It’s 1902 and Ross Kenneth Urken’s paternal grandfather, Paul Urken, leaves Riga, Latvia, arrives in Trenton, and opens a bicycle and glass shop. Twenty-one years later, in 1933, he marries Eunice, class of 1932 at Temple University, and four quick years later moves the glass shop to Princeton. In 1939 the store switches largely to hardware, keeping some glass until 1972 when Paul’s son, Irvin, joins the business. Then in 2002, Urken Supply Co., the longtime landmark on Witherspoon Street, closes its doors, and Ross Kenneth Urken, about 16, is on his way to becoming a writer and storyteller.
Working in the hardware store fed Urken’s imagination. “I got exposed to so many characters around town and always wondered about their stories, what influenced them to act in particular ways,” he says.
“I think it was really that curiosity that drove me to want to be able to talk to people, tell their stories, learn what makes them tick. As a nosy younger brother, journalism is the ideal job — excepting spy!”
Of course, Urken’s parents read to him, like good Princeton parents, and he was surrounded by books. But he had another special influence, one he writes about in his new book, “Another Mother,” which he will talk about Wednesday, October 30, at 6 p.m. at Labyrinth Books at 122 Nassau Street. “Another Mother” was released by Ian Randle Publishers on October 21.
Metaphor is Urken’s medium, not only in his writing but in conversation. Asked what drew him to writing about his relationship with his “other mother,” the family’s nanny, Dezna Sanderson, Urken starts with his unusual accent — something people are always asking him about.
Urken explains he has “a peculiar way of enunciating and a peculiar rhythm,” one he learned from Dezna’s lilt, with its “subtle Caribbean nuance.”
This shared way of speaking raises for Urken questions of personal identity, and in his book he explores more deeply how Dezna influenced his own developing identity — beyond the superficiality of an accent. “A lot of the stuff we can register as external influences,” he says, “often belies what is going on underneath and how much these ‘other mothers’ can influence our sensibilities.”
Dezna had come to the United States in 1987, fleeing from the volatile politics of her Jamaican homeland. She arrived at the Urkens not too long after, when he was a year-and-a-half old.
Dezna “maintained order and calm” in his family, he says, where the “high degree of transparency and honesty” meant loud verbal interactions between his parents, Irvin and Cindy Urken, who eventually divorced, remarried, and this year have divorced again.
“Their relationship arithmetic traces the route of an irregular cardiogram,” Urken wrote in a May 12, 2010, blog in the New York Times titled “Happily Divorced,” published a couple of weeks before his parents’ remarriage.
“I don’t subscribe to the belief that there are these perfect families who never fight and who are perfectly posed like in a Norman Rockwell version of life,” Urken says. But, he adds, “it can help to have an outsider-insider on ground level, sort of coaching a family along.”
Not only was Dezna “the anchor in the drywall of our house,” Urken says. She also brought “a level of spirituality and love of nature, and she allowed us to keep everything in perspective.”
Another part of Urken’s identity is his Judaism. His grandparents were founding members of the Jewish Center, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. Urken attended the Jewish Center’s nursery and religious schools, celebrated Shabbat with his family, and became a bar mitzvah in 1999.
Although today he does attend services and recently started a Talmud study program for New York Princeton alumni with the campus Chabad rabbi, Eitan Webb, as a youngster Jewish stories were important to him. “I connected like most Jewish kids to the humor, the cultural extensions of Judaism — in stand-up, movies, and literature,” he says.
Looking at Dezna’s Seventh Day Adventist affiliation through a Jewish lens, he saw more commonalities. Both religions celebrate the Sabbath from Friday night through Saturday, and neither eats pork or shellfish.
Dezna’s Jamaican origins also led Urken to Rastafari, a religion that developed in Jamaica. It was influenced by Ethiopian Jews, Urken says, and Rastafaris believe that Emperor Haile Selassie was a descendant of the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
When Urken went to Jamaica to pursue Dezna’s story, he found another tantalizing connection between Jamaica and his own religious tradition: a crony of the Captain Henry Morgan, a “Jewmaican” pirate, Moses Cohen Henriques, whose descendants are now friends of Urken’s.
In his book Urken interposes moments in Dezna’s Jamaican life, when she was trying to be a seamstress in Montego Bay or training to be a nurse back in the hills of St. Elizabeth, with his interviews with her children and his own memories of Dezna’s time in Princeton.
“I think the real intrigue of the book is they knew so much about the Urkens, and we knew entirely too little about them — the exchange of information was asymmetrical,” he says.
Although Urken had met Carla, the second youngest of Dezna’s eight children and a signer of his wedding contract, while he was in high school, he got more connected to her family after Dezna’s 2010 death and even more so as he interviewed each of them.
All of her children, he says, embraced him as a sibling. “I think the love and interest in each other was mutual; I have all these stories about their mother that they want to hear, and they have all these stories about my other mother that I want to hear, and it has become a beautiful way for family to connect in a way that transcends bloodlines.”
But Urken couldn’t help thinking about how difficult it must have been for Carla and Dezna’s youngest, Fabi, who were 11 and 12 when their mother left for the States. Dezna left Urken’s house after his bar mitzvah, when he was not much older, and he remembers feeling “sad and emotional” — even though he had both parents at home.
“In the chapter with Carla and Fabi I try to unpack the potential emotional strife they must have faced in having their mother leave,” Urken says. “In their mind, they were ready to go to boarding school and had a supportive network of family in Jamaica.” Nonetheless, he thinks that, being on their own, the two girls certainly had to grow up prematurely.
Urken went to elementary school at both Riverside and Johnson Park, middle school at Hun, and high school at the Lawrenceville School. He graduated from Princeton University in 2008 with a degree in comparative literature. “My focus in college was literary and academic and learning languages and traveling,” he says.
Rather than focusing his studies primarily on writing, he studied Russian, Spanish, and French literature — all in their native languages. “I was always writing and always creating, but I wanted to get the foundation of texts and see how a lot of the masters were able to maintain that narrative drive,” he says.
During his senior year he served as editor-in-chief of the Nassau Weekly, a student publication founded by New Yorker editor David Remnick that features literature, longer-form essays, and interviews.
To pay the bills, Urken, who now lives in New York City, works for a financial technology company, but he manages to do about 15 travel or magazine pieces each year. “Until ‘Another Mother’ becomes a bestseller and becomes a movie deal, it takes the pressure off trying to sell a piece,” he says.
Describing his writing process, Urken calls himself “a deliberate writer” who “agonize[s] over the sentence, trying to find le mot juste.”
He is always taking notes. “Phrases appear to me in a shower, while having a cup of coffee,” he says. “When I know I have a piece to do, I find my mind is active unconsciously — it knows I need to be thinking about interesting ways to bring the story to life.” He thinks about how people connect to a story, both in a sensory and an emotional way.
Urken also maintains that “there is no such thing as a good writer, only a good rewriter,” and says he is “very deliberate and obsessive about going over and over a text.”
He attributes the nature of his writing in part to his interest in language in general, but also to “growing up with Dezna, who would use Jamaican patois and had a textured, metaphorical way of expressing herself.” He wanted to “achieve that same eloquence,” a goal that his helped him create “this distinctive voice of my own.”
Turning once more to his new book, Urken says, “The central tension in the narrative is how we become who we are. We definitely have a propensity to be certain ways based on our genetics.” On the other hand, he adds, “we are taking in so many influences at all times, and if you do have someone who really was another mother, the third leg of the parental tripod, you become predisposed to a lot of that person’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.”
Ross Kenneth Urken, Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton. Wednesday, October 30, 6 p.m. 609-497-1600. www.labyrinthbooks.com.