Monday, June 22, 2020

MORE THAN A HAT TRICK: Reflections on Home

Home, according to Google in 2015

MORE THAN A HAT TRICK: Reflections on Home

written for The Six-Minute Memoir, June 2020

My family. Four generations. Four different continents. Why? Home is where you hang your hat and no one tries to kill you. Or your neighbours.

My maternal grandfather was called Percy Zelikow. Back in Lithuania, he was Pesach Zelikowitz. He was quite a character. My mother jokes that he was a self-made made who loved his creator.

He used to say that the town he came from was so small that if you began to say its name as you walked in, you'd have walked out before you'd finished. How small was it? Let me say it. Krekenova.  I think I got to the blacksmith shop by the second syllable. Krekenova. It was a shtetl in Lithuania, near the big city of Kaunas. In the late 1920s when my grandfather emigrated, the big city wasn’t that big. The mayor’s car had the number 1 as a license plate. There were only 9 other cars.

Like the rest of my family who escaped the Holocaust, my grandfather emigrated to South Africa. Why? It was a place Jews were allowed to go. I mean, other than Siberia, where the entire shtetl was sent during World War I. And then the shtetl was burned down.

Of course, their neighbours never really liked Jews. There were countless pogroms and persecutions. During the First World War, the Czar believed that the Jews were communicating with the Germans by hiding telephones in their beards. Really. Can you imagine getting telemarketing calls—to your beard?

So my parents were born in South Africa, and grew up during apartheid. That’s like saying, “they grew up when people didn’t believe in gravity.” Like everyone with darker skin, my father had to carry a pass to identify his race, though his card said, “white.” My parents couldn’t abide by this immoral regime and, in 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre marked the beginning of real civil unrest and violence. White police killed 69 unarmed black protesters. All too familiar. Of course, my parents were the privileged white, but this place that they loved was racist and was becoming too dangerous. So they got married, my father got himself accepted to medical school in Northern Ireland and they moved. And that’s how I was born in Ireland in 1964.

It was a remarkably beautiful, if parochial place. And then “The Troubles” began—the Civil War between the Republican Catholics and the Unionist Protestants. Political turmoil seems to follow my family like feathers follow a duck.

So. Hymie Goldberg is driving home when he’s stopped by a masked man with a gun. “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” the man demands “Ha! I’m Jewish,” Hymie replies. “Sure,” the man says, “but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

As a child I was insulated from the violence. Though once a British soldier at the end of our street,  let me hold his machine gun. We also used to play chicken with helicopters near an army base. Going close and then running like hell into the bushes. Sometimes neighbours had their businesses bombed. My parents decided to leave Ireland when there was a bomb scare at our school which already had barbed wire on the roof.

We moved to Canada. To Ottawa. I admit I did get worried when I went to university in Montreal and there was a real rise in separatist sentiment, but I knew that, finally, my family had found a safe place for us to live.

We moved to Hamilton about 30 years ago. My wife, a criminal lawyer, found her first job here. So yes, we moved to Hamilton for the crime. Our three children were born here.

Four generations. Four different continents. But I wonder where is home? Or to put it another way, where am I from?

There’s an old Yiddish saying, The tongue is not in exile.  It means that if you have to leave your home, even if you have to leave everything behind, even if you bring nothing but the clothes on your back, you always bring your language with you. Your words, your sayings, your stories, your jokes, your sounds, your culture and world view. Even the ways you move when you speak. When I think about Yiddish—so, nu, what do you want, it’s true—I move my shoulders in a certain way. The world has a certain texture, a certain philosophy, a certain physics, and it’s carried in the language. Yiddish is a library of our experiences and it has travelled with us through time and space.

But I don’t speak Yiddish. I don’t have those customs. They have faded like a tablecloth brought from the old country, washed a thousand thousand times until it disintegrates. I wonder: if there hadn’t been the Holocaust, would I speak Yiddish?

I know that many Jews solve the problem of home by imagining Israel as the place where they originate from and where they belong. Gey guzunterheyt. Go in good health. Whatever Israel is, it  doesn’t feel like home to me. When I think what my brain is like inside, perhaps you won’t be surprised to know that I think of fog. Fog rolling through the brooding, beautiful, narrative Mourne Mountains where we had a cottage when I was a child. Also, cows.

Where is my home?  In language, culture, family, our bodies. But what is my culture? If home is where you hang your hat, you also need to know what your hat is. Your hat, your culture, your sense of self. For me it is a stew—a tzimmes, a goulash, a jambalaya, a salmagundi—of my cultural triangulations. What I’ve learned, remembered, half remembered. What hasn’t been forgotten. What I claim or wish to claim. What my parents, grandparents, and my children long for. My inherited or future nostalgias. How I imagine my relation to the world. How I construct a place to be, like a tent with a thousand thousand guy wires holding it up. Home is where you choose to hang your hat and a hook appears.

And so, let’s say, I’ve just come back from a long walk along the escarpment. I walk in the front door and take off my hat. Maybe it’s a stylish beret like my grandfather used to wear. I’m in the front hall and I go to hang up my beret. Look, there’s a hook. What hook? Here in this expanding universe, in this very moment and location in spacetime, in this single place of all the places, in this single moment of all the moments, a hook has appeared. It has appeared in the very place where I have chosen to hang my hat. And where is that? Turns out, it’s here.


Sharon Berg said...

Oh, Gary, this is a beautiful expression of 'home', one that I am sure many adults will relate to. Home may seem somewhat different for people who have not been forced to move about as much as your family, but it still reaches back to our ancestors through the many stories that families share over their feasting tables. You really get a sense of your own home when the family that doesn't live under your roof gathers at the table. Family is about stories... many stories. Family is about the language we share, about the experiences we share, sorting out and discovering the positive and negative influences upon our character... and home is at the center of it all, a way of organizing and making sense of who we are.

gary barwin said...

Thanks for your response and for your thoughtful comments. It's true that as everyone gathers home, we really get a sense of who we (all) are, what home is. Such bewildering yet clarifying times.

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