Sifting through closets, and time, when a parent moves on

chicago | I knew the day would come when my parents would move from the family homestead. I had hoped it would come when they were both alive and could enjoy condo living in some vibrant part of town, or that they would migrate to a warmer place and leave snow and ice behind. As it happened, my father has made the move alone, nearly six months after my mother died.

Lucky for her, in a way, that she would miss the upheaval. And lucky for me, in another way, that I would get to implement it. For in the process of helping my father move, I delved — photograph by letter, childhood drawing by family heirloom — into the essence of 20th-century American Jewish history as seen through the lens of one family.

No matter that I was up to my bronchial tubes in dust, or that I thought I’d lose my mind sifting through the contents of yet another drawer. Like an archaeologist I dug through strata; like a prospector I panned for gold in the stream of time that had left such rich sediment, such sweet sentiment, in the recesses of closets, in the corners of cabinets, hidden on secluded shelves, adrift in a sea of stuff.

In a desk drawer in my mother’s den, beneath stamps and return address stickers, boxes of staples and paper clips, was a small envelope mixed in with a clump of index cards that I almost threw away. Inside was a small photograph of my mother’s Polish grandfather taken in Paris in 1891. Confident and well-to-do, how could he have known that pogroms, war and revolution would land his descendants in this country several decades after the picture was taken? My grandmother had spoken of him often but had never described his appearance. How could she have known that I would grow to so resemble him, that I would see through the sepia a kindred soul?

Stashed in a small purse at the back of my mother’s closet was a horde of coins. Here were kopecks from czarist Russia, pfennigs from imperial Germany, a motley assortment of kroners, crowns and guilders reflecting my great-grandfather’s travels as a wool merchant before World War I.

Sandwiched between miscellaneous file folders was a certificate issued to my grandmother in the late 1920s by Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the Jewish National Fund, for her tireless efforts to raise money for the Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. In another desk drawer, on a fragile piece of folded paper, was my brother’s bar mitzvah speech from 1961, titled “Israel and I, 13 years old.”

In a box in the basement was a lost archive of my own childhood papers. There was the journal I had kept as an 8-year-old, chronicling my first visit to Israel just after my brother’s bar mitzvah. We had gone to Ra’anana to visit my mother’s relatives, who had moved to Israel in the 1920s. I wrote about the omnipresent animals and orange groves, our relatives’ apparent poverty (I was amazed they had no car, no refrigerator, no TV!) and the town’s unpaved streets.

Mingled among the children’s drawings, class notebooks and Hebrew school report cards was “The Seed of Israel,” an article I had never seen. As far as I know it was my mother’s first published work. Written before the end of World War II, here was a thoughtful and passionate affirmation of Jewish endurance written in the face of Nazi terror. She went on to a distinguished career writing short stories, novels and essays dealing mainly with Jewish themes.

In the same box was a poem by my father, a cry for racial equality and justice, written while he was serving as a Navy officer in the North Atlantic during World War II.

In file cabinets and folders, briefcases and envelopes were personal letters by the hundreds, reams of manuscripts, grant applications, article reprints, publisher queries and my grandmother’s handwritten recipe for apple cake — “all netural, no fets,’ she used to boast in her Yiddish accent.

Embedded in that house was a universe, a world documented beginning in the relatively privileged Jewish life of 19th century Lithuania, and which now resides in boxes in my basement in Evanston.

Taking apart that house, that life, I breathed it in a second time. I pulled apart the strands of DNA — the photos, the stories, the gleanings of the fields of thought and action and of heart and passion that determined who I am.

In the hours and days I spent sitting on the floor, sorting and sifting possessions — in the den, the basement, the large closets of memory — I lived the years again, years stripped of time and linearity. I heard words stripped of sound, saw photos of people I never again would embrace, inhaled a tsimmes of aromas from a kitchen void of scent.

I shed tears of love stripped of grief, and sighed, in fact, with relief. For the world from whence I came is not all gone; it is being transformed into the world that is to come.

I peer across time to my great-grandchildren, may God will them to be, and will to them, in advance, papers, photos, coins, identity.

Aaron B. Cohen is executive editor of the Chicago JUF News.