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Unraveling the Fibers

Miles, Sandy. "Unraveling the Fibers." Forum, 4 May 2002, 12.


"Mother, Mother," Sabra called as she came running into the house after school. "I got the part! I'm going to be in the spring musical, 'Fiddler on the Roof!'" she explained.

"That's wonderful," said her mom. "I'm proud of you!"

"I'll need a costume, a poor peasant girl's skirt and a shawl. Where will I find those," moaned Sabra.

"I think we might have something in our old cedar chest. They are the only things I have of your Great-Grandmother Catrina's belongings. She wore them on the ship when she immigrated to America from Russia in 1916."

Sabra and her mother went into the guest bedroom. It was decorated with antique furniture from her grandmother's home. They opened the old cedar chest. Her mother unpacked two pieces of cloth.

"This brown piece with the fringe and roses on the border was used as a scarf or a shawl. It was called a babushka," explained her mother.

"What is that?" asked Sabra as she touched the long piece of navy, hand-woven fabric with red and white stripes. "It is really scratchy. It must be made of wool," she said.

"This was the blanket in my crib," replied Sabra's mother. "See this thin spot, I used my little finger to scratch the fibers as I fell asleep. I remember your Great-Grandmother Catrina wrapping me up in it, rocking me and telling me the story 'The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.' I loved it so." reminisced her mother.

"But how can I make a costume from this?" asked Sabra.

"Oh, this will be easy. Hand me the sewing basket. I'll take this safety pin and a piece of elastic and run it through this narrow hem to make the waist. Then I can sew up the back seam to make a long skirt."

"Well, that will be simple! I'll have a costume in no time at all!" exclaimed Sabra.

As her mother laced the elastic through she stopped. "What's this?" she asked. "I can't get the elastic through. Hand me the seam ripper, Sabra. I'll have to open this hem some more," said her mother.

Out tumbled three small pebbles. They both examined them.

"I'll just put them in the tin button container," said her mother.

"Those are strange looking rocks," said Sabra. "I can't believe they were there all those years."

Sabra and the cast practiced their parts for weeks. At last the night of the performance arrived. Sabra was so excited, but somehow nervous! All the students knew their parts well. They sang and danced beautifully. As she sang the lead part the bright lights were focused on her. Sabra's costume looked authentic.

After the performance the audience cheered the cast to several curtain calls. Then the members of the cast met their audience in the atrium to shake hands and to receive congratulations.

Sabra was standing with her parents when a distinguished gentleman approached them. He introduced himself as Mr. Surrey. He commented that the cast had done a remarkable performance. He inquired about her costume. He requested to look at the fabric of her skirt more closely. Mr. Surrey asked Sabra where she had found the fabric?

She replied, "It was worn by her Great-Grandmother Catrina, when she came to America from Russia. Later, Grandmother had used it as a crib blanket."

Mr. Surrey explained to her family that he was planning a German-Russian heritage exhibit. He wondered if he would be able to borrow the skirt to use in the exhibit this summer. Sabra's parents discussed the arrangements for him to pick the costume up within a week.

A month passed and one day they received a letter from Mr. Surrey. He wrote, "We have had a curator of textile and weaving look at the skirt. His evaluation of the fabric stated, 'The handwoven fabric contained red and white stripes that were too fine to be done on the looms that peasants had at that time.'"

Mr. Surrey noted, "We are writing about each item in the German-Russian exhibit. We need more information about how your Great-Grandmother Catrina came to America. We are proposing to have people with German-Russian ancestors write stories about their heritage. We have very little information recorded because they were afraid to tell anyone about their past."

Sabra's mother replied to her, "I really don't know how they came to America. We will have to call my father. He is the only one that might have some information."

That Sunday they called Grandpa to ask him if he had any information about Great-Grandmother Catrina's past, so that they could write something for the German-Russian exhibit.

On the phone, Grandpa answered, "Your cousin has the passports issued in 1916. The wedding certificate shows that they were married in America. Let me see...I do recall a story about how they came to America.

"All I know, they lived in a village by a great river in the western part of Russia. They raised two-hundred geese. In the fall they would butcher the geese. When everyone was asleep at night your great-great-grandfather would go into the butchering shed and dissect all the gizzards of the geese to remove nuggets of gold, for the geese would eat the rocks and gold along the river to digest their food.

"The gold would be sent in a guarded coach to St. Petersburg. Late at night in the fall of 1916 an armored coach arrived to secretly pick up the gold. The coach never went to St. Petersburg. Your Great-Grandmother Catrina and her sister Marie and two young men escaped with the gold down the great river to freedom in America.

"In America, the young man John married your Great-Aunt Marie. The other young man, named Casper, married Catrina and they were your great-grand-parents."

After Sabra put the phone down, she ran into the bedroom and got the three nuggets from the button can. She held them in her hand and exclaimed, "These are real gold. Now I know the story of 'The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg' is really true! That is why Great-Grandmother Catrina always told it to us and insisted that we had the picture of the little girl herding the geese hanging above our crib.

"They were so precious to her because they were her symbols to gaining freedom!"

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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