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Lifetakes: More than Toys

Faigy Markowitz

We only saw her a few times a year, but every time there was a huge shopping bag filled with toys, prizes, and hair accessories

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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M y son asked for a dollhouse for his upsheren.I assembled it and even bought a few second-hand pieces of furniture, all the while hoping his interest would fade, because furnishing a dollhouse can be expensive. But he knows exactly what he wants. A small blanket and pillow for the baby. An ironing board to iron, and a kitchen set to cook in.

While searching online, I see a Hansel and Gretel storybook and house set. In an instant, I am transported to the times of my early childhood.

The classic fairytales of “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “The Ugly Duckling” are entwined with my enigmatic grandmother, who showered us with cheap toys, thin books, and heaps of criticism. As a child I was scared, yet awed by her; she would call me closer but I was so afraid. Just a few minutes ago she had lectured me on the red flower embroidered on my new outfit, and now she wants to show me a new trinket?

We only saw her a few times a year, but every time there was a huge shopping bag filled with toys, prizes, and cheap hair accessories nestled right next to her aching legs and big black shoes. Every Chanukah our family squeezed into the car. Driving down the FDR to Williamsburg, an excited dread filled the stuffy air. Our first cousins were practically strangers. The noise level made conversation impossible. Yet parties are fun and one thing was sure, my grandmother would give Chanukah gelt and toys.

The women and girls crowded into the kitchen, while the men were in the dining room. The little kids sat on the floor playing with the tchachkes my grandmother distributed. Every year the scene would repeat itself, until I was too old for any of the toys, books, or hair accessories that filled the huge bag next to my grandmother’s big black shoes. Then I’d stand on the side, and watch my grandmother’s eyes taking in the scene of chaos and nachas.

Over the years, as I matured and even agreed to taste her special Pesach foods — flemmel cooked into the soup or griben with liver — I appreciated the pain-filled memories she would share. Exact descriptions of how the maids took the laundry to a river and how the hot water with soap mixed in large wooden barrels ensured sparkling clean laundry. Snippets about a washboard and tedious hours of labor still ring in my ear. 

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