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The Trunk

July 26, 2011

Submitted by Gina Teresa Orazi, who lives in Chicago.

The Orazi Trunk

The Orazi trunk. Photo by Marcia and David Haier.

The black travelling trunk sits in my living room, holding unknown answers to unasked questions. The trunk belonged to my mama. It held all of the possessions that came with her when she travelled by ship to America with her nine-month-old daughter.

I always thought Mama had bought the trunk in Italy. However, when my son carried the trunk into our home, he noticed a sticker that says it was made in the U.S.A., in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Dad told me the trunk belonged to Mama. He didn’t want to discuss their early life in America. Why didn’t I insist on answers?

When he was seventeen, Dad immigrated to America to earn money to help his family. He had a hard life in the coal mines of Denbo, Pennsylvania. At age twenty seven, Dad returned to Italy to marry Mama.

The writing on the trunk.

The writing on the trunk. Photo by Marcia and David Haier.

Dad had possibly purchased the trunk in Pennsylvania and filled it with items to take to his family in Italy. Could Mama have then filled the trunk with her embroidered linens and other items? Did she take bits of treasured memories? Did she shed tears of sorrow, knowing that she would probably never see her parents or her homeland again?

My sister has no memories of arriving in America and their early time here. My mama died when I was four, and I learned early in life not to ask Dad questions.

I admire the courage and strength of will that my parents had to leave the land of their birth and come to this challenging country. They gave me a life with many opportunities and blessings. Still, I wish the trunk could satisfy my nagging curiosity.

Family History, World History

December 14, 2010

Originally published on November 7, 2010, in Andrea Peterson’s LiveJournal. Andrea Peterson lives in Quezon City, Philippines, where she works as an editor and sometimes draws comics.

The biggest legend in our family is the story of the first time my grandfather saw his daughter, my mother.

It was 1942, during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. My grandfather, a Philippine Army officer, was a prisoner. Though he was luckier than most in that he was held in a camp in Manila, he didn’t have any contact with the outside world. He and my grandmother (pregnant with their first child) hadn’t seen each other in several months.

The story goes that one day my lolo was sweeping the camp grounds as part of his everyday duties and while he was sweeping near the gate, a vendor passed by. When the Japanese guard’s back was turned, my lolo quickly handed the vendor a coin through the gate and bought that day’s paper. And inside that paper that he just happened to buy that day, buried in the society column, was a brief mention of my lola’s name, saying that she had given birth to a baby girl.

Lolo was so excited, he shouted and told anyone within earshot that he was a father. Before long, he was brought before the commanding officer, Lt. Watanabe. Read more…

Tricksters and Disney Dollars

December 6, 2010

Submitted by Cameron Johnson, who is a freelance writer and editor in Vancouver, B.C. He would love to cash in on a Disney debt someday.

Charlie Chaplin Look-alike Contest

Another legend: Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, and came in third place. This image: “Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest” by J. W. Sandison, November 5, 1921.

A number of my relatives were interesting characters. According to family lore, one was a bit of a conman and used to ride the rails during the Depression, swindling folks along the way. He would carry a dead fly around with him, go to high-end restaurants and, when he’d eaten half a meal, he’d strategically place the fly and then cause a scene. He got many a complimentary meal using this tactic.

Another, a great-great uncle, I believe, is alleged to have had a particularly colourful CV. For starters, he was a magician. He left a trunk of magic tricks/equipment to my dad, so that’s true, at least. I used to play with the stuff when I was a kid. And it’s also said he worked in the movies as a stand-in for Charlie Chaplin. Apparently he used to own a laundromat in L.A. As the story goes, he once lent money to Walt Disney when he wanted to start an animation studio . . . and (here’s the punchline) never collected.

All probably hokum, but funny stories that get dragged out every Christmas.

A Tail Tale

October 27, 2010

Submitted by Kris Rothstein, the publisher of Smart Cookie Publishing, a micro-press that produces handmade books.

McCall's Magazine cover, 1939, "Family Arriving in Kitchen for the Holidays" (with a little Photoshopping by SM).

McCall’s Magazine cover, 1939, “Family Arriving in Kitchen for the Holidays” (with a little Photoshopping by SM).

