I’ll bet I’m not the only one who wishes she had asked her parents and grandparents more questions about family history before it was too late. Although I asked some, and did tape (remember tape recorders?) my grandmother’s reminiscences when she was close to 100, there are other questions that occurred to me only when I began writing my memoir.
The only story that has made it through the generations is that Fannie’s granddaughter, my great-grandmother, helped her dress for this portrait. I wonder if they chatted as my granddaughters and I do….
“Oma,” I can almost hear the little girl say, “This dress is so beautiful, so soft.” She buries her face in it.
“Careful, don’t wrinkle it.” Fannie’s voice is loving, firm.
Bertha watches her grandmother ease into the dress. Nimble fingers trembling with responsibility, she fastens the buttons up the back. “What will you do with your portrait, Oma? Will brother Simon take it with him to the new country?”
Without answering, Fannie points to the shawl, and Bertha stands on her tip-toes to place it on her grandmother’s shoulders. Its wide collar is of such sheer fabric that the embroidered flowers take on the golden hue of the dress below.
“You look like a queen, meine Oma.”
“And you, dear Bertha, are my princess.”
“Here, Oma, your hat. It’s more beautiful than a crown.”
Checking herself in the looking glass, Fannie carefully sets the hat on her head. White accordion pleats reach skyward; red ribbon binds it tightly to her forehead. “Bertha, dear, would you tie the ribbon in place, please?” The child happily complies, then brings the red ends forward as a backdrop for dangling gold earrings.
Bertha helps her grandmother fasten a red ribbon around her neck. “My friend’s mother wears a red bracelet to ward off the evil eye. Is that what this is for?”
I wish that Fannie would speak from her heavy gilt frame to answer this question, but—alas—my imagination refuses to take that step. Does the red ribbon tie her to the folk traditions of her people? Or is she a product of the Enlightenment and the budding Reform movement in Judaism, the red ribbon simply an aesthetic choice? I seek a clue in the pendant that hangs from the ribbon. It seems to be a balance with weighing pans at each end. The emblem of a lawyer? A shopkeeper? Or merely a design, the artist’s embellishment?
Sadly, imagination is no substitute for the real answers that are buried with my ancestors.