Grandpa’s Shears

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I have a photograph of my maternal grandfather, Sam Frankel, sitting in the New York City sweatshop where he earned his subsistence living.  He looks rakish, wearing a cap and looking right at the camera, and even jaunty, not like the sour, beaten-down, shuffling old man I knew whose only pleasure was a Hershey bar.

But I never really knew my grandfather; he was deaf, and Yiddish speaking, and he kept to himself, wrapped in an off-putting cloak of bitterness and disappointment.

He only gave me one thing when I was a little girl, an inexpensive cut-glass pendant shaped like a heart.  I value it, even though its sparkle and clarity seem like the exception to our relationship. But I own a piece of my grandfather that’s even more important, which my mother passed on to me after his death more than twenty years ago: his shears.

The heavy, enormous scissors that he used to cut through thick layers of fabric in the sweatshop seem a more appropriate souvenir of Sam Frankel. These are scissors with serious intentions, scissors that would identify themselves as a tool, work implements in an entirely different class than the blunted scissors I used to cut out outfits for my paper dolls.  They’re meant to persevere, and to survive.

The blades are sharp, still, and the scissors are heavy, to be used by an adult who meant business.  As different from kiddie scissors as oil paints are from crayons, it’s clear that the goal of these scissors is to divide things, to separate them.  It would be someone else’s job to join things.  That fits.

Someone–maybe my grandfather, maybe his wife–wrapped both looped handles of the scissors with fabric tape, wound round and round to create a cushion that might soften the irritation of repeated use.  Without it the scissors would undoubtedly have caused blisters or, with time and persistence, calluses, those physical manifestations of surrender.

I never saw him use these scissors; instead, it was the women in his family who I associate with sewing and creating.  My grandmother used her treadle-pedal sewing machine, which was sold at her death when my mother was too grief-stricken to know she’d regret its loss. (She also knitted and made sweaters for my dolls from leftover wool which I still own.)

My aunts were both in the millinery field, crafting hats from all sorts of materials in the era when women seriously wore hats; I have some of these, too.

And my mother has dabbled in needlepoint, rug-hooking, mosaics and knitting.  To this day, she has never used a sewing machine; she sews everything by hand–even, equal stitches that hold together.

I’ve never liked sewing.  I had to take a sewing class in junior high school, and I wasn’t good at it.  I didn’t like the precision it required nor the fact that I had to follow a pattern. But the easiest part was cutting out the fabric.  I used my grandfather’s shears.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania.  At the moment she is teaching journaling and creative-writing classes to people with cancer, and she’s working on a project that she hopes will be published as The Breast Cancer Journaling Workbook.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history

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