In the coldest of cold Russian winters in the year 1892, when the snow piled higher than anyone in the small village of Zhitomir could ever before remember, a tiny baby girl was born in a small stone house on the edge of a wide and ancient wood. Eagerly awaited and somewhat of a miracle, she was a very special baby because her parents had long ago given up hope of ever having a child. And so this baby had been dearly loved from the first. Outside the little house that night the snowflakes that fell were as big as dinner plates, and the stars sparkled and their light bathed the trees with silver. The snow covered the ground with a beautiful glow. Inside, all was warm and light. A fire blazed in the hearth and the smell of cinnamon and cloves and fresh bread baking filled the little house with fabulous aromas.
Nestled comfortably in her mother’s arms in a bed near the fire, the new baby cooed softly. The baby’s mother Moriah smiled at the sound and cuddled closer to her newborn. Whispering softly in her ear, she said, “Precious daughter, I promise to be the best that I can be for you. I will teach you and you will teach me and I will see the world anew once more, through your eyes.” Moriah kissed the downy soft head of her baby daughter. She felt a sudden rush of love and protectiveness and, looking up at her husband Ari, she stretched out her hand. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she asked, her eyes brimming with happy tears.
Ari kissed his wife and smiled. “Indeed she is,” he responded and sat down gently beside her on the bed.
“We shall call her Malkah,” said Moriah, “I have always liked that name.”
“Ah,” replied Ari, “you have decided and chosen well. It will be as you wish my love, it is your decision after all, and I like the name too. It means ‘Queen,’ and if this little one is anything like her sweet mother, it is well deserved.” Ari looked down at his wife with a loving smile and gave her a wink.
Moriah blushed and cuddled the baby close. “We need to let the family know of our decision,” she said. “I have a feeling they will be here soon.”
“I almost forgot. That’s right … yes, the family,” said Ari with dread in his voice, and he rose up from his wife’s bed too agitated to sit still any longer.
Suddenly, just as Moriah had predicted, there was a loud knock at the front door followed quickly by a large gust of wind and a whirl of snowflakes as the door banged open and there on the mat stood the family. There were so many. Aunts, uncles, cousins, parents of cousins, grandparents, great-great-great-grandparents, and they all pushed into the room crowding the small space and jostling each other around Moriah’s bed. The room was becoming warmer and warmer as more and more people continued to squeeze into the little house. Soon steam began to rise in the tiny room and the snow began to drip from the hats and coats of all the relatives, and their voices rose too as everyone ooohed and ahhhed at the new arrival.
“Ahem …” said Ari, trying to remain calm amid the press of people. “Beloved family … Moriah and I have decided to name the baby Malkah, and our decision is final!”
“Bravo Ari!” whispered Moriah softly from behind him in the bed.
At first there was total silence, then everyone began to speak at once. And as usual, no one could agree. Everyone had a special name they wanted to give the baby. Everyone wanted to bless the child by giving her a name of someone special who had come before. In the end, in order to please everyone and to keep family harmony as best as Moriah and Ari were able, the little girl was named Malkah Hannah Laurie Judith Phyllis Elaine Beth Bella Esther Chaya Dobrisha Elishah Alicia Marsha Pearl Sally Edie Sylvia Maria Raina Sophie Sarah Lily Francis Miriam Bette Rachel Evelyn Agnes Lucy Sadie Mary Ethel Goldah Ann. But everyone just called her Molly.
Molly grew strong and sweet and extremely curious about the world around her. In the spring and summer she played happily amid the tall grasses and picked handfuls of wildflowers, her long blond braids and the tails of her apron trailing in the wind as she ran and played. In the winter, when the heavy snows would begin to fall and the drifts that formed outside her front door made venturing out difficult, Molly would sit for hours in the cabin, wrapped snugly in a blanket in a chair by the fireside, and read. Molly adored reading. In the heart of the frozen winter, she could travel to distant islands and play on sandy beaches in the warmth of the sun, and she could imagine herself in the stories she loved as a princess in a fairy tale castle, or a pirate on the deck of a ship. Moriah had saved her childhood books in hopes of sharing them someday with a child of her own, and gave them to Molly as soon as Molly was old enough to enjoy them for herself. It did not matter what Molly read or how many times she re-read the books Moriah had given her; the books were Molly’s special treasures, too.
When the spring thaw would finally arrive and the heavy snows would begin to melt away in the warmth of the sun, Moriah would unlatch the shutters from the windows and push back the curtains. The front door of the little house was opened wide and the warming breezes and the rich aromas of springtime would flood in, filling the house with light and blowing away the stale air of winter. Molly would run from the house as fast as she was able, soaking up the sun and breathing in the fragrant perfume of spring. Molly knew then it was time to prepare the earth for planting once again. There was always so much to be done.
