The Orange Thread

by Madelaine Zadik

I know my aunt Helga in black and white. All the old photos, except for some in that sepia color, have kept her grey for me. I never saw the tones of her flesh, the brown of her hair, and suddenly I realize that I don’t know the color of her eyes. Were they blue like her sister’s?

One photo of her at about 16 was colorized, so she had pinkish cheeks and brown hair staring out from a picture frame, frozen in that stare, never blushing in embarrassment or drained of all color as I imagine her when she finally realizes she can’t escape what they have planned for her.

Orange was the color of embroidery thread that she used to fill her days of solitary confinement while awaiting trial, stitching in and out and in and out, hour after hour, through the white cotton of the circular tablecloth. Did she have a choice of color? Did she love orange? Did orange become her nemesis, something she couldn’t escape, threads taunting her, or did she come to love the orange strands that became her companion, providing distraction from being stuck inside those walls, all alone. There were no fresh fruits or vegetables. The thread substituted for apricots, oranges, and yams, and perhaps lit up her existence deprived of orange sunlight – no vitamin C or vitamin D in that cell, just that orange line between her fingers.

Growing up, I noticed orange was my mother’s favorite color. Bright orange and white bedspreads illuminated my parents’ bedroom. I remember an orange couch, an orange dress. Was there a connection – conscious or subconscious – to that tablecloth carefully stored away? Could the love of orange fill the big empty hole left by her sister’s disappearance from her life? Or was it that my mother needed brightness to counteract the drab void? It seemed to work; Mom had a sunny disposition, lighting up with joy at the world around her. She found such pleasure in orange, and it spilled over onto everything else.

I, however, never felt drawn to orange. Actually, it was my least favorite color. Although I never understood my mother’s attraction to it, I respected her love of orange, so easy to make her smile.

Now I recall, my first car was an orange Toyota. It was more of a puke color, not the bright hue of that embroidery thread. How much of my dislike of orange comes from that tablecloth, which represented Helga’s torture and ultimate demise? Yet, it probably transported her out of her situation. While creating that masterpiece, she had no idea what the future held for her. She didn’t know she was creating a legacy, that her sister’s daughter, who wasn’t yet born, would one day hold that cloth, wishing it could help her to know her aunt and what she once thought and felt. Helga didn’t know that niece would one day be wondering what her aunt would say about the world today and whether the two of them would have liked each other.

""Madelaine Zadik is currently writing a memoir focused on her relationship with her mother’s sister Helga, whom she never met except through letters written from prison while serving sentence for high treason in Nazi Germany. This piece is an excerpt from that work.

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