An empty needle

By Donna Jacobs Sife

My grandma sang me lullabies. She used to scoop me up and pour me into her great lap. I would lean against her bosom and smell her old lady’s powder, and sensible soap. There was something from the Old World that I could smell too, but I cannot name it. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, creased and lightly caked, I put my head under the blankets, close my eyes and ever so lightly inhale. And occassionally it is there, the unnameable Yiddish scent of Grandma. Between the dark and newness of day, in the silence of a slow breath and emerging dream, where the skin on my body is just beginning to soften and sag. It is there that grandma lives.

She would have told me stories. She would have told me of the pograms that forced her from her family. Of the ship that ripped her from her mother’s arms. About a young girl fresh from the shtetl, crippled with lonliness and fear in the strange, grey streets of Glasgow. Stories of faith being put to the test, of candles and life’s demands for them. But she died and I was seven, ripped from her lap before I knew what I was losing.

I remember when she died. My mother had been waiting for years, ever since the first angina attack. Sometimes, an unanswered telephone would throw her into panic and we would drive to Penkivil Street and mummy would order, “Stay here!” and I would see her little bird figure run along the path, her high heels clinking like change in a pocket, calling up to the window of the dark red brick flats, “ mummy! mummy!” Grandma would open the window and call out, “Lily, mein leib kinde, machen a tsimmes, such a fuss over nothing. Kum, mein leibshen, bring de children.” So with the car still double parked, my sister and I would go up the dark stairwell, that smelled of old clothes and borscht.
“You didn’t answer the phone, I thought something......”
“Och, tt, tt, tt - es mach nicht oys - it doesn’t matter now, as you can see, Gott se dunk, , I’m here. ” There was always hot soup bubbling in anticipation, filling the flat with welcome. I would go straight to the sunroom and play with her treadle sewing machine. “Don’t touch Grandma’s things” mummy would admonish, and I would wait for Grandma’s faithful reply. “Let her, Lily. Vot’s de harm.” She would look over to me, and we would become conspirators. “Yes leibshen?” I only just managed to reach the peddle with my foot, and the needle, like chattering teeth, moved up and down, empty and impotent without its thread. Like me, without Grandma.

My mother’s howls still chill my blood, when I recall that morning. The windows and mirriors were covered. The house was dark and frightening, except for the candle that burnt in the lounge room. I understood the candle to be grandma. When I passed it, I tiptoed. When I was alone, I liked to sit beside it, and watch the flame flicker. I imagined Grandma was trying to tell me something. I tried half closing my eyes and listening very carefully. Once I felt her behind me and I turned quickly, in time to see a flash of her faded pink nightie as it disappeared.
I could hear breathing at the head of my bed as I went to sleep.

I asked my cousin if she had cried yet. She was also seven. “No” she whispered. “Have you?” “No, not yet.” And we looked at each other and silently promised to keep it secret. My glimpses of Grandma remained unspoken, they were secret between Grandma and me. And there were other secrets.

My mother did not go to bury her mother. The cemetry was far too evil. Death was the enemy. In our house we did not speak of age, or passing years, of illness or disease. We were taught to cheat the ravages of time. When Grandma died, my home was never again lit from within by candles that served to link heaven and earth. Not for Shabbos, nor yarzheit, nor Chanukah. Did my mother fear that if she invited God in, Death must follow? My mother has her secrets, and by now they are lost to her as well. Oh, Grandma, what I lost with you..

My mother's blood runs thick with shtetl, despite herself. Constantly vigilant about tempting fate, God forbid we should say we hadn't been sick for a while, or never got into trouble at school , and she'd be spitting all over us “Keinen hora oombishrein tt tt tt” That was why I had to put some thread between my teeth if she sewed something on while I was wearing it, why she couldn't tolerate the moonlight shining on me while I slept and hung a red ribbon on my babies' crib when they were born.

I have inherited these remnants of a culture. They are the flesh and bone of Grandma. I cherish them. They link me to my past, which still smokes in the ashes of a desperate history. They are my dowry, a patchwork of the Old World. They are the only signs that my mother believes in something other than what she sees.

What does she believe? In the evil eye, but not in God. In candlelit dinners, but not the Shabbos candles. That the beauty of a woman has great power, but the beauty of creation does not exist. Youth and Beauty are jealous gods. They desert their worshippers, leaving them fragmented, without recent memory. Time has Her last revenge. My mother bobs up and down, like an empty needle, trying to sew without thread. She asks me where to find faith. “I’m not sure” I tell her with all the love I have. “But in the meantime, cling to mine.” I suspect she is half closing her eyes, to allow in a tiny image of the Angel of Death. Perhaps, as she had feared, with that tiny image, comes the identical glimpse of God.

I light the shabbos candles with her. I cook her tsimmes, and chicken soup. We sing.

I am spinning a golden thread.