My father and I were walking down San Francisco Street towards the Plaza, almost 20 years ago, on one of my parents’ visits to Santa Fe. Friends had been asking him about his life, Dad said, about growing up in Syria and living in China before coming to America. Would I help him put his story on paper?
Honored and curious, I agreed. By that point I knew only disconnected bits and pieces about my dad’s life, in the years before he became my dad. I knew he grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in Aleppo, Syria; we had Syrian meals at my grandparents’ house almost every Sunday afternoon and holidays. I knew he had lived in China during World War II; he taught my siblings and me to use chopsticks when we were kids. I knew he had lived in Turkey; he gave me the Turkish answer to a clue in a particularly difficult New York Times crossword puzzle. But these memories were like colorful glass beads, and I couldn’t yet see the threads that would string them together.
So on our next trip to Maryland to visit my parents, I took a little cassette recorder and a list of questions, and sat down with Dad at the big desk in his office in the basement of their home.
“This is the life story of me — Mike Sutton!” he said when I pushed the record button. This business of being interviewed was clearly new to him. I felt awkward, too. I’d done plenty of interviews in my journalistic life, but I’d never brought that professional role to conversations with my dad.
It wasn’t long before I felt I’d stumbled upon the door to a vault. “Dad?!” I blurted out, more as daughter than journalist. “Do you realize how interesting this is? This is our family treasure!”
“Really?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “Is it interesting?”
Oh, it was. He described the house in Aleppo where he grew up, on the line between the city’s Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods, across the street from a mosque and walking distance to a synagogue. His explained that his father moved the family to Turkey for his textile business for a couple of years when Dad was just a little boy, but then moved them back to Aleppo, and its large Jewish community, so the children could be raised with a Jewish education. He related that Syria was under French occupation throughout his childhood; school was taught in French and Arabic, and the city bubbled with European and Oriental influences. His father sent him and his brother to Shanghai in 1941, when he was 19 and his brother was 17, to work in their uncle’s exporting business, with hopes of finding a way to get to the United States to escape rising anti-Semitism in Syria. His brother came down with tuberculosis and returned to Aleppo, where he died a few years later. The Japanese occupied Shanghai just a day after bombing Pearl Harbor, leaving Dad alone in China, across the world from his family, fending for himself in a city at war.
My father had told us little of these experiences, apparently not seeing much story in just doing what life required at the time. Since most of our family left Syria under traumatic circumstances, they had no residual sentimentality for the old “homeland.” But their detachment from the country they fled under duress masked the fascinating history of the Jewish community that had thrived in Aleppo for millennia. That community is now gone, disbursed in just a few decades of the twentieth century to cities around the world.
So the project grew and grew, as I conducted more and more interviews and mountains of research. As the narrative emerged, I began to sense that this was more than just “Dad’s story.” With its themes of individuality and community, displacement and relocation, I found it resonated even with readers with no common bloodlines. A simple request became a 20-year project.
Maybe it was the journalistic pixies that led other people to come forth with articles for this issue about writing and sharing stories. Judith Fein, author of The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, pursued the few facts she knew about her grandmother’s history all the way across the world — and back to herself. Gloria Fournier Valdez, a lovely writer and grandmother, shares memories with her granddaughter in subtle and delicate ways — and already sees the little girl telling family stories to her baby brother. Fiction writer Janie Chodosh, author of the new book Death Spiral: A Faith Flores Mystery, shares tips about writing for the Young Adult market. (We’ll continue this theme in our fall issue with articles about teaching children to write, academically or creatively; please contact me with your article ideas.)
I invite you to explore your family stories, and to share memories with your children. I can’t foresee what treasures you’ll find in your vault of family stories, but I can assure sure you that there are jewels there. Whether you find tales of honorable accomplishments, or tragedy, or shameful acts your relatives had hoped to bury, you’ll discover pieces of who you are and of who your children will become. I suppose this is the most powerful thing I discovered, the profound sense of possibility and security that emerges from the realization that identity is more than just an act of our own creation.
Genealogy is a growing industry, with websites and elite membership organizations and DNA tests — but the only truly essential tool you need is curiosity. And the good thing about being a Tumbleweeds reader is: You’ve got a place to share what you find.