A Dark, Musty, Gorgeous Room Of My Own – Jan Berlfein Burns

It may seem strange that after two decades, I had chosen to take my first ever solo vacation away from my husband and children to the Family History Library of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Stranger still that I came with a group of Jewish genealogists who’d been making this pilgrimage for years. Not exactly a lakeside retreat, with a stack of good books and long luxurious naps in a hammock strung between whispering pines. But after twenty years of marriage and raising a family, my inner world had taken a trampling as I’d suppressed my own needs and wants in favor of everyone else in the family. I’d become disconnected from the braver young woman I used to be. And I was an amateur genealogist looking for information on my family. This was more than a pastime for me. Family genealogy was my passion, and the Family History Library was Mecca for genealogists. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City holds the world’s largest collection of genealogical records, and not just for Mormons, but for everyone in the western world. The library, established in 1894, began as the Genealogical Society of Utah and now supports 4,300 satellite family history libraries around the world. The library initially evolved and grew because Mormons wanted to perform posthumous baptisms on their dead ancestors but needed a way to find out who they were. So, missionaries were sent to collect and store genealogical data for all people in the U.S. in order to track them for  these post-death baptisms. The baptisms stemmed from the belief that only those baptized or “sealed” through a special ceremony in the Church of the Latter-Day Saints can be joined together with their kindred dead for all eternity. According to the Church, the dead do have the choice to say no. How that works, I’m not sure. But Mormons began to posthumously convert Jewish Holocaust victims. For obvious reasons this was considered sacrilege by some. As a Jewish woman interested in preserving my ancestors, this was troubling. But I learned, after looking into it that in 1995 after some legal wrangling, the Mormon Church came to an agreement with the Jewish community to ban baptisms of Holocaust victims and invalidate those baptisms that had already been performed.


With a son in college and my daughter old enough to drive, I sat down at the dinner table one night and said,  “I’m going to Salt Lake City with a Jewish genealogy group for a week in October.” My daughter and husband appeared shocked into silence. I would have laughed but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. “What?” They said simultaneously. I felt my heart beating, but not with fear or doubt. With certainty. “You’re both old enough to manage on your own without me for a week,” I said. “You’re leaving us for a whole week?” My daughter asked. “Yes, while I’m searching out long lost relatives you two can have some quality time together– just the two of you,” I said, smiling gleefully. What I didn’t know was that this trip would teach me as much about myself as it revealed about the family lineage I’d long been looking for.


The airport shuttle dropped me at the hotel downtown. The Jewish Genealogical research trip had booked rooms at a modest high-rise hotel next door to the Family History Library. As someone who had managed a household on a budget with a single earner (my husband) for years, I had learned how to stretch a dollar. Out of habit, I decided not to spring for a room of my own and instead opted for a roommate. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having a roommate, but it would save money. And I’d feel less guilty, I reasoned, if I didn’t have exactly what I wanted. I was amazed, later, how easily I slipped into this mode of thinking, of placing myself last, of putting others before me, even when they weren’t going to be there. Once inside my room I saw an upholstered suitcase lying open on the queen bed nearer to the bathroom. The heavy draperies were closed so the room was dark and I couldn’t see how ugly the brown and green bedspreads were. I crossed the room and when I pulled back the draperies to let in some light I found myself looking at the sidewall of the Family History Library. So much for a room with a view. I hoisted my suitcase onto my bed, unzipped it and began to unpack. I was just closing the dresser drawer when I heard a key turn in the lock. “You-who,” said my roommate, Marlene, as she opened the door.  Then, before I could say anything, she hollered out, “I hope you don’t mind. I took the bed closer to the bathroom. We can switch if you do, but I already put all my stuff on the nightstand. I’ve kind of settled in but if you want this bed, I’ll just move all my stuff.” “No, no. That’s fine,” I said. I recognized subterfuge when I saw it. But to be polite I said, “I prefer the window.” She didn’t miss a beat before launching into the whole chronology of details about her grandfather from Poland. Genealogists tended to assume everyone was as enthralled with their family as they were. I tried to be polite. But as she went on and on, our room seemed to grow smaller by the minute. At one point, almost sheepishly, she admitted she was a practicing Mormon, not Jewish, but that she was there to discover more information on her grandfather who was a Jew. I didn’t care, except I did wonder idly if she was going to try to posthumously baptize him in some kind of secret ceremony, now outlawed by the Church. I felt trapped, trapped by my good manners and desire to make everyone else comfortable, often at the expense of myself.  I was hoping that my weeklong escape from the confines of family responsibilities wasn’t going to turn into a different form of taking care of someone else – this time one created by myself, and my tendency to penny pinch my pleasures for the greater good. Marlene finally paused in her story long enough to suggest we go downstairs for the meet and great. She found me again and monopolized me. Later that night in our room, after she yammered on and on, she finally turned out the light and said goodnight. At about midnight, I woke out of a hazy dream to a loud sound reverberating through our hotel room. Was that an earthquake? Was it an early winter blizzard? It took me a minute to realize that Marlene snored like a locomotive. By 5:00 a.m. I couldn’t stand it any longer so I got up, dressed in a pair of sweats and running shoes and ventured out into the dark morning of downtown Salt Lake City. I wasn’t prepared for the cold so my walk quickly turned into a run just to keep myself warm. The adjacent neighborhood of quaint streets was lined with historic clapboard and brick homes. All was quiet and peaceful but I was chilled to the bone and bone tired. Not to mention irritated with myself. What bothered me most was how I had been so negligent of my own needs that I didn’t even book a room of my own. This thought brought to mind Virginia Woolf’s classic book, A Room of One’s Own. “A woman,” she famously wrote, “must have money and a room of her own to write.” While I was not there to write a novel, I was still there to nourish my creative soul. Let no one tell you that genealogy is a nerdy pastime for retired old folks. It is an artistic pursuit, requiring discipline, deductive reasoning and imagination. Why had I not been true to my own purpose? Why, when this was so important to me had I allowed myself to capitulate to my habits of financial frugality and in the process deny myself my own room? When I returned to our room, Marlene was up and getting ready to go downstairs to breakfast. “You were up and out nice and early. How did you sleep last night?” She asked in a bright, friendly voice. Throughout my morning run I’d been rehearsing in my mind how I could tell her that she snored without sounding mean. But in the end, I just blurted out,  “Well, I didn’t sleep so well. Your snoring kept me up all night.” “Oh, I’ve been told that I snore,” she said disingenuously. “Doesn’t seem to wake me though. I can pick up some earplugs for you at the drugstore. That might help.” Earplugs would not help drown out that noise, but more importantly, she clearly didn’t seem to grasp the simple fact that she should never have bunked with anyone given her snoring. Then I realized I was blaming her for my discontent when the mistake had been mine to begin with. This trip was supposed to be my liberation, my time to be selfish, my time to delve into my family history on my own schedule without interruptions or other obligations. But I’d held back when it came to reserving a room of my own. That miserly “you-don’t-deserve-it” voice had once again forced on me a compromise. But hadn’t Wolfe told us about herself to give us permission to be bold, “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind?” Did I dare? Lack of sleep, a vague disappointment in myself; these thoughts stayed with me as I showered, changed, and gathered all my research notebooks full of half answered questions, and headed out for my first day at the library. I hated to be impolite and I was torn between accommodating everyone else’s needs and wants and looking out for myself without feeling unduly selfish. What troubled me most was why it had not been second nature to fully give myself this gift, but instead to scrimp and deny for the benefit, I realized, of no one.


