Other People's Memories
Monday, March 26, 2012
Who isn't captivated by memoirs? For years my most frequent book recommendations have included two memoirs. One was “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World,” by Lucette Lagnado. The other, from the same general area of the world, was “My Father’s Paradise,” Ariel Sabar’s story of his father’s life that began in a 3,000-year-old Aramean-speaking Jewish community in Iraq. More recently I have been among the many readers fascinated by Edmund de Waal’s story of uncovering a remarkable family history he never knew about in “The Hare with Amber Eyes.”
Why do we want to read other people’s stories? The exotic details certainly have appeal. (How exactly did Lucette Lagnado’s grandmother cook those apricots down to a fragrant essence?) But I don’t think it’s just curiosity.
A line I think about often is this one by Willa Cather: “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Certainly I am discovering something about my own life as I read these stories. In a strange way it feels as if the memoirs lead me to discoveries not just about my life as it is, but about what might have been, trying on other circumstances for the satisfying strangeness of the fit.
Case in point, the memoir I am reading right now, “Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt.” Yes, another exodus from Egypt. How could Jews leaving Egypt be anything else, and it IS close to Passover, after all. Jean Naggar, the author, grew up under unimaginably privileged circumstances. Her family had lived in Egypt since leaving Spain in 1492 and had, during those centuries, amassed wealth and power almost beyond belief and created a family life of enormous luxury. But here’s the strange thing. While I’m reading of her little footsteps echoing down the endless marble staircases and the kitchen used only one week a year, for Passover, and the countless comforts and pleasures of her golden childhood, I am thinking how much my childhood was like that. Yes, my relatives came to the United States from Russia in the early years of the 20th century with hardly a penny or a belonging aside from my great-grandparents’ wedding samovar that is now in my dining room. But I, like Jean, was a coddled child in a family of loving adults in very close to the same years. I remember the glow of taking my place at the family seder, of taking in the family lore and customs. Not the same customs by a long shot, but nevertheless some of this is my story, too.
As fiercely as if it had never happened before and yet, because it has, a connection exists across miles and cultures. And maybe that’s what memoir does most significantly for us, shows our deep human connections, how, aside from the astonishing details, our stories can be the same. We understand them.