AND NOW to write. And now to say what I am doing and where I am going and why I am here more or less on the way to somewhere else. I'm on the way to the countryside, to two towns very near each other. They are the towns where my family is from, the towns of my grandparents on both sides, the towns of my mother's birth and my aunt's and some other relatives, most of them old now and with dim, cheerless recollections. People who have done this before say I will find nothing. They are wrong. I will find something. I must.
Up to now it has been fun. There was a trip to New Jersey to see a cousin not seen for years and maybe only once or twice before that. We sat before the fire in his daughter's fine home and he told me of the village that was my mother's village and of the time when they all lived in one room - he and his family in one bed, my mother and her family in the other bed. In front of them was a straw hamper with all their clothing and around them was World War I. They stole potatoes and they lived.
There was the trip to Florida, too. There is a great-uncle there, an uncle I knew nothing about. He is my grandfather's brother, a brother unbelievably younger and he remembers the grandfather I never saw and grandmother I never saw and the town they came from. He told me about them and I took notes and I recorded it all and then he took me into the bedroom and showed me a picture of my great-grandfather, a marvelous looking man with a proper beard and a stern look. He was born in 1844 and he had the name Cohen and he looked, I swear a bit like me.
You learn things on these trips. You learn about a cousin who went to jail and that is how a family name got changed - to disguise a prison record. You learn about a great uncle who supposedly died as a boy of eating too much cheese and you learn, too, of heartaches - of family wounds that the eye and ask them lease to remember. They try and their faces tighten and their throats work silently and sometimes an eye tears and they say, yes, they can remember. But of course, they have never forgotten.
For years, the towns where I am now going were always mentioned, one in particular, the one where my mother was born. It was mentioned usually as a way to compare things - to say how far you had come and how much better life was or maybe just how much things had changed. After a while, it began to mean something to me, too, a sort of ultimate standard - a realization, also, about how things would have turned out if someone had not gone for the cart to Warsaw and the train to Rotterdam and the boat to Ellis Island where they stood in line, their hearts thumping with wild fear, waiting for the doctor and his examination and maybe the forced return.
You think about that and you think, too, about how you are just a link in a chain, part of the procell really, and you received something from those who went before and you will pass something on and maybe, just maybe, you will be remembered. This came to me when I was talking to my aunt, asking here to remember the town where she was born.
She talked and she recalled and you could tell she thought this all a bit weird and you had to ask very specific questions. Every once in a while she would pause and I would recapitulate and write down the names again because many of them were new to me. And so she repeated them, naming those she had known.There was Mendel Cohen, my great-grandfather, and his son, Rudolph, and then I wrote Harry, who is my father, and then Richard, which is me, and the name of my son. And suddenly there were five generations on my note pad and my aunt had seen them all - a link going back to time when Cossacks came out of the pine forests, a time I know only from books and woodcuts.
Anyway, I stared at my note pad and I looked at her. She is in her eighties now with the diseases of old age, and I though of a man I had met just a week before. He is a politician from Alaska, a wide, jolly, open man with reddish hair and freckied hands who had gone to Alaska after World War II and built himself a little empire. He had come originally from a town called Northport, Long Island and he told us how when he had gone off to war in 1941 or 1942, the vets of earlier wars had come down to the village square to see them off.
There was one veteran there from the Civil War and he approached the departing young man and he told him that he had gone off to war, the veterans of earlier wars had also come down to see them off. One of them had fought in the revolution and he told the Civil War soldier goodbye, saying also that he would probably die by the time the war was over. The Civil War veteran said the same thing to this man we ere having lunch with and I looked at him you somehow touched that Civil War vet an through him that Revolutionary War veteran. I felt a bit awed and nice.
So now I am off to do something like that myself - to touch something or someone in some sort of way. But they say that I will find nothing and no one. They say that everything has been destroyed. The wars. The armies moving back and forth. The concentration camps. The grind of time. They say that, all of them, but they are wrong. I will find something.