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My email screen popped open, showing one new message. It was from "BubbeLib" my sister. I clicked it open, smiling as I thought how much her chosen nickname personified her heart.
With our parents gone and the death of Libbie's oldest son two years ago, my sister desperately needed to concentrate on something outside herself and her personal grief. Three-year old Emma and now the twins, became Libbie's new focus, her center, her passion.
I was so pleased with the obvious joy in her voice when she spoke of her grandkids. Bubbe Lib, I smiled at the old-fashioned name my thoroughly modern sister now embraced so avidly. Her email message was titled, "Passover Greetings."
Passover…Pesach. It had crept up on me, appearing without fanfare or even much thought on my part this year. Since my cancer diagnosis two years, some things have given way to new priorities. I hadn't even bought my matzos, and suddenly it was nearly here.
Lib's message read, "Just sat down with a cup of Swee-Touch-Nee tea and my cherry jellied matzos and wanted to share a peaceful moment with you."
Goosebumps shivered up my spine and tingled the back of my head. In seconds, I was mentally transported back to my parents' home and one of the Passovers from decades ago when I was only 10 years old.
Passover is my all-time favorite holiday, religious or otherwise. I love it because it has always been such a happy time in my family. That it also centered around food may have much to do with my feelings as well. But it was a harbinger of spring, too and often my birthday fell within the week-long celebration.
That long ago Passover, I saw my father searching the house for chometz. He was so endearing with his little dust pan and brush. Mother had already given away all our bread to neighbors, but every crumb had to be accounted for in our family. So Dad checked the bread box, announcing, "Any crumbs in here better look out. I'm here to get you!"
My siblings and I giggled each time he pretended to find a minute piece of crust. He even searched under the sofa cushions and crawled beneath our dining room table sweeping up imaginary bits of bread. With that accomplished, Mom ceremoniously put freezer tape across our kitchen cupboards so no one would inadvertently use non-Passover dishes. Everything had to be fresh for Passover including the dishes and linens we used and the foods we ate. It was a renewal of life in honor of God's order that the Angel of Death "pass over" the Jewish houses and spare their lives.
That afternoon, we all gathered in the cellar where Dad rocked a large wooden wine barrel out from beneath the stairwell. It was filled to the brim with newspaper-wrapped bundles that held generations of dishes and cooking utensils. Like her mother before her, my mother used these "heirlooms" only on Pesach. So once a year, we joined together to unwrap, wash, dry and carry each piece upstairs to the kitchen.
We laughed and teased my dad and brother because in the 50s, there was truly a division of labor by gender. The guys in our family NEVER did dishes. Except on Pesach. Unwrapping each piece was like revisiting an old friend. Some of these dishes were over 80 years old. They were a conglomeration of fine bone china, heavier ironstone and glass pieces.
I always loved the little blue bowls Mom used for the cold egg soup during our Seders. They were glass with a honeycombed surface. They also doubled as our cereal bowls throughout the holiday. But my favorite pieces were the impossibly thin china tea cups and saucers. None of them matched any more because every year, as we unwrapped, we found another of these frail treasures had silently disintegrated as we went unknowingly about our lives upstairs. Mom would gasp and hold up the broken pieces and I remember feeling an electric twinge of sorrow at having lost a little more of our history.
Dad would day something like, "Died of old age," or "Another one bites the dust." But usually Mom burst into tears, telling us a story about to whom the piece had once belonged and why it was so special to her.
Tradition meant the world to Mom even though she considered herself a contemporary woman and bought into every home decorator style that magazines touted. During non-Passover times, we ate on multi-colored Melmac dinnerware, unless "company" was coming. I hated Melmac. Hated plastic cups, hated the electric violet and blue aluminum tumblers that once held cottage cheese and then became our drinking glasses.
I loved the feel of wafer-thin china. Enjoyed the luxury of tea with cream in them during Pesach. The tea seemed to taste so much more exciting when sipped from a pansy-ringed cup that once belonged to my great-grandmother.
There were heavy duty items in that barrel, too. Things that would never wear out or give up: a wonderful gray and white graniteware colander; a dimpled aluminum soup pot and a feast-sized deep blue enamel roasting pan. These were just some of the tangible things that helped make tradition strong in my growing-up Passovers.
