Basements are the modern-day equivalent to the genizah. Genizah, (Hebrew root g-n-z) originally referred to the act of putting away or hiding. The word eventually developed to refer to the actual place where things were deposited, which I think is a perfect example of synecdoche. Genizahs are temporary holding places for Hebrew texts, prayer books, scrolls, anything containing God’s name until the time that they can be buried. Yes, we Jews bury our holy books. Amazing concept to treat a document as lovingly and respectfully as we do a loved one whose earthly purpose is no more.
Back to yesterday and the basement where I was tackling dust bunnies that had grown to Harvey-ian dust rabbit proportions. Decades-old tins of Kiwi shoe polish, metal skewers for shish kabobs, loose screws (so that’s where they all go when I am distracted!) I opened a cabinet door and fell down the rabbit hole of time: the cards we received when Elliot was born; photos; letters from and to my mother and other relatives; a caricature a college roommate did of me freshman year; a letter from my paternal grandmother to my mother after my parents divorced in which she referenced the weather, a boy I was dating, fabric she had
bought to make me a dress, commenting that she had so many slips of papers she would, “have to find a new hiding place for them, but then I’ll forget to look for them.” Makes me smile to realize I had done much the same thing: hidden away her letter, forgotten it, only to find it again.
The greatest finds were my schoolwork from third and fourth grade. Stacks and stacks of spelling tests, math tests, geography and science tests. Cotton seeds are planted in late spring. The early Georgia Indians were buried in mounds I wrote in not too badly rendered script. Each week’s exercises were stapled together and placed into a construction paper folder whose covers we decorated with the theme of the week. My father’s signature appears in the lower left hand corner. The coming week’s menu was vintage cafeteria: Pot roast on Monday, fried chicken for Wednesday. Of course fish sticks for Friday. I don’t know what “Pop Eye” salad* was, but loved the reference to Thursday’s dessert: “Red Tokay Grapes.” Never had peach cobbler as good since.
The piece de resistance was an example of early Darvick fiction. Titled Kitty in the Garden, it was sweet and subversive. “This little kitten is looking for a mouse. He looked in the garden. He looked in the house. He didn’t find a mouse. Kitty’s master told him to stay in the house. He went outside and found a mouse. He ate it.”
Signed: Debby Berkowitz, Jan. 6, 1964
* On a whim I looked it up. Sheesh. You can find anything on the internet. Including a school cafeteria recipe for Pop-Eye Salad. If only John Dunne had had access to Wikipedia. He would have known where to find the past years and who cleft the Devil’s foot.
Loved the image of genizah, a new word for me. We do indeed bury our treasures. It’s a pleasure to rediscover them. I wrote a story about a mouse in sixth grade also. I remember writing it but have not been able to find it. Is there a word for invisible genizah?
The discovery of buried treasures is a sign that the memoir stage of life is upon you, Debra. Enjoy.
Wow, what an idea, a word for an invisible genizah. The phrase memory palace, which is not of my coining, comes to mind. There is an amazing history of the Cairo Genizah, a repository that was discovered the last 1700’s and then re-discovered and explored more purposefully in the late 1800’s. It contained manuscripts going back over 1000 years. The contents is being digitized. Read more here http://www.genizah.org/TheCairoGenizah.aspx
Debra, we store up memories in our youth so we can look at them with nostalgia in our twilight years. I have my little box of memories, which includes a wooden mouse my sister gave me when I was very young. By the way, if you want to know who cleft the devil’s foot (as in Donne’s poem) it’s worth reading Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess.” It’s not an easy read, but it’s a wild ride with a spirited and learned writer.
Will have to check out “The White Goddess.” Your description of the
wooden mouse from your sister was quite poignant. These items from
our past are such treasures.
I have no Genizah of my own, but recently found a box full of “treasures” from my son’s childhood – letters he wrote to me at 9 years old, when on vacation with this father. Birthday and Mother’s Day cards, his school report cards. And with them all spread out before me on my bed, the evidence of the man he would become.
Thank you, Debra, for the link to the article on the Cairo Genizah – this is a story I will follow with interest.
And Thank You, Joe – I’ve just ordered “The White Goddess” from Amazon.
What a trove to have found, Linda. Frame one or two? Two books were recently published about the Cairo Genizah — Sacred Treasure by Mark Glickman (2010) and Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole (2011). Something tells me there could have been a down-to-the-wire conversation about book titles when the author(s) of one found out about the author(s) of the other.
The only thing more “interesting” is going through a parents STUFF after they have gone. Most is junk, but you have to look through it all because there are always “gems” amongst the junk.
Right now I struggle with how much I want to burden our kids with to have to go through!
I too have been the main decider of the family hidden treasures. For a couple years I have been reading through and sorting the many family letters collected by my grandmother. My dad wrote home to her every Sunday night for decades! My father was an only child and she has every letter he wrote her even his away from home camp letters. We have laughed at some so hard tears came to our eyes. We see he could have been a great journalist too by his descriptions. Others provide insight into our own childhoods, through the adult eyes of our parents. And how we learn and see the “why” of how our parents personalities were. I admit to having tossed many letters , there is over 50 years worth!, and others sending, if specific, to a sibling. I have taken notes as to habits or observances and then there are some that are just going to have to be reproduced into a family book. I even photocopied a 4 page letter and mailed it to my daughter in India. It was written by my dad to his southern parents explaining that he was so uncomfortable with the segregation of the south that he could not raise his family there. This was Nov 1959 and he was along with his Northern wife considering teaching abroad. Indeed they spent the next five years as Methodist educational missionaries in today’s Zimbabwe.
The other eye opening letter was the description of the weekend he met his future wife (1957) and how they attended a Human Rights Day event at the UN and protested against South African Apartheid! knowing it to be even worse than what was down south. Amazing Genizah info to share with the next generations, how a family belief in human equality goes way back! We stand on the shoulders of those who knew better and acted half a decade ago.
Wow! Debbie, thank you for taking the time to write such a descriptive note about your own family treasures.
Letters are so precious and they have already become relics in this digital world.So much to be learned by reading
what went before. Thank you again for sharing your family’s rich history.