Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, January 3, 2014

To Family, To Life, To Love

Our homes, no matter their size, not only accommodate the people and creature companions living there but all the objects gathered over the years.  Most of us realize those things are not the real treasures; if they are lost or damaged they can usually be replaced.  Even so, all of us do have items more valued for the memories attached to them than the worth of the keepsake itself.

This brings to mind the custom in Africa of a storyteller carrying or wearing a string or a vine with tiny tokens attached to it.  Each of these represents a tale.  Listeners will point to one, a payment may be exchanged and then the yarn spinning will begin.

In 1988 Patricia Polacco presented readers with her cherished title, The Keeping Quilt.  When Patricia Polacco's Great-Gramma Anna came to America, an outgrown dress, her babushka and other family members' clothing were used to create a quilt; like the storyteller's tokens, each piece of fabric represented a person and their story.  Generation after generation the quilt was used in commemoration of life events.

In August of this year, a companion title, a prequel to The Keeping Quilt, The Blessing Cup (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) was released.  It begins with Anna's family in Russia.  It begins with a tea set.

When my great-grandmother Anna was a little girl, long before she came to America, she lived in a small shtetl with her mother, papa, and baby sister, Magda, near Tver in Russia.

Their life is filled with fear of the czar's soldiers.  In fact the opening pages show them hiding in the goat shed.  When safety is assured for the time being and Anna's father comes home, the family gathers for the Shabbat, the sun is down on a Friday.  

Anna's mother brings a family heirloom to the table, a tea set she and her husband received as a marriage gift.  At Anna's urging her mother tells the story of the tea set's arrival at their village and of the special note enclosed.  From an aunt Rebecca it speaks of the magic to those who drink from the cups; five promises always kept.

That night as the family sleeps snug and cozy in the warming bed on top of the brick oven, they are awakened by cries and shouts filled with fear.  The temple in the village is burning.  Soldiers are carrying out the czar's orders; all Jews must leave their homes, they must leave Russia.

They are only allowed to take those things they can carry themselves or in carts.  The only hope for Anna's family is to find a way to get to America.  Anna's papa has a cousin there.

Across Russia the family travels for many, many months.  With only room for Anna, her younger sister, Magda, now walking, and her mother to sleep in the cart at night, her papa becomes ill from countless nights of sleeping on the ground and from pulling the cart.  On the outskirts of a small town, he falls to the ground unable to walk another step.

Yevgeni Vladimorovich Puskin is the doctor Anna's mother finds.  Yevgeni Vladimorovich Puskin keeps his promise to heal Anna's father.  Yevgeni Vladimorovich Puskin is the miracle this family needs to rest and recover; finding sanctuary in his home.

Trouble finds the family again but unsolicited gifts are given by all.  A single cup from the tea set journeys with Anna's family.  One fragile piece of china, giving strength as it is passed from mother to daughter over and over.  As promised in the original note from aunt Rebecca, its magic can't be shaken, even by an earthquake.  It truly is a blessing cup.

How easy it is to fall under the spell of the storyteller when reading a book authored by Patricia Polacco.  From the first page you become a participant in the telling of the tale.  You feel like a member of the family; knowing their happiness, fears, sadness, struggles and triumphs.  Her inclusion of memorable family sayings and notes further bind us to the characters.  Here is a sample of her writing from this book.

"Across a vast sea...So you must help me now and be brave."
"I don't want to leave," Anna cried softly.
"None of us do," her mother whispered as she packed.
"Why don't they want us here?" Anna finally asked.
"Because we are different from them...They are afraid of what they don't
understand," Anna's mother said, wrapping the beautiful tea set in soft clothing. ...

When I reread The Keeping Quilt (my copy is the tenth anniversary edition), true to form, I removed the jacket to see what the cover is like underneath.  It's red with a matte finish; a large cream border surrounds the spine.  In the center of the front cover is a tiny embossed heart.  It's a dark cream color, almost golden when held up to the light.

Removing the jacket of The Blessing Cup readers see a darker sky blue with a wide red border along the spine.  In the center is a tiny golden cup, embossed to create a different texture.  Patterned on the opening and closing endpapers are designs from the cup, several cups and the teapot.  A gorgeous image of the cup sets beneath the opening title page. Edge to edge the verso on the left and the formal title page on the right feature a drawing of Anna, happily standing in the doorway of the goat house, the village stretched out to her left.

Rendered in two and six B pencils and acetone markers the illustrations in this book are not unlike looking through a photograph album.  All of the pictures extend across two pages.  They are nearly all in black and white with spot color added for emphasis.

When the family is seeking shelter in a barn among the straw, wrapped in coats and quilts, drinking from the four cups with the teapot off to the left side, is one of my favorite illustrations.  Even in the midst of their painful struggle to exist, they continue with what is important to them.  The promises of the blessing cup sustain them.  Another illustration you have to see to appreciate its true beauty is an evening with the doctor prior to their leaving where Anna's mother explains the teapot and cups' significance.

Patricia Polacco shares her family's story so we readers can know the richness life holds for us; how faith, family and believing can make the impossible come true.  The Blessing Cup in words and pictures is quite simply beautiful.  Each time I read it my heart is filled with love, the human magic found in the memories of a single family keepsake.

Please follow the link embedded in Patricia Polacco's name to her official website.  At this link to the publisher's website you can view several more illustrations from the book including one of my favorites.  Here is a link to an interview on NPR Books, 'The Blessing Cup': Polacco and Her Family of Storytellers

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