- The Dowry
It is one of the lighter apartments we are living in, not the dark one in that basement, but before that, when my mother is still too busy with work and her Master's degree to help me wash my hair. There is this linen closet directly across from the bathroom. This is the house where the linen closet still smells of wood smoke, of deep fire, the breath of wood dying, the joists and timbers fragrant, expressing smoke in outrage as they burn—but the fire was put out, the house was rebuilt, and my family rents the extra apartment from the owners, who live downstairs.
There is this linen closet that smells of smoke. And the closet towels, the clean bleached bed sheets and pillow cases, the envelope where my mother hides a little extra cash, 'just in case,' all smell sweetly of wood smoke. You get in bed, in Brooklyn, and the pillows smell kindly like a campfire from another world, not a city. I like it, that closet, that smell.
There's a box on the top shelf. A big cardboard box. Though I am almost as tall as my mother now, I still have to reach up to get that box. No—I drag a chair from the kitchen, prop open the closet door. I climb and reach, its dry crackly edges give in with pressure, pull it down, rest it on my chest between me and the closet shelves, get both hands gripped about its square bottom, and stop. Stop. Stand there on the chair in the closet. I open the folded [End Page 42] cardboard lips, take in the scent of background wood smoke, dry cardboard, and starch—old, musty, but clean potato starch, starched linens.
For that's what is inside—starched linens, intricate, embroidered, creweled, cutwork, dotted, textured, linen and flax and silk, and wool as fine as silk, edged, scalloped, broadly designed; and in each corner, each corner like a secret not hidden but enclosed in the folds of the linen, are exquisitely embroidered initials: J.R. J.R. Jenny Rothschild. My mother's father's mother's little sister. My great great aunt. This is her dowry, and though she married at 16, it was never used, and neither was she.
Jenny and her dowry stole themselves, virginal, to New York City via steamship, beginning her journey less than 24 hours after her wedding. Her dowry of table covers, quilts, shams, stockings and bedclothes were fashioned by her, by hand. Her home was on the main street of Kralovy Lehota, a small village in the foothills of the great Tatra Mountains, the Czechoslovakian Alps, walking distance to thousands of acres of her father's sheep grazing meadows, glacial melt rivers and hot-spring lakes. She was born in the same narrow bed on the second floor of their whitewashed house that her father, aunts and uncles were born in, that her grandfather was born and died in. I still don't know how she got from her village, through the mountains, to the ship that brought her to Ellis Island and NYC, alone, in 1894. Born in 1878, when not tending sheep she spent her entire focused adolescence preparing her dowry, and all her dreams, for marriage.
I do know that when Jenny Rothschild walked with her father up to the wedding chuppa, in front of the district rabbi she saw for the very first time her groom, a sumptuously dressed, well-padded merchant almost three times her age. It was her first moment setting eyes on him, and she could not do it. The story went that she met her groom at the wedding, and after the ceremony announced: I need to go home and collect my things. Once home, stripping off her wedding dress (which did not make it to NYC with her dowry), she pushed two armoires, heavy oak and mahogany clothing closets intricately carved like massive beds in an ancient castle, one in front of her bedroom window and one in front of the door, and would let no one in, not for hours, not through screams and threats, not...