Sarah’s Brain

Sarah Rebecca Steinman, eldest daughter of my younger brother, is named for her two great-grandmothers. She’s named for Sarah Konarska Weiskopf (my mother’s mother), born in NowoRadomsk, Poland and for Rebecca Nusenov Steinman (my father’s mother) born in Chernihov, Ukraine. My female lineage is embodied in this beautiful young woman, whose mother (née Pedersen) is of Norwegian Lutheran descent.

When Sarah was growing up, her mother offered to join a synagogue, but my brother, then preoccupied with starting his business, was not focused on his daughter’s religious education. Sarah accompanied her mother to church on Sundays, attended Bible camp/

My husband and I wanted children, but have none of our own. From the time she was eight, Lloyd and I eagerly anticipated Sarah’s arrival for a week’s visit each summer. At the end of her stay, we’d watch tearfully as her small figure, laden with her pink backpack and dangling novelty keychains, disappeared through the gate at Burbank Airport.

When Sarah came to visit—I’d flip the switch into Super Aunt. Art museum exhibits. Trips to the beach. Sarah saw her first Shakespeare play (“King Lear”) one summer; another summer, her first Kurosawa film. We watched the film “Gandhi” together and discussed the meaning of non-violence; we watched “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which led to a conversation about the civil rights movement. Sarah loved to pick tomatoes in our garden, fill a bucket with enough oranges from our tree to squeeze for fresh juice.

Already a dreamy child, my niece in those years was wont to slip into a non-communicative mode that could be unnerving. I saw it as my challenge to provoke her, elicit her opinions and observations. (I was channeling my own mother.) One summer afternoon, en route to some cultural destination, I popped into the car’s tape player the cassette recording I’d made of a long-ago Steinman Passover seder.

The tape was a sound collage of my mother Anne, my grandmother Rebecca, my Russian cousin Maya—none still living– in the kitchen preparing a Passover feast. I loved the sound of my mother’s voice– her ebullient phrasing and enthusiastic fervor about the holiday meal. There was the comforting sound of my Grandma Becky’s Yiddish-accented English, warning me as I stirred a pot: “Don’t let the oil jump up and bite you.” My cousin Maya, a recent immigrant from Kiev, protested that her English was not yet good enough to read from the Haggadah. My mother insisted yes it was! There was a dispute over the Russian word for “parsley.” Animated voices preserved in amber. They felt so close; how could they be gone?

I looked over at Sarah. No reaction. Completely impassive. She stared straight ahead. Was she even listening? I was irritated, how could she not have feelings about the sound of her grandmother’s voice?

The answer was obvious. She didn’t know these people. These voices awakened no direct memories. They did not stir the part of Sarah’s brain where emotion was stored. How quickly direct transmission from generation to generation lapses! My grandmother Rebecca died before Sarah was born. My niece didn’t remember my mother Anne, her own grandmother, who adored her. I know she now ardently wishes she did.

Joyce Stanfield Perry, a Juaneño tribal leader in Orange County, wrote about finding a recording of the voice of a tribal elder, made in the 1930s. It was on a dusty shelf in the Smithsonian. Anastacia de Majel, then in her 70s, was one of the last speakers of the Juaneño langauage. According to the news account: Perry said, “We wept. It was truly like our ancestors were talking directly to us.” She discovered things about her ancestors and how they lived that made a deep impression on her. “I didn’t know that animals would talk to my ancestors and that my ancestors understood them. I didn’t know that the stars communicated with my ancestors or that when a crow flies overhead that I’m supposed to say certain words to them. It was humbling to acknowledge how much our ancestors knew.”

What did my ancestors know? I never met my mother’s father, for whom I’m named. My mother never met her own grandparents, nor did she even know their names. I was so fortunate to spend so much time with my grandmother Rebecca, a great storyteller. I attribute my fascination with Eastern European culture and Jewish history to her stories about growing up in Ukraine; when I watched her radiant face as she lit and blessed the Friday night candles, it offered a glimpse of the possibility of communing with the Divine.

Ultimately, it was Sarah—around age 12—who decided she wanted to study Hebrew for her Bat Mitzvah. My brother even joined her studying Hebrew at night, and the ceremony gave great delight to the entire family.

