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Digging:  Lifting the Memorable from Within the Unthinkable

An Excerpt:  Nourishing a Sprout, Spring 2009

      I was watching my granddaughter Ella, just two years old, and her companion — a four-month-old black lab called LJ — sitting, as usual, with LJ nestled close by Ella’s side. They seemed so content in their own particular kind of digging into the moist vegetation of my back yard. I had been doing some digging of my own, the genealogical kind at this stage of our lives, yet thus far without the obvious satisfaction I could see in Ella’s smiling blue eyes and L J’s thumping tail.

     In search of the history of my husband Bobby’s family — his decimated family tree — I had found myself immersed in the rubble of the Holocaust. Precious little information survived the destruction of their Jewish community in Warsaw. I didn’t even have verified names of some family members for searching accessible documents. Worse still, I could not ask for help; the Holocaust years were not discussed by my husband’s family.

      Resigned to pursuing my handful of clues, I turned to writers and historians for a sense of what the family’s life might have been like. Yet a sense of the general terrain of their times was no substitute for the particulars of their lives.    Discouraged by the limitations of the information I possessed, I considered the obvious: the family names, along   with their stories, would be lost forever.

The unexpected back yard scene before me was a revelation; it gave me insights into the nature of digging, the patience and focus I needed to continue the painful and painstaking work of reconstructing a family’s lost history. I resisted the temptation to run for my camera. Ella’s effort was beyond a Kodak moment: it was an experience replete with memories and meanings. I needed words to describe what I was seeing and understanding.

As Ella and L J occupied themselves excavating the soil, a third party, engaged in its own version of digging, drew me away from my own ruminations about excavating the buried lives of Ella’s ancestors. Here a determined earthworm was seeking the soft black loamy terrain as it moved forward in its journey along the earth. The little worm, seemingly disturbed by the crowded corner of the yard, burrowed and slowly zigzagged off through the lightly vegetated ground. Engulfing dirt as it tunneled, the worm aerated the soil, bringing nutrients to the surface, and cast a rich fertilizer — vital to the soil’s health — back into the earth. L J was nearby, his head just touching Ella’s soft pudgy thigh. The puppy’s nails dug into soil as he enthusiastically removed dirt from the perimeter of a half-buried rock. Obsessively, L J maintained his focus on the dirt surrounding the rock, digging without concern for the debris flying in all directions.

Tiny Ella meanwhile explored a small log-sheltered hole just vacated by the earthworm. Her curious finger bent in its search for the end of the tubular space. Unsuccessful finding the hole’s destination, she began to gently pull tiny plants out of the soil and, after examining their roots, transplant the miniature foliage into new holes she meticulously prepared. Turning next toward the earthworm’s travels through and over the soil, Ella placed tiny pieces of leaves in its path and offered a soft but firm directive: “eat.” It struck me how nurturing both Ella   and the earthworm had been in their diggings. Unlike L J, who was determined to dig and unearth without concern for the consequences, Ella and her terrestrial friend both created an environment for new growth, for beneficial possibilities.

Ella took a moment to sweep her long golden hair from her face with dirt-covered fingers. Brown streaks appeared across her brow and down around her ear. She sighed when I asked if she wanted to go back into the house for a snack. “Not yet,” she whispered, and gave me a look filled with dismay at my ignorance. I looked away from the once clean shorts and t-shirt and found a comforting memory of myself, as a child, digging too. I envied all of them: Ella, L J, and the little earth- worm. I vaguely remembered the joy of it a half century ago, and wished that my current task unearthing roots and buried fragments of lives were not so saddening, so painful.

My own family’s tree had been relatively easy to construct in recent years. My great-grandmother Sophia with her long white hair, my great-grandfather Israel’s gift for poetry, their daughter Vivian, Nana Vivian to me — all the storytelling of my childhood has helped me place my family clearly and lovingly. But sifting through archived records of Polish Jews and my husband’s possible ancestors had left me bereft, all too aware of the absence of records of lives lived, lost in time, and ended. The Holocaust’s intentions had erased most of the entries in books of birth, marriage, and death. Their stories had been buried long before I met them — the few remaining family members: all survivors of Hitler’s attempt to rid the world of Jews. I resigned myself to scratching around the little mound of information my husband’s surviving family could and would recall.

