Letter to My Ancestors: Haibun

You who came before me–how I wish I could ask you about your lives. My mom tells me stories, but there is so much she doesn’t know, and now much she has forgotten. Of course, I want to know what it was like to live in what was then Russia, to be a Jew there—the terror of pogroms and the ordinary day-to-day problems you learned to live with, until you no longer could. But I also want to know what did you eat? What did your house look like? What games did you play as a child? How did you feel leaving your homeland, traveling first to England, France, Germany, or Italy before finally reaching Philadelphia or New York? You had so much drive and determination. In my mind, I see the many generations that came before me. I see practical, no-nonsense individuals, and yet, I wonder how many were also full of artistic vision or musical talent. Somewhere lost in time, you, my ancestors, must have journeyed from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, and each time you had to learn so many new things. I wonder what else you experienced? I discover my great grandfather had grey eyes. My daughters have grey eyes, too–a gift from the past, a look to the future.


Endless storms weathered

again winter turns to spring—

young birds fly from nests


I’m combining prompts again—Björn at dVerse asked us to write a poetic letter. I hope this fits.

Colleen asked us to use synonyms for energy and knowledge for her Tanka Tuesday.

We’re also in the midst of a nor’easter with rain, snow, and wind!

I’m also adding this to Frank’s Barely Spring Challenge.


52 thoughts on “Letter to My Ancestors: Haibun

  1. This touches a chord. We often forget that our ancestors were real people who had lives to get on with when they weren’t being persecuted. You bring such a tender, personal note to these thoughts.

    • Thank you very much, Jane. I said to my mom yesterday that I never even really asked my grandfathers very much because when you’re young you never think “those old people” had lives before you were around, and that they played, fell in love, etc. 😉

      • I never knew any of my grandfathers because they died young and only knew one grandmother and one great-grandmother, both on my mother’s side. Luckily they both talked a lot about ‘what it was like’ back then, as well as the family stories. My great-grandmother in particular who would recite history like a professional story teller.

      • That is so cool about your great grandmothers. Both of my grandmothers died when I was a very young. I barely remember my mother’s mother, but not my father’s mother. My great grandparents were long gone, but both my grandfather’s lived into their nineties.

      • It’s good that you had a grandparent from each side. I really only had my mother’s history. My dad’s father died when my dad was five and I never knew his mother. My dad’s memories of his grandparents were practically nonexistent, just a few stories that might or might not have been true.

      • I have sporadic contact with a cousin from my dad’s side and he has some stories that don’t quite tally with my versions. I take them as an example of oral history—very flawed!

  2. All those questions left unanswered. Even in my parents’ generation, so much I forgot to ask and they never thought to tell. And of course most of us in the United States have many streams flowing from all over the world into who we are. How did they come to settle in this land? What songs did they sing? –but our minds can also travel many places to try to fill in the blanks.
    Another beautiful and thoughtful meditation. (K)

    • Thank you very much, Kerfe. It’s funny that you mention songs. My mom’s cousin started a Yiddish Club where she and my mom both live. She said some of the people say they don’t know Yiddish, but then they remember the songs that their parents or other relatives sang.

  3. Wonderful and thoughtful, Merril. I often wonder about my ancestors since I know so little of them on my father’s side and only have lists of names on my mother’s side.
    I hope the nor’easter didn’t trouble you too much. It is still windy here, but not nearly as windy or as noisy. No snow at all for us. Just the occasional rain (and not even much of that given all the clouds and storminess).

    • Thank you, Robin.
      We seem to be OK. It doesn’t even seem all that windy now–at least compared to yesterday. There’s just a dusting of snow left now–nothing on the street or sidewalks.

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    • Thank you. There are questions that I suppose we will never know the answers, too. I’d be interested in knowing, too, whey your great grandfather decided to go from being a farmer to a priest. Was there a crisis in his life? A feeling that he could do good? A voice telling him this was his calling.. .?

  5. Knowing your people made it to America is wonderful… grey eyes – I like that reference in the poem. So many questions, we are lucky if we know an answer to just a few. I wish journals and diaries had been more popular – but I think they were busy surviving…

    • Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Some people have ancestors’ diaries, letters, and such. I don’t. 😦 I’m not even sure how literate my female ancestors were.

  6. Tender, personal, and true! The truth about the gray eyes is especially affecting.

    I do know about the blizzard in your area. My sister, basking in Florida sun, has learned of 3 downed trees on her property and huge snowbanks west of Philadelphia.

    • Thank you very much, Marian.
      I hope your sister’s property is OK. Her area got much more snow than we did. It was really coming down here for a while, but only a dusting stuck, and it’s all gone now.

