I’ve been thinking about the people who have lost their homes in the fire zones in California. How unimaginable to have minutes to gather your family and flee. The terror of driving through dense smoke, surrounded by flames on all sides, must feel like a nightmare. Incinerated cars, home foundations and barren landscapes as far as the eye can see. Heartbreaking.
When disaster strikes (hurricanes, floods, fires), many victims lament the loss of family photo albums. We tend to collect and hold onto so many material objects. From priceless antiques to sentimental trinkets, we place value on the items we hold dear.
A new book about the items we cherish caught my attention—“What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object that Brings Them Joy, Magic and Meaning” by Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax. The authors asked celebrities and regular folks about the one object they truly value. There is usually a sentimental attachment to a tarnished locket or a crinkled baseball card or an old pocket knife.
My father’s parents were born in Hungary and met after they had each moved to New York. I didn’t really know my Grandma Kovach. She died before I turned 3 years old. But all my life I wished that I did. As a child, my dad would bring my brother and me to visit Grandpa Kovach at his apartment in Queens on Saturday mornings. Grandpa lived in the same two-bedroom apartment where my father had grown up.
In spring and summer, Grandpa could be found up on the roof, smoking a cigar, sitting in a folding chair with no shirt on, and holding his sliver sun-reflector for a deeper tan. I remember seeing a couple of faded tattoos on his tanned arms. In cold or rainy weather, we visited him inside the apartment. Dad and Grandpa sat at the kitchen table, drinking beer or “viskey” and talking about the stock market.
My brother and I walked around the apartment. I liked to look at every photograph and knick-knack. Who were those three young boys in the sailor suits with the Buster Brown haircuts? I admired the decorative glass with a colorful map of Hungary etched on the front. Grandma Kovach’s silver-handled comb and mirror set were arranged on the top of the wooden dresser in the bedroom.
After a tour of the photographs in the second bedroom, we returned to the living room. There was a long wooden trestle table with china figurines displayed on a lace table runner. A cow and calf, a large colorful bird and a seated Indian maiden. I made up elaborate imaginative scenarios with these figurines. I carefully carried each one down to the carpeted floor to play with under the trestle table. These items had once belonged to Grandma Kovach, so they were special to me.
When I was 15 years old, my Grandpa Kovach died sitting in his living room chair. Family members divided up the furniture and hand-painted Herend dishes from Hungary. I wanted a few items to remember my Grandma Kovach. The cow and calf, the large bird and the Indian maiden. These were not antique collectibles crafted in the old country. The cow was stamped “made in Japan.” But my grandmother must have liked these items to display them in her home and that was good enough for me.
My grandmother had been known for her cooking, baking and sewing skills. She was hardworking and social and well respected at her church. The fact that Grandma Kovach had been born in Transylvania only added to the mystique of this loving, kind, talented woman.
In every place that I have lived—from my childhood bedroom to my first apartment in Manhattan to homes in Cross River and South Salem, I cherish and display these dime store figurines that remind me of Grandma Kovach.
Kim Kovach is positive that she inherited her interests in baking, cows, Native American folk tales and all things Transylvanian from Grandma Kovach. Visit kimkovachwrites.com.