Recovering Joy in A Good Day: The Woman in the Photograph
What if the only clue you had to your mother’s past was a photo taken before you were born — when she was young, carefree, and beautiful? What if it looked like this:How would you feel, upon waking up in the morning, if the day stretched out before you had no clear architecture from the past?
That question is hard for me to imagine. My ancestry is so foundational to who I am today. I had to begin my own memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World with three generations of the nine that preceded me in America.
I’m constantly fascinated by difference. And by good storytelling. You are in for a treat in the guest post that follows. And if you aren’t having a good day yet, I think it will cheer you on.
Mani Feniger is a therapist and writer who lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband Michael and dog Gigi. She is the author of two books, “Journey from Anxiety to Freedom” and “The Woman in the Photograph,” winner of the 2013 BEST MEMOIR Award from Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. She is available to speak at book clubs as well as community and professional organizations, and offers individual counseling and memoir writing classes. Learn more at her website and blog. Purchase her book by clicking here: The Woman in the Photograph: The Search for My Mother’s Past.
A Good Day
By Mani Feniger.
Sometime in your life you will go on a journey. It will be the longest journey you have ever taken. It is the journey to find yourself.
For me, a good day does not require special events. Its essence is that I am open, optimistic and curious about whatever happens. This view may seem normal to you, but it took an unexpected turn of history for me to realize that I had unconsciously adopted a family attitude that life was hard, and it was dangerous to harbor dreams and aspirations because they would inevitably be dashed and whatever you accomplished would be lost.
Harsh advice, but it made perfect sense to my parents who escaped from Nazi Germany. They were extremely “lucky” to get out early, but beyond that, I knew none of the details of their persecution, nor of other relatives that must have once existed, or the exciting lives they each had led before their exile.
I was very close to my mother. This was especially true after my dad died when I was eight. But our house became a place of silence, cloaked in shadows I couldn’t name. Seeking direction, I carefully observed my mother’s facial expressions, her tone of voice, her body language and random comments, often as fragmentary as
“I kiss the ground we walk on”
with no explanation to follow. I was not aware of how deeply her outlook infiltrated my own beliefs about life or that I had absorbed the imprint of her traumas and disappointments.
Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Though my mother had passed away by then, a door to her buried past swung open. A flow of documents issued by the newly unified German Republic informed me that I might be the rightful heir of a family property stolen by the Nazis under “Aryanization.” Soon after, I got a startling glimpse into a significant part of my mother’s prior life. It came in the form of a photograph, buried in a box of papers and documents my brother had carted off to his garage when we cleaned out her apartment.
As I said in the introduction to The Woman in the Photograph
…The picture of two women seated close together on a loveseat transported me back to a lost era of my mother’s life. Suspended in time, my mother and her sister gaze into each other’s eyes. They seem unaware that outside their private world, the Nazi party is gathering momentum to sweep away the life they have known.
I was stunned by the image of my mother Alice in a white evening gown…. The woman in this photo is not my mother, I thought. I recognized her proud profile. Otherwise she bore little resemblance to the woman I had known all my life….
The image ignited a spark inside me, an urgency to know more about the person who had such a profound effect on my life… Long after her passing, the omissions in her story still haunt me. What happened to her? Why didn’t she tell me? Who is the woman in the photograph?
The journey of unraveling her story took me nearly twenty years with twists and turns I could not have imagined. But the really important shift was that I began to understand the roots of her silence and the impact of her losses.
I discovered that she had withheld not just her pain, but also the most glorious adventures of her youth, which I observed later in a photo album she had secreted away. I sensed that I had denied myself the permission to be lighthearted, not on purpose, but as an almost primal expression of loyalty to my mother. Have you ever struggled with the beliefs and values that mattered to your parents but might not be appropriate for your own life or your own time in history?
I have faced many real challenges. But I approach situations differently than before I knew my mother’s true story. Now a good day means my heart is open and I no longer confuse my mother’s experience with my own. I look up at the clouds shifting through a blue sky, and am grateful that I have a lightness of spirit that I didn’t feel when I was growing up. Even when things are not as I might wish, I savor the happy moments and bring compassion to myself when I am afraid or sad or angry. And though I am almost seventy, some days I turn up the music and dance around the house as I did when I was seven, and know it’s a very good day.