  7. This was dear and special, Merril. I enjoyed the parts where you are pondering about the everyday lives of your ancestors, along with the pains and troubles which followed those who were “different.” My ancestors were not usually in the group which were persecuted, but my grandparents did speak of how much they liked living in New York City and they felt each individual should be considered as just that, “no grouping or lumping them together.”

    On the subject of popular culture: Funny (strange) part was, Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon talked about Russians in a rather derogatory way and my German born Grandma Mattson told us we were not allowed to watch it anymore! My parents also would ban shows for bigotry or stereotypical role models. They thought “My Three Sons” was better than “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Dick Van Dyke” show demonstrated Rose Marie could keep up with the men in her office! Mom thought Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t “evolved” (emancipated) until she got to be in a newsroom of her television show. “Rhoda” and “Julia” the first people other than on “All in the Family” which had different backgrounds from the WASP characters on prime television. I always respected the way my parents analyzed what our little children’s minds were absorbing. . .

    • Thank you, Robin. I’m glad you enjoyed the poem and that it led to some thoughts about your own family.
      That’s funny about you not being allowed to watch Rocky and Bullwinkle. It was such a clever cartoon. Have you seen the show The Americans? The last season should be coming back on soon. It’s about Russian spies in the U.S. who pretend to be Americans–a couple with their two kids–towards the end of the Cold War, in the 1980s. It’s weird because you’re rooting for them, along with their neighbor and friend, Stan, the FBI agent who lives across the street. It’s an interesting perspective. . . 🙂

      • I watched the first and second season and then,I got dismayed at the “parents” not really caring for their “children.” My friend, Jenny still watches it and sometimes gets disgusted at the backstabbing, etc. But she is a dedicated follower of the series. I’m glad I had a chance to see the era represented! 🙂

      • I watch the Alienist but see them trying to work as a team. My friend Jenny is determined (but not happy with the Americans in some ways) to stick it out! So glad there are better inter-relations between the grown ups and the growing teens! That makes it easier to check in on them. (Someday, I may watch one episode!) I don’t have DVR so this show lands opposite something I usually watch, Merril. Thanks for your update! 🙂

  8. Merril, I loved this Haibun. My family comes from Russia and I have long suspected a Jewish connection… not sure, at any rate. Both sides of my parents came from Dreispitz, Russia. My grandfather came to America in 1906 when he was 6 years old. I know little of my mother’s side. A blog friend from Ukraine actually went in and found the records for me written in Russian. We never knew the details until the last few years. Have you done your DNA? I would like to do that to learn more. I really enjoyed this post. ❤

    • Thank you so much, Colleen. That’s interesting about your family history–and so cool to have those Russian records. I don’t really know anything about ancestors and their lives before they came to the U.S, except that my mom’s mother and father both came from Gomel (now Belarus). My mother’s family came to the U.S. just before WWI; my father’s father came a bit closer to when your grandfather came. He and his mom and sister sailed from Trieste. I did do the ancestry.com DNA test. It was boring–all Eastern European Jewish (like 95%). 🙂 But I wonder where they were before they were in Eastern Europe?

      • Oh, cool. I want to do mine because we know so little. I’ve been told that my family were Germans from Pomerania, before they settled in Russia. Some of this we might never find out. Really cool though. ❤

      • When I Googled Dreispitz , it said that German Lutherans had been invited to settle in that part of Russia in the mid-18th century, so your family probably was originally from Germany. You know, Germany was composed of different areas (city-states?) at that time. If you’re on ancestry.com (and/or do the test) and you start with what you have, you might be able to find more info–perhaps some long-lost relatives. 🙂

      • Yes, they were definitely German. There is even a facebook page for Dreispitz ancestors. It’s all fascinating. Thanks for checking. Most of the documents on the families were destroyed during WWII. Any relatives left in Russia were sent to Siberia. The people weren’t Russians and they weren’t Germans. Neither country wanted them. The German/Russians (Prussians?) were people without a country. When I was in the Air Force, I couldn’t get a top secret clearance (probably could now, LOL) because they said I have relatives in Ukraine. I should do the Ancestery.com test. I’m do some medical DNA tests currently. Really interesting. ❤

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  10. We look to our ancestors and wonder what they were like, their stories and the events that shaped their lives. Yet we forget to pass our own history to our children and don’t talk and ask these questions to our parents and grandparents. Tomorrow’s history is made today talking and writing is good. Sending letters to loved ones is an amazing way to create a legacy.

  11. I, too, often wonder about what it was like to be Jewish in the Russian Empire. So many great songwriters of the 20th century escaped themselves (Israel Baline aka Irving Berlin) or were the children of folks who made AMAZING escapes/journeys (“traveling first to England, France, Germany, or Italy before finally reaching Philadelphia or New York.”) Thank you for your musings AND your poems.

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