The Christmas Gang

 

There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home.

 

Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah.

The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without…

Never Too Late!

At our house we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and we also give a nod toward the Solstice.  This year we planned to observe the Solstice with a bonfire, and burn twenty years’ accumulation of tax receipts in our firepit, but it never stopped raining long enough to light a match.

Eli and I told Christmas and Hanukkah stories at the Renton History Museum.  One cannot properly tell stories without feeling the spirit within, so we were primed for both holidays.

Afterwards we went to Farmer Brown’s Tree Farm to cut our own Christmas tree.

Then we went home to light the menorah.

 We had company this year, cousins of my father, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine.  June Aptekar Allen Smith and her husband Haskell traveled to Seattle from Texas to celebrate their first Hanukkah ever.

They played dreidel and sang the blessings for the first time, just as June’s ancestors had done for nearly two thousand years.

At 88 and 89, they are still fascinated by the world around them, by history, travel, current events, and the stories of strangers they meet in their every day life.  We reconnected with June and her daughter Leslie ten years ago, at an Aptekar family reunion in Tucson.  They introduced us to June’s niece Nancy and her husband Ian, who happened to live right here in Seattle, and who we now love like, well… family.

We compared notes and stories about our Aptekar roots, taking into account June and Haskell’s meticulous research, papers and letters from my mother’s attic, my Grandma Rose’s recently rediscovered autobiography among them.  Cousin Bryan drove up from Portland to represent the descendants of Dave Aptekar, yet another branch of the family tree.  We pieced together all our snatches and snippets and scraps of information into a more comprehensive family history, from before the pogrom of Odessa in 1905 to my great grandparents’ subsequent immigration through Ellis Island, and on to Detroit.

In 1905, the Aptekar family huddled in the cold and the dark, listening to the screams of horses and the crash of breaking glass, as Cossacks charged down the street, burning the businesses and homes of Odessa Jews, killing 800 Jewish men, women and children, and causing 2, 500 casualties.  Trapped inside without food or fuel for the fire, the Aptekar family huddled in their winter coats, and broke through ice in the water pail to drink.  With tears streaming down his cheeks, my great grandfather Jacob Aptekar chipped tiny pieces of sugar from the sugar cone to feed to his hungry children, promising them he would find food for them soon, while making a silent promise to himself to move his family far from that hateful place forever.  Jacob’s hair turned white overnight, and my Grandma Rose’s little sister Clara died in her arms.

Victims of 1905 pogrom in Odessa

Over the next two generations, time, geography, estrangement, and self-imposed exile tugged at the threads of the Aptekar family tapestry.  But more than a hundred years later, the descendants of Jacob’s children, Reuben, Rose, and David, gathered around one table for latkes, applesauce, and Hanukkah sushi.

Broken threads can be repaired and rewoven…


…and it is never too late for a happy ending.

All words c2012 Naomi Baltuck.

One Village

In my travels I prefer a village setting to a big city, and will bypass London for thatched roof country, or head straight out of Rome to explore the ancient villages of Umbria , Tuscany or Ligurnia.  All over the world, they are so different.

On the little island of Aeroskobing in Denmark…

…or above the clouds high up in the mountains of Switzerland.

At sea level in Iceland…

….or at the foot of a Norman castle in Ireland.

In the shadow of Cesky Krumlov Castle in the Czech Republic…

…or on the shore of a fjiord in Norway.

Beneath an ancient Roman aquaduct in Spain…

…or on a little cobbled street in Dorset.

Each has its own unique story and history…

Tastes…

 

Traditions…

Colors

And characters…

All so different and yet so familiar.

Almost like family.

Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Mom Always Said…

Hope for the best, expect the worst, and try not to be disappointed.   My mother’s life philosophy was actually pretty upbeat for a kid whose family lost everything during The Great Depression, including her father, who died of Brain Fever when she was only eight.  Grandma Rhea supported her children by sewing and taking in wash.  My mom shared a bed with Grandma, so they could rent out her room to make ends meet.  But they didn’t always quite make it.  In the freezing Detroit winters, they nailed blankets over the windows because they couldn’t afford coal to heat the house.

Their only book was the family bible.  But Mom found a copy of Alice in Wonderland in a box of textbooks left by a renter.  She read it cover to cover.  As soon as she finished, she turned back to the first page and started over.  She had discovered her passion and her escape–in books.

Mom was the first in her family to attend college, working her way through by reading to blind students.  A person of quiet, if impractical passions, Mom passed on normal school and secretarial school to study Classical Greek and Latin, French, German, and Russian.  Italian, too, but she said that hardly counted.  “After Latin,” Mom said, “Italian is a snap.”

