SINCE the beginning of time, in every culture, across every continent, one thing connects us all: the deeply human need to convey what is important to us from one generation to the next.
The telling and retelling of the stories of our lives is essential to the creation of our identities. Stories are the bedrock upon which our lives are built, developed and changed. They are the material from which our sense of self, belonging, and place in the world emerges.
The primary source of storytelling has always been the family; in this way we receive our inheritance and create our own legacy. Stories are the key to the survival of our values, customs, truths and traditions.
But stories, like water, are fluid. Each time one is told, something is changed. Memory fails us, fades, or eludes us completely. Personal facts are embellished, a name is changed, a location is forgotten. Emotions color the re-telling, affecting not just the details but the soul of the story.
As our stories change over time, does this diminish their value? Does it matter that they might not be “true?” Perhaps not. Even when tell our “truest” stories, at best they can only reflect our perceptions of what the truth might be.
When I began researching my family history more than a decade ago, I began with what I thought was a search for the truth. I wanted to know the facts — the who, what, when and where of the generations that preceded me. But there were so many gaps and questions that I quickly found myself digging beneath the surface for answers to the bigger question of why.
As I slowly unraveled my family’s story, I found that what mattered most was not the historical facts themselves but the emotional truths that the stories revealed.
Why was this moment or experience or relationship of family history preserved? What is it meant to teach me today?
THE story I share is what I had been told about my mother’s family — most of it, fragments of my mother’s memories. It begins with my great-grandmother, D’Jmila Danino. (D’Jmila is pronounced Jamilla, which means beautiful in Arabic.) Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1883, D’Jmila was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 12 to a man three times her age. Abram Danino was a Syrian Jew who lived in Palestine with his first wife. In 1895, D’Jmila sailed from Egypt for Haifa and became Abram’s second wife, the one who would hopefully give him the son he so desperately wanted. She never saw any of her family again.
At the age of 13 and still a child herself, D’Jmila gave birth to a baby boy, Albert Danino:my mother’s father, my grandfather. Whenever baby Albert cried, so did D’Jmila — so young and unequipped was she for mothering. But mother and son grew up together. For the first few years of Albert’s life, D’Jmila was safe, protected under Abram’s care.
When D’Jmila’s was 16, Abram suddenly died and she was left with Albert and a small inheritance. Within a year or so, she remarried a man named Shalom Nahmani, with whom she had a second child, a son named Felix.
Things did not go well for D’Jmila with Shalom. At 18, she did the unthinkable: she sought a divorce in the rabbinical court in Palestine. But Shalom refused to give a get (the Jewish divorce decree) unless she gave him her second son, Felix. Without the get, she was a prisoner, trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage.
And so, the story goes, D’Jmila gave up Felix and fled with my mother’s father, Albert, to Smyrna, Turkey, where they lived while Albert grew up. There, Albert met and fell in love with Jeanette Franco, a beautiful girl from a prestigious Turkish family. Because Albert came from a poor family, Jeanette’s parents disapproved. D’Jmila helped them keep their love a secret and in 1920, Albert and Jeanette eloped to America. Soon thereafter, they brought D’Jmila to live with them in their small apartment in Long Beach, NY. They gave birth to two daughters: Emily in 1922 and my mother, Elise, in 1925.
ONE summer, when my mother was two years old, her family rented a cottage on the beach for a family vacation. On July 2, 1928, Albert went into the sea for a swim after lunch. His wife Jeanette stayed indoors with the children that afternoon because she was eight months pregnant and not feeling well. D’Jmila was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. She opened it to find two policemen in uniform outside.
She knew without them telling her — her son Albert was dead.
Although a tremendous swimmer, Albert had tragically drowned. D’Jmila collapsed on the floor and wife Jeanette, unable to recover from the shock, died less than one month later in childbirth, as did her baby. That was the day my mother and her sister became orphans.
There was no other family that could take the girls except D’Jmila. At the age of 43 with an old-world, Sephardic background and no education, she became mother, father and grandmamma to her little granddaughters.
D’Jmila loved my mother and her sister with all her heart. But she suffered terribly, because she had lost Albert and Jeanette so tragically and had given up her second son Felix, whom she never saw again.
D’Jmila died in 1944 when my mother was 18. Once again, my mother was orphaned, with only a few relatives left whom she could call family. Or so she thought until six months ago when I received something that changed our lives, forever.
ON a warm April day in 2012, I opened my email and found this note from a woman I did not know:
I am the 7th daughter of Felix Nahmani, believed to have been born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1905, whose mother was D’Jmila. I found you looking on our family tree. Are we searching for the same family? My father Felix never talked about his family; we could not ask about it at all. I am looking to find who he was. I live in Canada and await your reply.
My fingers trembled as I punched in my mother’s telephone number. “Mom, are you sitting down?”
Through my research on Ancestry.com for relatives in Egypt, Palestine and Turkey and the creation of a family tree, the seventh daughter of Felix Nahmani, D’Jamila’s son that she relinquished, had found me! Felix, the half-brother of my mother’s father, Albert. Felix, the uncle my mother had never met. Felix, the father of 10 children — all of whom, my mother’s first cousins, in Canada, France and Corsica!
I called the seventh daughter, and a beautiful voice with a French accent answered the phone. Yes, Faride assured me, Felix was her father. Yes, she knew she had a grandmother named D’Jmila but her father never permitted any questions about her. None of the 10 children knew anything about their background or family.
My mother didn’t sleep that night, or the next. She couldn’t believe that after all these years of feeling so alone, so abandoned, that she had so much family. And they all wanted to meet her!
Over the next several months, tears were shed, photos and letters exchanged, and phone calls carried family history across the continents as we arranged a reunion at my parents’ home in New Jersey. The warmth and love of this family toward my mother, their only link to their father’s family, was overwhelming.
The October day we all met was brilliant with fall colors. My mother had spent weeks getting the house ready, making sure that everything was “just so.” They flew in from Toronto, Paris and Corsica, with gifts, pictures and family letters. We spend a magical afternoon at my mother’s elegantly set table. My brother and cousins, from California to New York, also joined us. Our group totaled 16 in all. It was a day we will remember forever.
But some of the stories that were shared were not easy to hear and my mother had a very difficult time, at first, believing them. Because D’Jamila had told her a story that probably was not true, even though it is understandable, coming from an proper grandmother raising her two grandchildren in the 1920’s.
It seems that D’Jmila was never married to Shalom Nahmani but had his child out of wedlock. Faride and her family supplied details that suggested that D’Jmila had been sent to Turkey to give birth to Felix, where she stayed with Albert after baby Felix was born. And Felix told his own family that Shalom gave him away to a sister to raise him because his mother, D’Jmila, had abandoned him.
A terrible secret that D’Jmila took to her grave. One that must have plagued her every day of her life, especially after Albert died.
I ASK myself: Why was this story preserved? What is it meant to teach me today?
When I was growing up, whenever we heard something shocking or out-of-character about a person, especially when that person was a family member, my mother would nod her head and comment judiciously: “Everyone has a public life, a private life and a secret life.”
I wonder if perhaps somewhere deep inside, my mother knew that there were secrets in her own family that she had yet to discover. And that someday, these words would comfort her, knowing that we all have places deep within us, which harbor our darkest moments and choices.
Perhaps, too, secrets are as much a part of our family stories as those that we tell proudly and publicly. And perhaps we may be called to open our hearts, to forgive secrets that, for reasons varied and untold, were withheld from us. In the end, even secrets can lead to great things.
Anyone who experienced the love enveloping my mother on that October afternoon bore witness to this truth.
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News