From Those Who Came Before Us by Ruth Ticktin

 My grandmother, my mother’s mother, sacrificed her teens and twenties to taking care of her father. Since her mother predeceased her and as the oldest girl, my grandmother took on the task of tending to her father who had a progressive debilitating disease. After his death she moved to the big city following her sister and looked for work and a husband. With the help of a matchmaker, she succeeded, at the age of 30, in finding a like-minded gentle soul with whom to marry and raise a family. Despite financial hardships, persecution, escape, and resettlement as refugees, she put her heart and soul into family, her labor of love, seemingly with little to no complaint or bitterness. However, there was a sadness that seeped from her pores; possibly she tried to cover it up, yet I sensed melancholy. I prefer to remember and think of her as the proud grandmother and great grandmother of teachers, health professionals, entrepreneurs, technology designers, project managers, actors, and videographers, as we all chronicle and navigate through life. My grandparents both embrace us as we cook for the family gatherings, hold our hands as we vow to always take care of one another, and follow us as we promise to never lose touch with our communities.

  My grandmother, my father’s mother, was of the marrying age (20) when her parents planned to emigrate, joining the rest of their family in the U.S. They quickly suggested marrying her off to her cousin who could then be part of the family visa. There were strings attached to this sponsorship, and the marriage proved untenable. He and she were strongly encouraged, or subtly forced, to work for the family business. My grandfather felt belittled by his bosses who were family, which was more than he could take. He abandoned his wife, his young son, and daughter. My grandmother lived with her mother and worked for the family company at low wages until her untimely death at aged 60. Her grown children had convinced her, just a few years before that, to finally file for divorce. Sadly, she may be the genetic link to two of her granddaughters’ early deaths from cancer at ages 42 and 50. I prefer to place her in history as the proud great grandmother watching as two of her great-granddaughters, a teacher and a doctor, both found good marriage partners. Well thought out, and well planned, they married same sex partners. Great-grandmother smiles as she sees her progeny, both in their early 30’s, walking hand-in-hand with their wives towards the chuppah at their marriage ceremonies. My aunt, at age 90, attended both of these weddings. She and her brother, my father, both had long marriages, fiercely upholding their vows of: “Till death do us part.”

  My mother struggled, seemingly always, with obtaining a true feeling of satisfaction. She arrived in the U.S. at age 14, worked hard in the family store, in high school, in college and always yearned for a boyfriend and a community where she could belong. Despite being young (age 20) and still in school, she married my father after a brief and confusing courtship. At the time my parents were dating, my mother was still infatuated with another man, and also corresponding with an imprisoned pacifist conscientious objector, whom she’d only met once, but who was allowed a pen-pal if she was declared “a fiancé.” Over the years, she grew into her roles as a wife, mother, professional, and a member of her various communities, but it was a process that she worked at throughout her adult life. I would like to believe that my sisters and I, our children, and grandchildren, have gleaned from her thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and the pursuit of giving selflessly, without too much of the heavy angst.

 From my father, I inherited the art of mediation, or some may say: devotion to denial. He was consistent in his love of family and community and what holds us together. “When things get rough, just keep going,” was an energizer-bunny motto that worked for him. He tried to understand his father, although he also blamed him for abandoning his family. He sought to support his wife and children, through all of our ups and downs, in whatever ways he felt capable. His encouragement included an honest openness plus the ability to compartmentalize emotions. I don’t know the answer to, “was he happy?” However, his insatiable interest in everything helped him carry on. If one of his children or grandchildren had a business that wasn’t part of his knowledge base, he would ask many questions, forcing us to articulate. He wanted to get it, and if he didn’t, or if he felt uncomfortable, he’d retreat to his study, his heaven – books, music, and pipe, but mostly books. That’s where he is now, happy to hear us together, talking about movies, TV, meetings, workshops, services, rallies, articles, poems, music, and novels, and how we are actively participating in living.

From these forebearers, we are still learning about morality. With my parents, I continue to be impressed with how they genuinely changed, and became open to innovation. They incorporated new traditions into their practice of Judaism which was irrevocably essential in their lives. They re-evaluated themselves and both switched careers in their 40’s or 50’s. They supported their children and grandchildren when we married outside of the faith, though this was not without hesitation. Organically and without pause, they truly accepted their family of mixed race, creed, and culture, with unconditional love. Their unconditional embrace is helping us carve our own definitions of family, as a glorious fusion of: biological or adopted children; same sex marriages and parenting; step siblings and half-siblings; exes and in-laws; choosing to stay single and single parenting; choosing to not have children; partnerships outside of marriage or sexual identity constraints; friends as families; and multitudes of subtleties and variations. 

At the age of twenty, I told my parents: “I don’t believe in marriage, it’s an unequal arrangement between men and women. Also, the word ‘husband’ implies lord and ownership, ick. Anyway, the courts and laws have no business entering into our personal lives and our right to choose.” My mother’s reactions were: “OK … yes, but this makes me sad … no, because I want you to find love and share with someone, someday…when you’re ready.” Neither of us thought of same-sex marriage, renaming, and the changing of laws, though we were glad to see it happen. 

 At the age of twenty-five, I moved in with my boyfriend because it was the first true boyfriend that I’d had. I told myself that our differences didn’t matter; I confused deep friendship with day-to-day compatibility, and was in denial of financial and substantive obstacles. I grew to love his children, my step-children. At 30, I deeply wanted a child to give love, to share with, and thus ascend to that next rung in the ladder of life. It was my right, I declared, so we chose to marry. My father was sad at the night of the wedding. Two years later, I chose to leave and live as a single mother with my baby daughter. I didn’t choose separation from my step-children. I did choose divorce, which varies in each case, but for me didn’t mean the loss of a friendship. Two years later, I met someone whom I could love deeply. He accepted and reciprocated love to me and to all of us. We chose to live together as a family and bought a house. We got pregnant and then we married. The inverted events could be viewed as revolutionary or merely circumstantial. Today our children have redefined family less haphazardly, in a more thoughtful inclusive and proud-no-matter-what manner.

The children, my sisters’ and mine, have impressive relationships and marriages. We take friendship and family very seriously, and continue to work and improve on our connections. I understand now, and from those that came before us, that to belittle oneself or others is a no-win proposition. Holding hands, hugging, singing, and smiling go a long way, as do other senses and people skills that need to be activated and practiced daily. Some that I try to pursue are: listening before talking, watching while walking, incorporating joy into daily routines like washing and eating, which then leads to pleasant sleeping and dreaming. Currently the battles we must fight and overcome differ from the past, but there are also many parallels. We look forward and backward for guidance, as we faithfully give and seek support from all that surrounds us, be it real, imagined, or re-defined. 

Ruth Ticktin has coordinated programs, advised students, and taught English in the Washington DC area since 1977. From Madison and Chicago, a University of Wisconsin graduate, Ruth encourages sharing stories. Coauthor: What’s Ahead? (ProLingua Assoc. 2013.) Contributor: EnglishClub, ThinAir, Niveous, BendingGenres Anthology18-19; PleaseSeeMe, Art in-Time-of Covid-19 (SanFedele Press.)

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