This is a story about not having a choice in one’s curiosity. About the burning need some of us have to learn even the most basic things about our origins, and ourselves.
It is the story of Sondra Kolker’s search for the father she had not seen since childhood.
“You can’t help but want to know” is how Jenny Perlman put it.
Which reminded me of another kind of family story, another journey of discovery and self-knowledge:
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A Family Album
Ironically, we began at the end. The first real clue about what had become of Aaron J. Perlman, born in Brooklyn, was that he was buried in Paducah.
But how did a nice Jewish boy from New York end up in a church yard in Kentucky? And how did he become “Jack”?
Frank and Celia Perlman immigrated to the United States in 1906. They made a home in New York and had three sons — Samuel, Aaron and Louis.
Like all good men of his time, Frank registered for the draft for World War I. Nearly 35, he wasn’t likely to serve, but years later his draft registration card became the first proof Sondra had about how to spell her birth name.
A little legwork on Ancestry.com, a little luck, and the dots began to connect. We found a phone number to the husband of a cousin and made an almost-desperate, random call. “He was at my wedding!” the unsuspecting dentist-cum-cousin-in-law laughed in delight.
That call led to the cousin, and the cousin’s sister, and their very elderly mother, who might have met Sondra, once, a very long time ago.
More searching turned up a half brother who died too young. And a devoted sister-in-law, who honored her husband’s memory by keeping what photos there were and who had always wondered what had become of the little girl whom no one had known.
And a ring. A ring that Jack, who once was Aaron, wore every day and which Jenny Perlman would give to Sondra Kolker “because it belonged in the Perlman family.”
And, finally, two little Voice-O-Graph records in torn paper sleeves whose provenance was unknown and technology long-since eclipsed, but two little discs that could, through the miracle of modern technology, be converted and offer up the voices of Jack and young Frank, circa 1953.
The poet Raymond Carver wrote in “Late Fragment”, his last poem:
And did you get what You wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself Beloved on the earth.
It was a circuitous path, but in the end, they all – Sondra, Jenny, Jack – they all have felt themselves beloved on this earth.
It’s still a bit of a mystery how Aaron J. Perlman, born June 14, 1911, of Frank and Celia, originally of Poland, then of Brooklyn, found his way to Paducah and ended up as Jack, but so many other unknowns have been answered, it’s hard to quibble.
We might learn more. We can stay curious.
Special thanks to my generous and much-loved story tellers: Sondra Kolker, David Kolker, Jennifer Mendelsohn and Jenny Perlman; to the good folks at George Blood, LLC who converted the Voice-O-Graph recordings; and to the indefatigable Antonio Villaronga who helped clear out the static so we could hear Jack’s voice in the story as well.
For more on Jennifer Mendelsohn’s work, visit her Facebook page @CleverTitleTK.
Music for this episode used under Creative Commons: Lost by Tyops, Piano Moods by Herbert Boland, Sky Loop by FoolBoyMedia, and Piano Abstract by Yewbic, all of Freesound, as well as an instrumental interpretation of What A Wonderful World by Robert at archive.org and Cinematic Piano #025, 013, 015 from RoyaltyFreeMusic.