Salvaging the threads of my mother’s holey dish towels

Salvaging the threads of my mother’s holey dish towels

Eileen Bergman
Eileen Bergman

When you live in a home for decades, you learn to visually turn off the areas that require planning, time, and money to fix. That was my kitchen, until last summer.  I could not stand looking at the cracked and corroded countertops and outdated wood cabinets one more day.

After a quick consultation with my husband, Don, and a visit to a kitchen remodeling center, the fun began. I am not talking about the fun of picking out fresh colors for the new cabinets, backsplash, countertops, floors, and walls. I am referring to the task of emptying out all of our kitchen supplies, dishes, utensils, and pantry so we could prepare the kitchen for its remodel.

Talk about a busman’s holiday. As a professional organizer I do this kind of work in clients’ homes all day long with ease and a sense of calm. But with my kitchen, it became personal. And by that, I mean specifically … my mother’s holey dish towels.

Let me explain.

I vividly remember when my family converted our home on Gerdes Avenue in Verona into a kosher one in the mid-1960s and my mother purchased all-new dish towels at B. Altman & Co. The red (meat) and blue (dairy) towels always brought back fond memories of my family’s journey to creating a more observant Jewish home, saying goodbye to bacon, hello to Friday night chicken dinners, and attending Friday night services instead of staying home and watching “The Wild Wild West” and “Star Trek.”

Memories of this religious transition also include shopping at Gimbels at the Bergen Mall on the corner of Routes 4 and 17 to purchase multiple sets of cookware, dishes, and silverware — two sets for everyday (one for dairy and one for meat) and two more for Passover. 

In addition, the kitchen was cleaned from floor to ceiling, no spot untouched, and all of our food had to be tossed. At an early age I learned to be mindful of food labels and ingredients, as well as the effort that goes into keeping a home orderly to properly observe the laws of kashrut.

Several years back, about a decade after my mother died in August 2001, I donated all four sets of her dishes. I never looked back with regret; their time had come to spark joy elsewhere. But this year, disposing of the dish towels … not so easy.

Even though the fabric is littered with holes — which I preferred to ignore — many of the towels still had the B. Altman label attached.

The name of the department store triggers fond memories. I remember my mother, sister, and I shopping in their model home at the outdoor Short Hills mall (before it was enclosed). My mother loved the way they changed the house each season, sometimes just by using slip covers to adapt new colors for the time of year (a housekeeping activity my mother took very seriously). Spring/summer meant the floral prints came out for the living room chairs, and a teal blue slipcover for the sofa. Fall/winter brought out shades of bronze, gray, and a silver pattern on the chairs, along with a winter white sofa slipcover.

Window shopping was a fun activity that we shared. This was long before the days of handheld electronics and cell phones, so when we had our girls’ day out, there were no distractions, just conversation and enjoyment of each other’s company. 

When our kitchen cabinet and countertop portion of the renovation was complete, Don and I strategized about the process of downsizing so our storage could not only be attractive on the outside, but organized on the inside. He recommended that we cut back on our volume of “stuff,” and replace the holey dish towels. We agreed to transition my mother’s beloved dish towels to a rag bin in the hall closet where they were put to good use and eventually disposed of.

Recently, much to my delight and surprise, I found a lone surviving dish towel — no holes and yes, label attached — in the garage. I am keeping it in a safe place and no one is allowed to use it. The towel represents fond childhood memories of that period in my life. By safeguarding this now holy (or non-holey) artifact, I am preserving it for eternity, or more realistically, until Don and I decide that it’s time to downsize again.

Eileen Bergman of West Orange is a professional organizer and member of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (NAPO).

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