Just because a family member is no longer living doesn't mean you can't get to know them.
Even the most mundane greeting can be profound when delivered by an unexpected voice. Perhaps that is why I got goose bumps when I heard the words “Hiya, Mom, Hiya, Pop!” tumble out of the speakers of a friend’s home-recording studio some 30 years ago, as we listened for the first time to a short 78 RPM recording my late uncle, Jack J. Snyder, made in 1944.
The circumstances that led to making the recording have been lost to time. Maybe it was a sudden rain that motivated Yosh, as the family called him, and the girl he had a crush on, Bebe Magness, to seek shelter in a Philadelphia recording studio that day. More likely, he had carefully planned it as a surprise for his parents, perhaps when he came home from basic training at Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas, that October.
A priceless gift
Whatever the reason, Uncle Yosh had inadvertently given me — a niece who did not even exist when he was killed by a Japanese sniper on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines in the waning months of World War II — a priceless gift: the chance to hear the timbre of his voice, glimpse the youthful exuberance it held and experience firsthand his impish sense of humor. After asking a somewhat embarrassed Bebe to say hello, Uncle Yosh next turned his attention to his younger brother Louis. “Yo, Lou,” he exclaimed. “Take off that sweater!” — implying that while he was away in the Army, the brother closest to him in age was wearing his clothing without permission.
When I first heard the record, I was not much older than Uncle Yosh had been when he was killed at 24. And while my father, Aaron’s, large South Philly-based family included three other brothers, Uncle Yosh has always had a special place in my heart, not only for the sacrifice he made for his country, but because he left behind so many signs suggesting that he was the coolest uncle of all. Through reading his neatly written and faithfully kept diaries, letters and other papers, I have had the privilege of getting to know him in a way that many with still-living relatives are denied.
In studying his writings, I learned that we had some surprising things in common. For instance, we both have newspaper ink in our veins. As a teenager, Uncle Yosh had a paper route, delivering copies of thePhiladelphia Ledger and Philadelphia Bulletin. At 20, he made $5 when he submitted a question to the Bulletin. The paper printed it and sent a reporter out to ask five people to answer it. His question was: Do you think England is fighting our battle? (Two people said yes, three said no.) And although he seemed headed for a career as an industrial arts teacher and not as a writer like me, Uncle Yosh submitted creative project ideas toPopular Mechanics, Popular Science and other magazines, some of which were accepted (he also kept a file of his rejection letters).
In one of his teenage diary entries, he mentioned his disappointment that my grandmother would not let him work on a farm one summer because she did not want him sleeping on the ground. How ironic it was then to read a letter he wrote in February 1945, after his first battle experience: “I know now what Pearl Buck meant when she wrote The Good Earth. I had a close one. A piece of shrapnel hit my helmet, without touching my scalp. There we were, three in a foxhole built for two. We dug deeper and deeper, in between artillery tree bursts, using both hands and feet. What a sweet kettle of fish; I could actually hear the angels singing.”
What drove Uncle Yosh to chronicle his life? Was it his personality, or was it something more? I asked author and relationship therapist, Jamie Turndorf, about Uncle Yosh’s proclivity for keeping diaries and recording his life. The author of Love Never Dies: How to Reconnect and Make Peace with the Deceased, who goes by the sobriquet of Dr. Love, said, “He wanted to leave these moments behind,” pointing out that it is unusual for such a young person to do so at a time when most people believe they are immortal. She observed that a diary — like having children — is a wish for immortality, a way of beating back death. Just as “a part of you lives on in your children, a diary is a part of you that also lives on,” she said.
Hearing from a father she never knew
As I thought about Uncle Yosh, I began wondering if there were other people whose lives were also deeply affected by unexpected communications from long-gone relatives. I had an answer almost immediately. As I watched the evening news, I learned about the nearly 70-year-old letter written by her father that miraculously found its way to Peggy Eddington-Smith.
Most people learn about their fathers by interacting with them or through their mothers. But not Eddington-Smith, whose father, Pfc. John Eddington, was killed during World War II in Italy, just days after her birth. Because her mother could not talk about her late husband without breaking down, Eddington-Smith never learned more than the basic facts about her dad.
Just two months ago, in an emotional public ceremony in Dayton, Nev., Eddington-Smith was presented with the one letter her father had written to her, his Purple Heart, Bronze Star and high school diploma. Moreover, the presentation was made by a total stranger, Donna Gregory, who had found the treasures 14 years earlier. Not only had Gregory worked tirelessly to find Eddington-Smith, but she also gladly traveled from Missouri to Nevada to meet her.
It is anyone’s guess how John Eddington’s personal property wound up in a St. Louis home that Gregory was helping to clean out. It also seems unlikely that Gregory would spend so many years searching for Peggy, visiting libraries to look at phone books and performing Internet searches that got her nowhere — until she tried searching on Facebook.
