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?