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Monday, February 25, 2013

My Roots


That sentiment applies to our genetic makeup and our life’s experiences.  It is that conditioning (training from our elders in the home and society) that later in life often needs to be reconditioned or just lost altogether, through either hours and hours of psychotherapy or meditation (whatever works but meditation was a faster and cheaper way for me).  
It may also, however, be that same conditioning that will keep you going and will not let you give up; will make you so sure that there is another way or…not.  My ancestors – those little voices that sit on our shoulders - always tell me there is another way.  I just have to look a little harder.  
When we are youngsters, we try hard to avoid family comparisons.  We don’t want to chew funny like Grandpa, or walk weird like Grandma.  We certainly don’t want to tell stupid jokes like Dad or wear old-fashioned makeup like Mom.  After all, we are unique, special, and our own person.  We make every effort humanly possible to separate ourselves from those who contributed to our genetic and psychological makeup, choosing to believe that we sprouted from some superhuman DNA dropped to Earth by alien powers. 
 Then one morning we wake up and look in the mirror, and see Mom’s eyes or Dad’s large nose staring back at us.  The same bushy eyebrows or full lips.  The same expression of perpetual joy or misery.  We discover we can sing like Aunt Clara or play the piano like Cousin Effie.  “Oh, no!”  We decide that it must be a coincidence.
 But along with that realization, can, or at least should, come the wonderful news that our heritage is something amazing, full of surprises, talents, history, and remarkable feats of survival.  I can tell you this is true from my  family.  When I decided to look into it it turned out to be filled with surprises. 
I found that our great-grandfather invented a washing machine for my grandmother before it actually became an everyday luxury. I learned our great-grandmother moved out of the house on her own at the age of 16, after which she became an accountant and much later was able to enjoy that washing machine. And we learned that another grandmother had eight inventions for some kind of space project, despite the fact that we never saw her with a book, and shame on me, I was thinking that she was not the sharpest tool in the shed.   I wish you could have seen my son’s face when he realized that his grandmother was the one involved in the space project.  
 What secrets does your family history hold?  Friends have shared amazing stories with me ; stories of inventions given away out of generosity and selflessness, and relatives arriving at Ellis Island with pennies in their pockets and a dream in their heart.  What are your family stories? 
I tell this story to my students sometimes because it is important to recognize the value of our life’s experiences – the value of our family heritage.  We grow up as one ingredient in a pot of stew, and we can no more separate ourselves from the tomatoes and potatoes than one could remove the flavor of herbs infused into the stew.  It is blended, each flavor enhances the other, and the result is delicious: us.

There were once two sisters, both very beautiful, one 11 years older than the other.  Both sisters happened to marry great artists – men of incredible talent.  The sisters were my aunt (Clara) and my mother, and the marriage to my stepfather, Mikhail, was my mother’s second.  So entwined were the spirits of these artistic men that they died in the same year.  

Mikhail Biryukov, my step father and my God father was a man who felt responsible for everyone in the family, as well as his friends. He loved good company, was extremely talented, and was well respected by his fellow artists.  He was very similar in many ways to my biological father, but not in the political views.  My father was and still is a believer in communist ideals and he always lived his life by those beliefs and standards.  Not many others in the country did. They frequently said one thing, yet did another thing, and never seemed to see the disparity.  He was true to himself and I have always loved and respected him; I also drew inspiration from his life.  I am not sure if he ever knew the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, but he lived his life as if this song was and is the best expression of his world views.  My daughter performed this song this year at the concert and my only wish was for my father to see her.
My mother had chosen Mikhail to spend her life with. He hated communists and all the hypocrisy associated with this totalitarian regime.  The divorce of my parents made me suffer but then brought my second father, my godfather, my teacher, into my life and was maybe one of the best things that ever happened to me.  "Everything is auspicious" as my Guru teachers.  I felt the connection with my stepfather the second I met him.
 My mom, although she was a scientist, stopped working very soon after they got married and enjoyed the life of a housewife, dutifully driving her husband around to locations for him to do his open-air painting.  He was wise and friendly to life itself.  He loved to do sunny things, even when he was sick.  Once after having a heart attack and spending a week in the hospital, he started blowing up balloons to improve his lungs’ function.  Soon, even this painful exercise was turned into a joyous event, and the whole hospital ward took on the appearance of a happy party, filled with color.  He gave balloons to patients, nurses, and visitors.   This simple act changed the mood of the entire hospital.   

Interesting fact – he was sharing a room with a younger patient, who had the same ailment only on a smaller scale.  The young man should logically have recovered nicely and much faster than my father.  But in fact, he died in one year. My step father stayed in touch with him and tried to convince him that a good attitude towards life would change the illness itself, but  it did not work.  I wonder why people, even faced with illness or death, continue to stick to their mind set even if it is harmful for them.  What tricks does the mind play on us to prove that we are not in charge?

My Aunt Clara, however, had chosen to marry a stereotypical starving artist, and she loved and supported him all her life.  They were high school sweethearts and remained together until her death.  My mother relied heavily on her artist for strength, but Aunt Clara went to medical school, intent upon becoming a doctor.  By the end of World War II, however, she switched universities and studied engineering, believing that the country (USSR) now needed builders more than healers.  She became a construction engineer, a professor, and even authored several books.  Nearly every penny she made went to buying paints, brushes, and canvases for my uncle, the artist.  Her sense of humor was amazing; she acted in the community theater, sang beautifully (even tried to teach me to sing!), and was at least on an emotional level, a mother to me.  She disapproved of my mother’s divorce, but she remained close and supportive, not judging.  It is perhaps her strong voice that has given my daughter her ability to sing.
This is my stew and I am so blessed to have all these people in me.

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