowing, he became a successful salesman, eventually ending up manager of the office there, after having been sent first to Montana, and then San Francisco. He met my grandmother in Portland, where she'd been born; that's a whole other story, with many gaps. She, among other things, was (so it's said) the first president of the Oregon League of Women Voters, and somewhere there's a picture of her with FDR.

Impeccable he was, and immaculate. I never saw him in an unpressed shirt, or absent a necktie. Rarely without a hat. Even after his first stroke, he walked perfectly erect. My mother says he could sit a penny on a saddle and ride at full gallop, returning with the coin still in place. He lived a few blocks from us and when he came to visit, he'd first head to our garage, where he'd oil the doors on my dad's car and attend to my brother's and my bikes, with one of those old-fashion oil cans. Thumbing the bottom, clickaglug, clickaglug. He remembered very little Russian, but sang Russian folk songs with relish, boomingly. The love of hearing them is what led me to study Russian in high school and college. There was almost no phrase you could utter that wouldn't spring him into song; he had one for every occasion, mostly in English.

His English was perfect, florid, and just enough accented to be mysterious and charming. When I was about ten or twelve, he had me memorize something that I'm quite sure he wrote himself (I've searched and have found it nowhere else.) There was some sort of reward involved: a dollar? I did as I was ordered, and I still remember it. Overwrought, too wordy, but a connection to him that remains. It's how he talked, because he loved his adopted language. And here it is:

"Whatever we dwell upon most, mentally, we bring ourselves in closest contact with. That is why it so often occurs that we get most of what we most dislike, because our aversions and fears occupy so large a part of our secret meditations, even when we keep them out of our general conversation. Concentration on that which we most desire is the surest way to bring it to us; but there must be no excitement or agitation in connection with our anticipation."

The power of positive (and calm) thinking, is what it is. He seems to have lived it.

18 comments:

justine hemmestad said...

Dr. Schwab,
What a rich, rich story, thanks for blogging this. Many lives we can live vicariously through others - but it takes a gifted writer to draw us in! My mother's side of the family has a genealogy book called The Yales and Wales, but I don't know anything about my father's side and I wish I did. What a gift to know!

Justine Hemmestad said...

Dr. Schwab,
Oops, I wanted to say one more thing but I forgot. You have written posts about your family history and you give the stories life, writing gives life again, so I just wanted to suggest that maybe in addition to surgical topics which your readers enjoy so much you might also research your family in great depth and write a genealogy book. Just thinking that it would be a gift of great reverence to your grandfather (regardless of how long it takes you to finish it) as well as to future generations of your family. Just a thought because you seem to enjoy it.

Sid Schwab said...

Who knows? I do enjoy it. The one remaining resource, my mom, can't conjure any of it anymore, and with many movings, and the shrinkage of stuff, lots of the things I remember seeing are now missing. I suppose there are other avenues.

drsam said...

What a wonderful and moving post.

Your Grandpa sounds like a remarkable man.

rlbates said...

Dr Sid, thanks. It is moving post. Perhaps Jack London's estate would have some information regarding your father.

Justine Hemmestad said...

Dr. Schwab,
The author of my family book, Rodney Horace Yale, wrote in 1905 (or it might have been 1908) and he wrote of our ancestors who lived in the 1100s through to his present, and my grandfather added on and wrote until his present (the 80s). Their research and paperwork was extensive, but they did it without hardly any word-of-mouth knowledge (which I know was the focus of your beautiful post). I think rlbates had an excellent suggestion. It might also be a good idea to check into the employee records of Metropolitan Life. You may have already thought of that, but I just think it might give your mother, your grandfather, etc., a voice when they do not have their own. This could turn into a nice vacation to Russia for you and your wife as well. Best of Luck.

Chris Bent said...

Dr. Schwab,
An inspiring and heartwarming story. I am sorry to hear about the Alzheimer's afflicting your mother. I have had multiple family members with the disease so I understand what you mean when you say they are being robbed of you and you of them.