I remember all the bustling about in preparation for the first Seder. We always had Mom's family at one Seder and Dad's at the other. If there were out-of-towners or someone from our synagogue who was alone, they were invited, too.
My dad ran a fast Seder, bless him. In most families, it took an hour or more to get to the "Let's eat" part, but Dad made it in less than 40 minutes. We each got to read parts from our Haggadahs and of course, my brother, being the youngest, always asked the four questions, first in Hebrew and then in English.
Perched beside my father was a stool upon which sat the pillows for the afikomen. Wrapped in a lacey cloth, it was and slipped between the two pillows. All the children in the house tried to steal it without being discovered. At our house, whoever succeeded was allowed to ask for one special wish.
My father made the stealing difficult. He leaned lightly on the pillows if he saw anyone come near them. Crawling under the table to the stool usually resulted in being blasted by a rude "tushie burp." (To this day, I have never figured out how he could call up a room-clearing one up at will).
We all loved opening the door to admit Elijah. In the center of the table, a beautiful silver wine chalice sat on one of the unmatched china saucers. After the door was opened and Elijah was supposedly at our table, we three children stared at the wine in the chalice and swore we saw it going down as Elijah joined our prayer over the wine and drank his fill.
The Seder plate held al the traditional items special to the history of the Jews' exodus from Egypt. Those I remember well were: a burned lamb's shank as an offering; charoset, a mixture of wine, apples, and nuts, signifying the mortar the Jews expelled from Egypt used to build up their temple and bitter herbs to remind us of the bad times our ancestors overcame. My personal favorite was the charoset that was spread on matzos and consumed during the service. I considered it a very special appetizer.
During the Seder, we drank from our wine glasses four times. I had finally graduated from grape juice to that sticky sweet Mogen David syrup we called wine in those days. I loved it, drained my glass with each drink and was soon almost too sleepy to eat dinner.
Dinner began with that chilled egg soup in the bubbled blue bowls. All it consisted of was cold water, sliced hard-boiled eggs and salt. After sitting still, (or almost) for 40 minutes, it tasted like heaven. We always begged Mom to promise to make it in the summer for a cool snack. Every year she said she would, but it never happened. I think she felt it would take away its special status if we had it anytime other than Passover.
The rest of the meal was fabulous. Roast brisket, carrot tzimmes, stuffed kishke, mounds of chopped liver topped with more chopped eggs. Of course there were plain matzos, fried matzos and jellied matzos. For dessert, (and often as my birthday cake) Mother's famous nut sponge cake, made with matzo flour. Ecstasy!
Years later, when I was a young career girl in Philadelphia, far from home at Pesach for the first time in my life, Mom sent an entire nut cake to me in the care of a friend traveling through the city. It helped to quell the sadness that overwhelmed me in my apartment in the middle of a city of people I didn't know. It wasn't home, but it was a taste, literally, of my beloved Pesach.
Throughout the week-long holiday, we ate nothing packaged. Only fresh fruits and vegetables, made-from-scratch cakes and applesauce muffins, matzo and even brownies my mother devised from matzo flour. Meals took longer to prepare, but tasted divine. Back then, there were a few products sold especially for Passover, like Coke and even candy. But my father's only concessions to those "Kosher for Passover" items were milk and a special whole-cherry jelly.
For snacks after school, we had a glass of milk and two sheets of matzos spread with butter and that delicious jelly. It was dark red with whole cherries that made the matzos split when you bit down on them. The same kind of jelly Libbie's email mentioned.
Back in the present, I pushed my chair back from the computer and raced into my kitchen to pull out those wonderful Pesach pieces that were now mine. The colander, soup pot, one blue bowl (Libbie had the only other surviving one) and two mismatched tea cups.
I boiled water and poured it over a tea bag of Swee-Touch-Nee tea and toasted the day. "To Pesach and everyone who made it wonderful all my life. To my ancestors, my parents and my sister who won't let me forget, no matter what joy or tragedy comes our way, who we were and who we will always be."
Posted by E.G. Taylor