By Carola Schmidt
Reviewed by De Gevallene, April 2021
Sometime back I reviewed “Tell me a Story Babushka” – an inspiring little book – so I was delighted to see that it now has a sequel.
The first book dealt with the experience of a child fleeing from persecution and famine, a tale told in comfortable old age to the refugee’s grandchild. Intriguingly, this second volume looks at the same old lady’s nostalgia for her “home country”, and her experience in revisiting it.
Like the earlier volume, this is a nuanced and delicate exploration, yet written in deceptively simple terms which a child can relate to. And in a sense it is a much more universal story, gently probing issues that actually touch all of us, adult and child.
For migrants, and their children, there is the evident fact of a relationship to a different country, which often provokes an interrogation – internal or external – of personal allegiances, of national identity, of integration versus heritage. For many migrants these issues are central to both personal and public identity . “Why don’t you go home?” – the hostile taunt levied against descendants of migrants even generations later. And “Where do I really belong?” – the ghost of a distant mother country may haunt or sustain a family long after the reality of that country is forgotten. This little book explores these questions in a gentle way that will be important for these children.
But beneath these specific of geography and heritage, which may be comforting or troubling for children in migrant families, there is a deeper issue that touches all of us. Babushka holds a distant country in her heart that she thinks of as home, yet she discovers when she visits, that the country in the present world is not the country in her heart. Everything moves on. There are links, echoes, threads that she can trace, but the past that formed her is a lost world.
So it is for all of us. We are all of us migrants across time, even if we never leave the place where we were born.
The refrain of most older people – “in my day….” “when I was young…” – is a nostalgic summoning of world that is as lost as the motherland of the migrant. Just as babyhood is lost to the child, and childhood to the adolescent. To keep breathing, we all must continually climb upwards, away from our origin, into the unfamiliar fragile present, adjusting, making new connections, and yet sometimes feeling less and less secure. And looking back down into the past, even if its truth was not quite happy, we all feel nostalgia – a Greek word, literally meaning “the aching for home”. Yes – homesickness.
This little book confronts a double displacement of geography and time, and does justice to both of them, gently asserting the value of both the new world and the old. Beyond that, it asserts the continuity of the heart, with a deft assurance that will be strengthening to many children at times of loss or change or uncertainty or alienation.
Some of us lose our geographical roots and we all lose our temporal ones. But however far we travel, our heart comes with us.