This story makes me want to cry, and then dance too. It has enhanced my understanding of the meaning of a good day in a profound way. Do you know the connection between pain and joy? Is there a photo in your life that has unlocked a mystery?
Shirley, this is the problem I explored and researched in my PhD dissertation. I called it “Fragmented Identity: A Comparative Study of German Jewish and Canadian Mennonite Literature After World War II.” It was my own grandmother who experienced the saddest losses. There are two pictures of her that are like a before and after shot. My mother experienced what Mani Feniger writes about in her memoir. She inherited her mother’s sadness and it was a burden for her. I believe my mother became her true self when she related to her grandchildren, and it was a joy for me to see that! Thank you for sharing this in your blog. It helps me to understand the complex relationship between my mother and my grandmother.
Thank you for your comment and mention of your grandmother’s sadness. It was touching for me to read.
Elfrieda, wow. I hope you and Mani get to know each other. I know you would find deep commonalities. How wonderful that your mother was able to relive her happier self as she played with her grandchildren. So glad for you and for her that there was a crack where the light could get in.
Hi … I’ve just read through this whole series on good days … love it … all the more reason to be a regular on your blog email list.
Thank you, Mary. I want to stay in closer touch with you also. I loved your post today comparing Ferguson and My Lai. You always write with perception, courage, and compassion. I can see why you were/are a success in the business world!
I’m going right out and buy your book, Mani Feniger! I’m pretty sure I have something to learn from it. Shirley, thanks for sharing a bit of her story here.
So glad you found Mani here, Dorothy. Among other admirable things, she is a GREAT example of your theme of “aging abundantly.” Thanks for helping to support other authors!
Thank you for your enthusiasm. This unraveling of the past is also part of being able to live in the abundant blessings that come with age and ripeness. Enjoy the book and please feel welcome to contact me if you wish.
Hi, Mary, so glad you found these posts. Aren’t they stimulating and wise? I feel grateful to have such wonderful author friends, a circle that certainly includes you, your books, and your blog.
Hope that we can stay better connected. I always enjoy the intelligence and compassion you demonstrate in your work. I can see why you were a success in the business world!
“Ding!” What a wonderful duet on a good day and on being present.
I’m exploring your blog, Mani, and all the publicity on your books. Of course I’m delighted that you live in my geography, and I hope I get to meet you sometime.
Thank you Shirley for sharing Mani with us and encouraging unlocking of doors that might open.
Yes, that’s it exactly, Dolores — unlocking doors that might open. It would be great if you and Mani could find each other there in the Bay Area. Such a rich place for writers. Glad you stopped by and offered your voice today. You made my day better!
Thank you and if you want to send me an email through my website or blog, I will let you know if I’ll be speaking. I often like to be a libraries and other easy to come to places. Everyone has a story to tell and supporting our stories is my passion.
Your pictures are just gorgeous, Mani, capturing not just moments but emotions. I am familiar with your book “Journey from Anxiety to Freedom” but not with your prize-winning memoir, which has just moved to my Must Read column.
Like Shirley’s, my family framework is sturdy reaching back for generations, so I applaud you for re-constructing your family’s story from early fragments, photographs, and later historical documents.
One of my favorite parts of this ssay is your reference to getting a glimpse into a significant part of your mother’s prior life through a photograph, buried in a box of papers your brother had carted off to his garage when you cleaned out her apartment. Just recently, we sorted through the contents of our mother’s house and there I found gold, secrets of my parents’ and parents’ past buried in an interview recorded in my sister’s sociology class notes.
Yes, Shirley, I have explored the complex connection between pain and joy as I have more distance from my past. This post, as always, is superb. Thank you!
Thank you Marian. We know so much yet I bet there are always mysteries left.
Thank you so much to all of you for your comments. Though my own story has its specifics, I know that the search for who we are is universal, and we want to honor our ancestors but not live in their shadows. And like Elfrieda, I am still learning to play by being with my own 16 month old grand twins. That’s also a good day!