My search had been much like the work of that little earthworm. I did find some names and dates of birth, marriage, and death — nothing more. Yet absorbing the information and understanding the relationships in time and place gave fertile ground to the beginning shoot, off a fragile sapling, that would become my husband’s family tree. The more I learned the more I realized that I was just scratching at the surface relationships among so many lives. I couldn’t know the whole story, or even a meaningful part of anyone’s life — only the remnants of broken branches: some names and dates of events. Yet I found solace in these names, knowing how richly they color a family’s history.

My son Adam and his wife Lisa had chosen to name their first child Ella Jane after my husband’s mother, known to us as Elizabeth, and Lisa’s grandmother Betty Jane. Ella’s naming ceremony took place in the same back yard — under a vine-covered arbor near the site of Ella and L J’s later excavations. Closing my eyes for the moment, I envisioned Rabbi Schwartz officiating at the ceremony. He was the one who had married Adam and Lisa and, years earlier, guided Adam through his Bar Mitzvah.

I remembered how Rabbi Schwartz beamed for Ella as he asked the attention of family and friends, all gathered on the lawn sloping down into a maze of mossy paths meandering through islands of shrubs, flowers, and shade-giving trees. Standing under the arbor, beckoning celebrants to a sun-drenched clearing in the woods, the rabbi transformed the quiet garden into a sacred doorway to our Hebrew community. Presenting Ella Jane with her Hebrew name, Eila Yonit, Ella’s parents each offered their loving prayers and memories of the grandmothers they honored.

Unlike Lisa, who had known her grandmother for most of her own life, Adam’s memories of his grandmother were gathered until he was eight years old. It had been around that time, the year of his older brother’s Bar Mitzvah, that his grandmother began to display the effects of a degenerative brain illness, wandering around the party appearing frightened and confused. “My Grandma Elizabeth,” Adam began, as he tried not to remember her near the end of her life — agitated, aphasic, and deeply frustrated by her inability to communicate. Hers had been a tortuous end to a brave and vital life. I had no idea how Adam would describe the grandmother he had known when he himself was still a child.

Now in the words he managed to articulate, despite his tears and the tightness in his throat, we would all hear Adam’s heartfelt love for Elizabeth. “My Grandma Elizabeth was a creative, strong and witty woman who dedicated her life to helping others. Children were her passion and she gave her love to them, selflessly and completely.” Lisa added her own dedication in memory of her grandmother, whom she had known and loved.

We were all moved not only by Adam and Lisa’s words, but also by their obvious emotions as they each reached down inside to touch on their own grandmother’s essential being. I was grateful that Adam’s chosen memories of his Grandma Elizabeth were built upon the foundation of family lore: the Elizabeth who had survived the Holocaust along with the friends and family members she helped rescue. And, the loving grandmother who, despite the constraints of time, distance, and native Polish language, successfully conveyed her love and affection to her three grandchildren. With limited and richly accented English, Grandma Elizabeth swept through my children’s lives for short but meaningful visits from home nearby in Manhattan.

Elizabeth’s youngest brother Marian took part in Ella’s naming ceremony, offering prayers for her future with a broad smile and tears of joy. The moment was bittersweet for Marian, whose pale blue eyes glistened from the tears he wiped from his cheeks. Stealing a glance as he spoke, I imagined that along with the joy of new life in the family, he once again felt the pain of loss. It was only a handful of years since he had lost his youngest grandson, only a toddler, in an automobile accident that left his daughter-in-law with devastating damage to her brain. Marian held his pain close to his chest, a pain that must have harkened back to his childhood and life of challenge. The smile Marian managed to bring to his own handsome face brought me back to thoughts of the delight Elizabeth would have felt, knowing that we were honoring her life in this beautiful celebration of new possibilities.

The rabbi's prayer for a life filled with wisdom and acts of kindness wafted through the air we breathed in and I added my own wish that Ella, through her own acts of caring and kindness toward others, would mirror her namesake's intrinsic goodness.

Now a year and a half later I was witnessing Ella sitting not too far away from the same archway, articulating Elizabeth's passion for living and nurturing others in one simple word: "eat."