One would think by the time I was a grandmother that I would know who I am and where I came from in the world. But I find I am just as confused about myself now as when I was a floundering teen trying to define myself. I am always looking, making connections. It is no secret that I have been wading through the past recently trying to explain the present. I knew I was Irish with touches of German and dashes of Native American. My family tree held a wee touch of French near the roots. I wanted to know from where I came but also how dispositions, shapes, weaknesses, and even religious beliefs were passed on.
There were some traits and trends I had I wondered about and questioned where they came from. I was drawn to Nazi Germany settings in books, hated India settings in novels. I was meek for myself, but I was staunch in defending some injustices for others. I tended to forgive easily and did not harbor grudges which made me appear a bit like a door mat in some people’s opinion. I loved potatoes and pickles and foods with kick. An avocado will make me so sick in fifteen minutes I nearly pass out. I like a beer with pizza now, liked cherry vodka and whiskey sours when young, but never ever seemed to need the stuff to make me feel better or to be socially acceptable. I just liked the taste. What in me made me able to walk away when ancestors found the drink a demon?
Yesterday we used a year old gift card and went to a movie on a Sunday afternoon. Both were worn and frazzled from an emotional Saturday with family burying the ashes of DH’s mother. A movie complete with soda pop and popcorn (that turned out to be as expensive as a full meal dining out!) seemed to be a nice relief. We chose Woman in Gold as it sounded like just an average good story. I remember when Maria Altman made news getting her family’s painting back from Austria and placing it in an American gallery.
Here we were with the Nazi setting again that both DH and I have read about in many books over the years. Helen Mirren is always superb to watch. I settled back waiting to be lost in an escape with story. To my surprise the movie was more than good; it was extraordinarily good. Maybe my mental state was right for it, but the story proved to be very emotional too. In the middle of the movie, I felt a warm tear slide down my cheek, the first of many.
That the Nazis humiliated, stole, and killed the Jews was no news. That family belongings were taken in front of their eyes, that loved ones vanished daily was not news to me. But one line from Maria Altman’s character resonated with me. She accused the Austrians of waving and greeting the Germans when they came in. Her anger accused them of being knowledgeable participants in the atrocities, not ignorant bystanders. Once again I felt terror at the thoughts of what humans can do, did do, and are still doing to one another…and sometimes even in the name of religion.
I was a young woman with children before I learned my paternal grandmother was German. She was married to an Irishman and I thought her red hair was Irish too. I knew my maternal grandfather had lines back to Germanic areas. But I was shocked to hear my paternal grandmother, and only once did she say it, tell of how careful she had to be in WWI because people hated Germans. She had to hide as much of her Germanic traits and background as she could despite her people living in American a long while. I have recently learned in genealogical searches that I am more German than just her line because the Irish grandfather had a German mother! I have traced many people back to mid and southern Germany, areas I know nothing about.
I guess in the movie, watching the human pain during 1940 Austria, something became a little more personal. It doesn’t matter on which side a person stood, there was just too much evil and ugliness done by everyone during that time. My mind jumped all around and I wondered: what did my people do and say during those years? Where did my blood relatives stand on the issues? Were they strong and take risks to help others? Or did they wave the Nazis on in this ugly time? Either way I sat in the movie theater and felt tremendous pain come right through the years.
Although the movie is mainly a story about a woman getting back a Klimt painting, her fight in courts, her dealings with laws, it is the back story that is so moving. The dialogue is superbly written. Visuals of physical cruelty are minimal, but the story is emotionally moving. When Altman’s Jewish lawyer makes his own family’s historical connections to this violent time, he breaks down sobbing with anger and pain in a public bathroom. It was seeing his pain that reached inside of me and allowed my thoughts to start bouncing around like bricks from a crumbling wall.
I continued to make some connections in my mind on family yesterday, but enough about me. The movie is one to see. It has a good ending. At one point I raised my arm in silent cheer to Altman’s strength, her victorious stand. Down a few rows a man shouted out and other mumbled approval. So I knew that I was not the only one in that theater that was entrenched in and moved by the story.
My Native American side of me and the Irish too adore the oral tradition. I love the power of story. When all is said done, our valuables can be taken or destroyed. It is what lives inside of us, our stories that live on. Those stories hold both good and bad, both should be told. Now if we can just learn from the remembering……