So true, Mani. I discovered by writing my memoir that my mother had experienced five devastating deaths by the time she was 25: a baby daughter 39 days old, her devoted mother (Mother was an only daughter) at age 55, and all of her grandparents. I was deeply affected also as the oldest child, but I give my mother enormous credit for not “going under.” You only see things like this when you line them up on a timeline and reflect.
And on the topic of grandchildren and the good day, here’s another post: http://shirleyshowalter.com/2014/11/12/owen-and-julia-and-the-amazing-excellent-superb-splendid-very-good-day/
Mani, you’re talking about the phenomenon of post memory, namely that the memories of those who raise us influence us and almost become our memories that shape our outlook. Endlessly fascinating, in my opinion. And I find it fascinating that some of us then go out and try to figure out that past that we didn’t know much about. Shirley is right, I love stories like that, even if they are often poignant.
Yes, thanks for mentioning post memories and also what I’ve heard described as inherited memories. In some ways this has been a natural evolution of how a species survives, inheriting knowledge so each generation does not have to start from scratch. But we humans have such complex emotional and mental wiring, that we need to bring awareness to our biological and emotional inheritance. We have the opportunity to discover, to learn and to make choices. I have the feeling this could become a broad conversation.
Annette, thanks for confirming my hunch that you would understand both the personal psychological and literary implications of Mani’s story. So glad you found this post and hope you are having a great year in Oak Park. Sorry we missed each other there. Did I ever send you this post about Bishop’s Hall? What a great B & B! http://shirleyshowalter.com/2014/11/05/in-praise-of-breakfast-starting-three-good-days-at-the-bishops-hall/
i think you were very brave to delve into your mother’s past because you didn’t know what you would discover but went forward anyway.
I, too, feel the effects of my mother on my attitudes and perspectives as an adult. Unfortunately, the influence on me was largely negative. I found a freedom in exploring what I believe, what my values are, who I am.
A very perceptive thought, Tina. And Mani. Keep writing, learning, growing. Tina, if you read Mani’s book, you will see her struggling with news she didn’t want to know and eventually integrating all of it. A massive achievement of will and grace.
Yes, it did and does take courage, for you, for me, and for all of us. I spent many months literally weeping over my keyboard as I wrote, getting in touch with grief and loss (of my own childhood). And since the uncovering and the writing (and rewriting) took decades, my feelings changed and evolved as I wrote. That’s why I believe so deeply that memoir writing can change your life. This is the theme that I would like to spread to other people. Writing is life changing.
I left the following review on Goodreads and Amazon.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book will move you to tears, both of sadness and joy, as the author searches for a usable past, one that answers the mysterious silences of her childhood and early adulthood, and one that can heal deep wounds just barely covered over with thin stories, sighs, and vague references.
At one level the book tells a holocaust story, demonstrating that more than six million Jews were affected by the Nazi terror. Even the “lucky ones” like Mani’s parents, aunt and uncle, who arrived safely in America before the final extermination, could not escape the confiscation of their property, and, even more painfully, their identities. They passed unto their children both fear and denial, huge gaps that could only be overcome with persistent research, interviews, helpful relationships built on newly-forged trust.
The book reads like a detective story and thus pulls the reader from start to finish. It has a poetic, haunting quality of understated eloquence. I was especially moved by the prayer at the spot in Leipzig where Mani goes to find the place where her grandmother jumped to her death. Her willingness to forgive and her determination that the dark shadow not continue past her generation was the most moving part of all for me.
Thank you so much Shirley for taking the time to write those reviews. In this courageous world of indie publishing, the relationship between writers and readers is very intimate. We all count on the synergy of sincere reviewers who not only inform others, but also hold up a mirror that shows the writer more about their story than they might have realized…or that I might have known when I wrote it. Thank you so much. I am grateful for all reviewers and only ask for honesty.
Thank you for introducing us to Mani, Shirley. This is a wonderful series. Mani, I admire your courage in digging deeper into your family story and discovering parts of yourself in the midst of the fragments. It is a riveting and haunting concept that makes me want to know more not only about your story , but about my own. Fascinating!