Luckily, Gregory recognized just how powerful mementoes can be in connecting us to the past and even to those who come after us.
With five of her grandchildren looking on, Eddington-Smith was able to glimpse a small part of her father’s soul through his own hand. In the letter, he told his new baby, “I love you so much. Your mother and daddy … are going to give you everything we can. We will always give you all the love we have. I love you with all my heart and soul forever and forever.”
Eddington-Smith told a reporter, “The letter gave me more knowledge of who he was. He poured his heart out to me, and a lot of men don’t put that kind of emotion in writing. I’m just overwhelmed by trying to absorb everything.”
Discovering his grandmother’s early 20th-century school copy book at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia is what led Rabbi Harold Kravitz to an extraordinary family moment two years ago. Not surprisingly, he incorporated his unexpected encounter with Eva Baen Kravitz’s possessions into his Rosh Hashanah sermon that year.
In his sermon, the former Philadelphian, now living in Minneapolis, said: “One amusing item was a practice letter saved from her night school English class. The immigrant students were encouraged to practice writing to the local department store to inquire about jobs. My bubbie’s letter began, ‘Dear Mr. Vanamaker.’ When the museum was just getting started in the 1970s, our family’s heirlooms were not only accepted into the museum’s collection, they were incorporated into the display on Jewish immigration in the original building.
“I will confess that as I wandered through the new building of the National Museum of American Jewish History, I wondered whether I might still see some item on display from my bubbie. I had low expectations of their being used in this new ‘state-of-the-art’ building. So imagine our delight, as we entered the gallery that recounts the experience of Eastern European immigration, to see a photo of my Bubbie Eva among those hanging at the entrance. In fact, we saw many of the items that my Aunt Clare [Braslow] had donated. It was deeply satisfying to see this with our children, a new generation figuring out the path they will chart as North American Jews in the 21st century.”
Kravitz’s bubbie was only 17 when she came to America in 1913. The assignment book represented the work she did as an evening elementary school student during the next four years. Currently on display on the third floor of the museum, its lined pages detail Eva’s growing command of the English language through sentences about her life and maxims she was taught. In one of those sentences, she wrote: “When I came from the [old] country I was very anxious to get an education.” Imagine how thrilled Eva would be to learn that her descendants now include two rabbis and two physicians.
Finding a long-lost half-sister
Because her improbable connection was made with a living relative, Cheryl Strayed’s story is a bit different — but no less memorable. Strayed is an author who draws readers into her world through her beautiful prose and unsparing honesty. So it isn’t surprising that many readers felt as though they were right beside her as she undertook the poorly-planned-yet-life-changing 1,100-mile solo hike she chronicled in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail. Although the book became a best-seller in 2012, the journey she describes in vivid detail was one she had taken 18 years earlier, when she was 26 and trying to make sense of the death of her 45-year-old mother and the dissolution of her own marriage.
At the time, Strayed had no idea her book would sell so well or that Reese Witherspoon would be playing her in its movie adaptation. She was equally clueless that her half-sister, whom she had never met or been able to locate, would borrow Wild from the library and recognize that she and Strayed shared the same father, especially since Strayed had not even mentioned the name of the man who loved Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers but whose love of his wives and children was overshadowed by his abusive behavior. When she got over the shock of recognition, the half-sister sent an email to Strayed.
“She said my father’s name in the email and her first name is the name that I’d heard of her,” Strayed told a reporter for NPR. “I’ve since then also corresponded with her mother, who was the woman my father married after my parents broke up. And so it’s been a really interesting reconnection all around. Neither one of us has a relationship with our biological father. But what’s really cool is we can connect in other ways.”
At the time this story was written, Strayed had not met her half-sister, although she insists she would like to do so.
So close, so far away
So what’s the takeaway? Perhaps Strayed nailed it when she wrote, “There is no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course.”
However, we can help bashert along. We can do so by exploring the dusty attics and forgotten closets of our own family histories so that we can hear the unexpected voices that may be trying to speak to us.
As for me, I encountered some surprises while researching my uncle’s story. For example, there was the excited phone call I got from my Uncle Phil, who could not believe that, as we were talking about Bebe Magness (now Weiss), her sister, Libby Magness Weisberg, was going to be speaking to his local senior group. He gave me Libby’s phone number and she in turn passed on Bebe’s. I had not planned on talking to either sister but was glad I did; they shared many stories about my family I had never heard before. Most illuminating were their recollections of Yosh drinking milkshakes and eating other high-calorie foods so he could gain enough weight to join the service. As someone always eager to surmount a challenge, that sounds so like him.
A freelance writer based in Chalfont, Gail Snyder is grateful to family archivists Alan, Louis and Philip Snyder for their guardianship of Jack Snyder’s personal effects. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.