five generations

I’m reading James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days, as beautifully written and thoughtful a book as any I’ve ever read. Last night, just before I turned off my light, there was this:

“We know at first hand, as witnesses, perhaps five generations, most brilliantly of course our own; in one direction those of our parents and grandparents, in the other, children and grandchildren. In my own case much was lopped off. The past is haphazard. I think of the remark of the English cabinet member who was retiring to the seventeenth-century Cornwall farmhouse that had always been in his family. It is the men without roots, he said, who are the real poor of this century.”

In the falling light, I thought of this, while tiny bats passed the windows — I hadn’t pulled the curtains — and I thought of it again immediately upon waking. Most days I look at the materials (and they are meagre at best) my parents left and try to think of other ways to interpret them. I’ve written queries to the places named on my grandmother’s birth certificate, tentative testings in English to people with my grandmother’s maiden name, her mother’s name. In the tiny village she came from and the small town nearby, I suspect someone sharing those names is connected to her, to me. But no word comes back. I’ve sent messages to the offspring of my grandmother with her first husband — the children and grandchildren of my father’s half-sisters and brothers — but again, little or nothing. Who were they in their daily lives? What stories did they tell? Who did they leave behind, in Horni Lomna, and Ivankivtsi in Bukovina? I want roots, yes, but also the sound a stone makes thrown into the past, echoing and re-echoing, the widening music finally including me.

On this travel document, my grandfather’s surname is Kiszkan.

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