The other night, Sarah (now twenty-two and soon to graduate from USC) and I were working at the computer in my office at home. I noticed Sarah staring at a hand-tinted family photo on my desk. “Who is that?” she asked. It was a photo of my Aunt Ruth, Sarah’s great-aunt. I was happy to tell Sarah what I knew about Aunt Ruth, how, when my grandmother made the journey from Ukraine to New York, she pinned a little muslin sack containing the family valuables to the underside of Ruth’s pinafore. You could trust Aunt Ruth with the family valuables. Ruth Steinman had a congenital heart defect—a little hole in the heart– and died at age 14. My father was anxious to name his first-born Ruth, in memory of his ally, his best friend. My sister Ruth, born while my father was away at war, is named for this plucky Russian aunt of ours.

The exiled Egyptian-Jewish writer Edmond Jabès speaks of “permanent rupture” as a state of being in his writing and in his Jewish heritage. He writes, “I don’t believe in continuity. Continuity is made of ruptures, and we ourselves are this rupture.”

Sarah Rebecca Steinman is the rupture; she is also the continuity.

Sarah and her aunt

12 Responses to “Sarah’s Brain”

  1. Regina O'Melveny Says:

    What a touching piece about Sarah and her aunt. I’m moved to think about rupture and mending, the fragments of my own family cast across three continents. When we write, we open the rupture more, then work to heal it. Cleaning the wounds.
    But there is such tenderness here, Louise, such skill in listenint to the ancestors (as my friend Jill recently reminded me we must do).

  2. Charlotte Says:

    Knowing Sarah and knowing you all i can say is how fortunate she is to have you as an aunt. Not only have you had the curiosity and courage to uncover your ancestors but you’ve passed them on in so many different ways, from taking her to cultural events (your mother), telling stories (the grandmothers). In every way you have guided her.

    (and the similarities btw you two is really quite stunning)

  3. Anne Focke Says:

    How wonderful, Louise. You completely stopped me in my tracks this morning. Thank you!

  4. Charlotte Innes Says:

    (Another Charlotte!) A beautiful piece, Louise. Thank you. I connect in so many ways personally to this piece… and the “rupture”…. And yes, Sarah looks sooo like you. Can’t wait for your book!

  5. Very interesting subject, and one which many of us now reaching 60 are thinking about, I suspect. My mother passed away a few months ago, but before doing so she gave me a box of photos and bag of letters relating to relatives back as far as the mid-1800’s, describing life in the Dakota Territories. We grasp on to the immediate past, trying to maintain some sort of continuity to life. Yet, in reality, once we are two generations gone, it is unlikely we will be remembered at all. Will the world be different if I maintain and pass on the photos and letters? Or does it make no difference at all?

    • Yes, those boxes of photos and letters… we are the custodians of that history and will the next generation be interested? I have to believe it does make a difference, and that there’s always one family archivist in each generation. And remembering takes so many forms, stashed in the atoms/genes/memories of our descendants…

      • Thank you, Louise. A lovely quiet contrast to last night. The world holds so much.

        Just save those photos. Keep those stories. Hide them to be found by the next gen or the next gen, family or otherwise.

      • “The world holds so much…”
        How true.

  6. Debra Gendel Says:

    What a perfect gem of a story, Louise. Your affection for your niece is abundantly clear. How lucky she is to have an adult in her life recognize her in a way that’s different from the way a parent sees a child.

    Her decision to study Hebrew and have a Bat Mitzvah is a reminder of our need to connect to the past and to tradition, felt even in childhood. She sounds like a very wise young woman.

    Thank you for writing about her.

  7. sara rimer Says:

    dear louise, thank you for this beautiful essay about your niece, sarah. i love the way you describe the tape of your long ago passover seder, with all those dear family voices you cherish, and then your irritation at sarah’s not reacting, followed by your understanding. your relationship – yours and lloyd’s – with sarah is so rich and moving and it makes me want to reach out more to my own niece named julie. your writing is infused with such love.
    i can’t wait to read your book.
    xoxoosara

  8. Hi Louise,
    Always wonderful to follow your text flows. The comment by Jabes on the infinite dialectical relationship between rupture and continuity…not one or the other rather both at the same time, resonates. I have resolved to hold the huge complexities of the histories emanating from my family objects in this way. The objects are like portals into personal and cultural histories, psychological and political, joyous and deeply painful. Funny thing though, as powerful as they may be to us, they are just old things to others. Another dialectical relationship.

    • Yes, your family objects do hold “huge complexities.” A letter from Byron, a cigarette case from Europe that is revealed to be from Palestine, Biblical antiquities mailed to Montreal… powerful and useless, with meaning and without. Your stories and your questions impart meaning to anyone looking at these objects, the way you wrestle with the dialectic is extremely moving.

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