April 5, 2014
Shirley Abbott’s quote says, “We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors live in the attics of our brain as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.” My life is full of connections with my ancestors and relatives. I am proud of my family’s values that have contributed to who I am today, and I thank my relatives and ancestors for it all.
With every Broadway show I see, every musical I perform, every song I sing, I recognize that my love of the arts and artistic expression has grown from my roots. This came from the core of my mom’s side of the family. The value of artistic expression (in Hebrew Bee-too-ee-o-mah-noo-tee), in particular theatre, is my miracle and blessing, but I wouldn’t have these values without my great grandma starting the tradition.
My great grandma’s love of theatre shaped her daughter’s, my grandma’s, love of the arts. When my great grandma, Elizabeth, who I, Samantha Elizabeth, am named after, was a young girl and her parents thought she was asleep, she would actually be dancing around and acting out roles from plays and books. She also wrote poetry and took my mom and her other granddaughters to plays and paid for them to have dance lessons. She even played the male roles in her high school Shakespearean performances. Like her mother’s artistic expressions, my grandma, during college, wrote lyrics to songs for all of her college’s plays, and edited the yearbook.
My grandma decided to go to Columbia University to get her Master’s in playwriting. Although my grandma didn’t complete the program, she got a job at a magazine called Publishers Weekly and she progressed to become a head editor. Later as a stay-at-home mom, she would still express her love of the arts and Broadway by teaching her daughters all the lyrics from the musicals. For example, she would play the piano at home and would spin musical records with my mom and aunts.
My grandma was a talented creative writer. She participated in my mom’s high school’s arts education by supporting a program that made sure that everyone was able to be involved in music or the chorus. After she passed away, my mom and aunts started a scholarship in her name at their high school to encourage creative arts, writing, and musical theatre. No one could have had a better role model than I did in fostering my passion for theatre and creativity
My grandpa was also one of my wonderful inspirations for artistic expression. Through his years of school, he loved being on the stage and was the lead in many of his school plays. Later, he took a summer job at a hotel called Green Mansion, where lots of singers and actors went to perform. He met and even had lunch with many of these future stars, such as Carol Burnett, who eventually was the lead in “Once Upon A Mattress” on Broadway, the same show I recently starred in at my school. I can remember my grandpa listening to music or seeing me in a show, and looking into his eyes, seeing his memories flow back.
My mom is the most directly responsible for my love of artistic expression. She sang me Broadway songs at bedtime and she took me to Broadway shows; she encouraged me to take singing lessons or try out for plays. During my mom’s early school years, she starred in all her school plays, too, such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story,” “Little Women,” and many more. My mom also was in school choruses with the best singers. Today, when we go to shows, I watch her experiencing Broadway; smiling, leaning forward, in that red velvet seat. I always say my mom and I are so different, but when it comes to theatre, well, it brings us just a little closer.
I remember the moment I walked off stage after being the lead in “Once Upon A Mattress.” My mom threw her hands up, screaming that I performed amazingly. As I ran away to change out of my seaweed costume, I could see my mom’s glowing pride, which wouldn’t allow her to peel away from me. Although I may not have appreciated her in that moment, I realize now that her pride came from our shared love for theatre.
From my dad’s side of the family, I have a love of new experiences (in Hebrew: nee-sa-yohn). I love to travel and try new things. My grandpa on my dad’s side, Poppy, had many new experiences in his life. When confronted with the option of keeping things plain and the same, or doing something new, he always chooses the latter. After growing up in New Jersey, he went to college for a while until he joined the Air Force. This was when he met my grandma. What he has taught me from this is that trying new things can lead to new and wonderful outcomes. There are many great adventures in life, and it can be hard to choose the right path. From what my grandpa’s values have taught me, I will always choose the path that will lead to a new experience for me.
Like Poppy, Nanny also loves experiencing new things in her life. From her, I’ve learned strength (in Hebrew: ko-ach). She grew up in England during World War II and had a bomb shelter in her backyard. She told me a story about hanging up black curtains to cover any light so the bombs would avoid her home. She explained how there was rationing of food and the whole town didn’t have any chocolate because of the war! Now, that must have taken a lot of strength!
