Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Ladle: A Reflection on a Family Heirloom

It is a few months after my mother's funeral. My sister and I are sorting through our mother's things, emptying the house, readying it to be sold.

      "Is there anything you want to keep?" my sister asks.

      "The ladle," I respond automatically. "That is, unless you want it."

      That ladle has been in our family for generations, one replica of their life in Ukraine before the Second World War. Growing up, I assumed all families had such familiar old-fashioned solid silver ladles, to scoop up soups and stews. The piece is gracefully arched. On the back is the stamp of the silversmith who hammered it. Engraved on it is a monogram, the initials of my great great-grandmother, the same surname of hundreds of my relations. Born in this country, soon after my parents were exiled from their land, I was raised in their very culture, yet never knew any of their clan, only remembered the stories my mother told during my childhood. Now with both my parents gone, I at times feel adrift, cut off forever from a family and a country I have never known. For me that ladle has always had an odd permanence.

      "Are you sure you don't want it," I repeat.

      "No," She says definitively. "I have enough stuff.  It wouldn't fit in."

`     My sister’s taste is practical, modern; mine, a collection of random things that don't match, or should I say, "eclectic."

      "I’ll also take the soldered spoon," I say.

      "The spoon?" she says.

       The spoon is leaky. It has been clumsily soldered, its sterling smoothness, marred; a thatched-up-like hole in its middle looking much like a stitched wound.   

      "Those brutes," my soft-spoken mother once exclaimed while speaking of the Communist soldiers who invaded her country and her childhood home. "They used it to hammer nails," she exclaimed with a pain and loss I could never even begin to understand back then. "Silver is a soft metal," she said, looking at me, then about five or six, in consternation.

      "Silver," I slowly repeated -- while standing in the kitchen in my yellow pinafore and my hair pulled back in plaits, innocently unaware of the horrific import of what she actually meant -- "is a soft metal...."

      To me that spoon has always been a family heirloom, an echo of a tragic history. When I was in college, my mother gave me and my sister some pieces from that very set of engraved silverware. "Keep them," she said, and I did. Their presence always seemed odd in my graduate student apartment -- out of place amid my stainless, awkward, oversized, the way antique eating utensils usually are, much too big to use. Yet in my moving around life, they're something I have always held on to. 

      But I didn't think as much about them at 22 as I do at 42.

      "Would you like the rest?" my sister asks.     

      "Are you sure?" I say.

      "Who has time to polish silver?" she says.

      My sister is decisive, efficient. She moves on. I ponder every little thing. She is good at sorting; I am not. I find her presence predictable, soothing. I could not bring myself to go though these things here alone.      

      She gives me a box of old photos to sort. I, suddenly the younger child again, dutifully obey. I pick out a photo of my mother as a young woman, coy, flirtatious, sitting by a river, surrounded as usual by her gentlemen suitors. Happier days at home, I suppose. She is laughing at the camera. One of the men is leaning toward her attentively. I wonder about this figure, blond-haired, laughing, and genteel, looking much like a European Ashley Wilkes. He's certainly not my dark, ruggedly handsome brooding father. I come across another of the blond man's photos in the box. "For 'I,'" it says, "with much love," and is dated 1944. Vaguely, I recall an aunt saying one of my mother's suitors died in the war. Dated '46, is a photo of my father, young, Bogartlike in his looks, a scar from a bullet wound on his forehead. "Dearest Irina," is inscribed in passionate prose, "In the midst of all the chaos, when the very world we know is being torn apart, remember me with a quiet, warm word...."

       She married my father soon afterwards, in '48, at an American displaced persons' camp in Germany, where my older sister was later born.  Yet she always kept the photo of the blond man. I want to ask what all this means. But there is no one to ask.    

      I come across another photo of my mother as a young woman strolling down a tree-lined boulevard in what could be any fashionable European city. She is accompanied by her mother - my grandmother - and one of her sisters. A visit from Mom in boarding school, I suppose. "Lviv, 1939," is written on the back of the photo, The two sisters are wearing identical flowing coats with fur collars, are each holding a muff, have on ankle-strap shoes with chunky heels; Their statuesque mother is wearing a long coat and a stylishly cocked hat with netting.

      I find another photo of my grandmother, suddenly looking much older, overly slender. It is a tiny headshot, perhaps meant for some sort of I.D. Her hair is cropped; her face, tired and strained. "After a rest," someone had written on the back. In the vague, polite, indirect way of my language, "rest" could imply just about anything, from a mere nap, to a recuperation. Vaguely I remember overhearing my uncle and my aunt talking in hushed tones about my grandfather, a Byzantine minister, who had been murdered by the soldiers, about my grandmother's forced exile to Siberia. I wonder if the photo alludes to an illness, perhaps a stay in a sanitarium, a place she retired to after her losses.... My mother kept that small photo on her dresser, yet because of that over-protectiveness Ukrainian parents tend to have toward their children, never spoke about my grandfather or about my grandmother's fate.    

