Friday, April 3, 2015

Uncle I and the Navajo Blanket

I usually post something for Good Friday; and also for Passover; which begins this evening. This year they both fall on the same day; leaving me in a conundrum; so I thought I’d do something different. Being the product of a mixed marriage I decided it would be more appropriate to tell a family story. It’s one that doesn’t get told often, and I thought I should be writing it down before it ends up lost to the ages.

This is one of those memories for which I do not have a photograph. Sometimes they are the best kinds of memories to have, as they allow the picture in your mind; which is always better than the photo; to survive intact with its full flavor unaltered by the perception of a photograph. It is also the story of my Uncle Irving; whom we called Uncle “I”; a Jewish man who goes to Los Angeles to visit his sister and on the way home stops in Los Vegas and takes a side trip to Colorado.

In the late 1950’s airline travel was still somewhat of a novelty, and my Uncle Irving; who was something of a novelty himself; took his first trip out west to see my Grandmother Dorothy; his sister; who had deserted Brooklyn along with the Dodgers, in Los Angeles. Neither entity was ever fully forgiven. The trip went well and on the way back Uncle I decided to visit Las Vegas, Nevada to play the slots. This is where the trouble actually began; although the poor man never even knew there was a problem until he got back to Brooklyn and my house.

I can still see the living room furniture clear in my mind’s eye as Uncle I sat on the sofa with a big bundle containing some “things” he had bought back from his trip for my brother and I. Anticipation filled the air around me as he unwrapped the mysterious treasures.

The first things out where 2 beaded Indian belts, supposedly hand crafted by Navajo Indians.  I was thrilled. My mother was not. She had noticed a swastika on the belt’s design. This was only 13 years after the end of the War, and in Brooklyn that was saying something. We had an inordinate amount of people with the telltale blue tattoos of the Concentration Camp on their wrists. But, if the belts weren’t enough to send my Mom into a tailspin, what came next certainly rose to the occasion.

The rug pictured above is probably a bit larger than the blankets my Uncle pulled out next. But it was the way in which he pulled them out that made the whole thing memorable. He unfurled them flat onto the living room floor with a flourish; as if they were the carpet containing Cleopatra.

So, there they were, right on the living room floor in Brooklyn, New York; two swastikas as large as the ones which flew over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The silence was; as they say; deafening; but brief. Mom; usually a quiet and reserved woman; went into a rage; proclaiming the offending items to be inappropriate; and how could you think this was okay; what are you, crazy? (The last was more of a statement than a question.)

Uncle I just kind of stood there in silence for a moment before he looked at my Mom with the eyes of someone looking at a fool, and said something like, “Well, you can always go back to Nevada and exchange them.” He wasn’t laughing.

Now, my father; who had been standing off to the side during this whole thing; really loved Uncle I, but he had to sleep with my Mom. Something needed to be done; quickly, and preferably without words.

Accordingly, he gathered the gifts up in his arms and left the living room. I heard the front door to the hallway open and close, and then he was gone. When he came back he looked triumphant. No, make that omniscient; or Solomon like. He had come up with the perfect solution; he threw the stuff down the incinerator.

You know, I have never really understood my mother’s reaction that day. My immediate response was typical for a 4 year old. I looked at my brother; who was barely 6 at the time; and we both exchanged looks of “Holy Cow!” But in retrospect; as both a parent and a grandparent; I think both my parents were nuts. Aside from my brother and me, the only sane one in the room that night was my Uncle Irving.

As a brief aside I should mention that my Uncle was acting in a fairly rational way; buying those blankets, considering he was Jewish. It displayed an acceptance of their culture; and the swastika; beyond the context of Adolph Hitler. The way he figured it, the Nazis almost destroyed the Jews; so why should he now; in defeat no less; get to torpedo the Navajo’s?

My mother; on the other hand; displayed a complete ignorance of what should have been within easy memory for her. The Indian tribes all gave up the use of their religious symbol for the duration of the war. They did this voluntarily and without passage of any laws directing they take such action. As a matter of fact, their conduct would serve as a great lesson in tolerance for both sides in the current Religious Freedom law debates. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It’s only when you realize you should, that you can.

I’m glad I got somewhere with this story, as I had no idea where I was headed with it when I began. There are lessons to be learned everywhere; particularly in the stories of our own lives.

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