Jewish Story: Remembering Our Parents

    June 2011          
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The Phone Urge

By Ina Albert

There are times when I forget you're gone and I get the phone urge. I turn, hand outstretched and fingers poised to dial your number. It's as natural as the dawn following darkness that I call you and ask, "Hey Mom, are you there?"

"Where else would I be?" you answer.

We'd share family gossip and recipes, and my problems with the kids just as we always have. It happens often around the holidays, when I yearn to have the smells and sounds of those special days validated by sharing them in mother/daughter conversations.

This spring, as I was preparing the seder table for Passover, carefully arranging the Black Knight china and cobalt blue glassware you had gotten for your wedding, I got the phone urge again and found myself talking to you—out loud.

"Remember the row house on Bouvier Street in Philadelphia? Remember getting ready for the Passover seder when Grandpa was still alive? Fanny worked for us then, back in the late 1930s. She was tall, the color of chocolate milk and wore a snow-white uniform. Remember?"

Before the first seder you were always tense. There was so much to get ready. You would change all the dishes and throw out anything made with yeast, making sure every crumb was gone.

Then those special yellow glass plates would be taken down from the top shelf in the kitchen closet to be washed. They had a flower pattern embossed in the glass and looked like pale parchment. The dinner plates had compartments to separate one food from another like my baby dish.

Fanny actually got the dishes down because you were far too short to reach them, even on your step stool. You'd look up at her, tilting your head way back so you could see into her eyes, and you'd tell her exactly what had to be done to make the house ready for the holiday.

"The meal is the most special of the year," you'd explain, "and everything should be just right."

Everyday dishes and silver would not do. They went on the top shelf where the glass dishes had been stored.

"Not a piece of bread or cracker or grain of flour is to be left in this house," you instructed. "Not a crumb of hamatz anywhere! And the icebox must be washed down and the stove cleaned thoroughly. When everything is spotless, you can wash and wax the floor and leave through the door to the basement to let the floor dry without a single footprint."

Fanny would gaze down at you, eyes unreadable, her jaw tightly clenched.

Cleaning the kitchen at this point was no routine matter. For the past several days it had been a battleground of culinary execution. Steam from the chicken soup had formed a thin film of fat on the stovetop. The remains of vegetables used to season it clung to the sides of the cutting board. The thick smell of roasted lamb shank hung in the air like fog, and the walls of the oven were splattered with pot roast gravy. Wine used to season the apples and nuts for the charosis coated the counters, and dried shavings of horseradish clung to the backsplash.

However, making gefilte fish did the most damage. You always insisted on buying whole white fish and carp because it was cheaper than having the fishmonger filet it for you. You did that job yourself. First you'd cut off the heads and saved them to flavor the broth, Later you served them to Aunt Mary who considered it a delicacy. I had to leave the room when she got ready to attack one of those things, though you never seemed to mind.

After trimming the fish as close to the bone as possible, you'd cut the filets into strips ready for grinding, Mounting the old hand grinder on the edge of the kitchen table, you put a huge bowl of fish within easy reach and anchored another one under the grinder to catch the ground flesh.

The grinder was attached to the white porcelain tabletop with a vice that screwed it tightly in place. You'd begin plopping pieces of fish in the trumpet-shaped end of the food grinder, jamming each one down with a wooden pestle that forced the fish through a screw-like grinding mechanism as you leaned into the handle of the grinder, straining it forward and holding the grinder in place at the same time.

The effort required a superior sense of balance, and since you never grew beyond 4'10", the table was too high to allow you enough leverage to turn the grinding handle easily. So you perched yourself on a step stool, wrestling with the grinder and the fish to get a smooth rhythm going. Your hair would be wet with perspiration as you grunted with each crank of the handle until the final pieces of fish were curled out of metal holes into the large glass bowl tilted under the grinder to catch the long threads.

As you jabbed at the pieces of fish, juice would squirt all over the table and floor, leaving a stale, sour odor that lasted until Fanny applied lye-smelling liquid detergent to the floor, rinsed it away, and waxed the surface to a high sheen.

When Grandpa stayed with us, he ate dinner early. He would sit alone in the dining room with his plate of soup in front of him and a big piece of rye bread on another dish beside the bowl. He'd mumble his prayer, then tear off a large piece and dip it in the soup, making slurping noises and wetting his bushy mustache.

But on Pesach, everything was different. Grandpa waited until sundown when all the family had arrived. Dad would change into his dark blue suit after work and I had to bathe late in the afternoon and put on my best dress.

Candles on the damask tablecloth waited to be lit and special covers were placed over the matzot. There was a compartment in the middle of the cover for the children's prize—the afikoman. Dad would break it in two, wrap half in a napkin and hid it somewhere in the house. At an appointed time, we kids would search for it and there was always a dollar for the winner and pennies for the rest of us. Anticipating the treasure hunt kept us awake through most of the evening.

A big seder plate was the table centerpiece dressed with all the ceremonial foods for the journey from slavery to freedom. Silver wine cups, haggadah prayer books, and a dish of saltwater lay at every place setting. That night, there were wine cups for the kids and cushions on Grandpa's chair so he could feel the relaxation and ease of a free man.

At sun set it was time to start the seder. You would open the French doors between the living room and dining room and Grandpa would announce that the time for Pesach had arrived and we were to take our places for the sacred ceremony. His voice was at full volume, not at all like his usual timidity.. On this all-important night he was once again a scholar and head of the family as he had been in Russia. He seemed taller as he spoke with ancient authority, his guttural tones rumbling over the words like the sound of the Shofar in synagogue at Rosh Hashanah.

You would hustle us into our seats, warning us to sit still and pay attention. Then you'd hurry into the kitchen to check on dinner one last time.

Those hours passed slowly for us kids. Grandpa would go on and on in a language no one understood until even the adults squirmed in their seats. Our bellies ached for food, and we felt a little queasy after swallowing the third glass of sweet wine.

Grandpa read every word, his thick accent seasoning both the Hebrew and English. The long telling of the Exodus from Egypt, the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the four questions read by the youngest child at the table—all of it, along with the commentaries. There were no compromises with the text while Grandpa was alive!

It was close to midnight by the time the meal was served and we were bleary with sleep.

The food was never as appealing by the time it got to the table as it was when we first smelled it in the oven before the service began. The meat had become soft and stringy, the potatoes were dry, and the vegetables were cooked to mush. But the important part was the service—at least it was to Grandpa. For him, God and Moses took precedence over grumbling stomachs.

After the meal was served and the afikoman was found, after we sang Dayenu and made the final blessings, the Haggahdot were closed you shuffled us off to bed.

Years later the situation was reversed. Dad and my uncles dedicated about fifteen minutes to the service. The quality of the food had become much more important than the Hebrew's struggle for freedom. Comparing this year's fish to last year's, the tenderness of the pot roast and the sweetness of the sponge cake and strawberries took center stage. You'd sit at the end of the dining room table beaming at the compliments on your cooking.

But somehow, I felt disappointed not to hear all the Hebrew, not to have the stories repeated, not to drink all four glasses of wine at just the right time in the ceremony and not to feel that Pesach really changed everything, at least for one night.

Ina Albert, author, Life Transitions coach, certified Age-ing to Sage-ing® seminar leader, and communications professional, shares 76 years of life experience with clients, workshop participants, and readers of her monthly column in Montana Woman Magazine. Email or call (406) 863-2333.


from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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