The Dowry My Mother Made

Her Albanian Family Stole Her Childhood. She Took Back Her Dowry and Gave Me an American Life.

My mother cuts open a brown cardboard box with a kitchen knife and pulls out colorful ceramic platters, cans of green olives, and jars of roasted red peppers. It’s the first time she has come to visit my small, two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn since I moved in several months ago, and she has come prepared to scrub, furnish, and decorate as only an Eastern European mother could. She opens a second box, dives in to her elbows, and lifts out a heap of elaborate hand-woven doilies.

“Why do you have so many of these?” I ask, taking a dozen doilies into my hands and laughing. “And what am I supposed to do them with them all?”

“I made them,” she says.

I stretch one flower-shaped piece out before me and eye the elaborate patterns, the complex circular designs comprised of a hundred tiny holes and thick, curving thread, then peer into the box at the mound of them. “You made these?”

In fact, my mother spent several years of her Albanian childhood hunched over fabric, needle in hand, learning to crochet net-like doilies and embroider designs on white bed linens and tablecloths. She began at age 12, in preparation for her marriage, which would take place just a few years later. Each day, she’d sit down with my grandmother and learn how to dip the needles in and out of fabric, cross-stitching pink, blooming flowers on kitchen napkins, or crocheting in circles to fashion perfect, symmetrical doilies. She ironed and folded the finished products, then packed them into drawers and wooden chests for her future husband’s family: her dowry.

An Albanian dowry is not about wealth or social status; it’s about servitude. The beautiful needlepoint etched into yards upon yards of fabric illustrates the artistic and domestic talents of a nusja, or bride. But the meticulous, tedious, long hours of labor required to create these materials symbolize her commitment and dedication to serving her husband for the rest of their lives.

A week before her wedding, my mother arranged her artwork around her family’s apartment on the Upper East Side: crocheted doilies doubled over chairs and under flower pots; white linens with floral embroidery hung from drapes with clothespins; hand-made pillow cases were stuffed with cotton and displayed on the sofa. Then my mother shut herself into her bedroom—not to be seen until her wedding day—while uncles, aunts, and in-laws came over to drink Turkish coffee and admire the nusja’s handiwork. The women would pass through the rooms counting doilies, handing around fabric to be inspected and admired, offering commentary on my mother’s style and craftsmanship. Meanwhile, in the days leading up to her wedding, only single, unmarried girls could visit my mother, the 16-year-old nusja, in her room.

I think of my mother’s childhood devoted to seams and stitches, passed indoors with a thimble on her thumb. “What else would I do with my time at that age once the house was clean?” she says, shrugging her shoulders. She’s right: My mother’s parents pulled her out of school before she turned 12, and by 14 she was engaged to marry a much older man. It was the 1970s in New York City, and while the number of American women in universities was beginning to approach that of men, my mother was forbidden from attending middle school. When the school board found out and demanded my grandfather bring her back to class, he booked a flight to Yugoslavia instead, where they stayed until the school left them alone.

As we unpack the remaining doilies and drapes, I think about where my mother was at my age: already the mother of a 6-year-old, working full-time as a supervisor at a cleaning company, and in the midst of a dreadful struggle to end the marriage her parents had arranged for her eight years prior. At 24, with a college degree and no husband on the horizon, I am astounded by the cultural transformation within our family that has taken place over a single generation. I watch my mother unfurl a long, rectangular doily and smooth it across the tabletop. I’m quietly admiring this woman who learned to read in secret with the newspapers tossed onto her apartment stoop, with the rough, calloused hands, and kind, blue eyes—more feminist and radical than she realizes.

We slide the large, crocheted doily across my wooden dinner table and place a clear vase of dried flowers on top. We place smaller, star-shaped doilies underneath the peace lily on the coffee table and the cactus on the windowsill. The room strikes me as Mediterranean suddenly, and as the wind blows in through the sheer, white curtains, I can almost hear the Adriatic Sea bellowing from the other side on the glass. We are surrounded by my mother’s artwork, the fruits of her strength, the salvaged pieces of art she kept for herself: the dowry she took back.

We hang the beautiful fabrics around my living room, like my mother did days before her wedding. But this time, we feel subversive, and the room rings of rebellion.

Madeline McSherry is the New America Foundation New York City program associate.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo courtesy of gina pina.
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