20 November 2013
It's the Doing That Counts
This photograph, all that remains from the newspaper clipping it once was, is a cherished piece of archival material. My grandfather's Roman head; that Mod paisley tie; his gentle hands; the child's bonnet-blindered gaze back at her doctor; the formal mother, dressed for a visit to the physician, a far cry from the way our casual age shows up in any manner of dress. (Heck, these days, with health care in turmoil, I'd imagine a Miley Cyrus Twerking Jumper could get you to the front of the line in a crowded emergency room.)
"The health department's mobile clinic" begins the caption. Diphtheria immunizations were in order in this yellowed Milwaukee paper; and Dr. C.H. Bachman was ready with the needle. Edith Hastirman didn't look unhappy (despite reports) and her mother, "Mrs Ray Hastirman," doesn't seem to mind missing her first name. Such were the structures in which we once built our lives.
Mobile medicine, food pantries, and legal clinics are still around. My brother-in-law Mike Gonring, a lawyer in Milwaukee with a career long commitment to pro bono legal work, helped make one such mobile legal clinic come to be in our hometown.
Anyway, I've been playing with this image of my grandfather as the Biblical Joseph: as the assimilated, diaspora exemplar. The man who blends in and uses his success to do good. And then, quietly, at the end, reveals the deep rivers of family narrative, passes on the story, releasing the next generation to make of their story what they will. In the Biblical narrative, Joseph's revelation of Jewishness is deployed for two distinct purposes. One, he exacts a kind of playful revenge on his brothers for their shoddy treatment of him by dangling fate before their eyes and then revealing his own true self to them, causing great emotional release and then grandiose justifications for his own suffering at their hands, effectively playing the same game he had played since his youth--namely, that he was the one touched by God to lead. And while honorably carrying away his father Jacob's body to be buried in the Land of Israel, Joseph requires no such ritual for himself. He dies at 110--an Egyptian age of achievement, a half-step beneath the 120 years allotted to the fulfilled Jew--and is essentially mummified and buried as an Egyptian. It's a puzzling choice, sending a mixed message to his descendants: he paid Jewish respects to his father but chose the assimilationist path for himself. A paradoxical helix of twisted fate, left to future generations to unravel.
I remember Grandpa's voice; his agile and muscular hands; his gold band and jade stone that rode high, just beneath a knuckled finger; and at the end, his rough-whiskered kisses--playful, lasting. When Jacob takes Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe and blesses them out of their birth order (exacting a karmic revenge over perhaps his own repressed guilt at having bilked the birthright from his brother Esau) Jacob enjoys some late-in-life mischief but effectively says little beyond "I know my son, I know" when Joseph queries him. Jacob changes history, subverting primogeniture, disturbing presumed order, but conveying very little about it. It's almost as if he presumes of subsequent generations the blithe colloquial, "they'll figure it out."
As I look back on my own visits with Grandpa, I too come up short. There are very few explanations for why he did what he did.
Like an archaeologist of memory, I am left to conjure stories from faded pages, the ephemera of sensory recall, the echoes of a time past, occasionally knocked loose from the knotted gray corridors of the mind.
From the faintest of voices, we often draw the most meaning. It's really rather extraordinary. I'd imagine Grandpa would be impressed. He'd raise a humorous brow but say little.
Why talk? It's the doing that counts.