Although published a quarter century apart, these are two books that tell a single tears-of-joy-inducing family story. If chronology is important, you might read Patricia Polacco‘s multi-generational family epic out of publication order – that is, Blessing Cup (out this year) first, and then Keeping Quilt (which debuted in 1988, and reappeared this year in an updated, 25th anniversary edition). The former begins with Polacco’s great-grandmother Anna’s life “long before she came to America,” and the latter continues with “When … Anna came to America.”
As a little girl, Anna lived in a Jewish Russian village that was often at the mercy of cruel soldiers. Every week in celebrating Shabbat, Anna’s mother pulled out a remarkable wedding gift tea set: “The tea set is magic,” the giver wrote. “Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy … and they will never be poor.” Because the family would always have each other …
When the czar violently ousts Jews from Russia, Anna’s family’s difficult journey to safety is buffeted by the magic of the tea set. When Papa falls seriously ill, a kind doctor shelters and feeds the family, and even makes their escape to America possible. In gratitude, Mama leaves the good doctor her tea set, with the exception of a single cup “so that we can still have its blessing.” And so that Blessing Cup begins a new life in a new land, passed on from generation to generation to generation …
The Keeping Quilt is born in the new country, made of the memories of the old. As Anna quickly grows into her new American life, “[t]he only things she had left of backhome Russia were her dress and babushka.” Anna’s mother gathers all that’s been outgrown and creates a quilt: “‘It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night.'” And so the Keeping Quilt becomes an integral part of Anna’s family’s life: it serves as the Shabbat tablecloth, the picnic spread on which Anna agrees to marry Great-Grandpa Sasha, the huppa at many weddings, the warm blanket for each new baby and every elder in old age. As generations pass, the Keeping Quilt, too, grows fragile … but Polacco’s children find a way to lovingly give it new life.
As inspiring as Polacco’s stories are, her exquisite art imbues her words with mesmeric meaning. Using a base of mostly black-and-white pencil sketches, Polacco enhances each scene with splendid, specific splashes of vibrant color – the dancing cut-outs of the Keeping Quilt, the precious details of the Blessing Cup, the spirited backhome babushka, the fine Persian rug that saves four lives, the glowing fire that warms and the sweeping fires that destroy. Polacco’s pictures add the proverbial thousand words to each page as she captures the changing generations, from her orthodox ancestors, to her parents’ non-Jewish wedding guests, to her daughter’s commitment ceremony. Her family’s story is also America’s story – the changing faces, the unforgettable memories, and the unbreakable traditions that bind us all together. L’chaim indeed.
Published: 1988, 2013