The prompt for Writer's Island this week is "Second Chance" and I see it as prophetic since I wrote but never posted a piece on last week's theme which was "time travel." So I'm posting it now as a second go 'round. Here is my personal take on time travel.
I was tempted to skip this prompt because it felt too artificial to me. I thought of all those science fiction scenarios about time travel. Did I want to decide whether to travel to the age of the dinosaurs, ancient Greece, hang out in colonial Boston? All it brings to mind is that generally when you read time travel stories no one mentions how uncomfortable the past was. It is hard to long for a day when people poured their waste into the street outside their homes, when life was short, grim, and full of infectious diseases. I’m not sure I really want to live before people understood germ theory and had access to antibiotics.
Then it came to me. What I would like to visit is my direct prehistory. Now I don’t mean I would like to visit with my grandmother again, although I miss her sorely. I would like to meet my great-grandparents in their youth before they individually and collectively decided to board those ships to America. I’d like to visit them in their shtetls in Eastern Europe where I imagine them growing up fearful of attacks by Cossacks. Of course, one branch of the family apparently came from Austria and was a little more well-to-do. In short, I’d like to hear their stories, what drove them to leave their home countries and gamble on the United States. They must have been either remarkably courageous or afraid, or both.
This weekend I had dinner with a friend, a recent immigrant from Russia. I pictured us as children on the opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. I was fascinated by the Soviet Union back then. I read Solzhenitsyn’s works, protested the treatment of Soviet Jewish Refuseniks and dreamed of traveling to the Soviet Union. My father, as a scientist, traveled to the USSR a couple of times back then and I fantasized that he would take me along. Instead he bought me a subscription to a propoganda journal by the name of Soviet Life. It was a poor consolation prize.
I finally made it to the USSR in 1982. I was living in Paris at the time and went to Helsinki to visit friends of the family. The family was attached to the U.S. embassy to Finland and was able to get me and my friend visas to take a train to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). It was a dream trip. I was there for two nights and one full day. I was free of the then nearly mandatory Intourist guide but we indulged ourselves in wise cracks about our likely bugged hotel room and possible but never seen KGB tail. It was a quick trip but memorable.
As usual I have strayed “off topic.” Talking to my Russian-American friend this weekend about her experience of growing up in the USSR and her decision to move first to Israel and then to the U.S. triggered these thoughts about my Russian, Austrian, and Polish ancestors. All of my great-grandparents were alive when I was born. Their English was poor and rumor had it that at least one of my great-grandmothers was never literate in English. But I met and talked with them, kissed a lot of wrinkled cheeks and tried to decipher their accents. Being young, I never really talked to them about their lives. They were of a generation in which successful assimilation into the greater American culture required an abandonment of roots. I think even my grandparents did not know much about their parents’ origins.
Now all of that knowledge and life experience is gone. So if I had access to that mythical time machine, I’d go to my ancestral homelands and ask the questions I failed to ask 40 years ago.