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Many immigrants do not talk about what they endured back home. They were fleeing that world, and when they left they didn’t want to talk about it because there had been pain and heartbreak. ~ Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns

Altar To My Ancestors

Zayde means grandfather in Yiddish. The few stories I’ve been able to collect of my grandfathers’ fathers are scant, but tender, and the stories about the women in my family are even more limited. The photograph above is Zayde Rosenthal who became a widower and married a second wife.

I always felt strangely drawn to this photograph. Perhaps it was because my Aunt Paulie, Zayde’s eldest daughter sat at her antique Singer sewing machine and told me stories of the old country and their desire to come to America. Aunt Paulie came first and worked in sweatshops in lower Manhattan to bring her siblings to America. Although I felt riveted by the stories, I never detected any grief or had any idea about the trauma they carried, that is, until it all began to unfold for me last week.

During the White Awake: Before We Were White workshop (link in Part One), we were encouraged to create an altar to our ancestors. The purpose was to reestablish a connection that had likely been broken. Each individual’s journey during this process was unique, many perilous, requiring much courage to face the trauma that caused the disconnection, but all were deeply meaningful, filling in the dots of our ancestral stories that would have been lost forever. I was surprised how satisfying it felt to construct my altar and feel a yearning to learn more about my ancestors’ history.

Upon noticing my newly arranged altar, someone told me that I looked like my maternal great grandfather! Until then, I had never considered there might be a resemblance or even a direct bloodline between the strangers in the odd photograph that graced my grandparents’ central room in their meager Bronx apartment during the late 1950s. I was told that they had never left Eastern Europe – that they never made it on the boat. To have a photograph taken during that time period in Lithuania, they had to stand for a long exposure requiring a brace to hold their heads still. As I look at it now, almost 60 years later, I imagine the photograph being rolled up and carefully tucked under someone’s arm on a crowded boat traveling across the Atlantic seas. It was then framed in the Bronx, not far from Ellis Island, the port where my grandfather immigrated alone, at seven years of age!

All my grandparents traveled on the boat when they were very young. Three were immigrants from small villages (shtetls) in Lithuania. (Fiddler on the Roof, based on the stories by Shalom Aleichem, was an authentic representation of the villages in Eastern Europe.) My father’s generation was not allowed to talk about the old country, We are Americans, they were quickly corrected. They fled pogroms, the draft, and growing malignant anti-Semitism.

As I researched the villages where my grandparents’ were born, I knew that thirty years later 95% of the Jews would be exterminated in Lithuania. When I imagined what could possibly motivate a mother to put her 7-10 year old child, a mere baby, on a boat never to be seen again… it was just unimaginable to me. What horror did they predict, and why?

From what I read, it wasn’t just the Nazis that murdered Jews around World War II, but many Lithuanian collaborators joined in. It could be one’s barber, dentist, or middle school crush. Could these parents in the late 1800s possibly have predicted what would happen to their children thirty years later? What level of hatred must they have endured to anticipate this? And what did they imagine if they did not let them go? Were my grandparents actually protecting us by trying to erase their past and only look forward to their new American identity?

The workshop led us through ancestral recovery, a necessary step for the collective shift in consciousness mentioned in Part One. If we go back far enough into our family histories, we can find our own indigenous roots. When I began to scrape together the few stories of my family from the old country, I uncovered lumberers and herbalists. I also uncovered the roots of social activism born out of religious and cultural persecution that I would label as heroism. With courage and perseverance, we can restore the disconnection caused by ancestral trauma, and begin to restore wholeness to our family lineage.

I don’t mean to make this sound easy. I became so physically ill during this process that I wondered if I would survive the grief that was nearly more than this frail body could process. I did survive this life-changing process and will describe more in the Aftermath and Integration in my final essay of this series.

Here is a gift to begin the integration process. I must express a disclaimer that jumping into forgiveness before processing all of the grief, in whatever form it needs to be expressed, only leads to more suffering. With Heart and Help I trust I will eventually be able to lighten my heaviness. But, hey, there are no guarantees, are there? In my essays, I like to be on the other side of the Great Grief and speak from there. Not true this time.

For now, I will grieve and rage and sick it out, as I have done with all unimaginable catastrophes I’ve experienced through life. And I will await the shift that is ultimately sure to come and turn my worldview inside out, as most multigenerational or family constellation work does. And if I and my helpers have what it takes, healing will happen seven generations backward and forward.

Kuan Yin’s Prayer for the Abuser

To those who withhold refuge,
I cradle you in safety at the core of my Being.
To those that cause a child to cry out,
I grant you the freedom to express your own choked agony.
To those that inflict terror,
I remind you that you shine with the purity of a thousand suns.
To those who would confine, suppress, or deny,
I offer the limitless expanse of the sky.
To those who need to cut, slash, or burn,
I remind you of the invincibility of Spring.
To those who cling and grasp,
I promise more abundance than you could ever hold onto.
To those who vent their rage on small children,
I return to you your deepest innocence.
To those who must frighten into submission,
I hold you in the bosom of your original mother.
To those who cause agony to others,
I give the gift of free flowing tears.
To those that deny another’s right to be,
I remind you that the angels sang
in celebration of you on the day of your birth.
To those who see only division and separateness,
I remind you that a part is born only by bisecting a whole.
For those who have forgotten
the tender mercy of a mother’s embrace,
I send a gentle breeze to caress your brow.
To those who still feel somehow incomplete,
I offer the perfect sanctity of this very moment.

~Vera de Chalambert

 

 

 

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