How Hannah Gadsby Helped Me Reclaim My Omi’s Story
While organizing oral histories of Jewish women this summer, I have grappled with the loss of my Omi’s (my mother’s grandmother) story. She passed away when my mother was twenty-six and she never had the chance to have her story recorded. Even though I never met Omi, I see connections to her everywhere, from her old sewing kit in my mother’s closet, to the cigarette smoke that still permeates my grandmother’s house, to familial anecdotes about her escape from Nazi Germany, her love for her only son, and the struggles of raising him as a single mother.
While fact checking Omi’s story with my grandmother, I learned that the story I thought I knew was actually a myth I had created, compelling and easily digestible. To me, she was a strong but tragic figure, a woman who fled the Nazis only to be left by her husband after their arrival in the United States, who was then forced, because of circumstances outside of her control, to build a life for herself and her son.
This narrative was complicated by my recent viewing of Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, Nanette. In this special, Gadsby tells the audience, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly.”
Omi never had a chance to tell her story properly. Decades after her death, I feel a distinct obligation to do just that.
Unlike the tidy story I believed, Omi’s marriage ended because of decisions she made. I assumed the agency of a woman rested on a man, and this assumption fogged Omi’s entire story. She cheated on her husband, secretly changed her son’s last name, and created a hardened rift between her only son and his father. She was also a skilled clothing designer, a polyglot, a committed grandmother, and a force to be reckoned with––carrying power and a pack of cigarettes everywhere she went. Omi’s story is neither clean nor concise; to give power to one part of this story over the other, in short, is to expect from our foremothers a simplified, passive existence.
I thought Omi’s story should have been collected because I thought I knew what her story was. I had created an easy narrative that both mythologized and sanctified her. Unknowingly, I forged an account of Omi as a “perfect woman” who spent her days working and her nights taking care of her son. I created this partial portrayal of her due to not having her recorded story, and an assumption that, although she was determined enough to get out of Nazi Germany, her agency and power remained within the confines of societal expectations of women. I had assumed a woman at that time would never willingly part ways with her husband. Omi’s story is not this simple.
Just like the limitations of the comedy that Gadsby addresses, there too remains a margin in history and the way in which it’s recorded. Women’s history already exists in the margins, so when we edit their stories for comfort or palatability we perpetuate a one-dimensional version of a multi-dimensional person’s life, leaving their full stories to be half-told and half-forgotten. We have a tendency to steer away from engaging with their complexities; to paraphrase Gadsby, we do not give focus to the part that has power.
Like the tangled but beautiful threads in the antique sewing kit that reminds me so much of her, Omi’s story is complicated, made more so by the fact that I don’t know what parts of her story she would like remembered. Like the pins that stick me when I try to unravel her story, her life was sharp, striking, and entangled. Sharp like her demeanor. Entangled like her story.
If we do not write the full dimensions of women’s stories, contemporary women lose out on the collective wisdom of women’s lives from history (a wisdom that men have been able to benefit from for generations). As a culture, we are still struggling with an adequate vocabulary that can describe the breadth of women’s personhood and identities. When we bravely sit with the complicated reality of historical women’s lives, women of today become a little less alone in their struggles.
Towards the end of Nanette, Gadsby reflects, “What I would've done to have heard a story like mine.”
Hannah Gadsby’s story is not Omi’s, who never had to face the violence and erasure that comes with being a lesbian in a homophobic world. But Gadsby’s methodology, her bravery and insistence that she tell her full story, inspires me to be brave in facing, and in sharing, the complicated reality of Omi’s story.
While I will never know the full truth of Omi’s life, sharing the fuller version of her story, allows this multifaceted, complicated woman to exist in all of her tension, and can perhaps provide solace to the women who share part of Omi’s experience. Not only is sitting with this truth okay; it is vital in our attempt to begin to embrace and give credit to the wholeness of women’s lives––past and present.