Kathy, your comment goes right to the heart of the purpose of memoir. And your own memoir Ever Faithful to His Lead illustrates the same process. I hope Mani will check out your amazing website as a resource for all who are interested in memoir’s role in the healing process.
I sit here this morning with tears (joy and sorrow — both) streaming down my face. What an incredibly powerful post this is; and to know that it’s just a tiny glimpse.
These two sentences resonated strongly with me:
“But the really important shift was that I began to understand the roots of her silence and the impact of her losses.”
“I sensed that I had denied myself the permission to be lighthearted, not on purpose, but as an almost primal expression of loyalty to my mother.”
Like many of the other readers, “The Woman in the Photograph” has now topped my must-read list.
Laurie, I count on you to find the most profound insights and to truly bask in them, allowing your emotions free play in the moment. I promise you will not be disappointed by this book. You will recognize the layers and layers of pain and misinformation Mani had to go through to achieve her epiphanies and thus to help others find theirs. Mani, you will want to follow Tuesdays with Laurie to find a great teacher with the power to perceive and share with a minimum of fuss.
Wonderful, evocative photos, windows into another world that words alone cannot truly capture–yet those pictures also need words to make them truly speak. A book worth reading.
Yes, Loretta. These photos, when combined with the story about the veil of darkness over the past, send shivers down one’s back. I remember your name from a long time ago here. It was good to connect again and to read your latest blog post!
With each of your comments, some gentle peace settles deeper into my heart. Being human is such a brave and exciting journey. I am reminded by all of you that these challenges are not that we took a wrong turn in our lives, but that there are others with us on the path, both visible and helpful, as well as those we don’t actually meet but sense we are walking in their footsteps and others follow. These are the healthy steps we are all creating together. Thank you so much for all your comments and sharing your own self. And whenever possible, write and tell your stories because someone else is listening.
Thank you for this exquisite piece. So much sorrow is hidden away to protect our children and ourselves. My recent question has been, “How can I nurture my work, myself, and my life in a way different from my mother?” She was crushed by disappointment and grief. It is incredible grace when we get a chance to better understand and then let go of our mother’s burden. I’m practicing.
I look forward to reading your book, Mani. Thanks, Shirley.
Elaine, as always, you are very perceptive about the places in a story that have healing power, for you and others. I just talked with Mani on Skype today. Both of us are awed by and grateful for the engagement her story has generated. Thank you for your comment. Hope you can enjoy the book.
Mani, I enjoyed reading this personal account of your discovery of your historical and familial background in the treasures left in a box. Some months ago I read your book and your family’s story. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to any who haven’t read it.
Shirley, thanks for hosting Mani today. It was nice to read a separate writing and sense her responses to discovering those treasures that connected her to her mother.
Sherrey, I’m so glad you have found Mani’s book and read it. As you probably noticed, I am linking my Magical Memoir Moments to older posts during the summer months. I find it so enjoyable to look back on an excellent post like this one. And it now links to new experiences in my own life and yours too! Thanks for adding your comment.
Shirley, this is a powerful and empowering post. So many truths and lessons…and suggestions.
Several years ago, I taught a 2-day writing workshop for a group of cancer survivors. They wrote in three 2-hour time periods: two the first day, covering their personal stories of the process, and the lessons they learned as well as those they wanted to forget. The second day they chose between writing a devotional or an interview of themselves, sharing the “next chapter” of their experience and writing it as fact. It was a touching, affirming and amazing workshop.
I wish I could take one of your workshops, Marylin. This sounds wonderful. Writing about things to forget is a very interesting concept. Usually we write to remember. Is there any research on this topic? The future focus would be very powerful too. The other one is counter-intuitive to me.
Shirley, I apparently missed this the first time around but am so happy you reposted it here. Mani’s books are definitely on my to read list and I have just ordered them. Her story, though different from mine, connects with me in so many ways. And it proves once again how important writing is in the recovery process and brings new perspectives to our lives.
Yes, Joan, I think you will really resonate with this story. War, hatred, and violence send out ripples into families that last for many generations. One of the best reasons to write memoir is to name the trauma and thereby remove its stinger. I know you are going to hear from many, many people how much your story has helped them.