Maybe moving between England and America with his parents gave my dad his passion for different cuisines and an adventurous spirit. My dad is a master restaurant selector. Almost every weekend, someone is texting him, asking for a restaurant idea. He loves his Zagat Guide and his ChowHound website. The joy he feels in trying a new restaurant is similar to the joy he feels in trying almost any new experience, such as traveling. My dad began his life in New Jersey, until the age of two. His family moved to England and one of my dad’s brothers was born there. Later, the family moved to California and another brother was born and the family eventually moved back to England.
My dad doesn’t try new things just to say that he did them. He enjoys the process of learning from each new opportunity and is chock full of random facts from all he’s learned. He can answer any question anyone asks him. One time when we walked around downtown New York City, I remember my dad rambling on about famous architecture facts and the neighborhood’s history. Though all I heard was, “blah, blah, blah,” I really do appreciate that he is so knowledgeable. To most families, education (in Hebrew, Chee-nuch) is important, but to mine, it’s paramount.
My mom’s grandma is also responsible for my valuing education. She was born in Russia and received an education with tutors there when no Jewish people in Russia were allowed to attend school. At eight years old, my great grandma came to this country speaking no English. Education was so important to my great grandma’s family. She worked so rigorously in America that she (and her sister) became valedictorian, on top of skipping two grades. She attended Hunter high school and described it as the best four years of her life, and Hunter was also the place that inspired her to be a teacher for thirty-five years. My great-grandma’s loving family had only enough money for just one child to go to Hunter College. My great-grandma was smart and lucky enough to be the one who went, thanks to her sister’s support.
Further, the value of education is not foreign to the rest of my mom’s family. My grandma studied to be a playwright and went to Brandeis, which she loved so much that, even years and years later, she talked about it all the time. My mom went to Hamilton College and law school at Emory University and is really involved in my school’s PTA because she knows education is important.
And although my dad’s parents didn’t finish college, they still value intelligence and learning (in Hebrew, Chach-ma). Poppy went to Hebrew School and attended college for a short while, and loves to read, as does my Nanny. When I visited my paternal grandparents’ house, I realized that Poppy reads about three books a week! Nanny didn’t go to college because in Britain at the time, poor girls didn’t go to school. After my dad went to Duke, he went to the University of Virginia to get a graduate degree in business. His education, as well as my mom’s, inspires me to continue to learn forever.
Although both sides of my family love to learn, they love each other even more. Nanny lost her father when she was very young and had to stay with strangers during World War II to be safe from the bombing. From these events, she cherishes her family always. When I go to Nanny’s house, she still makes the chocolate roulade cake that she made for my dad as a kid. I haven’t experienced the same difficult things that my grandma did, but she taught me to always love family.
One of my favorite family stories to hear comes from my dad’s father, Poppy. He told me about visiting a pub with a friend when he had some time off from the Air Force. He went in and his friend asked if he knew the girls at the bar. The way he explains it to me is, when he saw one particular girl, he knew he would soon marry her. He lost her number, but he actually found her again! Fate took over and my grandparents never looked back and created a loving family.
My grandpa on my mom’s side was never without a smile when he was with his grandkids. He was always proud of us. My grandma was always outgoing and loving, even in the hospital with tubes. When she was probably in pain, she never wanted us to see it. She loved her family so much she always gave me gifts and wrote poems during her time in the hospital and nursing home. Though I can’t show all of you the doodles on the side of my grandma’s poems to me, I would like to share her caring words.
The poem is called “Happy Birthday, Ten Years Old.” “Sam, Samantha, Sammy. Hope your birthday is a whammy. I am sending you a few small gifties. Hope you think they’re rather nifty. And I want to shout aloud, you always make me very proud.”
My parents’ families started with similar core values, the love of the arts, new experiences, learning, and family. As our families progress, so do our values. I will try to always remember that these values don’t come from nowhere, they come from my family. One of my favorite quotations states, “Like branches on a tree, our lives may grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one.”