Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

NO REGRETS

A story helps me see things in a new light.

The holiday season makes me think of family and stories and especially of my grandfather who had a tale, it seemed, for almost all occasions. Once, when I was a teenager, I came home from school very upset about a well-meaning act I had performed that turned out badly. The details of that incident, I have long forgotten, but I'll always remember the story my grandfather told me in response. It was a true story from his own life.

My grandfather was born in 1892 and spent most of his childhood in the Polish city of Bialystok which was then under Tsarist rule. He immigrated to this country, arriving on November 26, 1912 and went to work as a "cutter" in the garment factories (which he called "the needle industry") in New York City. When the United States joined the First World War, my grandfather joined the American army and thus earned his American citizenship. Armed with his American passport, he went back to Bialystok in 1920 to see his family.

His visit occurred at a dangerous time. During his stay, the Bolsheviks who had attempted to take Warsaw had failed and were in retreat through Bialystok. The city was in a state of siege. No one was allowed to leave Bialystok even those with American passports. My grandfather must have panicked for he decided that he and his father must escape. At the last minute, his sister asked if my grandfather would also take with him the older of her two children, a boy of ten years.

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Through a series of escapades that read like an adventure novel, my grandfather managed to get himself, his father, and his nephew safely to Belgium and from there to the United States. But once they reached American shores, my grandfather was faced with a new challenge. How was he, a single man working fifty-nine hours per week, going to care for a boy of ten who spoke no English and desperately missed his family? "What were you thinking?" my grandfather's relatives asked him even as they took the young boy in.

Time passed and the young boy grew up, learned English, got a job, and eventually saved enough money to bring his brother to this country. The two young men, working together, raised the funds to bring over their parents. Some time later, World War II erupted and none of my relatives who had stayed in Europe survived the war. Almost certainly, my grandfather's sister would have been lost too.

"So you see," my grandfather said bringing me back to the present and to my own very small troubles, "don't be too quick to regret. See how things unfold." And then he added,

"The biggest mistake I ever made turned out to be the best thing I ever did."

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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