Saturday, June 03, 2006

Crossing a Sea of Silence

A thin, painfully shy, twelve year-old boy huddles for warmth in the salt-sprayed prow of a steamship making its way across the Atlantic.

His parents have already sailed for America, leaving him in Russia to fend for himself. Months slowly turn into years, and, at last, they send enough money so that he can join them.

He boards the ship, barely tall enough to catch a glimpse of the sea over the ship's gunnels, and sets off for America, searching for signs of land beyond the dark-crested waves.

That boy was my father's father... my grandfather.

He made the voyage successfully and joined his parents in a small town outside of Boston, where they made their new home.

But he never spoke of the ocean crossing--its hardships or the fears that it may have inspired in him--to me or anyone else in the family.

The crossing itself--what it was like to sail across the vast Atlantic--was lost in silence.

And the years that he spent in Russia, waiting for his parents to send the money for him to join them--all lost.

Even the years after his arrival here--when he took a pack on his back and roamed the New England countryside peddling his wares--were lost (except for a handful of stories that my uncle and aunt dragged out of him over the years and passed on to me).

My grandfather rarely, if ever, spoke of the past.

If questioned about it, he would raise a firm hand and mutter bitterly in Yiddish, "Don't ask!"

On Sunday afternoons, I joined my father for the drive up the Major Deagan Expressway--past the tantalizing aromas of the Stella Dorro factory, the green canopy of spring unfolding over Van Cortlandt Park, and the sleek horses trotting around Yonkers Raceway--to my grandparents' apartment in the Bronx.

During our visits, my grandfather's silence was almost painful, filling the apartment with echoes of his life and all that he must have endured.

He would recline in a large, soft-cushioned chair in the corner of the living room and smoke his cigar down to a stub the size of a thimble while watching the Yankees on a blurry, black-and-white TV with silver-foil rabbit ears for antennae.

Or he would play a game of checkers on a worn checkerboard with my brother.

Or he might sit in the kitchen sipping tea from a glass and gaze out the kitchen window at my grandmother's geraniums blossoming in pinks and reds on the rusting fire-escape and dream of a world that I would never know.

My uncle claimed the Atlantic crossing had robbed him of speech.

My aunt suggested his silence was the result of the pain of being left behind in Russia, uncertain if he would ever see his parents again.

Whatever the reason for his silence, my grandfather stands in my memory as a heroic figure for having braved the crossing over such a vast and unknown ocean.

But he lurks there, too, as a tragic figure, nearly broken by the experience of immigration, succumbing in the end to silence.

On some mornings, as I sit at my desk, I dream of him and wonder if I could have made the crossing.

It strikes me as ironic that writing--this daily ritual of embarking into the unknown--requires that I board a ship, too... the ship of my imagination... and set sail.

Each voyage--whether in the realm of the imagination or the real world-- is filled with risk and fraught with danger, demanding a kind of faith and courage... in ourselves, and in our abilities.

Somehow, knowing that my grandfather made the crossing, helps me hold steady and true to my course, even when I can't see the path.

What's remarkable is that, just like my grandfather, I struggle to cross the sea--except today it's a sea of silence--always hoping that I might reach the firm footing of an unknown shore.


* * *

With this post, Wordswimmer is stepping out of the water for a few weeks to dry off... and will return in mid-June after a brief rest in the sand. Upcoming posts later this summer will include interviews with Norma Fox Mazer, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Barbara O'Connor. Until later this month, keep swimming!

1 comment:

jo'r said...

You've retained some poignant memories and images of your grandfather, Bruce. I suspect they have informed or will inform some of your fictional writing in one way or another. You were fortunate to have collected those memories. My paternal grandparents came over from Ireland (1880) but both died before I was born. I never heard anything about them when I was growing up, which, perhaps like your grandfather, was typical of our grandparents'and parents' era--they didn't like to share things with us about their sometimes-bitter struggles. It’s probably seeded in the DNA of our own imaginations, though.