We were playing six-degrees of separation, I think. I don’t know if there are rules to follow. It was after dinner, and we were talking about people we had encountered and their linkages to others. Surprisingly quickly, we found ourselves connected to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Elvis, Winston Churchill, and the Queen of England, herself. My mom had autographs from Jerry Lee Lewis, Duke Ellington, the Globe Trotters, and a gaggle of NFL players and professional golfers. She once chatted up Tori Spelling in a bathroom in Canton, Ohio at a Football Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. My husband worked in film in Los Angeles and Cleveland, meeting a crowd of stars and politicians over the years. One time he had a chance, face-to-face encounter with Prince (the artist himself!) as one rode up and the other rode down an escalator at a Borders in Chicago. As the distance between them closed, my husband quietly acknowledged him, saying, “Bravo!” Prince, whose head was angled away so as to avoid having to say anything, apparently, after a moment of consideration, looked back over his shoulder as they passed and silently mouthed, “Thank you.” I still give my husband kudos here… I mean, what else do you say to Prince? This connection, moreover, gave us our links to Morris Day, Jerome, Apollonia, and Shelia E., so we were all excited at his impressive list. I had a far less remarkable cast of characters to contribute, but I could offer a Vatican insider acquaintance, providing thereby a papal connection, which gave us our links to several world leaders. I felt I had contributed my part, even without autographs and celebrities.
With the exception of a Robert Redford encounter while volunteering on a political campaign, the couple that was with us had fewer serendipitous meetings to report. But, we did learn that there was a grandfather in their mix who had served as a royal cook in Hungary. The game now shifted to linkages in history. Who were our notable ancestors? Who were our ancestors, period? Were we related, having a common Hungarian heritage? Their relatives were from Budapest, while mine were from Transylvania. I learned that Transylvania was a world away to their grand-relatives, filled with fearful and untrustworthy people. For my part, I had heard talk over the years that my Transylvanian relatives would speak with frustration over boarder changes, as their homes in Hungary became part of Romania. They were not vampires or gypsies, but displaced persons.
As the night grew late, I went into my closet to retrieve a box of papers and photos that had come into my care after my grandfather had died. Here were locks of my grandmother’s hair, naturalization papers, a marriage license, letters I could not read, a Romanian passport, and evidence that my surname has been misspelled for all my life – I’ve been missing a “z.” I was looking for an old map so that we could see the distances between the ancestors’ long ago homes. I found the map, but much to my surprise, I found something far more important. I found photographs again. I had seen these images before once or twice, but I never really looked at them. As our friends packed up to go home, I realized I had always read these pictures through the narrative someone else had established for me. After our guests had all gone home and everyone else was in bed, I sat down to rewrite history.
My grandmother died of cancer when she was fifty-two. It was a quick and terrible demise that scarred my father permanently and left a deep impression on my mom, who was then only engaged to my dad. They both told the story of her death many times over the years, recounting her despair, especially over life with my grandfather, with whom her marriage had become acrimonious. I never had the chance to meet this grandmother, Margret Batiz Kertesz, and I barely knew my grandfather. Even though we saw him often enough, he never spoke more than a word or two. Then, there was my uncle and his family, whom I knew but from whom there was also great estrangement over childhood rivalries that remain unresolved even to this day.
Based on what I had heard and seen in a limited way as a child, I had a rather negative concept of this family, my family. But, the pictures I was holding told a different story. First, I noticed, there were pictures, many of them. It dawned on me that there was something of privilege and pride here for a family of the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century to have an abundance of photos of their lives, including many formal portraits. Then, there was my grandparents’ wedding itself. The bride and groom were stunningly arrayed, and there were beautifully attired relatives in attendance. There were portraits of relatives I did not know, gorgeous people with dreamy eyes and skin and hair, some of them musicians photographed with their instruments and in traditional costuming. They smiled, for these were not deathbed portraits but joyful moments in life, intentionally captured and preserved because they were deemed worth remembering by those who experienced them.
I realized there was an entirely different way in which this family story might be told. Margret was raised by her uncle, and then by Catholic sisters in an orphanage before she immigrated to the United States. I always thought this was a sad story, but maybe (as the pictures intimate) there was joy and edification in this experience. These places were also documented in the photos. Margret may have grown weary of life with my grandfather, but perhaps they celebrated each other in youth. Maybe they knew desire and love when they married, for they were surely both lovely enough to have warranted the attractions of the other. There were no doubt unfair disciplinary measures and tensions between my father and his brother in their growing up years, but so also might there have been pleasures and laughter, as the vacation photos at the beach suggest.
And, then, the greatest insight of all came to me. If I could see a new story in these lives, I too could tell my own story in an entirely different way. What life narrative could I construct that primarily focuses on the beauty, joy, and goodness in my experiences and relationships? How might I construct a self from point “A” to here that gives true priority to thanksgiving over wounds, even in the most difficult passes I have known? It is so easy to tell one’s story as a story of what has happened to us, but how richly rewarding is it to tell the story instead of how we have responded victoriously to life itself?
I think shifting perspective like this is an anthropological-theological challenge of the highest order and value because it is rooted in a willingness to see light and to feel hope in all things. It is to opt for anthropological freedom over fatalism; meaning over absurdity; will over passivity; and voice over silence. As a woman, I find myself often overwhelmed, not just by life but by life experienced as a woman, complete with the double burden of work and home, professional sexism, mediatized misogyny, ecclesial marginalization, and so on. I fear the color of these lenses has sometimes caused me to see my own experiences through the glass darkly. Now, rosy shades are no better if they strip away the accuracy of our perceptions, and I am no advocate of self- or other deceptions. But, I do like pink, and I begin to see the equally important task of recovery and revisioning, fresh eyes, and the value of a new pair of corrective lenses. After my eye exam this week, I think I might get out some more albums…
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.