My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?
Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.
My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.
Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.
In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.
Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.
I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.
A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.
I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.
I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”
Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.
© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014