“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Part II, Day 11: On Inheritance

From today's reading from Your True Home, the Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Our Inheritance.
We contain all the beautiful qualities and actions of our ancestors, and also the painful qualities.  Knowing this, we can try our best to continue what is good and beautiful in our ancestors, and we will practice to transform the violence and pain passed down to us from so many generations.  We know that we practice peace not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of all our descendants.
I used to say to people that my sister, Mira Bartok, and I are lucky because we got some of the best traits in the family gene pool, and none of the worst.  There are writers and painters and pianists and skilled gardeners and farmers and bishops and rabbis and tailors in our ancestry, but in that mix, often from the same people, are afflictions like paranoid schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, alcoholism, arrogance, and cruelty.
Hans Herr: Do I have this man's DNA?

Lately I've been reconsidering our inherited ratio of violence and pain to beauty and goodness.  I know now that the generations of people who came before us also had a lot to teach us about endurance and strength and faith, and I'm grateful for what they gave us.

Take Hans Herr, for example.  He's the patriarch on our father's side.  Born in Zurich in 1639 and persecuted for his religion, he came to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the early 18th century and founded the first Mennonite Church in North America.  He was 70 when he and his fellow bishops and church members and family fled Europe. They sought the help of William Penn when they looked for land, and when they arrived in the New World they had to leave behind all their worldly possessions and many of the people they loved.

Seventy must have been old in 1710.  Imagine starting over in a new country at that age, having enough faith in your beliefs to go to jail for them, to risk death for them, to leave your country for them, and then finally to travel by sea to a place where no one speaks your language, or truly wants you there, or comprehends your fondness for excessive facial hair.

Our father, his great-great-great-great-great (give or take a few) grandson, tried to disavow his ancestry and become a new man.  He told our mother that he was the descendant of Hungarian gypsies, and well into our thirties my sister and I believed that we were half-gypsy.  We would probably still believe this were it not for our half-brother from our father's first marriage, who hired a detective and came looking for us and gave us a peak at the family tree.

We had to wonder: why had our father created a more romantic story for himself?  What was he running from, and why?  His novel, Journey not to End, opens with the narrator being liberated from the camps in Belsen. What drew him to that story instead?

What's not to like about theologians and, as it turned out, Indiana chicken farmers?  In a way, Mennonites and poultry seemed as exotic to me, when I heard all this, as Hungarian gypsies.

The other story our father told, but not to us as small children, was that he may have been the product of his mother's illicit affair with a Jewish man, a traveling salesman.  He liked to tell his friends he was half-Jewish, perhaps to distance himself from the heavy Protestantism.

But maybe he really was the love child of the wandering Jew?  I'll never know.  If he is, I guess I don't get to keep the top Mennonite as my patriarch.  I live among the Amish, and it would be nice to have something in common with them.  Either way, I still get chickens.  By all accounts, our father grew up on a farm.

My father's life itself, like the novel's title, was a journey not to end: it took him from Indiana to Chicago to Los Angeles via somewhere in the European war fields, and then it ended with him dying alone, at age 60, in an apartment in New Orleans, with nothing in his possession but his VA card, five suits, and maybe (we'll never knew for sure) his upright typewriter, unfinished manuscripts, and passport.  It's highly likely that Hurricane Katrina carried his bones from the unmarked pauper's grave where he was buried off to sea.

I found out about Hans Herr, and the half-brother's family tree, just before I got tenure, when I was looking to make a life for myself up here in the North Country, a poor farming county in the far north of the empire state.  To go from thinking of myself as someone with a genetic predisposition for wandering to someone with deep roots in this land, from before it was even a nation . . . It was a marvelous thing to chew on, and I haven't finished yet.

That's me as a baby with my mother pointing to my favorite painting of my father's.  My mother and I called it "The Schmoes"

Philip Smith, master tailor.  Now: What was his surname before Ellis Island?

My young parents
On my mother's side in Belarus, there were rabbis and tailors.  My second-cousin's son Michael just sent us this picture of our great-great grandfather in his atelier.  Maybe I've added an extra "great," I don't know.

My grandmother, who was born to the Smiths, worked as the credit manager at a chemical company in Cleveland--probably one of the companies who opened their effluence straight into the Cuyahoga River and caused it to set fire.

She was good with numbers, good with bookkeeping, both of which are skills I lack.  She also played the piano, like her father had played the violin, and that gift was passed on to our mother, who would have been a concert pianist if she hadn't been stricken with mental illness and lost everything she had. 
Mira Bartok, Norma Herr, and me

But now, when I look back on our mother as a young woman trying to balance motherhood with being a wife to a writer and painter--a man who also had a serious drinking problem and who had made up a romantic life for himself to run from what he saw as drudgery, Middle American drudgery--I can't help but admire her for fostering in us, her daughters, a passion for the arts.  And while I resented our father for abandoning us to pursue his dream--wandering and writing and painting--it gave me a map for a radical way to live that wasn't readily found in Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1970s.

