helen

The Lights of My Life

By Helen Horwitz

Some of my favorite family photos were taken in mid-1942. In them, my immediate family on my mother’s side is seated around the dining room table of my grandparents’ home in Hancock, Michigan. I am a curly-haired toddler, tucked into a high chair next to my grandmother. Besides Grandpa and Grandma Markus, there are my brother Don, my aunts Harriet and Minnie, their husbands Ben and Harry, and my only two first cousins, Deborah and Norton. My mother is in only a few pictures, probably because she took most of them.

I love these photos for two reasons: first, because I enjoy gazing at the smiling, youthful faces of all these people whom I adored. Today, only Deborah, now 91, and I remain. My then 15-year-old cousin Norton, who died almost two years ago at age 88, is so handsome in his military school uniform!

The other reason that I enjoy these pictures is because, on my grandparents’ buffet in the background, is a pair of silver candlesticks. This family dinner may have been the first time I caught sight of them – thanks to the raised height of my chair.

Shiny and grandly ornate, the candlesticks were a wedding gift from Grandma’s parents in Rudamina, Poland when she married Grandpa in 1899. She had arrived in America a year or two earlier, encouraged by her older brother Morris Levine. He had immigrated some years before and was now an established businessman on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

My grandmother loved and cared for the candlesticks for the 46 years that she owned them. When she died, they were passed to my mother and became one of her most cherished possessions. She used them every Friday night and on Jewish holidays, and they were a familiar feature in our home. One of my childhood memories is of talking with my mother as she polished the candlesticks, a drop of perspiration beading at the tip of her nose. Except, she probably didn’t notice – she was too busy telling me about the bit of perspiration at the tip of her mother’s nose whenever she had polished them!

When I married in 1966, I was told it was time for me to have the candlesticks, and I happily accepted them. At my wedding, which was in the old Temple Albert on Lead Avenue SE, they were a calming sight as I stood under the chupah. They sat nearby on a small table with tapers burning in them.

For more than 50 years, my grandmother’s candlesticks have been with me, a shining, constant connection to family, memories and tradition. Together, we have traveled from Albuquerque to Annapolis; Chicago; Pittsburgh; New York; Washington, D.C., back to New York; Fort Lee, New Jersey; Atlanta; Stamford, Connecticut; to New York again; to Westfield, New Jersey; and back to Albuquerque. I still use them and they’re always polished – although I’ve never quite been able to work up that bead of perspiration at the tip of my nose.

Today, of course, I am planning who will receive them next since I do not have a child of my own. I will probably pass them to a younger relative who I believe will value them as the beautiful objects no Jewish home should be without – the ancient tradition to welcome the arrival of Shabbat and various holy days.

At the same time, how confident can I be that the next owner of these candlesticks will use, care for, and treasure them the same way? Tastes and lifestyles have changed dramatically over the last 50 years, and in 2017, stainless steel and disposable clearly rule. I can’t bear the thought of Grandma’s candlesticks becoming black with tarnish or stored in the back of someone’s kitchen cabinet.

Years ago, a New York friend who had admired them remarked that, in a pinch, they would pay for a lot of rent. Yes, they are valuable – but selling them would be like selling my birthright for a mess of pottage: something immediately attractive, but in the end, much less valuable than what I would lose.

Meanwhile, preparations are nearing for the start of Passover, and this includes getting out the bottle of silver polish as well as checking my candle supply.  As always, my grandmother’s candlesticks will be gleaming – and ready for my blessings over the Pesach holiday lights. I can hardly wait!

Helen Horwitz is an Albuquerque native. After a long career in New York as a communications and marketing executive, she returned home in 2000 to telecommute to the East Coast, retired in 2011, and is now a freelance writer. She has a B.J. from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is a 1958 graduate of Highland High School. 

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