The Forgetting River

One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.
William Zisseer

I know nothing about why my grandparents fled their homes in Europe, how they viewed this country when they finally arrived, and the reasons they settled where they did. Now there is no one left to answer the many questions I have.

In The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition, Doreen Carvajal writes about this dilemma and her effort to unravel the mystery of her unknown past. All she knew was that her ancestors had left Spain centuries ago during the Inquisition, that her family had been raised as Catholics, and lived in Costa Rica and California.

But she always had doubts about her religion and, in time, began to think that her family was, in fact, Sephardic Jews, Christian converts known as conversos. The puzzle of her identity “so nagged at me that I tried to resolve it by collecting masses of evidence.”

She conducted interviews, read documents, analyzed records, had several DNA tests, none of which were conclusive, and finally moved to Arcos de la Frontera, a small village in southern Spain where she knew her ancestors had lived before the Inquisition.

There she began to discover hidden clues and cryptic messages that hinted at her past. Carvajal writes, “Persecution forces secret communication. It provokes a unique form of creativity, truth delivered between the lines to careful observers.” But none of these clues gave her the kind of evidence that provided conclusive proof of her historical identity.

As a writer and journalist, all she wanted was a scrap of paper with some words, perhaps a paragraph or two. Finally she found it in an old wooden desk hidden away a small drawer, where small cards were kept. On the back of one, she writes:

“…was a prayer, Psalm. The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, They will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the temple of our God They will still bear fruit in old age. I clasped my hand over my mouth in disbelief. Luz Carvajal, who had told others in the family that we were sefarditas, had gone to the grave with a traditional Sabbath prayer, the shir shel yom, “a psalm, a song for the day of Sabbath.”

It had taken Carvajal 13 years to find the little funeral card stashed in the drawer of the old desk. Taken together with other clues she had discovered in her search, her doubts about her religious upbringing were finally over. She knew her family was actually of Sephardic Jewish ancestry whose identity was hidden, had to be hidden to survive, and silenced for centuries.

Elsewhere she speculates on why the mystery of her history had always haunted her. She wonders if the history of our ancestors is somehow conveyed in unexplained ways from one generation to the next. Investigators of this process tell her that the only way this can happen, other than the normal sources of verification, is through genetic transmission.

At the heart of the field known as epigenetics is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents…can directly affect us decades later.” So this is where the trail has led her, questions of genetic influence, mode of transmission, difficult questions that are no less puzzling than her initial ones.

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started... and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot