During this Thanksgiving week I’m grateful for an old black soft three-ring-binder in the back of my attic. It had been lying dormant in the corner for three years. In fact, by the time I bumped my way to the stacks of cardboard boxes full of papers and photos and even war-ration cards, the contents had crumbled pieces of ceiling and grit all over it. But one day last month, I dusted off the top of the box and reached inside.
There was nothing to look at really. No dramatic seals or locks. Just an incredibly plain black journal written in 1967 that prompted me to start a new project.
You see, when I opened up the yellowed pages in which a 78-year old woman reflected on her life, I met my great-grandmother, Theresa Hacker Mostny.
Theresa left Vienna, Austria, in April of 1938 for Le Havre on a ship called President Harding. When she boarded, accompanied by her husband and son, she was forty-nine years old. That ship, which began its trip in Hamburg, would pass after Le Havre, France, through Southampton, England, and Cobh, Ireland, to finally dock in New York City. Theresa, like her husband Richard and son Herbert was categorized as “Hebrew” on the ship manifest but unlike both husband and son, who spoke only German, she spoke three languages–German, English and French.
In Theresa’s journal, I discovered her passion for words (and all languages) that endured and satisfied her through the decades, and I smiled through tears when she noted her hunger for more word play during what she did not yet know would be the last year of her life.
What occurred to me is how deeply thankful I am that I got to meet all of Theresa now–on the inside. That is, not just through what she might have talked about over coffee or some kind of censored or contrived positivity but rather her deepest layered thoughts. There were political thoughts including her rage about an American Nazi leader to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery ( “Imagine!” she lamented), her fervent interest in philosophy and psychology (she attended Freud’s lectures while in Vienna), along with her notations about headaches and stomach aches–and her frequent loneliness. I also discovered to my delight how overcome by emotion she felt in arranging a simple breakfast when my mom, dad and I came to visit.
In Theresa’s journal, the loss of her family life comes up a lot. I relive Theresa’s grief that her husband and all three of her children died over a decade before she wrote in 1967, but I also tasted her frequent delight in the latest book on her shelf and her devouring of the Wall Street Journal.
It seemed as I opened the pages of her journal that Theresa extended an invitation to me. She invited me to get to know my father’s side of my family (but also my mother and father as young parents) from the inside out, from the texture of her thoughts and worries and elations.
One of my daughter’s favorite Broadway musicals is Anastasia and we both sing at the top of our lungs when Kristi Altimore leans into the notes of the character’s homage to her lost family’s past. “Home, love, family…”
The song is about a young woman who is suffering from amnesia and struggling to piece together her past. The song struck a chord with me –partly because it’s one of my daughter’s favorite songs and we love to sing together– but also because this month marks my important journey into the past and the thrilling discovery of my great grandmother’s inner world. It also marks my commitment to bring her past alive on the page.
So, this week, I invite you to discover a metaphorical box in your attic… Where does your journey to the past begin?