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April 14, 2015

Origin Story

Things started to go sour shortly after I was born. 

I guess that I was a cute enough baby, but the burden of being the first born weighed heavily. My mother pretends that she's joking as she cheerfully tells anyone that when I was born "Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given." from Handel's Messiah resounded in her head. Essentially, I was set up ... given an impossible goal, so it's not that unusual that I constantly felt that I was falling short of expectations. Other kids just had to deal with criticism like, "why can't you be more like your brother/sister/cousin." The criteria for my success seemed, at least to me, a tad more stringent. I had a higher point to aim for and many more opportunities to fail the entrance requirements for deity. 

In fact, the closest I ever got to performing a miracle was helping to deliver our kids (unless you count the time I shared some crackers and a can of sardines with a friend).

I was born in 1948. My father came from an orthodox Jewish family and mother had been raised Quaker. I'll go into that in more detail some other time. 

My father's family came from near Kiev in Ukraine and settled, for the most part, in Illinois and Michigan. The only members of his family that I really had contact with were my uncle Theodore, a fantastic concert pianist and extraordinarily gifted teacher of the instrument, his family, and on rare occasions my grandparents, Sol and Fanny. Occasionally cousins would make brief appearances but, without context, they were a source of confusion that had little to do with me. I know that I met my father's brother Norman and his family once, I'm not sure if I met his sister Miriam. 

I don't know why my parents chose to keep their kids so distant from our paternal relatives, but I was in my late middle age before I realized that there were other Lettvins out there. All of my father's family stories were of dead people and I had incorrectly assumed that we were the only ones left.

My mother's side was almost as much of a mystery. My grandmother Katherine's maiden name was Dietrich and she had been born in London and married Israel? Brady, a soldier from the U.S. who had joined a Canadian regiment notorious for toughness and wearing kilts known as "the ladies from hell." 

That sounds fairly simple, but wait. Brady wasn't his original last name. During immigration at Ellis Island, the agent had apparently rechristened my grandfather in order to avoid writing out the name Warshavsky on the paperwork. And where was my grandfather from? According to my usual sources (who are unclear if not downright fibbers) he was from a small town just outside Kiev. My father told me not to talk about this since, "the Warshavskys were well known to be supporters of the Czar." It was bad enough that he had married someone thought to be a shiksa, but all hell would break loose if they discovered that she was a Warshavsky.

With two exceptions, I didn't know my mother's family very well either. We seemed as remote from them as from my father's family. Leonard and Bernard lived in the mid-west, and Doris lived in California. The only exception to this separation were my grandmother and Aunt Ruth. My grandfather had deserted the family before I was born and (really ... I'm not making this up) run away with the circus. I met him only once. He showed me some magic tricks, I told him how he did them, and I was of no further interest.

My father's orthodox upbringing did not survive his education as a doctor, psychiatrist, and scientist. So I had no Hebrew school in my childhood. For a long time my concept of Judaism was a subset of people who were smart and told funny stories. It wasn't until my mid 30s that I went through any form of Jewish education, but that's a story for later.

My grandmother Katherine (who I will call Grandma from now on since Fanny wasn't really a factor in my life) was Quaker. My mother considered herself Quaker but, so far as I know, never went to meeting. Grandma was the only person who seemed to be interested in my spiritual upbringing and she took charge. I joined the Cambridge Society of Friends and learned about religion from them.

I now wobble between agnostic and atheist.

This is just an overview. Details and stories will follow. Always keep in mind that these are memories. Some are accurate some are faulty, and I have no way of telling the difference. Some are hearsay, some are hearsay of hearsay, some are misrepresentations, some are lies. Where I feel that it is best to protect identities, I'll use pseudonyms so old friends can breathe a sigh of relief. 

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