Who else, but from our parents, did my sister and I inherit the crazy belief that literature and art were more important than wealth and security?

Among all the crimes I accused my parents of in my worst hours, back when my mode of being was to define myself against the family I had come from, was never that they told me not to have dreams, to just go settle for something, anything, rather than pursue a life that challenges me to try and fail and pick myself up and risk failure again day after day. 

One of the ironies in our story is that my sister thinks, now, that there actually were gypsies in our ancestry.  Our mother's father, who always told us he was the youngest of 13, and was born in Macedonia, and dropped out of school in third grade to go to work, may have been from a family of Roma.  The brothers and sisters all set sail from different ports around the Mediterranean.  They all have different stories on their passports about their origin: that they are Turkish, or Bulgarian, or Greek, or Macedonian, the last of which is hybridy anyway.  I don't know if we'll ever know who these people really were.

Our grandmother married our grandfather because she was pregnant, not because she loved him.  She lived in fear of this crude, angry man who kept a rifle in the attic that we all thought he might use on us.

Chickens from Deep Root Farm
But now, when I think of him, I remember how he confessed to me once that he had a lifelong fear of chickens.  He said that when he was a child working on a farm, a chicken tried to pluck his eyes out.  I picture him now as a young boy cowering in the chicken coop, and I want to go into that coop and protect him.

Our father told our mother that his parents expected him to become a stockbroker or a minister, and that he worked his way through college plucking chickens.

Actually, we later found out, he served in World War II, and he went to college on the GI bill.

When I re-read Thich Nhat Hanh's meditation on inheritance, I think of all the different people and qualities that have come through my blood.  Story-telling in many forms.  A love of music and literature and painting.  Fear.  Religiosity.  Stubbornness.  And a love/hate relationship with poultry.

Sometimes I wish I could channel some of these people and their talents on command.

My sister plays fiddle and piano and harp and ukelele and my claim to fame, musically, is that when I dance around the house by myself, I seldom miss the beat.

In home ec, when we switched from cooking to sewing, I got a D.

Zoe and me, photo by Tara Freeman
In my family line there is also sweetness and generosity and tenderness.  My maternal grandmother's mother, I was reminded again recently by family friends, was the most kind and loving woman that anyone in their circle knew.  I only met her when I was a baby and I'm glad our lives intersected, however briefly.

And from my grandmother to my mother to both my sister and me is a straight line, a great passion that hasn't weakened with each generation and if anything, has grown stronger.

A mad love for dogs.


  1. Very interesting post Nattie May! So a couple details: the photo of the great grandfather is actually from Michael via me (I'm sending him some pictures as I find them and am happy to send them to you too---I got a few from California Mike as well). His last name before Ellis Island was Weltman in England but I think it was something else, more Russianized in Belarus. Another little factoid is that I think, based on ship documents, that our grandfather on our mother's side might have been Roma (gypsy). So you see, you might be a gypsy after all!

  2. Duh! you already mentioned the Roma part. For some reason my eyes skipped that paragraph. Welcome to the world of my brain! Sorry!

  3. I like the name Weltman. Probably Angelicized too, as you suggest. What I like is how the name fits into your habit, that I am now falling prey to, of ending each name with "man."

    In my novel now, a certain something gets called "snoutman."

    1. Welt means world in German. So, Man of the World (roamer?)Or for you goils, persons of the world. I think that fits beautifully.
      Mother of the Earth Wolf Person of the Pit

    2. I hope people who read this post will read these great comments! The story keeps getting new layers here. Man of the world: perfect!


  4. I love this piece so much, yet another deep glimpse into a family I didn't know I had. Thank you. The two of you inspire me to dig deeper.

  5. Thank you so much, Michael! That picture you sent Mira that I "borrowed" from her facebook wall was a true inspiration to us.

  6. Greetings! I enjoyed reading this. One thing, though, Hans Herr didn't found the Mennonite Church. It had been around for awhile (16th century) and was named for the former Frisian RC priest, Menno Simons. Hans did help to lead the first Mennonites Church in North America, however. By the way, I have a degree from the Mennonite seminary in Indiana and I'm a member of the Mennonite Church (USA).


  7. Hi Gary, thanks so much for this! I meant to say that he founded it in North America (at least the oh-so-scholarly Wikipedia thinks so--ha) and that the Mennonites were persecuted in Europe which is why he and his people left. It's very nice to hear from you! Hope you are having a great spring.

  8. Natalia, You and Mira may find this link of interest if you can wade through all the information. I don't know how true it is, but there seems to be a link between some Jews and various Anabaptist and Mennonite groups.


    I have known some Mennonites who have discovered their Jewish heritage. Inter-marriage occurred in the past. My wife, Sonya, and I were part of a Mennonite fellowship group in Chicago back in the late 1980's. The pastor and one of the members were Jewish who also were Christian.

    Shalom! Have a beautiful spring!

  9. Wow, Gary, thanks very much for this link. This will be a very fun connection to explore. All best wishes to you and thanks so much for writing and connecting in this way. Shalom back!