My mother told me a lot of lies. At least, I think they were lies.

She told me that she was being tracked and watched by the FBI. She suggested that she may have been connected to a Weather Underground–type organization. During one phone call she abruptly stopped talking and asked if I was outside. I guess she heard a bird or cars or our neighbours yelling. When I said yes, she hung up.

She told me that she was a vampire who wanted to suck my blood.

And she told me that my grandmother was born with a tail.

My mum was raised in the American suburbs on Wonder bread and canned ham. When my mother and her siblings were older and their dad was dead, they called my grandmother Termite. I don’t know why.

When we visited my grandmother in California, my mother would point to Termite’s butt, covered by a velour tracksuit, and whisper to look under the waistband for the telltale scar.

I never saw any signs, but my mum insisted, describing the short, simple tail-removal surgery and the oath that swore the doctor to secrecy.

The Fruits of Family Trees

September 21, 2010

This family story is reprinted from the book EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer, with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Safran Foer. All rights reserved. Jonathan Safran Foer is also the author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran FoerWhen I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. On the way in, Friday night, she would lift me from the ground in one of her fire-smothering hugs. And on the way out, Sunday afternoon, I was again taken into the air. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was weighing me.

My grandmother survived the War barefoot, scavenging other people’s inedible: rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins, and the bits that clung to bones and pits. And so she never cared if I colored outside the lines, as long as I cut coupons along the dashes. At hotel buffets: while the rest of us erected Golden Calves of breakfast, she would make sandwich upon sandwich to swaddle in napkins and stash in her bag for lunch. It was my grandmother who taught me that one tea bag makes as many cups of tea as you’re serving, and that every part of the apple is edible.

Money wasn’t the point. (Many of those coupons I clipped were for foods she would never buy.)

Health wasn’t the point. (She would beg me to drink Coke.)

My grandmother never set a place for herself at family dinners. Even when there was nothing more to be done—no soup bowls to be topped off, no pots to be stirred or ovens checked—she stayed in the kitchen, like a vigilant guard (or prisoner) in a tower. As far as I could tell, the sustenance she got from the food she made didn’t require her to eat it.

In the forests of Europe, she ate to stay alive until the next opportunity to eat to stay alive. In America, fifty years later, we ate what pleased us. Our cupboards were filled with food bought on whims, overpriced food, food we didn’t need. And when the expiration date passed, we threw it away without smelling it. Eating was carefree. My grandmother made that life possible for us. But she was, herself, unable to shake the desperation.

Read more…

Snake in the Tree

September 16, 2010

Submitted by Zameer Andani, who lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Zameer Andani's family tree

Zameer Andani's family tree, drawn by members of his family in Malawi and England. Click to see the entire tree.

My great-great-great-grandmother gave birth to a snake. It’s marked on our family tree with its own circled entry that says “SNAKE,” right amongst her six other offspring.

There are two different versions of my family’s snake legend. In the one I know best, she took care of the snake and treated it like her human children. One day, when the snake was grown up, it came home and said, “You’ve taken really good care of me and treated me like one of your own, so I will now bless your family and will ensure they will never die by a snake bite.”

In the other variant of this story, after my great-great-great-grandmother gave birth to the snake, it was cut into seven pieces. I’m not sure how the rest of that version goes, but both stories state that our family is protected from all encounters with snakes.

Since then, there have been numerous run-ins with snakes in my family. My dad encountered a black mamba, the deadliest snake in Africa, who was curled up at his feet while my dad was sleeping, and who did him no harm.

Another time, he put his foot in his shoe and there was a snake in it. The snake didn’t bite, it just slithered away.

My grandma, who lived in a place called Karonga (in northern Malawi), met a snake one night on a trip to the bathroom, which was located outside of the main house. Frightened, she ran in and got my grandfather. The snake peacefully went on its way and nobody was bitten.

Growing up in Malawi until the age of ten, I played with snakes often. I used to toss them around and look at their fangs. I never got bitten.

Squashing the King

September 14, 2010

Submitted by Kate Reid, who hasn’t played racquet sports in a while but was pretty darn good at them when she was little.

Royal TennisMy great-grandfather taught squash to the King of England.