Grandma always told me that Grandpa "saved" coins. At the time I thought this was a strange choice of
words, because Grandma wasn't talking about thrift, but collecting. Thinking about it now I realize that
Grandma's choice of words was a key to the psychology of collecting, although I'm certain she never realized
it. Grandma was never a very introspective person (although she occasionally surprised me. Once, she told
me that, although she didn't consider herself a great housekeeper, she knew she was immaculate when it
came to food. I thought this was amusing, since her apartment was so clean you could eat her immaculate
food off her spotless floors).
When Grandma had a stroke and it became necessary for her to live in a nursing home, the job of
cleaning out her apartment fell to Artie and me (she had long since sold her house and moved to something
of a more manageable size). It was there that I found out what Grandma "saved", and why.
Grandma was born in 1902 in a small town in Romania. Or maybe Russia.
The little village in which her family lived peacefully, when the Tsar saw fit to ignore them, changed hands
so often it was hard to remember to whom you belonged on any given day. Grandma was the youngest of five
children. Life was uncertain for her father, a Jewish merchant, and his brood. There were frequent pogroms,
with Cossacks on horseback racing through the streets, beating and killing everyone in sight. On these
occasions, Grandma once told me, young girls were hidden in the cellar, where the soldiers wouldn't
see them, because the Cossacks could take whatever they wanted. Teenage boys were also hidden, for
they were in danger of being abducted and conscripted into the Tsar's army. And everyone knew what
happened to Jewsih boys in the Tsar's army--if the enemy didn't kill them, their fellow Russians did the job.
It was this constantly looming threat of forced military service and almost certain death that finally
propelled Grandma's family to America, minus her older sister, whom Grandma last saw jumping into the river,
along with her children, in order to escape a band of marauding soldiers. Arriving in New York with very few
possessions, no home to go to and few contacts must have been frightening for the whole family, although
they were not without skills, and soon established themselves here.
She met Grandpa, married, had two children and ran a business until well into her seventies. She
accumulated wealth (she abhorred waste and could pinch a penny so hard you could hear it scream!), enjoyed
her grandchildren and great grandchildren and remained always the proud, vain and headstrong
matriarch of our family.
But Grandma lived through two world wars and The Depression. She survived the Holocaust (albeit at a
safe distance) and the deaths of her parents, her husband and her three brothers. Despite numerous
searches in Eastern Europe and Israel, she never again
found her older sister, nor any of her offspring (only recently, I found a photograph of Grandma's sister,
brother-in-law and the children at my mother's house. As I looked into the vaguely familiar faces I felt a
heaviness in my chest at the realization that I would never know any of them). My grandmother
was, during the last eight years of her life, a shadow of her former self, a vacant and
passive soul who had no interest in collections, "savings",
possessions of any kind. She gave up television, radio and her beloved Yiddish language newspaper.
So, what did I find in my grandmother's apartment? Tremendous accumulations of humble everyday things:
the tops of Bic pens neatly wound with rubber bands; hundreds of tiny garment snaps threaded onto safety
pins; at least one hundred glass jars, all sparkling clean; eighty-seven neatly rolled and clamped Ace
bandages; her discarded dentures.
Some people collect for investment. Some collect for pleasure. Some folks do it to learn about history.
And some people "save things" because it helps them
to fill a gaping hole, calm fears, erase insecurity. For them, collecting provides order in their lives and a
bulwark against the chaos and terror of an uncertain world. It serves as a protectant against the destruction
of everything they've ever loved. Grandma's things made her feel safe. Though the world outside was a
dangerous and continuallly changing place, she could still sit safely in her apartment at night, "putting
together my things".
Your comments, as always, are welcome. If you have something to say, write to me.
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