In the living room, nine-year-old Zaid catches my attention. Rubbing his hands over gold-etched words, my grandson asks, “What’s a White Rotary, Abuela?”
“It’s a sewing machine. This is the one I learned to use as a kid, when I was even younger than you.”
“Will you show me how it works?”
I pull a frayed leather belt from the side drawer and hold it up. “I would, but the belt is broken.”
“You should get a new one.”
“You’re right—I should!”
A few days later, Zaid’s six-year-old sister Zia stands in the bathroom, opening and closing the tiny doors of a model outhouse. She looks up at me and asks, “What’s this thing?”
“It’s a pretend bathroom, kind of like a Porta Potty at the fair.”
“You mean where we go pee after the rides?”
“We had this kind of bathroom when I was a little girl like you,” I tell Zia. “We called it ‘The Outhouse’ because you had to go outside to use it. We didn’t have a warm bathroom and a toilet with water you could flush.”
She reaches inside and picks up a tiny rectangle of paper labeled, SEARS, and looks at me. I see in her eyes a question to be answered. “And we used the pages from a catalog to wipe. We didn’t even have enough money to buy toilet paper.”
Zia shrugs and follows me to the music room for her piano lesson. The ebony upright also has a history, so—since we’re on the topic—I ask her, “Did you know my mother—your great-grandmother—learned to play on this piano over a hundred years ago when she was your age? Your great-grandmother even taught me music, same as I teach you.”
My granddaughter looks at me with a blank face. She can’t imagine her mother as a child, much less me—so how would she ever comprehend a child called Great Grandmother? I’m reminded how different her childhood is from any of the mothers before her. And yet she represents the continuity of our family, the strength of our lineage, and the permanence of our songs. As I open the music book on the piano in front of her, a bell rings in my brain. That’s it—I’ll write for my grandchildren! The Book will be a gift for them.
What is written in this book is for my descendents and my siblings’ descendents, just as it is for everyone else who wants a glimpse into the middle years of the 1900s, and into a family of twelve whose fortitude and ingenuity took them through the harshest of times, and whose songs of fun and faith spilled out from never-ending duties.