Peggy Walt

A Covenant of Salt

Author's own
Finding Family

It’s raining outside our cottage; the day is grey and quiet.  It’s high tide. Small whitecaps smack the rocks buttressing the cliff-edge.  It’s a gentle smack, though, not the dramatic wave crashing action of the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia.  The ocean is gentler here, the water warmer.  There’s a ship of some type off in the distance, perhaps going into or coming out of the Pugwash Harbour laden with salt. Salt on saltwater.

We’ve come here for a few days of respite from work, Covid, stress, noise.  Closing the door of the car, walking to the edge of the cliff twenty feet from the cottage’s deck, and breathing in the ocean air, I can feel my whole body relax. I, who jumble a mental “to do” list each night, recapping the day, praying for the loved ones, fall asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow.

We’re also here to sort through a lifetime of possessions at my grandparents’ house, a house I love, but which has become run down and looking decidedly unloved in recent years.  I’m determined to make headway even in this relaxed mode, and yesterday spent four hours sorting linens, crock jars for salting cucumbers, photos, papers and 1940’s magazines, some a sad shredding-fest for the mice that move in each winter.  The mouse droppings in dresser drawers and on beds are vexing, but a tiny mouse skeleton in the bottom of a metal garbage can was a very sad sight.  We all do what we need to survive in this world.

I can’t blame the mice for finding a cozy place to spend the winter, not really.  Even though a friend checks on our house, there’s been no-one as adept at catching the mice since my cousin Terry left us, too soon, over two years ago now. He was the salt of the earth.  I have his diaries at home, and I imagine bringing them back here to Pugwash, to read and muse over.  Which boat came into the Harbour, each day’s weather report, what he had for supper, who he fished with.  Daily life stuff (probably including mouse catchings), but also, sometimes clues that go deeper into parts of his life that remained invisible, even though I knew him my entire life.

I’ve been thinking about diaries, and what we choose to share in them. Lucy Maud Montgomery, a famous diarist, recopied hers, leaving posterity the picture she wished to paint of her life.  My cousin hints at secrets that he took with him to his seaside grave.  Did he wish them to be revealed?  People keep mum in this part of Canada unless you press them, and even then, be careful what you ask.  Skeletons bigger than the tiny dead mouse hang in every family’s closet, sometimes in plain sight.  Although we’re great storytellers in this neck of the woods,  we live with the sea and know the fragility of life – is that why certain stories are shared and retold and others not? I want to look deeper into what didn’t get recorded in this quiet seaside village.

All of this musing is related to family search quests.  Yesterday, I remembered what Bela had told us on our most recent trip to Israel. My husband’s mother, whose family story was buried along with her family members in the salt-lye killing pits of Lithuania, has been remembering and telling.  For a long time I’ve been searching for her grandmother, a family puzzle that’s taken years to reassemble.  The story:  Bela’s mother Ida was born in 1904, Ida’s mother dying in childbirth, or a few days after.  Ida’s father, a Rabbi in Vilna, remarried “three years later,” according to Bela, and he and his new wife went on to have three more children, plus a couple who didn’t survive.

Ida’s real mother’s name was unknown, or forgotten, and it took me years to find out who she was (and still I add, I think).  Searching JewishGen records until my eyes were bleary and shoulders stooped, I finally got a name.  But that was it, nothing more.  No death record, no family, just a marriage to the Rabbi, much older than her, and then a divorce, only five months later.

A month after divorcing Ida’s mother, the Rabbi remarried (possibly for the third time), having another child with his new wife the same year that my husband’s grandmother was born. Not three years later as Bela believed.

We can find no birth certificate for Ida.  She always said she chose her own birthday.  Didn’t she even know when she was born?

In Israel in January, Bela looked up from sorting family photos at the dining room table and said she remembered going to visit her “real grandmother’s sister” in a nursing home in Vilna when she was a little girl.  Only the once, and she didn’t know the woman’s name – her aunt, evidently. Why did they visit the sister, Shimon asked in Polish?  She replied nonchalantly that the sister had helped when Ida was born and Savta (grandmother) Ida wanted to visit her.

A dusty little window into the vanished past.  Ida knew her real mother’s sister. Did the sister marry?  Have children?  Did she also die in the Shoah? A story not passed down; a woman unremembered.

JewishGen says the birth mother (Chaya) was the “daughter of Lieb.” What about this Lieb, I wondered, his other children?  Could I find the name of the sister, at least her birth name, if not her married one?  I searched and found a Mordukh,  Noahk, Pesach Vulf and a Reyza, children of Lieb and Feyga (another woman not known). Was it Reyza that Bela visited?  Her birthdate in JewishGen means that she would only have been in her late fifties or early sixties when Bela visited her –   too young to have been in a senior’s place? Maybe Bela is remembering going to a hospital?

Memories.  Diaries.  Stories.  Things we will never and can never know.  A little girl visits a woman with her mother (in some type of institution), being told “this is my mother’s sister, who helped when I was born, when my real mother (not the woman you call grandmother) died.”  Not speaking of that visit for over 80 years.  What is chosen, what is forgotten.  A young woman became pregnant in a brief five months of marriage to a man 19 years her senior who divorced  her, and then died giving birth to his daughter. Or did she?  Mysteriously, I’ve found another record of a woman with the same name, same birth year, immigrating through Ellis Island, two years later, leaving Vilna to make a new life in the new world, crossing the sea from Liverpool, England to New York’s Lower East Side.

We all deserve to know who our family is, don’t we?  Cousin Terry left this clue behind in one of his diaries:  “I am the only child of my parents.” So specific that it hints there might be someone else, a person hard to find, although maybe they are hiding in plain sight, surrounded by ocean.

I’ve written to another of Bela’s possible family members in the US, a retired army general, whose grandfather also made that perilous ocean journey to New York.  I’ve found out everything I can about him and his family through online searches, and I wrote the General a letter from my heart.  Now I wait for a reply, hoping he is one that likes being found and wants to share his family’s story with me.

I look out at the waves and think about how the ocean washes everything away, like it’s eroding this strong coastline, spruce trees clinging by roots to the red soil that is slowly sliding down and down into the salt.

But things have a way of washing up again like precious beach glass on the shore: names, dates, photographs.  “You’re related to me how again?” Sometimes all it takes is a clue remembered from childhood, a yellowed clipping folded into a diary, and we find our families, a lost letter in a bottle, washed up on our shores.

About the Author
Peggy Walt has worked for 40 years in the arts and culture sector in Nova Scotia, Canada. She's writing a book on the search for what happened to her husband's family during the Holocaust and her conversion to Judaism in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at King's University in Halifax.
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