My disappointment was quickly replaced by goosebumps as I walked into the lobby of the library for the first time. I became instantly giddy over all of the people to be discovered, all the stories to be revealed, all the connections to be made with my ancestors. The week stretched out before me. The people I was looking for were dead already. They asked nothing of me. For an introverted soul, the sanctuary of the library and the fact that my ancestors couldn’t talk back to me, drew me in. But puzzling out relationships, solving mysteries and finding my own story through my connection to the people in my family line who had come before me was thrilling. There was no place I would rather have been in that moment. There in the library I was detached from my everyday life of wife, mother, daughter, and sister. Nobody could contact me. I was out of range and had a whole week to time travel into my family history. So, with the help of one of the missionaries who roamed the library freely offering help I finally found out my grandmother’s name. Ruchel Stern was listed on the manifest page titled Record of Detained Aliens. She’d made the transatlantic crossing with her cousin. But since they were young girls, they could only enter the country by being released to an older family member. The manifest indicated that she was picked up by a cousin and taken to his home, which confirmed stories I’d heard from my father. Caught up in my discovery, I tried to imagine my grandmother’s journey before she was detained on Ellis Island and her nearly two-week ocean voyage in steerage class. My sleepless night in a downtown hotel with a snoring roommate lost some of its hold on me. To think that my grandmother was probably only fourteen years old when she arrived in New York, from a shtetl in Eastern Europe, knowing no English, (according to the ship’s records) to pave the way for the rest of the family to come later put every little roommate nuisance into perspective. I imagined the kind of courage she must have mustered to make her way from her rural mountain shtetl in Galicia to the teeming streets of the lower east side of New York. She was just a little girl. I was a grown woman. I bet she would never have put up with a snorer in a cheesy motel room. I bet she would never have limited her choices either, the way I had. I headed back to the motel room, reluctantly leaving an exhilarating day at the library. Then I remembered something else Virginia Wolfe said… “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, [the poet] for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Without another thought, I went to the hotel desk and paid for another room. Relief. Then something new came over me. Or maybe not new, just long dormant.  I thought about my family back home. It had taken me two decades to speak up and claim this independence for myself. In my absence, I wondered if they appreciated all I had done for all those years to make our house feel treasured and safe. Did they have any idea how I struggled to reconcile putting my personal interests above theirs for this one week? I retrieved my suitcase and left Marlene a note. “Thanks for the offer of the earplugs but I thought it best to get my own room.” Anxious to get back to the library so that I could work some more before it closed, I dumped my suitcase in my new room without unpacking and ran back to the library. With a renewed sense of independence and joy, I stayed until closing, leaving the library carrying pages of information to study that night in my very own room. No question, it was just as ugly as the first one, with the same musty odor and the same window view of the side of the library wall. But when I unlocked the door, I felt like I’d stumbled into a room for a queen. I fell on my bed with outstretched arms in glee. A room of my own and a collection of photocopied documents about dead people. I couldn’t have wanted anything more. Later as I crawled into bed, I wondered if Marlene was going to baptize her dead Jewish grandfather into the Mormon faith. If she tried, I hoped that wherever he was, he’d refuse the offer.   Jan Berlfein Burns has published in Avotaynu, Jewish Journal, 34th Parallel, self-published March of the Living ~ 0ur Stories, a collection of stories of Holocaust survivors, and spoken to audiences in Antwerp, Paris, London, Los Angeles and Tucson about the Holocaust and preservation of family stories. She is a writer, genealogist, and photographer. She has two grown children and has been married for 34 years.

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