Carving My Identity From the Past


The past has a way of sneaking up on you and laying claim to your present.


It may not always be welcome, but in this case, it most definitely is, and it has enriched my life immensely.


When I was growing up on Long Island, my mother kept wood carvings in our basement. I didn’t have any great love for them. They were just pieces of old dirty wood that took up space.


Of course, to my mother, it wasn’t just  pieces of old wood. It was a piece of her and my father’s history. It had hung over the entrance to my grandfather’s supermarket in New York’s Chinatown, a Depression-era relic from another time – a reminder of how far her family had come, literally and figuratively, since they left the Old Country for the New World.


Cynical teen that I was, though, it was just pieces of rotting wood stuck in the corner of a musty basement. And my mother brought those pieces of wood with her when she moved from Long Island to Northern California and eventually to Dallas a few years ago so that she could be closer to me in the final years of her life.


Moved by nostalgia or filial duty – I’m not sure which – I had the pieces restored. As the details of the piece emerged – as the gilded branches and intricately carved flowers revealed themselves – so too did my appreciation for what my family had endured since they arrived on American soil generations ago. I have heard and retained only snippets, but it’s a story that resembles that of most American families: sacrifice, heartache, joy, love, marriage, deaths, births and all the other milestones that make up the tapestry of a family.


Each of my ancestors staked their claim – whether it was to a piece of land, another person or a dream – and did the best they could. My grandfather built a supermarket and eventually grew his holdings to encompass much more than that. He achieved a success his parents could probably only have dreamed about. And, through his son  (my father), me and now my son, his legacy lives on and, I hope, will be carried on for several generations more.


The wood carving that once welcomed shoppers into my grandfather’s supermarket now hangs in my home, in a decidedly 21st century setting framing my large flat-screen TV. It’s a nice contrast of old and new that always makes me smile.


I see it and I remember that sacrifices were made to give me the opportunities I have today. I remember that life is filled with joy and sadness and countless other emotions, and that even the bad days are gifts.


I remember that I can choose my own path, so I might as well choose the one that makes me happy. And I remember that we’re just borrowing this world from our grandchildren, so we need to make sure we leave them something beautiful to remember us by.