Four Hundred Guests for Passover

In 1981, my parents moved into a retirement community, and suddenly I was the one with the kosher house big enough to host a seder. Our dining room table only seated 12, so my husband and I bought a folding aluminum table to add on. That took us to 20. I bought two pale-yellow sheets—a springtime color—to put on the tables, and sewed a strip of lace around the edges. It was pretty, but it still looked bare.

One of the things I love about Passover is all the “pass ons.” My dishes were my mother-in-law’s, as was the silver. My mom gave me this set of flatware that her parents had bought her as a wedding present; six place-settings were my grandmother’s. The wineglasses were given to us by friends we met in Prague. The candy dish was given by Mom to her parents when they moved into a new house. When they died, it came back to her. I had embroidered these 24 napkins—12 for my mother-in-law, and 12 for my mother. When my mother-in-law died, I inherited them back; then my mother gave me hers, too.

I always have this feeling at Passover . . . a feeling of. ..tradition, and it came to me that, besides taking out the napkins and the dishes, I would like to remember everyone who has ever sat at this table. So 20 years ago I asked everybody to sign their names on the tablecloth. Later, I embroidered them. The next year I embroidered new names in a new color.  And so on all these years. My son and daughter would pick out which color in which year.

When I lay out the tablecloth I remember all the good times, all the nice and loving and wonderful people. All over I have “Sally Potashkin,” my mother. Some folks moved away, some friends are no longer close, some came here just one time. Here are two friends of my brother-in-law’s—a Russian newspaper reporter, not Jewish, and his wife, who were in America: Alexander and Helena Shalnov, 1988. My daughter had friends from college: Sunhee Lee over here. Jenny Flynn. She met Jenny in Cambridge, England.

Different years, my son’s dating someone…. He’s still single.

If there’s a baby, we trace his hand on the table. Inside, here, we wrote “Ben”—my nephew—and the year. For the next two years we did the same thing. I embroidered Ben’s growing hand. Then suddenly, one year—here—they sign all by themself! With all the children, first they print just their first name, then the next year their first and last name, then script. One year they just up and write their whole name in huge letters: JENNIFER BETH MOLDAVI. It takes a long time to embroider it. There is always a year where children try to do something fancy: block letters, letters with shadows. Grownups write their names with a lot of consistency. If you look, eventually the kids’ names also become consistent.

When my dad developed Parkinson’s, he couldn’t write anymore. For a few years—1993, ’94, ’95, 1996—Mom wrote for both of them: “Sally and Irving.” Then you just see “Sally.” My dad died in ’97, my father-in-law in ’98. Here’s where they last signed their names. Family comes, the tablecloth means a lot to everybody. They look for their name and the years.

Who’s going to inherit this? There are two of them. Amy tends to be more traditional. But I don’t know.. . .I don’t even know what to tell you.

Rhoda Asch’s tablecloth is currently in The Cultural Thread: An Exhibit on Embroidery and Lace in New Jersey, at the Park Performing Arts Center in Union City.