Sometimes Objects are Much More Than They Seem
During the Boston part of my mother’s Shiva, my cousin Sid mentioned that he had a challah cover that my mother had embroidered for his family. He said that he had used that challah cover throughout his childhood and even had taken it from his mother’s house and had used it as an adult.
Sid talked about how much he loved the challah cover and how much he wanted me to have it.
A little while after Shiva, Sid's daughter, Emily brought me the challah cover.
This is the challah cover.
The design itself is entirely standard. One used to be able to buy a linen rectangle with this design printed in blue.
A few weeks ago I had Shabbat lunch at my friend Anne’s. Anne’s mother who was a few years older than my mother had embroidered exactly the same design. Anne’s mother did all of the embroidery in a soft grey. The letters were filled in with satin stitch and Anne’s mother who was an accomplished seamstress lined her challah cover with a plain piece of linen.
My mother’s stitching looks a little spikey, partially because the cotton threads she had used are wearing away, and partially because as a kid doing embroidery her skills were, as a kind teacher might say, developing.
The kiddush cup that was at the center of the design has almost entirely worn away.
I haven’t quite figured out what to do with this challah cover. So it has been sitting folded up on my kitchen table along with the old copies of the Wall Street Journal.
This past Friday night, Emily came over for Shabbat Dinner. I put the tattered cloth on top of the challot, because Emily had gone to the effort of bringing this challah cover from her father in Boston. I wanted to honor both her efforts and her father’s touching act.
When I put the cloth over our challot I realized that this challah cover was basically a rag with holes in it. I exchanged it for another cloth.
Today, I have been thinking about this cloth. I need to share with you that my cousin Sid grew up with my mother as his very young aunt. My mother spent a summer with Sid and his family when he and his brother Av were really little. My mother had thought she was spending the summer to help her sister Frieda take care of the children.
As I piece together family history I realize that my mother was parked at Frieda and Bill’s mostly to keep my mother from being underfoot after my grandfather’s heart attack.
My mother was about a dozen years older than her nephews, somewhere between being a cool older sister and a cool young aunt. My cousin Sid and his brother Av shared memories of my mother taking her nephews on New York City adventures
Sometime after I was born and before I have memories there was a rift between my mother and her older sister. I grew up with just a couple of memories of Aunt Frieda. I didn’t meet Sid until I was in my 30’s. I met his brother Av for the first time a couple of years ago.
I realized today, perhaps because I am sometimes a little slow, that for Sid, this raggedy challah cover was a symbol of the times before the rift. I believe with all of my heart that he sees this deeply flawed ragged and damaged piece of cloth complete, and whole and done by a skilled hand by someone who he loved and admired. I think that it reminded him when his aunt was part of his life.
If you had asked me yesterday what I need to do with this challah cover, I would have said that I ought to throw it away. I realized today, that I can’t.