When compared to the stories of my grandma, I feel so spoiled and story-less. Not unlike your grandfather, my mother's family fled from Czechoslovakia(now the Czech Republic) after living for 6 years under the Nazis and another decade under the Iron wall. My Jewish step-grandpa lost 7 members of his family to the showers/gas chambers/bullets/labor camps(no one really knows). My grandfather wrote a book about his life in the allied military during WWII, so I have a good sense about what he did and who he was. Unfortunately, he died when I was in middle school and too young to appreciate the stories.

What have I done.....hmmm I grew up in Southern California. It is a region made famous by fake tans and boob jobs. Not quite the same as the WWI and WWII generations.


I bet you would enjoy going through your family history and I agree it would be a great excuse to visit Russia if you've never been. Although maybe you will want to wait until our currency can buy something again...

gay CME guy said...

What a great story, Sid. I too, have tried quizzing my grandma when she was alive, and elder aunts on the other side to get my families' stories. I've never been able to get my Mom to talk about her childhood, until my parents visited a few weeks ago, following one of her sister's funerals. She said she didn't have a happy childhood, and told some stories of her father that angered me and broke my heart for her. It took her 72 years to tell what she did.
Sometimes we dig, and unearth ugly rocks instead of gemstones.
Thanks for your story(ies).

Annie said...

Thanks for sharing this. How generous of you!

I'm sorry to hear about your mother's struggles with memory loss. That's a loss felt by everyone, isn't it?

The other commenters say it better than I - hope you will continue to share some of your family hsitory and sotires from time to time.

AlisonH said...

I have a set of grandparents I never really knew before they passed. A few years ago, I got a copy of part of a letter my grandmother had written during WWII--the only words of hers I own, and they showed her to be so much like me. I cannot tell you how much I treasure it.

You put so much of yourself into your blog. Your grandchildren will be so glad. You're making sure the written-down family stories begin, at least, with you.

Joan K said...

You might want to consider ancestry.com. My mother has been on there and has found a lot of information. You can get census records, ship passenger lists, draft cards and lots of other information. You might even find some relatives. It isn't cheap but I think it is worth is. I have no affiliation to ancestry.com.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Schwab, Getting family history and background is important, but some times you may find things that others wish you did not have knowledge about. My mom also had ALz, but I was lucky in the fact I knew much about the history on her side. It was my dad's side where there eventually became what is known as the "big family breakup."

I had an aunt who decided she would trace the family tree. Well, she must have went back 300-400 years. You would not believe the things she has acquired. I mean she literally traveled across the world looking for records. Some of it was not appreciated by other family memebrs. Just as an example, there was an old aunt who had a child out of wedlock but then soon after met and married a man who she then had 5 children with and who had adopted her first child early on. This child did not ever know the facts of her birth, believing her father was her biological father. The aunt found it all out and then sent copies of it to everyone in the family including this womans (who was by then long dead) great grandchildren.

I think going back a few generations is fine, but when you go back for hundreds and hundreds of years you are bound to find some things better left buried.

Sili said...

A very simple beginnings would be to check if you can find his name in the Ellis Island records:

http://www.ellisislandrecords.org/

Larry said...

Such an elegiac and well-written post, Sid! My grandfather died a few days ago and I well know the feeling which you express -- why didn't I write down more of his experiences while I had the chance? Gene was of Swedish peasant stock rather than Russian, and he made quite an impression upon me.

Chrysalis Angel said...

What a great post. Seems he was ahead of his time knowing to think on those things you'd prefer, rather than those things unwanted.

I'm sorry too, to hear of your mother's Alzheimer's. My grandmother had it. Wretched disease.

JP said...

I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post, Dr. Schwab. Grandparents are treasures, it's nice to know that with time that doesn't change. Best wishes to you in your non-blogging endeavors (ref. to 4.20.08 post)...

rn.elizabeth said...

Hi Dr. Sid:
I think your family must have known my family. Have you ever been to Jack London's Ranch? I was told that my family used to own some of the property and the 2 graves of the children on the ranch are my relatives. My grandparents would go every year and clean them up. My mother used to hunt lizards in the Wolfe house ruins when she was a child. I've been up a few times to look at the original manuscripts and the house where JL died, which was across from the house where his foreman lived who spoke with heavy accent....

Sid Schwab said...

elizabeth: that's pretty amazing. I wonder if it was my grandfather. I was never there myself, although I did contact the Jack London museum once to see if they had any records of him.