I remember going home from college to visit one weekend.  There were index cards by Mom’s reading chair, on the kitchen windowsill, on the nightstand by her bed.  They had strange writing on them.

“It’s Greek,” she explained.  “Passages from The Iliad, by Homer.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m memorizing it,” she said.

“But why?”

“For fun, dear.  After I’ve memorized The Iliad, I’m going to memorize The Odyssey.”

As a young college grad, she had never shown any interest in men, and was still living at home while working for the War Department.  Grandma planned on having a spinster daughter to keep her company in her old age, unaware that Mom had already promised herself she would move out and find a place of her own by her 25th birthday, if she hadn’t gotten married by then.   Mom just hadn’t met her intellectual equal.  Then Harry Baltuck came along.

He was handsome, funny, brilliant; every woman in the office had her eye on him.  But he had eyes only for Mom.  She was so nervous on their first date that she threw up in his car.  Actually, she threw up every time they went out.  “But he kept coming back,” she said, laughing.

He was intrigued, and not just because she was determined to remain a virgin until her wedding night.  It was a very quick courtship.

His proposal wasn’t exactly story book.  “Well, what if we made it legal?” he asked.

“Would you wear a ring?” she countered.  And the rest is family history.

They traveled many peaks and valleys in their time.  They had seven children and eighteen years together.  She was still young when widowed, and Mom received several proposals from Daddy’s friends and army buddies; some decent and well-intended, others not so much.  But Mom didn’t take anyone up on his offer.  She never remarried, or even dated.  Books, once again, became her passion and her escape.

In 1989, I sat at her bedside as she lay dying of cancer.  It had been a long hard battle.  Mom looked up and caught her breath.  “Harry,” she whispered.

“What did you say, Mom?” I asked.

“Harry!”  She pointed toward the door, but I saw nothing there.

“Mom, do you see someone?”

“It’s Harry,” she said, nodding.  “He’s standing right there.”

Was it the delusion of a dying woman?  Or the love of her life, who had been patiently waiting for twenty-five years to take her home?

Let’s hope for the best.  Just like Mom always said, you have to hope for the best.

All images and words c2012 Naomi Baltuck

The Secret Object I Keep Hidden in My Underwear Drawer

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Yes, I really do have a secret object hidden in the back of my underwear drawer.

It was in a bag earmarked for the Salvation Army, a tiny doll-sized white cotton undershirt, but I snatched it back from among the outgrown feet pajamas, baby booties, and Alice-in-Wonderland dresses.  Then I tucked it into the back of my underwear drawer.

It isn’t an heirloom or valuable in any way, except to me, because both my kids wore it as fuzzy-headed milk-scented most-beautiful-in-the-world newborns.  Once in awhile it still sees the light of day.  Not on those “hurry-up-or-we’re-going-to-be-late! mornings,” but on quiet afternoons when I’m putting away freshly folded laundry.  I can still smell the baby shampoo and feel the round little tummies that filled that shirt.

Recently I realized that no one in the world would know or care what happened to that little shirt unless…I showed it to my daughter Bea and told her about her first night home from the hospital. She was wearing the little shirt, or one just like it, while lying beside me on the bed to nurse.  By the soft moonlight shining in on us I watched her, filled with awe at the sight of this new person looking up at me like a little old wisewoman.  I marveled at her perfect little toes and her tiny feet and those exquisite fingers.  Just as I was moved to tears at the miracle of life and birth, she reached up with her tiny finger and DOINK! poked me right in the eye. Ever since then, I told Bea, she has kept me from taking myself too seriously.

I told Bea how four year old Eli rubbed her tummy and told his baby sister all she would need to know to get by in the world. “You only get to drink milk now, but when you’re big you get macaroni and cheese from a fork. You’ll learn to walk and then run, but be careful or you might fall and scrape your knee and bleed, but blood has platelets that make a scab, but don’t pick it or it’ll bleed again…”  What a warm, wise welcome into our family!

On my kitchen wall is a picture Bea drew of a paintbrush and an artist’s pallet.  Underneath she wrote,”Only the artist knows the story of her painting.”  Too true. So tell your stories to your kids, your friends or your enemies, lest they disappear when you do.

Whether you write them into your memoirs, or tell them from your mouth, let them see the light of day, feel the moisture of your breath, live in stark black beauty on a crisp white page.

One day Bea might show that tiny shirt to her children and say, “When I was a baby…” Even if it finds its way to the Salvation Army, she might say, “My mom once saved a tiny white undershirt from the rag pile and kept it in her underwear drawer.  Sometimes she took it out, and told me stories about when I was a baby…”

All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck

(Except “Mrs. Bradley Ripley Alden and Her Children” painted by Robert Walter Weir, 1852)