Hidden Lives:
My Three Grandmothers

by Carole Garibaldi Rogers

Serving House Books, LLC, 2013. ISBN 978-0-985-84955-9.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 03/10/2014

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

The title of Hidden Lives: My Three Grandmothers hints at the essence of this book's concern—adoption—but there is much more to Carole Garibaldi Rogers' story of her family. It took her many years to piece together what she has learned, and she has carefully constructed this memoir to follow that journey of discovery. Hidden Lives: My Three Grandmothers reads like the mystery that she confronted in her research, which made me want to untangle the tale as much as she did—and forced me once again to accept the fact that we can never fully know anyone.

The catalyst to Rogers' long effort was the stunning revelation that her mother, Rita, was adopted. Rita had once been a little girl named Becky. That family secret came as an astonishing mid-life blow to Rogers, who was deeply hurt that her parents never shared such important history with their only child. Coming to terms with this strange reality engenders a mix of emotions including anger and even self-doubt as she wonders how she could have missed clues, and she finds herself filled with questions.

As a journalist and historian, Rogers' natural response is to go seeking answers, using every research skill she has. She describes her discoveries and frustrations and the growth that came from studying her family's history. Because she is writing years later, she is able to reflect on the meaning of the dogged pursuit and its larger significance.

While the social and political details that Rogers unearths are fascinating, particularly for anyone familiar with New York, it is her determination to understand, to try to feel what her parents and grandparents might have felt, and to see all of the people involved with a fresh and open eye, that made Rogers' story emotionally compelling for me. I admire her tenacious curiosity and courage, which takes her to new places, brings her close to family she'd never known, and closer to her own husband and sons. Working at learning from both her feelings and the facts she manages to uncover, Rogers confronts a changed ethnic and religious heritage, and gets a new slant on early 20th century immigration and political history.

I won't be a spoiler and give details, but it's fair to say that Rogers' book touches on Jewish, Catholic, Russian, German, and Italian immigrant experience with a specificity that is illuminating. She recognizes especially the part that women played in building new lives here, and their struggles with powerful Old World traditions. Her grandmothers become women of significance, representing a broader cultural experience. At the same time, Rogers is dealing with many questions that cannot be answered, no matter how she tries. The grandmothers had stories that passed away with them.

Perhaps it is our task, as Rainer Rilke suggested, to grow into loving the questions, rather than the answers. Carole Garibaldi Rogers learned to love the questions she could answer, and let go of those that she couldn't. Her struggles with the New York adoption bureaucracy have never rewarded her with her mother's adoption record. But she is at peace with what she knows. "I understand what it means to have roots. I know these women and I know I am made of sturdy stuff." Rogers acknowledges gifts along the way that she could never have anticipated, "sharing stories too long hidden...relaxing into truth and celebrating unknown ancestors...pursuing work that summons old skills and teaches new ones." No memoir writer could ask for better. As a memoir reader, I'm happy that Rogers shared those gifts.

As a journalist, oral historian, and poet, Carole Garibaldi Rogers has been writing for more than thirty years, being published in national newspapers and magazines including The New York Times and America. This is her eighth book. She holds an M.A. in theology and lives with her husband in Morristown, New Jersey. You can learn more on her website.

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