Origami Grandfather

Shortlisted in CBSs Bloodlines competition and published online.

The beginning has to start somewhere. This is it. My genealogy research began with my curiosity about this man, my paternal grandfather. I’ve searched the internet, travelled to countries I had never seen before, visited villages I didn’t know existed, jumped onto and over headstones, and asked for information from archives and libraries in a language that has forced me to walk on unsteady feet. This is my first story, a story about meeting my grandfather, a man who died 40 years before I was born. A few glasses of wine went in, more than a few tears came out.

Origami Grandfather

I am not a writer. I am an origami artist. This is difficult, this unfolding of my paper people and transcribing their folds into words on this flat sheet of non-existent paper on my computer screen.

Grandfather Emil, born in 1880 in a part of Hungary that is no longer Hungary, dead in a Siberian POW camp in 1920. My mother said he was an alcoholic. Her mother-in-law would pull her aside, quietly ask if her son was becoming an alcoholic like his father.   This was the shape of my grandfather.

My mother was good at keeping important papers. My father was not. I have a stack of his folded ragged-edged papers that feel as smooth as felt. I find three different copies of his birth certificate issued at different times. To prove his existence, to prove his existence is not Jewish, to prove he is fit for military service. Documents found and lost, lost and found.

I hold one and see a shadow of ink on the back. I softly open it to feel its secrets with my hands. This paper has a memory, it wants to close itself up again. My grandfather’s occupation is written in dark ink by someone else’s hand, abbreviated, with an obviousness known to that writer but not to me. I think it tells me that my grandfather was a geography teacher. I start to make connections to my own life. Because that’s what happens. A fine thread loops through that paper and begins to attach itself to me.

I hold this shape of my grandfather as an alcoholic geography teacher for some time. Odd, I think, that a tiny village of small houses with straw roofs and dirt floors would have a geography teacher. With persistence I discover a different truth, that my grandfather was a teacher and cantor for a church. Then more truths, a love or is it two, babies buried and sorrows born, the grip of hunger, funerals so many of them, why not then an addiction before a typhus-infested body gives up to death. New threads appear, take root.

This origami art has taken years to create. I am precise with my folds, not creasing the paper until the edges and corners line up, correcting my mistakes when I find them. But mistakes leave their trace. I wonder if my grandfather started life with a fondness for geography, or maps, or travel.

This imperfect origami is my addiction. I have created hundreds of paper people bound with thin threads to each other and to me, some bigger than others, some intricate, some too small to fold. They hover around me in a shifting constellation of my own creation, each one once as unique as a snowflake until time started the great thaw that left behind only these shadows on scraps of paper that I try feverishly to fold, construct, make stand, or sometimes leave to languish in a file folder.

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Copyright Christine Leviczky Riek

(short-listed for CBC Canada Writes Bloodlines, December 2013)