May 1, 2002

The Memory Project

My name was Chaim Shmuel Guyetsky. My friends call me Jeff. My father calls me Chaim Shmo when he teases me and Jeffrey when he’s about to invoke his fatherly rights of advice. I’m a Jewish boy in a gentile’s body (well, almost). Like a family heirloom, the original importance of which is now lost, my spirit has been handed down from the shtetls of the Ukraine. Yet, like the game of Telephone, where a string of people quickly whisper messages from ear to ear, by the time it’s gotten to me I can’t understand a word of it. I have Jewish memories in a gentle mind (well, almost).

From A Series of One Acts…

It’s May Day! My Aunt Selma’s birthday. Well, it’s both really. And that’s where this story begins.

Aunt Selma is my father’s sister. Our two families were never close as I was growing up but that’s another tale for another time. However, that didn’t mean my father and his sister were distant. It did mean, however, I never really got to know my Aunt and her family very well as I was growing up.

Two years ago, when my father got sick, Aunt Selma and I reconnected during vigils in and around his hospital bed. She and I spoke of their childhoods and of my grandparents lives. It was an opportunity to connect to my family in a way my father would never have allowed.

All stories are filtered but even filters eventually become old anchors in our lives. Over time their effect is indistinguishable from reality. My father chose to filter out most of his childhood. And, for years, that was the family history I believed and accepted without question. Most of what I now know has been a gift from others in my family. I learned a lot from these hospital conversations. My Aunt was one of my father’s most trusted relationships. Whether they spoke openly of their lives together or not, they shared that common history and that meant a great deal to both of them.

Two weeks after the onset of my father’s illness he died. I picked my Aunt up from her hotel to take her to his funeral. We were the first to arrive and we sat down on a bench to wait for others. As we sat Aunt Selma began to tell me about my grandmother’s brothers and sisters.

I knew Uncle Louie, “Unkie,” as he was called. After my grandparents’ divorce, he and my grandmother owned The Breakers Motel in Crescent City, California in the 1940s. He was her protector when a divorced woman had few resources. It was a different time. My grandparents had married and divorced twice, once when my father and Aunt Selma were children and later after they were old enough to take care of themselves. Uncle Louie made sure Grandma could survive on her own and would never be beholden to anyone. I have come to see this as one of the deepest acts of love I’ve encountered. It is a familial piece of history I am proud of.

I never knew my grandmother’s sister Margaret (only that they had had a “falling out” many years ago). But again, most of the story had been filtered by the time it came down to me. This was the first time I’d heard of their brothers, my Uncles Yuri, Grisha, and Albert and one other sister, Fira. Last year Aunt Margaret’s granddaughter, Nina, contacted me after she saw an ancient posting I had made on a geneology web site. Through her I have been able to fill in a few more pages of our family album, just before they fade completely away.

Albert was the suspected “pinko” of the family. An anarchist was more like it. A reputed lover of Emma Goldman (another family filter), he was imprisoned in Leavenworth for his alleged crimes. Depending on who you talk to, he either died soon after his release from tuberculosis or sleeping sickness.

When my Aunt was born he was ecstatic. He saw her May 1st birthday as a wonderful socialist sign. He sent my grandmother a present for his new niece: something lost in history but told to be far greater a gift than my immediate family could ever afford.

“When your father was born,” my Aunt continued, “Uncle Albert was even more excited. As you know, Mother named your father Eugene. Albert assumed she’d named him after Eugene Debs, a leading socialist. This time he sent an even more extravagant gift!” Of course, my Uncle Albert had his own filters. Grandma Gates never marched to L’Internationale.

So, on this May Day, while I remember my own early celebrations (1950s, Cold War America chose to filter this day mainly as a children’s springtime celebration with dancing around the Maypole), I pause to think of another time, an intermingling of blood and history. Happy birthday, Aunt Selma!

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