Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Mission to Emulate: Finding Our Family

Phil Goldsmith's new book could be our book: In Search of Self and Family

Isn't that the quest so many of us embark on -- or want to embark on -- even if we keep relegating the project to some future time?
At this age, it's not so much about learning about ourselves. We should be comfortable in our skins by now. It's more about taking responsibility for documenting family history for the sake of our children and grandchildren and some day, hopefully, great and greater grandchildren.
Without serious writing or videography, the whisper-down-the-lane stories from generation to generation get ever wispier and more unreliable.
For Phil, the time was now. After leaving the last of his many paid careers, including law, journalism, banking, politics, and his unpaid effort to tighten gun laws at Cease Fire PA, he immersed himself in  history and biography by reading at least one book about every American president, starting with George Washington, and ending with Barack Obama. (See previous blogpost here.)
Then he turned to his own family.
About those grandparents... 
Fortunately, for those of us who don't know Phil or are not a relative, his book is filled with fascinating characters. (The nut does not fall far from the tree...). Phil himself did not realize how fascinating they were until he started really learning about them. For instance,  a  grandfather and great uncle were one of the nation's largest manufacturers of handbags. Newspapers and trade publications wrote about them -- and they held patents for newfangled closures. Phil also learned why -- as a kid  --  he and his family had moved so often: family discord had broken up the company, where his father also had worked.  Another grandfather was a country lawyer who became an important civic leader in Allentown, PA.
As he connected with dozens of living relatives, Phil also discovered papers long stashed in trunks and attics -- moving letters, written almost daily, from a son serving in the Pacific during World War II to his parents;  tender letters from a grandfather urging a grandson (Phil actually) to stay in college; the poetry of a mother who suffered lifelong depression.
From the trove, Phil was able to glean insights into the generosity of his ancestors, a trait he surely inherited. For instance, one day his (lawyer) grandfather offered a stranger a ride to a job interview. Ten days later he writes to the man (and keeps a carbon copy): "Dear Mr. Roberts, You will recollect that... I gave you a ride to the Taylor-Wharton plant where you were trying to get a job. I am anxious to know whether you got your job and whether it was a good one."
Phil Goldsmith

His book, while meant mostly for his children and grandchildren, resonates with anyone whose ancestors arrived from abroad to these shores, struggled, moved, married, divorced, succeeded, failed, and in the end became  a piece of the American quilt.
Which is most of us. It's also a voyage through history, as he cloaks his family's stories in the broader circumstances of their times.

While Phil -- fueled by curiosity and adept at research-- is particularly suited to writing memoir, so much material is out there now that his book is also a blueprint for anyone who might embark on a similar journey into the past  Through arrival records at Ellis Island and flight and ship manifests, it's just a click of a name to discover who arrived where and when and what city or shtetl they came from. (I was surprised to discover in ship records that my grandmother had traveled from Vienna to New York and back again in the 1930s well before she and her husband --and my mother -- actually had to flee.)  Through Census records -- open now to 1940 -- you can know who lived on your grandparents' block, what they did for a living and where they, too, came from.

But Phil's was not just a kitchen table exercise. He reached out to family members who hadn't talked to each other in decades -- some because of hurts or insults that no one remembers anymore. They graciously turned over to him letters and diaries that form the backbone of his book, eloquent gifts that resonate from the past. (Will Facebook and email offer us this wealth of history? Maybe, if we leave each other our passwords. And remember to delve into the "sent" box. )
Phil's writing --and resources -- get richer and richer as he gets closer to the present. And by the book's end, I found myself crying. Forgive me if I give away the ending:
As I have spent many hours of my life walking along the beach... I have watched and heard the splashing of the waves come and go, just as generations of family come and go--one after another, some big, some small some rough, some calm, some throwing off a spray of salt water that is sometimes high enough to reflect the brilliance of the sunlight and others barely perceptible....Amidst the variety of size and strength of the waves is their constancy, regardless of year, month or day. Wave after wave -- like generation after generation...But with this continuity of life is the parade of the impermanence of individual life. Like footsteps on the wet, hard-packed sands of the beach, our own lives -- regardless of how large they once were-- quietly disappear. The waves flow over them, one after another, erasing our imprint and awaiting the mark of new ones.
No, Phil. You made sure your family's imprint will not be erased.

1 comment:

Mary Gabel said...

What a remarkable writing—-not just a summary of Phil's fabulous book but also a compelling argument for all of us to "unretire" and preserve our family histories and impact on the world. Thank you.