Today on Yom Kippur, I think about a visit I paid to the permanent collection at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. A reel of thread displayed there found its way into LAMENT. The scene occurs in a young thief’s secret hiding place outside the Obodovka ghetto:
Daylight filtering through the densely knotted roof struck gleams from collections of spectacles, some missing lenses, lined up in rows; medicine bottles, some with labels, arranged by color from brown to blue; a few pairs of earrings, none cinnabar; beaded necklaces, chains and good luck charms; watches of all kinds, for both sexes, none ticking; curios, sea shells, braided lengths of human hair in the keepsake style; brooches and lockets, some open to photographed faces; and keys, brass keys and iron ones, suspended from the vine-woven ceiling on lengths of thread (Musya recognized the sea-green STOPFTWIST reel she’d swiped from Babiak’s and had been missing), dozens of house keys that danced in mid-air, turning and catching the light. She touched one and set it rocking. “Those poor people,” she murmured. She thought of them missing their keepsakes and glasses and medicines, searching hopelessly; even the townsfolk robbed here she pitied. Among the keys floated wedding rings and signet rings, all sorts of rings hung there, one set with turquoise, one a small child’s that spun in the current of Musya’s breath.
I’m also thinking about my mother today. She’s just endured a brief hospitalization for what turns out to be nothing any test can find; at 89, she is a veteran of the wars for old women’s right to be checked into hospital beds whenever they want and be waited on hand and foot there by a new set of people. But fifty, sixty years back, she did things for herself, and this included sewing her own clothes, very often, along with outfits for me and my sister. The dressmaking mother in LAMENT has some roots here. The pictured spools of thread are my widowed mother’s–or were until two years ago, when we packed up all her many many worldly goods. She’d entered a nursing home and all the goods were ours; the thread and other sewing stuff is now my sister’s.
With all the other girls, as a junior high school student in the Massachusetts public schools I took a required year of sewing class which I hated, not only because I hated being forced into sex-specific things, but also because I was just awful at it. Every paper pattern I pinned went awry when I cut into the cloth; although I was a straight-A math student, I couldn’t measure correctly at all; I was too intimidated by the sewing machine to operate it with any skill and that needle terrified me. Compounding these difficulties, I insisted upon making pants for my class project, even though skirts were much simpler, because I hated to wear skirts. A pale blue cotton denim twill I chose along with a pattern at the fabric store down in Winthrop Center; on that assignment night the place was crowded with mothers and daughters, plus one or two fathers like mine. I stroked the bolt of twill and began to desire the perfect pair of pants its soft nap made me envision. Of course my mother finished this class project when I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, or refused to attempt to finish it myself. I must have wept loud tears over it; one of those horrible nights before a deadline that poison youth in general. But my mother did the elasticized waist and the hems and I passed. Though the pants were traumatic, I loved the fabric and wore them a great deal.
I wish I’d been a better sewing student. I admire people who sew or can otherwise make their own clothes, they make me feel better about the future of life on the planet. It’s why I populate my books with them: Musya, the mother, and Sender in LAMENT, Dressmake and the Sneaker Cobbler in FAMEPUNK. I wish I’d let my mother teach me to sew. I’m sure she tried at least a little. I wish she’d tried harder; I wish I had, too, and that we might have met each other there and built something in common. But by the time I took that class, my mother’s sewing days were nearly through. What ended them? Credit cards, partly–for as much as she loved beautiful clothes, she always preferred to shop for them. Credit card debt became a way of life for her. And even then she was drifting on lazy TV waves into the sedentary habits that would one day result in her present state.
But to return to the thread. STOPFTWIST is the brand name on the paper spool in the museum’s permanent collection. It’s displayed among other items common to Jewish daily life before the Holocaust, humble human-scaled things that survived. And then one day a writer with a notebook came by and swiped it for her novel. This thread might have been manufactured at the factory in Germany featured in these photos; the factory didn’t make it.
The museum, a wonderful place in every way, also presents Yiddish theater that’s not to be missed. It’s a short walk from my job and I was there many times before this current pandemic set in. Afterwards, on the way to the train, I’d walk past the spot where I took this picture: