Family Matters: Toil, Tears, Triumph
Preparing for Passover is a difficult chore. It is also an exercise in unearthing family memory and meaning.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire…” wrote T.S. Eliot. Clearly, the acclaimed poet and, alas, vitriolic anti-Semite, was not thinking of the springtime plight of Jewish women when he penned these opening lines of “The Wasteland” but oh, how they resonate when the joyous month of Adar segues into strenuous Nissan and, as the first lilacs do indeed ‘breed out of the dead land’, we realize that Passover with all its attendant stress will soon be upon us.
The cruelty of that realization manifests itself in distaff terror. We brace ourselves for the arduous cleaning, the endless drafting of lists, the frenzied shopping and the even more frenzied hours of cooking. These efforts, laced as they are with physical exhaustion and free floating anxiety (has everything been remembered, has everyone been accounted for?) will, we know, culminate in the much desired joy of the first night of the holiday. The candle lit table will be set with silver goblets that crossed an ocean a century ago, the matzot arranged in the sleeves of embroidered linen covers worn thin and frayed, the elegant china Seder plate will take pride of place along with clumsy ceramic efforts of children who now have children of their own. Each object evokes a miasma of memory, wistful backward glances at the vanished Passovers of yesteryear.
Because I find it convenient to rationalize that a well ordered household is the sign of a misspent life, I find the pre-Passover cleaning spurt a particularly cruel punishment of my domestic indolence. It is then that I hesitantly open the door of the linen closet into which I have recklessly thrown carelessly folded towels and sheets throughout the year. The chaos is staggering and must be addressed. I am in search of the ancient extra large white tablecloths used only for festive holiday meals and in the process of discovery I determinedly fold and stack, sort and discard. It occurs to me, as I toss ragged wash cloths and pillow slips worn to transparency into the rag bag, that the mandate to restore order, to rid the household of the lingering detritus of hametz, however cruel it may seem when Pride and Prejudice (my annual pre-Passover reading of choice) beckons, is both necessary and wise. The newly lined shelves, the neat piles of sheets and towels, proclaim a serenity (however short lived) that translates itself into a purposeful calm. Triumphantly I discover the heavy white damask cloths and pass my fingers across the faded wine stains that indelibly chart the course of the holiday meals of years gone by. I touch a perfect crescent stain and remember the glass of wine spilled by a mischievous child. (Who? My sister, myself, my cousin?) Another, in the shape of the map of Italy, was caused by a carafe that crashed to the table during an angry argument. The substance of the argument eludes me but I remember well the men’s voices (my father’s, my uncle’s?) raised in fury and the soft and frightened pleas of the women (my mother, my aunt, perhaps my grandmother?). Just as I sorted through the tangle of linens, so I sort through vagrant memories, lingering over some and resolutely discarding others.
Methodically, I reorganize drawers and closets, dust books that are seldom read and shake out others of more recent vintage where crumbs may linger. I am negligent in this. My mother and grandmother meticulously shook every volume in the household free of the smallest remnant of hametz.
The kitchen, the Waterloo of every Passover cleanup, is approached with great reluctance. The pantry is emptied, ancient cans (whatever possessed me to buy marinated hearts of palm?) and half opened packets of pasta and stale crackers discarded. When brightly patterned fresh contact paper is spread across the newly scrubbed shelves I inevitably reward myself with a glance at “Pride and Prejudice” before tackling the cabinets. These are emptied of all crockery and dinnerware and miraculous discoveries ensue. Here is the gravy boat, sought throughout the year, hidden behind a set of ornate dessert plates inherited from a beloved aunt and never used. I engage myself in an urgent interior conversation—should I keep the dessert plates or consign them to the thrift shop. Memories of my aunt intrude. She was a cultivated woman who brought fresh flowers for the Seder table (red roses, out of season, wrapped in silver paper!) and served intriguing flans on those gilt lined dishes. She willed them to me as a mark of special affection. I accuse myself of ingratitude, of disloyalty and yet there is a mental protest: ‘I never use those plates and I have so little room.’ I reach a compromise. I salvage one plate and place the others in the give-away carton. I decide to use that plate myself at the Seder so that my beloved aunt will be my ghostly companion. And yes, I too will buy red roses, a fragrant testimony to both memory and desire.
The refrigerator, the counters and the stove require only active scrubbing but the habits of the past and attendant memories impose themselves even on these chores. I line the fruit and vegetable bins with paper toweling and remember by grandmother’s gnarled hands, as she smoothed the soft cloth (which could be washed and used again) across those surfaces in her own kitchen. Removing each shelf from the oven for a thorough scouring, I see my father kneeling before the stove and reaching into the farthest corner with a rough brush, lest any crumb of hametz remain to contaminate Seder briskets and kugels. (How is it that I remember that his rimless glasses were fogged up when he rose from that task although I have difficulty recalling the sound of his voice?) As I use that same rough brush on recalcitrant patches of grease, I know that I am cleansing my own thoughts, reclaiming images brushed free of the flimsy cobwebs of lingering sorrow and regret.
It is time then to carry in the special Passover dishes and cutlery, to reengage with the past as I wash the dinner set that belonged to my grandparents, a proud gift from my mother and her sisters to their immigrant parents, paid for with the hard earned wages earned at sweatshop jobs. The tiny rose colored flowers that decorate the thin china have faded, more than one dinner plate is chipped and at least three tea cups have been broken. My grandmother cringed at each breakage but swiftly recovered. “Leibedige tzores,” she would say. “Troubles of the living. What is it? Only a cup?” But to me these dishes are more than cups and saucers. They are precious talismans of a vanished past, of a home where three generations came together to celebrate history with song and ceremony.
The dairy dishes are unmatched. One floral patterned plate is seamed with a crack, two others are of an iridescent blue with matching bowls that assume great beauty when filled with matza farfel, milk and strawberries for Passover breakfasts. My mother recalled accompanying my grandparents as they plucked the crockery from the pushcarts of the lower east side, paying for each with nickels and dimes laboriously counted.
I also used, for many years, a beautiful set of cups and saucers, a delicate china, wedding gift treasured by my mother. Each year I would tell my eldest daughter how much my mother loved that tea set and each year she carefully helped me set them in place. And then, one year, two saucers slipped from her small hand and shattered. She burst into tears, I cringed, and then, swiftly, I said, “Leibedige tzores. Troubles of the living. What were they, after all? Only plates.” My grandmother’s words constitute an oral legacy, to which my daughter laid claim when her own small daughter dropped a wine glass. “Don’t cry,” she said. “What was it, after all? Only a wine glass.”
Even as I select dishes and pots and pan for holiday usage, I leave certain Passover implements in place. I will have no need for the grinder used in the preparation of gefilte fish nor for the hochmesser which my grandmother carried across an ocean. Each year I resolve to give them away and each year I wipe them clean and cover them with a protective cloth. History is not so easily discarded.
With the house cleaned, I ponder my collection of Passover recipes although I know from the outset what I will prepare. Still, it is comforting to leaf through yellowing sheets of paper, to rediscover my mother’s recipe for sponge cake in her wonderfully elegant hand and recall how she beat the egg whites into snowy mountains as we children watched, small witnesses to culinary magic. On lined paper my younger sister, dead for more than a decade, listed the ingredients for a broccoli-carrot kugel. We cooked that dish together, as young mothers, talking softly, trading confidences and laughter. I reread her stern instructions (hand grate, do not use blender) and recall those precious hours in a kitchen awash in a fragrant mist. Another reminiscence, at once cruel and kind, to be hugged close as I cook alone (hand grating, of course) in this season when memories, like lilacs, ‘breed out of the dead land.’ The poet did not err.
And then, at last, the shopping and the cleaning are done, I have ‘sold my chametz’, not as my mother did in her annual trek to an aged impoverished rabbi, but by a computer generated contract with my own rabbi. The cooking is completed, and the time has come to set the Seder table, to arrange the silver Kiddush cups, to place the frayed and stained Maxwell House and Goodman’s Matzo haggadot at each place setting. Elegant afikomon cloths purchased in Israel, cardboard afikomon cloths painstakingly hand stitched by small fingers in nursery school, a graceful Elijah’s cup bought from a potter and yet another drafted of paper mache in a day school arts and crafts class are given equal honor across the white cloth, duly obscuring faded wine stains. The soup tureen is in readiness and kitchen is awash with the joyous scent of holiday cooking and throughout the house there is lively chatter and merry laughter.
Brass candlesticks flank the vase of red roses and when I have lit each taper and murmured the holiday benediction I look through the newly washed sparkling windows and I am suffused with a sense of tangible achievement. The cruelty of the effort and exhaustion that made this celebration possible is forgotten but the gift of memory is retained, mingled with the bittersweet desire that on this night and through all the Passovers yet to come, we will be blessed enough to celebrate this festival of freedom and wondrous continuity.