Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 7

In 1914, my grandmother, then 10 years old, had her First Communion. She posed for this photo, holding a candle and a prayer book. She had arrived in this country two years earlier from Poland, and the prayers in the book are in Polish.

The photo and the book went into a box that moved around with my grandmother, from Pennsylvania to Connecticut. As the years passed by, tiny fragments of her life made their way into the box: letters and pictures from relatives in Poland, obituaries from newspapers, St. Christopher medals, immigration and naturalization papers. When she was old and forgetting things and becoming anxious about losing stuff, she gave the box to me for safe-keeping.
"Take it now," she said. "Someday you'll inherit it anyway."

That's how I was able to put the little prayer book into the hands of my 10-year-old daughter, who quite by accident struck a pose so similar to this one from 75 years ago that I was taken aback.
She was looking for something to take to school – pictures of her ancestors – for a discussion on family heritage. Her small fingers undid the clasp and turned the yellow, brittle pages. "What does it say?" she asked. "Can you read it?"
"No, I can't even speak the words," I said. "It's in our alphabet, but many of the letters have different sounds."

We picked through the items in the box. She held a photo of an old house and read from the back: "The house where we lived in Krasnik."
"Is the house still there?" she asked.
"I doubt it. There were two world wars, and millions died."

"May I take the prayer book to school?" she asked.
"Sure, but you must be very careful with it."
"Because it's so old," she finished for me.
"No, it's not that old," I said. "But it means so much… It's been kept…" I couldn't put into words why it seemed so valuable. But then I began to understand.

During a couple of wars, the great Depression, marriage, divorce and 75 years worth of child-rearing, joy, death, aging and mourning, the little prayer book lay in this old box of mementos. And then it was brought back to life again, bathed once more in a little girl's breath. It seemed a symbol of just how long a life can be.
"Take it to school," I said, "and when you're done with it, put it back in the box, where it belongs.

And maybe in the year 2064, some other little girl will take it out again.

- February 1989

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