“What you take must belong to you.”
I have been repeating to myself the phrase “what you take must belong to you” since I first read it in today’s Daf Yomi portion of the Talmud. Because we are reading Tractate Pesachim, it is written in the context of eating matza that one owns and offering a tithe to the priests from one’s rightfully possessed dough. But it has a much deeper meaning for me embedded in authenticity and embracing one’s story. A news story broke today in the tabloid press that reminded me that one must own the narrative of their life.
Today’s tabloid story is not especially salacious or an unusual one. The wife of a celebrity who claimed she is Spanish admitted that she grew up in Massachusetts and the exotic other-continent upbringing that she wrapped around her identify was embellished. The story in the press suggested that her Spanish accent was manufactured and a website posted videos that demonstrated inconsistencies in her speech inflections.
This reminded me of the boyfriend of a dear friend who died too young in a car accident. He told everyone that he grew up in Palm Beach where he was adopted by a wealthy Jewish family who rescued him from an orphanage in Morocco. We never met his parents because he told us that they disowned him when he came out as gay. His story never quite rang true and I could never make sense of the fact that he had a Spanish last name. After he died, we discovered that his parents were Cuban immigrants who lived in a working class section of Palm Beach and the mansion he said he grew up in was a rather ordinary brick house.
And then there is Faith Consolo, the high-powered real estate broker who invented a privileged childhood in Connecticut and a pedigree that included an educational stint at Miss Porter’s School. Like my friend from Palm Beach, the people who knew her said her story never quite made sense in the context of her Brooklyn-accent. It turns out she was actually from Brooklyn.
I studied with the late poet Stanley Plumly a number of years ago who once offered advice to a fellow student in his poetry workshop who wrote about a tile floor in a cheap roadside motel. The student’s poem described a road trip where he stopped by the motel for the night and found a dead body on the bathroom floor. He wrote about the shock of finding the dead body and attached some supernatural meaning to the scene. Stanley gently suggested that perhaps by imagining a dead body he overlooked the real drama, which was the feel of the cool bathroom tile on one’s feet after a grueling cross-country drive. There was no need to invent a dead body, when the more compelling story was in those ordinary motel tiles.
The real stories of Faith Consolo, my friend from Miami and the somewhat-Spanish wife of the celebrity reside in the floorings of their lives and how they came to be who they are. They accomplished a lot from what they may have considered ordinary childhoods. There is a great sadness in knowing that my friend who spent so much energy creating a fictional past died without being able to tell us who he really was and where he came from.
At one point in my life, I wanted to live someone else’s story. I spent my junior year of college at a Scottish university and the person I imagined I could be was so much more interesting than who I felt I really was – the daughter of a pharmacist from New Jersey whose parents came to the United States from Lithuania. I went to Scotland with the image of Scottish warriors in my head, and a life that was lived between the stanzas of a Scottish folk song. I grew thistle in a pot and wore its purple flowers in my hair. But sooner or later, I came to the realization that I was just a Jewish girl from suburban New Jersey.
My real story was embedded in the passageway that my grandparents had through Ellis Island. It is not a very exotic past, but it is what I own.