Friday, February 25, 2011

In China, it's already February 26—My Mother's Birthday

Some of you will know that over the last few years I've spent considerable effort trying to retrieve my own and Jill's family history. Last year's sojourn in Sweden, for example, included several stops from which Jill's Swedish ancestors had set sail for new lives in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Before we went to Sweden, I had made several trips to Ukraine in search of my mother's origins, and although I there found records for her parents' wedding and her father's birth and christening, I have not yet succeeded in locating the record of my mother's birth and christening.  I know only that when she and her parents arrived in New York at the very end of October 1912, she was apparently less than one year old. Because her mother never got further than describing the state of the moon at the time of her birth, my mother adopted a birthday—February 26, 1912.  In fact, this date might have been her real birthday because the 1912 parish  records that I consulted in Ukraine had been damaged, leaving only parts of January and February intact. Perhaps her name had appeared in those sections now lost to us.

Anyway, it occurs to me that, had my mother lived this long, today she would be celebrating her 99th birthday. She succeeded in living only about two-thirds that life-span, however, succumbing to cancer in 1978 just as Jill and I prepared to return to Moscow for a research leave. Although we did not spend any time in Ukraine that year (as we had in 1975 in a first attempt to discover family ancestors), I thought about my mother a lot that fall, and not only because I continued to experience the pain of having lost her. There was, I thought, a certain irony that I should be back in the land from which she had come (in 1912, of course, there was no "Ukraine" as such, these lands having been absorbed into the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century) in the very year that she had died in America, the land to which her parents had transported her in 1912. My mother never understood why I became interested in Russian history, and feared that my spending time in what was then the USSR would not prove healthy for me or Jill. Despite a certain curiosity about family who might still be alive in the USSR, and despite the fact that her parents never really mastered English so that my mother always spoke with them in something that might best be called RussPol-ish, my mother thought of herself as fully American and did not really sympathize with the idea of being "Russian."

Looking back on what I know and remember of her life, I wonder about all this. I wonder, for example, what my dad's family—100% fair-haired Germans (my dad's eyes I remember as being spectacularly blue)—thought about his marrying this dark-haired, brown-eyed, Slavic beauty (their posed wedding picture makes a remarkable impact on the viewer). My dad's mother was dead long before I was born, but my dad's dad lived to be 84, and he owned a large farm adjacent to the one my dad had purchased as a young man and where he farmed for much of his life. But my memory—fallible, of course, and further hindered by the fact that I was the youngest of my parents' children, so that I experienced far fewer family interactions than did my siblings—cannot summon a single time when my dad's dad came to visit at our house. Nor can I recall a time when we all went over to my grandfather's (by this time, of course, he was a widower, living with his youngest daughter and her family). Perhaps I have simply forgotten, but I can't help but wonder whether my dad's choice of a partner hadn't been well-received in his very German family. Or maybe there were other factors at work that had nothing to do with my mom's origins.

Anyway, as I remember what would have been my mother's 99th birthday, I am aware that today I am far from the land in which she was born and also far from the land in which she was buried. To attend our own son's wedding, Jill and I have crossed yet another ocean; despite the multiple connections, our journey, long as it was, constituted just a fraction of her long jaunt from rural Ukraine to America (the boat trip from Rotterdam to New York took more than a week) to attend our own son's wedding in China. Sadly, my mother died before either of our children was born, so she never saw them, never knew them.  Nevertheless, in a sense my mother—at least that part of her genes that I helped transmit to Andrew and that part of her love and affection that helped make me into his father—has also crossed another ocean. The grandson of the little girl born in a tiny village in rural west Ukraine, the grandson who himself was born in a small town in rural Iowa in the US Midwest, has come to China where he has married—in a small village in rural China.

Compared to many of today's world citizens, of course, such a transition is small potatoes. But today I find myself wondering what sort of conversation my mother and I might have about this subject were she still here.

1 comment:

  1. Professor Kaiser, I'm enjoying learning about your time in China. The wedding sounded beautiful. I really liked the post about your mother. The distances we travel are amazing, and it's nice to hear your reflections that connect your ancestors and your son.