Memories and Musings – On Family Stories

Mosaic artist/photographer Nina Tisara writes on the importance of learning family stories through conversation.

Nina Tisara’s paternal Great Grandparents, Necha and Hershel Tinkelman. The original photographs were in Grandma Sophie’s home and then in Nina’s parents’ home until they became a treasured gift to Nina

Alexandria, VA – I wrote last March about my grandmother Sarah, for whom as an adult, I named myself. (The Sara in Tisara is for her.) Today, I want to write about my other grandmother, my father’s mother Sophie Tinkelman.

Both grandmothers were very good to me. I spent parts of summer vacations with Grandma Sophie in her small Brighton Beach apartment in Brooklyn, NY. She took me to the beach and made sand castles with me. She bought me chocolate milk, something I never had at home, and she bought the first cherries of the season for me. My favorite memory is that she pushed two overstuffed living room chairs together to make a bed for me. I felt like a princess.

Grandma Sophie saved pennies for me. As a young child, when my dad took me to visit her, I played for hours with those pennies. They had a value far beyond what they could buy. I put them in order by mint date. I made castles of them. I put them on end and set them spinning. I saved them—until eventually I spent them.

When I was old enough to realize that my dad and his brother supported Grandma Sophie, I asked my dad whether I should accept the pennies. Yes, he said, it’s a gift to her to give them to you. No one is so poor as one who cannot give to others.

My father was not a religious man. He did not go to a synagogue. I never saw him pray. But he was a profoundly honest and principled man. What he was explaining to me was the tradition of Tzedakah. Judaism teaches the belief that donors benefit from Tzedakah as much or more than the recipients and the belief remains a common theme in Jewish tradition.

My regret now is that I never really knew my Grandma Sophie. I never thought to ask her what her life was like in Russia, about the family she left there, or the family she had here. I don’t know whether she had siblings or if there were nieces and nephews. I was able to research when she came to America and the boat she came on. She arrived in America on September 6, 1901, the day that President William McKinley was shot in Buffalo, NY. (He died eight days later).

There are many things I will likely never know. I know of no one left to ask. StoryCorps, America’s oral history program since 2003, offers many suggested questions for grandparents. The questions include: Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like? Who were your favorite relatives? Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you? How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?

What I want to suggest to you, preach about really, is that you ask the questions now while that generation is still with you and while they still remember. Document your family photographs with not only the “who, what, when and where,” but also who took the photo. Make a video with your camera or cell phone and make sure you have back up batteries.

My niece, the dedicated family archivist, says she not only identifies who is in the old photos for her children, but how they are related. For example: “Uncle Sherman, your grandfather Nat’s younger brother.”

Your children – or theirs – will be grateful.

Mosaic artist/photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.

ICYMI: Memories and Musings – On Being a Photographer