my great-grandmother charlotte was a liar. i didn’t know this when i was small – in those 8 years we spent in the same world – and i’m not sure anyone else alive during those 8 years knew it either. if i weren’t a snoop, no one would know she had lied about anything, and i used to think that my revealing the truth would be some kind of betrayal.
grandma told everyone that she was born in charleston, south carolina, and that is the place my grandfather filled in on her death certificate when she died, the place she herself gives on her marriage license and passport applications. i thought this was pretty exciting – no, fascinating – because it simply reeked of something exotic and exciting, of mint juleps and azalea bowers and evenings on verandas with rhett butler.
the thing was, though, that south carolina disagreed with charlotte: they couldn’t find her birth certificate anywhere. strange, i thought. at the same time, though, i had found other documents where charlotte gave her birthplace as new york city, the place where i knew she spent most, if not all, of her childhood and young adulthood. at first i didn’t think it was strange that new york city couldn’t find any sign of her birth certificate either – i had other relations who were born in new york city, whose names were so mangled in the writing down that they were almost impossible to find.
that wasn’t the problem with charlotte, though. nope. the problem was that she wasn’t born in new york city, or new york state, or even in north america.
instead, she was born in what is now the minsk region of belarus and came to the united states in 1899 as a 5 year old named chaje (later americanized to sadie) with her mother and her sisters.
i found this out because i one day, by fluke, found an entry for charlotte’s father, the adorable sam, in an online index that led me to his naturalization papers. these papers listed his particulars and those of his wife, minnie, and those of his five children – rose, ida, sadie and jennie – all born in belarus – and william, born in manhattan. this was quite perplexing indeed, because, um, where was charlotte? and who in the hell were rose and ida and sadie? i had been told that charlotte’s siblings were jennie and william – no mention of anyone else. but this had to be my family, i thought. how many other sam & minnie hurduses could live in new york city, let alone the world?
then i took a closer look at the papers in front of me and realized that sadie had the same birthdate as charlotte: august 18, 1893. and then i said, “wait, what?”
belarus is a long way from charleston or new york city, sadie is quite different than charlotte, and this all meant that grandma was lying.
my grandfather couldn’t believe it either. he and his sister had always been told their mother was born in charleston and that her name was charlotte, but those were certainly her parents, most definitely her younger brother and sister, most assuredly her birthday… but what about rose and ida, i wanted to know. oh yes, my grandfather and his sister recalled, now that i mentioned it, there were some older sisters named rose and ida, but charlotte didn’t really get along with them that well – they were older, more jewy, less assimilated. plus they lived in florida and one of them died young. jennie talked to rose and ida because she was “soft,” for which charlotte used to reprimand her. but really, no one remembers all of it, and i still have never been able to discover anything substantive of these sisters on my own.
all of this information has been percolating in my head for several years, giving me a chance to figure out what it all means and why she did it. i am still not completely sure. it would have been easier, in a way, to fully comprehend if charlotte had denied any ties to her old world family at all, but she didn’t. she and her husband, my great-grandfather, spoke yiddish in front of their kids when they wanted to tell secrets and she was close to her parents and her younger siblings – even if she was distant enough from rose and ida that her kids forgot they existed until prompted. it wasn’t a desire to efface her entire background, to deny family – but a desire, perhaps, to be more fully the person she thought she was: charlotte, not chaje. a “real” american, not an immigrant. i still struggle with this, and with trying to understand how the mere appearance of something so relatively unimportant in this melting pot of a country could become so important that you’d keep it from your children their entire lives. and i think i will probably always struggle with it, because i will never know for sure exactly what she was thinking.
charlotte hurdus fenning (1893-1989)
Wow, great essay. You can see roots to some of the things we have noticed in more recent generations.
I like the expression “more jewy”>>also, amazing. I kind of love her for it.