Behind the little house, Ari and Moriah worked together in their large garden. They planted many things each year, but the thing that grew the best was potato. As long as Ari could remember his family had planted potatoes to sell on market day in the village. Of course he and Moriah brought other things to sell as well, but the potatoes seemed to be everyone’s favorite. Molly loved to be with her parents in the garden, too. And as she grew, she spent more and more time there.
On a beautiful spring day when the sun rose high in the sky and the earth began to warm and the rich soil behind the little house beckoned with promise, Molly followed her father from his tool shed down the path towards the garden. Over his shoulder he carried a variety of rakes and hoes and shovels. Ari pushed open the wooden gate and put down the tools he had been carrying, and took a deep breath.
“Ah …” he said, “the world smells like new beginnings. I just love this time of year … but not so much all the hoeing and weeding that needs to be done.” He turned to the piles of tools he had brought along and found among them a small rake and hoe just big enough for a child.
“Are these for me?” Molly asked excitedly. “They’re the perfect size!”
Ari was pleased with his daughter’s reaction when she saw the rake and hoe. “Well,” he said, smiling down at her, “our family has farmed this plot of land for a very long time, and they had to make their own tools themselves through the years in order to work the earth in this garden. These tools were made for my father by his father, your Great-Grandpa Joseph, and when I was a boy of eight, just about as old as you are now, my father gave them to me. I remember that day very well. When he passed them on to me, I was so happy that I had my own tools to use so I could help my family work our land and grow the food we needed. Each spring when I had an opportunity to use them again, I always felt important and connected to my family and all those who came before. These tools certainly have seen a lot of use in this garden. They have all lasted a very long time. Using them, I learned how very important it is to care for the things you have, and if you can do that, they will be there for you to use as long as you need them.” For a moment Ari stopped speaking as the memory of a long-ago day ran through his mind. He looked down again at his daughter and, placing his hand upon her shoulder, he said, “It is also important to fill your life with good memories and take care of them, too. If you do, I promise you that they will both last a very, very long time.”
With that, Ari wiped the back of his neck with his checkered handkerchief and stuffed it into his back pocket. “Shall we get started?” he asked with a grin, and he patted Molly on top of her head. Molly picked up the shovel and hoe and followed her father excitedly through the old metal gate and into the garden. She stroked the wooden handles of the hoe and shovel and they were both smooth and warm in her hands. As she did, her thoughts became filled with images of her father as a little boy using these same tools, and she smiled to herself.
Molly did not quite understand everything her father had just told her, but she surely knew who her Great-Grandpa Joseph was as there was a picture of him in the hallway of her parents’ house. She had always thought the photograph a bit scary, and she hurried down the hallway in order to pass it quickly. The photograph was old and the image was black and brown and there was what seemed to Molly a mean and unhappy scowl on his face. Molly had never really heard any stories about Great-Grandpa Joseph from her father before, but she could sense from the way her father had handled the tools, and the memory he had shared, that he remembered his grandfather with love. Molly’s eyes grew wide with that revelation as she looked again at the little hoe and shovel. It seemed as though they had traveled a long way through time to come to her. She felt proud and happy to receive them, and excited to have them for her own. Maybe Great-Grandpa Joseph is not as mean as I thought, she said to herself. Then, taking the small hoe, she began to follow her father as he walked along the rows and furrows.
Ari stopped for a moment and watched Molly begin to scrape the earth, removing small weeds at the corner of the garden. The edges of her dress dipped in and out of the damp earth as she moved her new hoe back and forth, covering her boots to her ankles. She smiled happily as she went about her work, and Ari smiled too just to look at her. How wonderful to see his lovely child so carefree and so happy. He prayed while he watched that her life would always be like this. That she would never be touched by the evils that he had experienced as a boy and then again as a young man, when crop failures, war, prejudice, and misunderstanding had harmed many of his relatives and neighbors, turning their lives upside down. The Imperial Russia that Ari had been born into was a place of great beauty, with fish-filled seas lapping along its vast coastline, great plains and ancient forests filling its interior, the treeless and grassy steppes in the south, and the rugged snowy caps of the Ural Mountains in the west. But the constant skirmishes, high taxes, and struggles between the wealthy and those who had very little made the daily living of her citizenry feel as though one lived on the razor edge of a sword.
Ari looked up to the vivid blue sky that stretched like a soft blanket above him and watched as brilliant white clouds scuttled in front of the sun, creating cool shade and shadows that ran along the loamy soil at his feet. His great boots were already heavy with dirt. As he began to move forward he gave each foot a great shake, sending clots of earth flying. I will never let harm come to my child or my wife or our family. I will never allow anyone to destroy what we have built here, he thought to himself. Each day will be a blessing, each and every day I will believe that all will be well. Ari sighed deeply and looked again at Molly. Her rosy cheeks glowed while her lips formed a wide and delighted smile as the clouds above moved swiftly away and a warm sun shone down on her golden curls.