In seventh grade I made a quilt from scraps of old clothes and worn sheets and pillow cases. As I look at each square, I am reminded of a shirt my mother or father once wore, or a pillow case we once rested our heads upon. I wish I had taken time to note the story behind each piece of fabric.
The story pearl, The Keeping Quilt, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco, (Simon and Schuster, 1988), tells the story of how the quilt that has been in Polacco’s family for generations came to be made. The babushka or kerchief that once belonged to her great-grandmother Anna becomes part of the quilt; so does Aunt Havalah’s nightgown, Uncle Vladimir’s shirt, and Aunt Natasha’s apron. What stories the quilt would tell if it could talk! Its cloths have traveled from the Old Country of Russia all the way to America. It has heard songs, tears, and laughter. It has been present at weddings, feasts, and picnics. It has held newborn babies in its folds.
The Blessing Cup (Simon and Schuster, 2013) is the prequel to The Keeping Quilt. When Polacco’s great-grandmother Anna and her family must leave their home in Russia because of pogroms, they take her father’s sewing machine, holy books, tallis, and shofar. And they take the gift her mother received when she married—a lovely china tea set. The tea set came with a note that said, in part, “This tea set is magic. Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God.”
Anna and her family begin their journey to America, sleeping where they can—in old barns or in their cart beneath the open sky. Anna’s papa sleeps on the cold ground so his wife and two daughters can sleep in the cart. One day, as Anna’s father pulls the cart towards another town, he collapses in the street—unable to move another step. The kind doctor, who lives alone, welcomes the family to his big house, where Anna’s father rests and gets well. But the family must leave the doctor, whom they call Uncle Genya, when the Russian authorities learn that he is harboring Jews. Uncle Genya sells one of his Persian rugs and obtains official papers so that Anna and her family can travel by ship to America. As a gift, Anna’s mother leaves Uncle Genya with the special china tea set except for one cup that she keeps for the family.
That Blessing Cup is passed on to the women in the family on their wedding day until it is passed on to Patricia on her own wedding day.
Now that I am about to be married, I am drawn to these two beautiful books. My parents are dead—I cannot ask them about their family stories and customs. But my mother wrote down her memories about her family and I have her notes—a very precious gift.
I learned about my great-great maternal grandparents, Mikhail of Potashnick and his wife, who were so generous to those who were hungry that when Mikhail died, the table he shared with his wife was split in two and half was buried with him. When his wife died, she was buried with the other half of the table.
I would like to ask guests to bring nonperishable food to my wedding that can be donated to the local food bank in honor of the kindness of my ancestors, Mikhail of Potashnick and his wife.
What family stories do you carry with you? Can you pass them on so that they will be remembered?