I am unpacking my suitcase. Some days I leave it closed not wanting to face the emotions of my history. Other days I open it wide, revealing hidden compartments I never knew were there.
Rachel and Sara, my grandmother and mother, are constantly present in my suitcase. They are part of my journey, my migration. Rachel, Sara and Amy, all three of us are migrants and immigrants in our own way.
When I tell you about my grandma Rachel, will I tell you about how fraught her relationship was with her daughter? How they loved each other deeply, but the context of their love was difficult. Will I tell you how I missed her when she left New York permanently in 1959 when I was six? Even though I hardly knew her.
When I tell you about my grandma, will I tell you that her real name was Roukla, that she was born in the last decade of the 19th century in Bessarabia that is no longer on the map? Will I tell you about the 17-year old girl who left her family and her village of Kishinev because of the anti-Jewish pogroms? How she fled hoping that life had more to offer in Paris and how several years later she left war–torn Paris with her lover and baby daughter, arriving at Ellis Island in New York?
Rachel, who spoke five languages, who wrote in Yiddish, who had several male companions but never married. Rachel, my lifeline to Eastern European Jewish culture, with whom I discussed the state of Israel in 1982, who helped me to find my critical voice. Rachel embraced me when I told her, “I am a lesbian.” “Yes, I know,” she said.
When I tell you about my mother Sara, will I tell you stories that reveal her pain, her frustrations and her anger? Will I tell you about the terror of finding her half-conscious lying on the floor outside my room, drugged from an overdose of sleeping pills? Will I tell you about her 21-year struggle with cancer and the toll that took on her and us, about the effects of nine years of chemotherapy?
Or will I tell you of the Sara who spoke and loved Yiddish. Sara, whom I embraced constantly, smelling that special mix of perfume and sweat, especially when we danced around the living room. Sara, who loved men and sex.
Sara, who celebrated working people’s culture and those who create it, who was a dancer but couldn’t afford to be. Sara, who taught me about navigating stormy political waters, who shushed me when I mentioned the Communist Party on the Broadway bus, but who carried on, as the cold war was raging. Sara, who was a migrant in her own country, spied upon, mistrusted and denied work because of her political beliefs.
Will I tell you that as I continue to unpack my suitcase, I find more reasons to embrace these women, to feel more passionate about them? Will I tell you that my suitcase is filled with terror and courage, sadness and joy? Yes, I will tell you because these are the tools of survival and resistance Rachel and Sara have passed on to me – the common threads of political conviction and action, strength in cultural identity combined with a vision of humanity. These tools are part of my migration.