My parents moved into their new house this month, the house I’ve dubbed the “retirement dream house.” And when I say new, I mean it: it was built from the ground up for them, a marked contrast to the house that I grew up in, a house that was built in the 1950s and where they have lived for the past thirty years.
Moving thirty years worth of living is no small feat, and I tried to help out where I could. Unpacking boxes in the new house, it felt a bit surreal to be surrounded by brand-new, modern furniture and fixtures and yet be holding our family artifacts in my hands. The soup mugs I ate out of as a child; the Italian glass bowl that was a gift from a family friend, now deceased; the kiddush cups from my father’s, sister’s, and my b’nai mitzvot; the cake topper and knife from my parents’ wedding cake; the menorah that belonged to my great-grandparents. All of them objects that tell the stories of our lives.
It occurred to me that I’ve been doing something similar on a smaller scale for years now. Since 2016, I’ve lived in 6 different dwellings. I am well-versed in the feeling of moving into an unfamiliar space, where none of the furnishings are the ones I’ve grown accustomed to, and I have my own collection of things that tell my story. Tarot cards given to me by a friend in high school; my Shabbat candlesticks that I bought at a street market in Jaffa; a rusted steel spike I found on a railroad in a California ghost town. More recent acquisitions include my hanging glass “evil eye” from Turkey and decorative lacquered trays from Japan. The objects I carry with me on my adventures are few; I had to get rid of a lot of things before moving abroad. At the time, I felt sad parting from my books, records and clothes. Now I recognize that, while those were certainly valuable and special, it is the trinkets, photos, and objets d’art that really matter. These are the things that tell the stories that need telling.
The most recent task for me in the new house was to help my aunt and dad hang pictures on the walls, an assignment that truly helps a house feel like a home. There was a lot to go up: automotive art collected by my father over the years, pictures and drawings acquired through their travels, film photography by my sister and myself, an assortment of smiling family photos. Lastly, we arranged the “heritage wall,” a collage of 13 black-and-white photographs including snapshots of family history from both sides. While my aunt and I were initially daunted by the prospect of making all these differently-sized and colored frames actually look good together, I was adamant that all 13 photos had to be on the wall. These are my people, this is where I come from.
At one point that day, my father casually mentioned that, at some future point, this now-new house would be left for my sister and I to decide what to do with it, whether that be to sell it, or rent it, or occupy it ourselves. That seemingly small remark fell heavily into my lap, as I’d never really thought about the ideas of “inheritance” and “after they’re gone.”
This big move, and time spent with my family since returning home has me thinking a lot about heritage and legacy. I don’t wish to get married or have kids, and at this point I question whether homeownership will be in the cards for me or not. What will I leave behind? What artifacts of our family’s story will I carry with me, and what will remain beyond me?
What I can do is with my words. I can tell the story. It’s an old idea actually, one that I kicked around years ago but then shelved for a time, to write a book about our family history, about a family of Jews who fled their village outside of Kyiv at the dawn of the Bolshevik Revolution, crossed Europe overland and the Atlantic Ocean by ship, and ended up in Los Angeles. The children of that original group of immigrants grew up and, with the innovation and passion of first-generation Americans, started businesses, fought in wars, got married and had children. They had struggles of course, but also much joy and remained a close-knit family, forming a social club dubbed “The Cousins’ Club” that held parties, planned trips, and played copious amounts of pranks on each other. Indeed, there was cause for joy, as any Jews who didn’t leave the village and weren’t killed by the Tzar were ultimately finished by the Nazis.
Although I’ve been thinking of writing this book for a while now, I admit it’s been easy to find reasons not to do so. Some of those reasons were pragmatic, but many stemmed from my own insecurities. I’ve never written a book before, will I even know how? Will it be good? Will anyone even want to read it? But timing is truly everything. I’m back in my hometown now, and won’t be forever. More importantly, there is only one member of the original Cousins Club still alive. If I’m going to do this, it has to be now.
So I’ve decided to do it, but just for me. For us. For legacy and heritage and having a record to pass on. My own “heritage wall.”