Notions has a very special meaning for me.
In the early 1990s, I was a videographer for the Holocaust Oral History Project in San Francisco..
One day, a man arrived for his interview, accompanied by his wife. She sat off to the side quietly as we interviewed her husband.
After his interview was over, he said that we should interview his wife, she was a survivor too.
She said that she wasn’t in a concentration camp, it wasn’t a very interesting story. We explained that every story mattered. I used the example of a George Seurat painting: Every dot of paint contributed the detail and nuance of the final image. She agreed to talk to us.
She was born in 1930 in Poland. Her family was deported to what she called a gulag, possibly in Russia. She remembers it was always cold, they were always hungry, supplies were hard to come by. But they could write letters. Her mother wrote to anyone she could think of, asking for help. One day, a package arrived from America. On the box was written the word “Notions.” The guards let it pass through, as it wasn’t worth anything to them. It was filled with needles, thread, buttons, zippers, elastic, snaps and hooks. She said that box saved their lives. It allowed them repair their clothes. A hook or a piece of elastic could keep your coat or sleeve closed against the cold. And they could barter: trade a needle and thread for food.
As she told us the story, I flashed on a cupboard in our kitchen when I was little. On a shelf was my mother’s sewing kit, filled with spools of thread, needles, hooks, snaps.
Next to the kit was a glass jar filled with buttons, saved from worn out clothes. We used those buttons to play driedel, the sparkly ones from coats were worth more than the simple shirt buttons.
And then I realized she was born the same year as my mother.
No other survivor story affected me as profoundly as hers. It connected something from my life to something from hers.
Every time I sew on a button or stitch up a loose hem, there she is.