Monday, December 23, 2013

My Mother's Stories

My mother, Tova Hacohen Wachtfogel, at age 72 during a visit to the United States for my son's bar mitzvah
A few weeks before my mother died in Jerusalem, she told me in a telephone conversation that stretched all the way to the United States about sitting down with her sister Sarah and reminiscing about the past. That day they had talked about the time they spent in Tel Aviv in the late 1950s, two young and beautiful ladies in a young and beautiful country—all three with ancient histories and fascinating stories—sipping coffee in a café.

My mom worked back then as a journalist, a children’s page editor, and a publishing assistant for the newspaper owned and run by her father and brothers. Her work didn’t make the front page, but, there in that café and everywhere she went, she had a front seat to history.

“You need to write your stories down,” I told her over the phone. “I want to read them, and I know I’m not the only one.”

Several years earlier, I had interviewed my mother for a book I was writing, which was a fictionalized version of her life in Jerusalem before, during, and a few years following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. My mother had been twelve years old at the time of the war—a bat mitzvah girl—and the book was a project I was working on for a publisher who specialized in gifts for Jewish girls. The publisher had loved the story . . . until she asked me to add historic facts. The historic facts didn’t agree with her less than Zionistic friends, and her demand that I rewrite history to suit them didn’t agree with my principles and journalistic integrity, so the project fell through.

But I still had all these stories I had gathered when I was researching the book, and they were wonderful stories.

Perhaps it was for the best that the project fell through. Even before I started working on it, I had wanted to write a book about four generations of women in my family that spanned from the very early 1900s until the present in the Holy Land.  I wanted to write that book, Bathsheba's Daughters, because these women had great stories, stories that deserved to be shared. And a few weeks before my mother died, when we still hoped she might be with us for at least a few more years, I wanted her to share more of her stories. It was the greatest inheritance she could possibly leave behind.

“I’m not a writer,” my mother replied, this from a woman who was a journalist for decades.

“But you’re a good storyteller,” I told her.

“I’m not that good a storyteller,” she replied. “You know who’s a good storyteller? Your Aunt Sarah.”

“You are,” I said, although I suppose modesty prevented her from admitting it. “And if you don’t want to write your stories down, you could hire someone to write them down for you.”

She told me a great aunt of mine was doing that, paying someone to listen to her life’s story and turn it into a book for her kids and grandkids. “You should do that, too.”

She said it was a good idea and implied that she would think about it.

I’m sure she did. I’m sure it gave her a reason to want to stay around just a little longer. My mother was the kind of mom who would do anything for her children. Anything.

But God had other plans.

So now it’s up to me, the daughter who writes, the collector of stories.

When we were sitting Shiva for my mom, a few people came to me with stories. Stories about my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother. And I grabbed those stories with both hands.

I knew, for example, that my grandmother had been a bit of a rebel when she was a teenager, but I didn’t know that she would lean forward when the seamstress was measuring her for dresses, because she wanted the hemline to be higher than her parents would permit. I knew that my great grandmother was funny, creative and smart, but I didn’t know that under her bed in her old age she kept a green plastic shopping basket that contained a chess set, and I didn’t know that she would pull out that basket and play chess when a young distant cousin came to visit. Even in her old age, she still had a playful side.  

I shared the stories I had collected, too, but there were so many of them. I couldn't possibly tell them all.  

I told them about the book I had worked on and the book I had planned to write.

“I want to read that,” they told me. “Publish it, and I'll buy a copy.”

I promised to post the stories on my blog, and that is what I hope to be doing from time to time over the following weeks. Maybe if I write enough of them and collect enough photos and other material from my family, I’ll put it all together as that book I was planning to write, the one about four generations of women in the Holy Land.

I hope you’ll forgive me for this little detour. I know I usually write about writing, designing books, comedy, and geek stuff. But these stories about the women in my family deserve to be told. 


Rose Green said...

They definitely do need to be told!

Cari said...

I love this post. As a child, I was inadvertently charged with being my paternal grandmother's family historian. She, a brother and her sister were brought over to this country during the Holocaust and when their father returned to save other family members, he didn't return. They lost 14 direct family members in the Holocaust. While many came to this country and truly survived, moving toward happier lives, my grandmother and great aunt did not. They lived in a state of PTSD, constantly fearing the "tapped" phone lines and we weren't allowed to write anything down for fear we would be tracked. I was asked to memorize all of the photograph faces and stories. It was much to charge a young child with and I remembered what I could. I have always carried the weight and need to look into my ancestry and rediscover stories. Stories are so powerful and I struggle with knowing the ones I do know and the desire to let go of that which is in the past. I applaud your keeping your mother's stories alive. It is a book I would buy to read too. Sincerely, Cari

Shevi Arnold said...

Thank you, Rose.

Cari, that's beautiful. You're right: stories are so powerful.

Deb said...

I'd love to read this book, too. I think Bathsheba's Daughter's is an awesome title for a book. Good for you. Hugs, and I'm so sorry for your loss.

Shevi Arnold said...

Thank you, Deb.

Anonymous said...

Yes they do. They sound interesting and many would read them. I'd like to read them.

Ellie Garratt said...

There is no detour to forgive. Those stories need to be told, and I would love to read them. Thinking of you all at this hard time xx

Shevi Arnold said...

Thank you, Medeia. And thank you, Ellie. <3

Judith van Praag said...

Dear Shevi, First off, my heartfelt sympathy, losing one's mother tends to catapults a person into a new phase of life.
As for what you call a de-tour, I beg to differ, this may very well be the main road. You can still address your usual subjects while sharing the stories of those powerful women, yourself included.

Shevi Arnold said...

Thank you, Judith. <3