      There are other photos: My father, dapper in his hat and belted trench-coat, standing with several suitcases. He and my mother, happy and smiling, holding my sister as they wave from a train. A photo of a trans-Atlantic ocean liner. "Brittania," it says. There are various diplomas, all in Latin. At the bottom of the box is an old document -- recopied years ago by some elderly relative -- the type fading, the paper, brittle and yellowing. It is my mother's family tree. It begins in the seventeenth century. Mine is the last name listed.

      What does one do with old photos? I wonder. What does one do with such a legacy and a past that can never be rearranged?

While my father worshipped her, my mother never got over all the traumas of the war. Throughout my childhood, I will always remember her as one of those many uprooted people from her country who only yearned to go home again.

"You take them," my sister says about the photos. "I already have the ones I want."

       So I do as she says. I keep the photos. Someday, I will give them to my daughter. As for the ladle, forks and spoons, I decide, I will use them. I will use them every day as serving forks and spoons.

      Later on, the house emptied, my sister and I, she at the wheel, are driving on the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, to visit a distant cousin.

Still filled with rue, I suddenly ask my sister, “Could she have died from a lack of love? From all her many losses?” blaming myself for my failure to fully understand her or her life,  my failure to love her enough when I myself was preoccupied with the needs of a child -- while she increasingly retreated into her happier past, to the point where she couldn’t even remember my name. As the family member who most resembled her, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a distorted reflection of whom I would become.

      “Oh Olya,” my more practical sister says with a sigh. “Don’t you know. These things happen. People die of all sorts of things.”

       I think back to the funeral.

“Do you remember,” one of my mother’s former boarding school  classmates, whom I hadn't seen for years, had said tenderly to me when I was in tears. “We called you ‘kracynia." You still look exactly like your mother did when she was young."

      “What did she say to you?” my sister said, walking up to me just then.

      “Oh, nothing important,” I said, lost in thought. “Nothing at all.”


  1. I love the mix of nostalgia and relief from the shedding of an unsatisfying past. A great dichotomy in a short, honest piece.

    1. Thank you, Michael, for your kind comment. But I know that the story I narrate here in its particulars, is only one of many, emblematic of an entire nation's tragic and unspeakable history.

  2. At 86, I can really relate to this story, although my childhood was Canadian and very happy. What bothers me now is that of all the 'treasures' my mother left for me -- items I had looked forward to eventually inheriting, none of my kids or grandkids seem remotely interested. There seems to have been a somewhat sudden dislocation between my mother's generation and the present one. I recall asking Ilana (my youngest daughter) what she'd be humming at my age! It seemed to me nothing she listened to had a hummable melody, and some of my most treasured memories were of singing with my mother while she played piano.
    Oh well - I'll disperse what I think will be appreciated and leave the rest to fate!! I'll be beyond caring then!
    Incidentally the ladle was not "emblematic" but rather a souvenir or memento.

    1. Thank you for reading and finding something to identify with. I understand that people have different attitudes about preserving their past.
      For my mother, the ladle was a symbol of an entirely different life. For me, it told a telling story about a tragic family history, not unlike what many other Ukrainians suffered during the violent communist takeover of their land. What occurred during that time was unspeakable.... This small excerpt only begins to tell this story....

  3. It is a touching story. Can we collect and save past times? What to do with legacy, with memory, and how to keep the best of it for next generations?
    Love, art, culture…

  4. Thank you Sergei, for your touching comment. I feel you exactly defined what I tried to communicate. Indeed, what does one do.... How does one, alone, in a different land, preserve one's entire legacy, one's love, one's memories, one's culture.... Perhaps one can only begin to touch upon these matters by writing....

  5. I have helped people in extreme situations. Usually, the help I provided was "personal" -- helping people make choices and decisions or helping people overcome loss and shock, and so on. The financial and material resources often came from the government and/or other large organizations.

    Definitions and parameters were useless. Did a village that had lost a thousand residents, in a flood, suffer "more" than a village that had lost "only" a hundred? Does a person who has not eaten for three days deserve to get food "more urgently" than someone who has not eaten for two days? Really, nobody cared about laying down such guidelines, let alone following them. When you lose everything, you lose everything. Truly, nothing matters.

    Of course, material possessions and health and life -- all of these things and other related things -- do matter. But they matter only when you have something permanent or at least have the hope of stability in your life.

    Your story here reminds me of Alice Walker's story, "Everyday Use". Both are about material things. And yet, at the end of both stories, I got the idea that it was never the material things themselves that mattered but the values and the emotions and the memories associated with those material things. When you lose someone to death, you lose, in a sense, everything. And, at such moments, truly, nothing matters -- except your memories, your emotions, and your values, that you associate with the person who is gone.