By Marlene Samuels
My family immigrated to the U.S.A. in the 1960s when I was in high school. It was during that first year that my mother established her lucrative custom design and dressmaking business. On the shelf above her sewing machine, flanked by threads in more colors than I could name, sat her four-by-six-inch hinged wooden box. Painted in gold-tones, it resembled an antique book. The cover was decorated with Renaissance-style images of rosy-cheeked cherubs floating among pillowy clouds and the entire box, front and back plus interior, had been painted with multiple layers of varnish. The crackled effect imparted to the box an antique appearance. An ornate brass clasp held the “book” closed but it was the interior message that had drawn my mother’s attention, compelling her to buy it. That message reflected and defined her philosophy of life.
One week after I graduated from university in 1973, Mom booked the two of us on a five-day Caribbean cruise departing from Miami — her graduation present to me. In reality, it fulfilled her dream of a mother-daughter bonding adventure.
What was our first stop? We disembarked the S.S. Emerald Seas at the Port of Nassau. The moment our feet touched “terra firma” we were thrilled to realize our ship had docked at a pier where the regional food and craft bazaar was located. Brightly colored canopies, on either side of the pier, stretched as far we could see. Vendors hawked local foods, native handicrafts, souvenirs, and clothing. The air was thick with exotic scents emanating from foods roasting in makeshift outdoor kitchens. Enticed, we were ready to be daring.
We strolled and chattered away. But my attention riveted upon stalls lining the pier’s opposite side — stall after stall of embroidered blouses, billowy skirts, and straw purses hung from bamboo poles. I turned to my right and said, “Mom, let’s go check those stalls. The clothes look amazing!” One second she was next to me on my right — then suddenly nowhere to be seen. Bordering on panic, I froze in place and scanned the pier. Then I spotted her at a stall across the way. She was impossible to miss, dressed in her favorite chartreuse, puffy-sleeved blouse. I rushed over just in time to witness my petite mother involved in an intense negotiating session with the stall’s proprietor. He was an older, wiry yet incredibly muscular native— a man for whom bargaining seemed to provide as much pleasure as did closing the sale.
“How much do you want for this?” Mom asked, holding up the ornate box.
“I ask seven dollars, American.”
“You’re joking, for sure! Five dollars and remember, it’s American.”
“No, no! Not enough. This I have worked for many hours to make,” he said.
“Alright, five-fifty?” she countered.
“If you will say to me five-seventy-five, I will say to you yes!”
“Deal!” Exclaimed Mom. The vendor wrapped his handiwork in layers of newspaper and tied it with a length of fuchsia-colored knitting wool. The two smiled widely at their respective successes.
Before World War II, Mom had been a couture designer in Romania, that is until she, her younger sister, and their two closest friends were confined to Bucharest’s Nazi-established ghetto. But it was her highly-sought-after skills that kept the four young women alive and fed. In dawn’s dim light, Mom ventured out to collect sewing work from non-Jewish women. Her blonde hair and small stature evaded attention while her earnings bought essential supplies that she smuggled into the ghetto for them to share. Those same skills saved their lives after they were imprisoned in Ravensbruck and Dachau concentration camps. They were kept among the living, put to work sewing. Miraculously, all four women survived to establish new lives.
The week before my wedding in 1983, Mom’s cancer took a turn from which we knew she’d never recover. I sat next to her on her bed. Suddenly, she interrupted our conversation. “Wait, you must wait just one second!” She moved a frail hand under her pillow and fished something out from under it. “You take this and always, always try to live by its message.” She took my hand in hers and pressed that box into it.
Opening the clasp, I read the ornate cursive opposite the angelic-looking shepherd-boy, an arm around his lamb.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
and wisdom to know the difference.
* Excerpt: The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr
© 2022 Marlene Samuels
Marlene holds a Ph.D., from University of Chicago. A research sociologist by training, she writes creative non-fiction by preference. Currently, she is completing her book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story. She is coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact-Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Her essays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals, and online. (www.marlenesamuels.com)