By Harriet P. Gross
When we came to Chicago in 1957, we were a little family of three living in an ancient building in an old Jewish section of the city. Our apartment was a “high first,” a few shallow steps above the entry hall. The place was too big for us, but made schlepping a stroller up and down two or three flights of stairs unnecessary. We moved in during summer, a trial because there was no air conditioning. But winter was worse: The place was heated by coal, and when springtime finally arrived, our 22 double-hung windows were darkened with soot.
As Pesach approached, an elderly, black man knocked at the door one day, offering to wash those windows for 50 cents each. My husband was in his first job and was paying back student loans; I was staying at home with our toddler son, which is what young mothers were supposed to do then, and budgeting very carefully. I bought no meat that cost more than $1 a pound, and for a big treat we would go to a local hole-in-the-wall where a kosher classic “Chicago dog,” with all the trimmings including kraut and fries, went for 30 cents. Eleven dollars to wash windows. Who was he kidding?
Oh no, I said. I felt bad for him, having to scrounge out an itinerant living like that. But what could I do? He turned around, started to walk off, then turned back. “You’re not going to have Passover with those dirty windows, are you?” he asked. He certainly knew the neighborhood — and human nature. “Start washing,” I said. Everything really sparkled at our seders that year.
The seder plate I used then for the first time, and for more than a decade after, has long since been retired from active duty, to hang instead on my dining room wall with its 11 companions. All Judaica has hit stunning artistic heights in these many springtimes since Chicago, and my collection rings us with varied beauty as we celebrate Pesach. The plates keep their places year-round as permanent décor, but have extra-special meaning as we follow our Haggadot and eat our memory-laden asparagus in a part of the country where we’ve started buying it in January.
Visitors first spot the dichroic glass plate that seems to change color with every variation of light, and they often have to look twice — or more — to realize that the patina “leaves” on a piece with metal branches are actually cups to hold the seder essentials. I especially treasure a small, simple plate sent by a cousin who knows how I love all things pewter.
The one I actually place on the seder table now spends its off-months in storage with the Haggadot and my old wedding china, designated years ago for Passover use only.
This year, I’m blessed that sympathetic cousins are taking the strain off my recovering broken leg by hosting the first seder; we’ll enjoy the second with friends at their synagogue. I’m missing the usual home hustle-bustle — the fish platter and server will go unused until next year — and I must forgo the fun of shopping for afikomen-finding presents. But I love sitting as a guest at someone else’s beautiful table and being surprised by some delicious new Passover dishes. There may not be any asparagus, but my dozen seder plates will be on the wall to welcome me with old holiday memories when I come home.
My once-toddler son is now himself the grandpa of a toddler who’s old enough this year to join in the afikomen hunt. And about my windows: there are only a dozen now, all waiting to sparkle for erev Rosh Hashanah dinner.