I have been working on a series of collages called “Foremothers.” I am speaking of both my biological ancestors and other women, artists and change-makers whose lives have informed my own journey. I tell each story in bits and pieces. Each collage is like a fragment of memory that might surface in a dream. Like a dream, the symbols ask to be decoded and interpreted.
To create these compositions I draw upon sensory memories, family stories told to me by my mother, and artifacts that have come down to me. As stated before, they are more like dream images than linear narratives. The two collages I am sharing with you today honor my grandmothers. Their names are Sarah Brooks and Rebecca Rosenfield. They are two of my biological foremothers.
My father’s mother Sarah Brooks (nee Schuhalter) came to America around the turn of the century from a small shtetl, or village outside of Kiev called Ysutta (sp?). This village lay in the region of Europe known as the Pale of Settlement. It is where many Jews migrated after many expulsions. Under the Russian czarist regime, life became untenable for my grandparents and many others–hence their migration across the ocean to America. Sarah married another immigrant named Bennie Brooks. He was an upholsterer by trade. They settled in Newark, New Jersey where they raised four children, three boys and a girl. Yiddish was my Grandma Sarah’s native language. Nanny, as we called her, never fully mastered English and she never learned to drive a car. Her home was the domain in which she was most comfortable. Nanny Sarah lived into her eighties in my home town of West Orange, N.J.
Rebecca Rosenfield (nee Kaplan), my maternal grandmother, was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father had a bakery in Worcester and he owned a delivery wagon and horse. The tragedy happened when my great grandfather died suddenly and my great grandmother lost the bakery. Great grandmother Julia was left with the four children and no income. What a hard life it must have been for Julia and consequently, for my grandmother Rebecca and her siblings.
Rebecca met a dashing fellow a few years older named Irving Rosenfield. They married and had two children, my mom and her older brother. My grandfather Irving was raised on a farm in West Medway, Massachusetts, the fourth of five children, the children of immigrants from the Pale of Settlement. The farmhouse lacked central heat or running water. Water came from a pond on the property. It was a hardscrabble life for the family. As soon as possible, Irving left for Boston, pursuing higher education at Northeastern University. He earned a B.S. in civil engineering. During WW2 Irving left Rebecca and his two young children to join the See Bees, part of the U.S. Navy, and shipped off to the South Pacific. After the war, Irving took the family to central Nebraska where his civilian job was to oversee the construction of earthen dams.
Rebecca’s life story is tragic. Living in Nebraska, she felt isolated–completely cut off from her family and Jewish roots. At the tender age of 40 she died from a rare autoimmune disease called pemphigus. Rebecca is said to have had a vibrant spirit, and she was by all accounts, a beautiful person inside and out. Despite her lack of formal education, she was a writer and deep thinker.
By researching my family history and working through these memories in visual form, I hope to heal the trauma that I am carrying in my body. As Resmaa Menakem, author and therapist has said that we all carry unresolved traumas in our bodies. In his book, _My Grandmother’s Hands_, he speaks about how trauma gets passed along through the generations. The new scientific field of epigenetics bears this out. In his book Menakem is primarily focused on healing racialized trauma. I find his work useful as I walk this path of memory and healing.
As always, I am curious to hear your thoughts about this body of work.