A Jewish Story of a Box in a Basement


a Box in a Basement


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Just a Box in the Basement

By Keith Bloomfield

(An excerpt from the novel "A Guest At The Table")

Alan's Grandfather slowly walked around the huge table where his family would soon gather and placed a Haggadah at each place setting. He always smiled when he remembered past Seders, when there were never more than a few of the same haggadot at the table. There were always several from a company that made coffee, a couple from the manufacturer of prepared horseradish, some from a local funeral home, and the rest were collected each year from the butcher or the Shul. When he was younger, it troubled him. He thought that every Haggadah, at the table, should be the same. As he grew older, he understood. Seder means order and regardless of which Haggadah they used, the order of the Seder was always the same. The pictures may have been different, the introduction might say something else, but the ancient book always started the story in the same way and brought his family to the same place. Or at least the words did. Morris was less than happy with the way his Seders had concluded in recent years. He knew it was not the Haggadah - though now he had a set of haggadot, so each member of the family could read exactly the same text. He knew it was not how he conducted the Seder. He and Alan both knew that something had changed their family and they did not like it.

Preparation for Passover had begun days before. Alan's Grandmother had done the shopping and cleaned out the kitchen. Though their home was not strictly kosher, as her mother's was, when Passover arrived, out came the special dishes and silverware, and even special pots and pans were brought up from the storage room in the basement. At the end of Passover, the pots were washed, wrapped in newspaper, and placed in boxes with the family name written in huge black letters. Alan's Grandfather paid the porter a few dollars to bring them to the basement each year and return them on erev Pesach.

When Alan was very young, he used to stay with his Grandparents and help with holiday preparations. He and his Grandfather would venture into the bowels of the building. His Grandfather would use the shiny key that hung in the hall closet to open the scratched lock on the heavy metal door to the storage room. The thick musty smell of the basement always reminded Alan of the holiday. Smells sometimes jogged Alan's memory more swiftly than sights or sounds. Once inside, they would walk through the dimly lit aisles, past a collection of old bicycles and baby carriages in search of their boxes, while investigating what their neighbors chose to keep under lock and key.

Finding their boxes had become very simple in recent years, thanks to an idea from the Co-Op Board. Possibly the best idea they had ever had. Painted in large black letters on the longer walls in the room were a series of letters from A to Z. Hanging from the ceiling of the room were a set of numbers painted on bright white cards. Alan always reminded his Grandfather that it was like reading a map. Their boxes were at position N-27. So down the "N" aisle they would walk until they stood beneath the sign that read "27."

"Bingo!" they would shout in unison and begin moving the odd and assorted boxes to find theirs. It usually was not particularly difficult. They made sure it was clearly visible so that the Super could bring it upstairs on a rickety cart with the squeaky wheels that accompanied him everywhere.

Unlike most of the neighbors, Alan's Grandparents sealed their boxes with a wide strip of sticky tape and then wrapped them with thick brown twine. Most of the tenants did not even bother to close the flaps on their boxes. That made peeking in easy and they never knew what they would find. "One man's treasure is another man's trash," observed his Grandfather, peering into a tattered box in the "N-28" pile. No name identified the owner. The box had once contained a laundry detergent manufactured by a company long out of business. For all he knew, the owner of the box could have been dead or moved, or just forgot about it. "Out of sight, out of mind," his Grandfather mumbled.

Alan stood close to his Grandfather's side. The flaps of the box tore away when he tried to open them. There, sheltered deep within the cardboard receptacle were the remnants of someone's life. A wedding album with sepia tinged pictures curling at the corners. The faces of strangers in strange clothes filled each and every page. Alan stared at the old-fashioned dresses and suits. He studied the hairdos and the mustaches.

"Did you ever have a mustache like that one," asked the boy.

"Yes, as soon as I was able to grow it. I couldn't have been more than seventeen. Lucky for your Grandmother, I shaved it off in a few days. She grew jealous of all the girls who suddenly stopped to talk to me." His Grandfather nudged the boy with his elbow and they both enjoyed a good laugh.

More pictures of adults, babies, and babies growing up and grown up. Alan's Grandfather searched for a name, any name that would help him to identify the owner.

They found porcelain chachalas of people and animals. Some whole, some chipped, and many in pieces. Tarnished silver serving pieces and unrecognizable personal possessions. Tucked away in the bottom of the box he found two velvet cases – one contained a tallis and the other a set of tefillin. Alan's Grandfather removed the tallis from the bag and inspected it. It smelled like the basement and large circles of mold had eaten away at the yellowed cloth. It could have been someone's Bar Mitzvah present, never used again or if its owner was observant, maybe it was used daily. There was no way of telling. He carefully refolded it and returned it to its case. The tefillin were a sorry sight. The leather straps were torn and the leather cases that had housed the tiny scrolls on which prayers had been inscribed, where cracked and empty. Alan's Grandfather wondered how much use they had seen too. Had the owner davened each morning with the tallis draped across his shoulders and the tefillin wrapped around his arm and the headpiece worn over his forehead as a "frontlet between his eyes," as it was written in the Torah. There was no way to tell.

Digging deeper, he unearthed a dented kiddush cup, badly blackened by age, several prayer books and a single Passover Haggadah. Alan's Grandfather slowly flipped through the pages, trying hard not to dislodge them from their frail binding. The illuminated illustrations had faded, but the pictures still told the timeless story of bondage, liberation, and redemption.

"Such treasures," remarked Alan's Grandfather, "and no one is around to protect and enjoy them. It's a shonda! Promise me Alan, that when I'm gone, I won't be just a box in the basement to you."

"Of course Grandpa. I could never let that happen."

While it was comforting to hear, both of them knew there were certainly no guarantees. Both of them fell silent.

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from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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