by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 12, 2004
A PICTURE AND A GRAVE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Kierkegaard said, "Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards," which goes a long way in explaining why I spent the month of January at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt., where they pamper painters, sculptors and writers with private studios and carrot cake competitions, writing about my family.
On my first night there, I push-pinned onto the wall some formal sepia portraits of my mother's female relatives. There were pictures of my two great-great aunts, Amelia and Leah, taken around the turn of the last century, and of my grandmother and her four sisters, my great-aunts, which were taken in the 1920s, just as they were flowering into womanhood.
Almost as soon as the photos were posted, the sisters started chattering among themselves in my head, and soon they were talking to me, as well. And not very politely, I might say. They were worried that I, who had lived a somewhat dangerous and careless youth, was the wrong person to write about them.
I did what any writer would do. I opened a computer file and transcribed the dialog. At the end of a week I had a play - not a good play, but a long, structureless play with little action and great stories. It centered on the sisters' youngest brother, Jack, who was deaf but still alive at 93, his sharp perceptions dulled, his memory gone, his body frail.
The sisters had all died years ago - many of them well into their 90s - and in my imagination, or at least in their conversation, which was the same thing - Jack wanted desperately to join them.
Jack was still alive because he was a caboose baby - his mother was so ashamed to be pregnant again at such an advanced age that she didn't disclose her condition to a soul. When she went into labor, she sent her youngest child, Lillian, to fetch the midwife, and the midwife slapped the poor girl and accused her of lying.
Jack was an intelligent man and he understood the value of history. He and Lillian made a tape of family stories just before she died, and he made another tape with me a few years later. One of the things he said has haunted me ever since.
We were talking about his aunt, Amelia, who was born in 1876 near Krakow, then a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and who died in 1893 in New York. Amelia was one of five children; when her mother died young, her father, a tailor, decided to take his family to America. He ran out of money in London, so the family spent seven years there learning English from music hall songs.
When they finally arrived on the Lower East Side of New York, Amelia had her portrait made. I have it, and I've studied it closely. She's 15, a child dressed up as an adult, slender, bright-eyed and eager, but her hands are rough and swollen - from housework, I suppose.
Soon after the picture was taken, Amelia met a man named Stiel - his first name is lost - and at 17 she became pregnant. Too small, too young, too scared and too poor, Amelia died in childbirth, a fallen woman and a family secret.
"It was a scandal," Lillian says on the tape. "That terrible man who got her that way? Six weeks later he married another woman!"
There the matter rested until several generations down the line, when a family genealogist found Amelia's grave, marked by a large obelisk with the inscription, "In memory of my beloved wife, Millie Stiel, born 1876, died Dec. 2, 1893. May her soul rest in peace."
It seems that Mr. Stiel did right by Amelia after all.
"And all that's left of her is a picture and a grave," Jack told me.
A picture and a grave. What's left of any of us except a picture and a grave? Or, given that we live in a Kodak-moment world, a thousand pictures that will someday turn up at the local flea market, and a grave.
In "Finding Your Family," Dan Rottenberg says, "Each time I uncover the name of an ancestor, I have a mystical feeling that I was rescuing that ancestor from oblivion... They are out there somewhere. There is much they can teach us, if we find them"
My uncle Jack died on Sunday, unwittingly leaving me with a frustratingly rich and rewarding mission. "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms," says Muriel Rukeyser, and my family's stories are still pushing at me, demanding to be told, demanding to join the larger universe. Everyone should leave behind them more than just a picture and a grave.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.