Family threads

In a corner of my bedroom closet, stashed on shelves adjacent to the stacks of designer shoe boxes and cashmere sweaters organized by color, I keep treasured mementos of my childhood. There’s a 50-year old shoeless Shirley temple doll, dusty Morristown high school yearbooks , a raggedy Saks hat box filled with notes and cards, and a dented Russell Stover candy tin.

The oblong hinged tin with embossed watercolor tulips was rescued from my Grandmother Alice’s apt in NYC when she moved down to Florida five years ago. She was convinced to stay down south following a small stroke while visiting her children, and my aunts and I were packing personal things collected during her long lifetime. She wanted us to save everything and send it to her — books, scarves and bags and cooking utensils and pictures and tchotckes and all the things a person can amass in 93 years. As we were sorting her belongings and the hours wore on more things were being tossed than saved as we reminded each other of the small size of her room in the assisted living facility near the beach. Household items and accessories and photos were divided and distributed to the person who seemed to want it the most and we hoped she wouldn’t notice when they didn’t arrive. The tin box nearly made it into the trash pile. When I opened it I discovered a rainbow of wooden spools spun with fading colors of silk thread in crimson, powder blue, pale lavender, blush pink, saffron, and emerald. Aunt Linda, the youngest of five siblings and family historian, thought it belonged to my great grandmother Rivka. I like to sew and I could almost sense her hands on those threads and I claimed the beat up little box.

Later that day I was given the task of emptying some kitchen drawers of dish towels and aprons and many pieces of embroidered cloth. No one was sure where they came from, if one of my great-grandmothers had made them, or if they were purchased by my grandmother Alice. No one had ever seen my great-grandmother embroider. I didn’t make any connection to the box because the threads were much thicker. When the job was done and the apartment was emptied and abandoned, I left with some leather gloves, scarves, a handmade waist tied apron, a slightly worn cross stitched challah cover and a wine-stained muslin matzoh sleeve embroidered with seder plate foods. Grandma Alice’s things were set up in her small new room in Florida where she stayed until she died two years ago at 98. The box survives on my shelf even after seasonal closet purgings. I have tried using the thread for mending but it’s too old and thin and it breaks easily. The colors are darker underneath the bleached top layers. But I keep putting it back on the shelf.

On the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana this fall I proudly displayed the challah cover atop my seed-flecked golden homemade challah and I posted a picture of it on Facebook. Aunt Linda, a Facebook connection, called me and told me a story. She remembered a story my great-grandmother had told her and spoke of it with my grandma Alice after visiting her in Florida. She learned the background of the embroidered cloth. When my great-grandmother Rivka was a young girl in Poland, her mother,( my great-great grandmother Bubbe, ) thought that she should learn a skill in the event that she didn’t marry. At 13, Rivka was sent to live with a family to learn embroidery from the mother and to help care for the children. She was treated poorly, and was always hungry and treated “like a slave” until she finally came home after one year. At 18, still in Poland, she did get married. She met my great-grandfather Haskell, a tailor, when he came to her father Chaim’s shoe repair shop . I don’t know if she made my beautiful pieces during her difficult year. Or if she sewed them after having the first of seven babies at 19 (three died in childhood) and emigrating to America where she raised her family. No one recalls ever seeing her embroider again. But I can picture her hands threading a needle and embroidering in a stranger’s house in Poland, and later mending the clothes of her children, my grandmother, and great aunts and uncles. I can imagine my great-grandfather tailoring clothes in a new country to support his growing family.

I open that box and the faded colors of thread evoke sepia memories of great-grandma’s house. I’m five years old with a round cherry lollipop. My sister Lisa and I in matching striped dresses and pinafores. Tiny Bubbe , blind, with a hair net and boxy black side laced shoes, feeling our heads to “see” us. Grandma Rivka, already bent with age and only slightly taller than her mother, preparing in the kitchen . My grandmother and mother laughing and telling stories. My last memory of Rivka at 98, sitting in her favorite worn chair in her apartment holding my son, her first great great-grandson.

The chocolates in that box are long gone but it holds the sweet memories of our rich family history, stitched together by tailors and shoemakers and embroiderers — a cattle ship to America, silver candlesticks and kitchens smelling of homemade cookies and chicken soup and sounds of Yiddish and the warmth of grandmothers’ love and hugs and the generations of strong and beautiful long-lived women — that box reminds me of tradition and the unbroken thread that connects us to each other.