Most everyone has a family tree. But how do you turn a dry chart of birth and death dates into something more vibrant that can be shared for generations? Turn into a reporter. And then preserve the story in a compelling way.
By writing about my own family mystery with my first book, The Forgetting River, I wanted to share the story of the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of the Catholic Carvajals in a way that could introduce ancestors to descendants.
I’m a journalist by trade, but I made many mistakes along my own journey to explore my family. A basic lesson I learned was to start early to interview relatives about personal family history. By the time I began to probe our past, key relatives with vital information had died.
But one of the most crucial mistakes I made was that I lost my own journalistic skepticism when I questioned family members about delicate subjects. I didn’t gather much information when I asked directly if we were the descendants of Marranos, forced Christian converts who maintained a dual identity to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. To probe sensitive family history, I realized belatedly that it’s best to work from the edges. Think. Watch. Observe. I asked benign questions and searched for records that allowed information to seep out about customs, household rituals, job patterns, prayers. I found that the older generation sometimes confided more in their grandchildren and nieces than their own children. From this strategy, I learned about a hidden menorah kept in a bedroom dresser or fourth cousins marrying fourth cousins, an almost tribal habit of trusted secret Marrano families intermarrying and maintaining the appearance of being Catholics.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about other strategies that families can exploit to start conversations and unlock memories. An acquaintance organized a family reunion for a large black family on the East Coast with some painful history dating back to slavery. Some relatives were reluctant to remember those times, but they settled on the idea of creating a griot cookbook, asking relatives for family recipes along with submissions of personal memories evoked by the dishes. The griot is a reference to a traditional West African storyteller.
Once conversations start flowing, seize the opportunity. Make a recording. The StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that offers advice about preserving personal history, down to suggested conversation openers (What is your earliest memory? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?).
For the finale – and a gift to future generations – make a digital slide show with a soundtrack that mixes music and their words. There are many iPad applications that allow amateur genealogists to turn into multi-media producers. Make sure the slide is show is about two minutes and focus on a time or a story that can lead to more conversations.
The moment the cardboard box from New York arrived, I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. The package was stacked with copies of my first book, a memoir, The Forgetting River.
I examined the hardcover like checking a new baby, counting the pages, smoothing the cover, reading the tribute and rereading my first sentences that I think I must have rewritten more than 100 times since I started my quest. It’s a universal story of personal discovery, my journey to reclaim the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of my Catholic Carvajal family in a white pueblo on a high ridge in the southern frontier of Spain.
Everyone has a mystery in the family tree and this was mine. Now I feel wistful as a I look over the last chapter because I long to keep adding new information. Unbeknownst to me, my older cousin, Rosie, revealed a few days ago that she had questioned my great aunt Luz in San Jose, Costa Rica at a family gathering before she died in 1998. Aunt Luz, which literally means the light, was the careful historian of family lore, typical of Anusim – Hebrew for forced Christian converts dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. The Anusim or Marranos – which in Spanish literally means pigs – typically relied on elder women to pass on their secrets.
“Luz told me that our family came from Spain,” Rosie wrote to me. “She asked me: ‘Has your mother ever told you that we are Sefarditos?’ Of course when I brought it up to my mother, she refused to talk. Come to think of it, I actually took a small tape recorder and without their knowledge recorded our conversation.”
When I read those words, I felt chills. One of my biggest regrets about trying to recover my family’s secret identity is that for years I missed numerous opportunities to gather information from older generations because I was simply not curious about our past. To bring life to a chart of a family tree, I realized belatedly that conversations have to happen to tell a vivid story to pass on to new generations. Indirect approaches need to be pursued to tackle delicate subjects. I discovered all this by making many mistakes.
Rosie’s late mother – my aunt and godmother – had always been interested in my book research. I had asked her several times about our family history and secret Jewish background, but she told me politely that she knew nothing. “My mother knew, but was too diplomatic with you to say she didn’t want to talk,” Rosie said. “When I brought it up, she absolutely refused to comment. I knew that she knew something.”
Today I’m preparing to mail copies of my new book to relatives in California and Costa Rica – too late to write another chapter with tape recorded quotes of a voice from the grave.