proxy grampa

In 2018, I became a grandfather, by proxy, for the first time. While not contributing any DNA, I nevertheless have had twenty years being a (step) Dad to our three sons. When our eldest son and daughter-in-law became parents in July, my wife and now, Grandmother, flew out to spend a couple weeks with the little one. I had to patiently wait until October (when his family completed moving to San Diego) to see my first grandson. It brought an eagerness to have little Z_ know me. Both of my grandfathers, I really only recall vaguely – a few holiday visits, some stories my father told me, and some my maternal grandmother shared about her husband. Both had passed away by the time I was ten years old. Living in California, my New York and New Jersey relations rarely made the trip out West and vice-versa. This was way before the Internet, so letters and postcards and the rare phone call were our communications. Pictures and articles I received in the last ten years from family and some albums from my late mother’s things have given me an opportunity to learn about my parents’ dads.

Grandad Abraham

little me, grandad w (clockwise: dad (pre-illness), mom, paternal cousins

From these images, my grandad was around during my earliest years. I have some memories of long road trips from California to New York in a cramped car, but I have no idea how young I was at the time. My earliest memories of my paternal grandfather, Abraham Saretsky, were his winter visits when I was eight or nine years old; he was living in Worchester, Massachusetts and would come out to San Jose where my parents lived while my father was recuperating from a debilitating stroke and worked part-time for Lockheed. A slight, heavily-accented elderly man who loved to wear the Greek fisherman caps, he irritated my mother by scraping burned toast crumbs into her kitchen sink. (As someone who works an hour and half commute one-way I understand challenging routines. My mom worked full-time as a Registered Nurse and commuted forty miles or more a day.) Knowing that a Nurse’s patience and compassion are often completely used up at the end of a shift, I am amazed that she cooked when she got home. I seem to recall that during his visits we ate matzoh, gefilte fish soup, and cabbage and beet borscht soup – as best as a Scot-Irish-immigrant wife (my mother) who didn’t have time or dietary laws to cook kosher well would make it for her Jewish father-in-law. He told jokes in Yiddish that didn’t translate well into English. On one of his visits he taught me a Russian phrase that over the next several decades had me thinking he emigrated from Russia. “YA SLYUSHIYU VASHA PREKHAZANII” (I hear your orders) It was one reason I learned Russian in college. He may have been conscripted by the Russians around the end of the First World War – as Lithuania and eastern Poland were under Russian occupation.

(back row, center) Paternal grandfather and grandmother, with her stepfather (l), mother (r) and her (early 1920s)

While never knowing well my paternal roots well, I knew my father’s family were Jews as I had been accompanying my father to a synagogue in California several months a year. In the last decade or two, I learned my grandfather was much more than a restaurant -equipment repairman. From a census record found online, in 1940, he and my grandmother ran a neighborhood bakery. And then, he built ships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII.

After my parents divorced in the early 1970s, I did not visit my paternal cousins and relatives much after that. As an adult in the Navy in my Thirties, on both sides of the family, my grandparents had passed. I had infrequent contact but I started researching my family history – letters and scraps of paper from decades earlier stuffed in albums. While my living relatives do not have many recollections of their family to share, I had learned to connect stories, names, and bits of trivia into chains of family information. Almost all of it has been maternal genealogy research. Now I am interested in finding more about my father’s family prior to cousins and Aunt.

For nearly a decade the digital record has been increasingly available through the Internet, I learned my grandfather came to the United States from Krakow, Poland. Though some records indicate the several surname variations all may have origin in Belarus or the Ukraine, I have no family history other than the picture of my grandmother’s family in the “old country” – wherever that was. Saretsky, Zereski, or Zaretsky, derive from “people living beyond the river” – which may be the River Dniepr.

The image suggests that my grandmother’s family prospered but where that might have been is unknown. However, that region of Eastern Europe was a center of Jewish learning and contested nationalism in the preceding two centuries of Lithuanian, Polish and Russian territorial politics. There are many Saretsky surnames across the USA and the world, including some family relations my Aunt knew to have have emigrated to Canada, but it is probable that many who remained in Eastern Europe did not survive the Second World War.

Studying my family history I hope will interest my kids in the soft sciences and their origins to some degree. I don’t know to the degree that my genes, interests, and skills are derived from my forebears, but I would like to think that how my grandchildren and children remember me, will also influence how they live as adults and raise the next generations.

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