Keren David

Goodbye to my parents’ house of memories

I expected the big clear-out of their things to be gut-wrenching, but it turned out to be uplifting and nostalgic

June 22, 2023 11:42

What is a Jewish home made of? I’ve just emerged from the gargantuan task of clearing my parents’ house in five weeks, so I can answer with confidence. A Jewish home is made of many, many teacups and hundreds of dinner plates, Le Creuset casserole dishes, cookbooks, playing cards and candlesticks. It’s made of books, in particular obscure books about Jewish subjects. Photographs. Tchotchkes. And a surprisingly large number of silver teapots.

Of course it was a sad task, a dismantling of decades of memories. And I am a natural collector — the family archivist — who finds it difficult to let go. I sympathise with Daniel Finkelstein who wrote so movingly on these pages recently about the value of hanging on to the small things that make up a life, the theatre programmes, the sheet music, the scribbled recipes. But, especially if you live as I do in a house with no garage, it can be utterly liberating to let go of that dusty ephemera.

I thought it would be gut-wrenching and melancholy. But it was fun to spend time with my siblings (even though my sister was Facetiming from Netanya), deciding who wanted what. And a joy to discover that our tastes diverged perfectly — we all wanted different things. I got the glass paperweight birds that I’ve loved since I was a child.We all agreed that my royalist niece in Jerusalem should have the coronation mugs. I took cherry trees and geraniums in tubs from the garden. There were no arguments at all. The first hurdle cleared.

My friend, who declutters for a living, had assured me that no one keeps valuables in the garage or the garden shed. “But she didn’t know Grandma,” said my niece, emerging from the shed with silver fish knives, silver candlesticks and a clutch of silver teapots.

We found a clothes cupboard in Dad’s study that I’d never noticed (my parents had been in the house for 34 years). More silver teapots, hidden under winter woolies. In the attic, my niece found a suitcase of my clothes from 1989. I almost cried with joy to see my favourite dress ever (a pink and black strappy number) emerge. And here too were more candlesticks and more silver teapots. My great-grandfather ran a metal plating company, which may explain it.

My niece found Mum’s Le Creuset casserole dish in the garage, and took it home to clean off the cobwebs and give it a good scrub. Thousands of chickens must have been roasted in it on thousands of Friday nights, until Mum was too weak to lift it. We were all cheered to think of its resurrection and new life.

My daughter decided to keep a dinner set. Which one to choose? There was milk for best and every day, meat ditto, and two full Pesach sets. The one she chose had 40 bowls —“What was Grandma thinking?” — and I was flooded with memories of huge Seder nights, before the age of disposable plastics, washing up between courses because 40 bowls were not enough.

I asked her to pack all the Jewish books from my father’s study into a box. She filled three boxes and there were lots more to pack. “Why does Grandpa have a book about Jewish furniture?”she asked. I found prayer books squirrelled away in odd corners, much like the multiple silver teapots.

Eventually the house clearers arrived, and so did my friend Rachel, bearing flasks of tea and cupcakes. We sat in the garden and reminisced, while the men carried away the bits and pieces that made up a home, assuring me that almost everything would be recycled or rehomed. And to my surprise, I didn’t feel very sad, or upset or regretful. I felt a burden lifting, for my father — now forging a new life in the rather wonderful surroundings of Hammerson House — for my siblings and for myself.

Like many Jewish immigrant families (although unlike the Finkelsteins), our family history is full of untold stories. My great-grandparents got out early, and we don’t know in detail what happened to those left behind. Horror lurked unseen in the shadows.

“I’m just putting it in a safe place,” Mum would say, about documents or precious items, and we’d never be able to find that particular thing again.

Perhaps this left me with a sense of unfinished business, buried emotions. And maybe that’s why I felt relieved when the house was finally empty, when the clearers left with their three stuffed vans.

The next day, there to collect the last things, I wandered into the utility room and looked up. A high cupboard still had stuff in it. Luckily there was still a stepladder. I climbed up and rescued one… two… three silver teapots. I packed them into my car and drove home, to be greeted by the cheery pinks and reds of Mum’s geraniums.

What is a Jewish home made of? It’s made of hospitality and learning, tradition and Yiddishkeit. It’s made of the appreciation of music, nature and beauty. It’s made of warmth and kindness and friendship, roast chicken and lemon tea. It tries to be a safe place, and for lucky families like ours, it succeeds.

But most of all, it’s made of love.

June 22, 2023 11:42

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive