What will we leave our children when we're gone? Most of us will leave pictures and scrapbooks; echoes of their lives and our own. We'll leave memories of bad times and good, and how we tried to raise them, with love and well-meant stumbles. For some of us, there will be some money saved up to grant them a practical gift. But even if there isn't, we can all leave something else that's just as precious -- a taste of who we are and where we came from.
My parents came from another culture, an Eastern European Jewish world that had vanished in smoke. During my childhood, there were many times that I wished they were more ordinary. Everybody else's parents seemed normal, right and supremely, blandly modern. To me, American culture seemed to be a cool-beige monolith we gazed at from afar. Americans wore jeans and white sneakers and carried tennis rackets. My father wore a suit, my mother wore socks with sandals, and they both carried the remnants of lives left behind. They were holocaust survivors, refugees, storm-tossed immigrants. Sometimes I pitied them and often, I helped them, but in the folly of my youth, I burned with shame.
Hard as I tried to fit in, their accents often signaled my own oddity. I would be on the phone debating the merits of clear versus "flesh-toned" pimple cream when my father might interrupt, roaring that it was time to stop chattering and study. His voice was low-pitched and his accent somewhat Slavic. In my friends' shocked silences, I felt my demotion from bubbly teen to the spawn of Bela Lugosi. My mother was not overly average either. The stereotypical Jewish mother, she'd cook pots of chicken soup with matzoh balls and noodles, practically weeping with joy as her family ate. It didn't help that from as far back as I can remember, their Eastern-European accents were considered comical, as was the image of the Jewish mother. The mimicry was often affectionate but it wounded me, turning my parents' efforts to speak into something ridiculous, turning my mother, who made everything with love (plus a bay leaf and some peppercorns and dill), into an object of cultural derision.
I felt alone, but of course I wasn't. My story is like that of so many others in this nation of immigrants. Downstairs was the working-class Irishman who fixed our plumbing and painted our walls. Outside in the park were Puerto Rican grandmas who dressed their grandchildren up each Sunday, the girls in ruffles, the boys in stiff suits. My father was a Jewish watchmaker from Lithuania. In that country, if you weren't blond, blue-eyed and Christian, you were out. But life here was different; in one New York day he'd meet people from all over the world. They'd come here from the Philippines, Mexico, the Congo, Iran. They'd escape from massacres in Cambodia, civil wars in Biafra or from Soviet repression. Their children, like me, had to translate for their elders, teach them this new culture step by step. But at some point, as these children became adults themselves, they must have realized what their parents taught them. Who is more heroic than a traveler, a pioneering spirit that connects one world to another? Who is luckier than a child who can see the world through more than one lens?
As I look back now, I realize that my parents left me more than only their own cultural treasures. They gave me a sense of scope. In having their own customs, foods and fixations, they'd contributed to the continuing American saga. Our grandparents and parents all brought something new into the world we found, a lilting regional accent or a period point of view. All around us, on our walls and in our albums, in our family names and habits, are gifts of irreplaceable perspective. Did your aunt's aunt make haggis? Did your great-great-grandpa drink mint tea from a glass? Did your people come from Kerry or Krakow -- or both? The American ideal is really this: an ever-shifting calculation made of parts increasing, parts dwindling, but all parts contributing to the overarching, multivalent whole.
When we're young, we think that life began right here, where we are, in our time. That's why we think the past is an interloper, a rigid parent who won't let us grow. But we might be the rigid ones, and what makes us grow the most is a sense of tradition, the loving will to keep the past current and alive. So try to recall a habit, an accent, a vanished way of looking at the world. Store it in your heart like an heirloom you'll want to pass down. Now that my parents are gone, I'm doing it more and more. Their accents have disappeared with the last immigrants of their generation. They never went back to the country of their origin. Most of their photos were lost in the war. Even with their citizenship and two educated American children, they must have felt forever displaced.
But they were home, they were my home, my first words and true country. And what did they leave me? Exactly what I'd like to leave behind: a legacy of culture and of courage, seasoned with peppercorns, a bay leaf and some dill.