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Category: grandma

the stories we tell

in a hospice room 719 miles away, a cluster of people i love sit circled round a bedside: a son, a daughter, their mother. words are few now, hours vary by breaths per minute, by doses of morphine. i am there/not there by the miles on a map between us, but my every breath is with them. vigils are kept without proximities. vigils are kept by heart. and my heart is there…

this vigil, as with most any vigil, is one syncopated by its own time and twists, all of which are beyond — far beyond — our inclinations toward clock and calendar, those false measures by which we mark things. minutes turn to hours turn to days. in the timelessness of now, i’m reminded how we set our hearts sometimes by timekeeping tools of our own making. we allow for acceleration, we slow, we pace. but really all of it is no more than device within which we pour ourselves for the comfort of the walls around us. as a species we seem to prefer to plunk ourselves in vessels rather than fling ourselves unbounded onto undulating limitless seas.

i steady myself inside this landscape of not knowing by extracting and considering the stories that emerge, that tell us who we are, who we mourn and who we aim to emulate. as is always the way, the stories we extract from lives well lived are the very fibers that will weave us back together again, in the wake of our emptiness. they’re the totems and road signs that point the way for every day thereafter. the etchings of the heart that prove inextinguishable instruction, the wisdoms and glories that keep the radiance from dimming.

here’s one of the ones i will tell from the life of a woman who from the start was always in my corner. that alone is everything (especially in a mother-in-law), but more than anything i have loved her for her goodness. her endless, endless, bottomless goodness.

in a parade of tales to tell, this one i’m forever seizing: it’s the tale of a gas-station attendant and my mother-in-law, who just two months ago was as blonde, beautiful, and fully engaged as ever. the gas-station attendant, it turns out, is an immigrant woman from a sometimes-unwelcome country, who some years back with her now-late husband bought a CITGO station in new jersey, worked the register seven days a week, long hours every day, and came to know the blonde-haired lady with the old volvo as a friend, one who never failed to deliver kindness every time she filled her tank, and carefully-wrapped gifts at christmas and easter. when the gas-station lady hadn’t seen my mother-in-law and her spiffy new Honda Fit for weeks, she tracked down the home phone and left a message, saying she missed her, and hoped all was well. my husband—who has meticulously been attending to all matters of the heart, and much else besides during these long weeks—called her back, and the woman explained that my mother-in-law had always been so kind, and over the last few weeks she’d grown more and more worried by her absence. the gas-station woman said that when her own husband had died — leaving her to run not only the register but the whole gas station on her own — my mother-in-law was right there with sympathies and kindness, and had become something of a rare american friend here in this strange new land.

to befriend the folks who pump your gas, to befriend them to the extent they notice your absence, and track you down, leave word and hope you’re well, that’s a measure of goodness worth remembering.

here’s another story that’s emerged, that tells us who she is and was in the silence and the solitude when no one was looking: in poring through the piles of papers that shrouded the desk in his old boyhood bedroom, my mother-in-law’s first-born and only son found a yellow legal pad with pages and pages of carefully enumerated names and gifts. my mother-in-law, an inveterate bargain hunter and irrepressible gift giver, spelled out her christmas lists every january, once the post-holiday sales were cleared, and her bedrooms filled with carefully chosen dollar-sale finds. when the Gap marked down winter scarves from $20 to $1 apiece, my mother-in-law bought the whole lot, and squirreled away each one for her endless christmas list. (she also never missed a new baby gift, a wedding, a graduation, or a sympathy gift, but hands down, my jewish mother-in-law’s favorite holidays were those wholly christian christmas and easter. maybe it’s no wonder she never minded the idea of a catholic daughter-in-law.) christmas 2021 was months ago enumerated, executed, and laid out in shopping bags all across the bedroom floors. all that’s left was the wrapping, a months-long ritual she usually began each october. indeed, my mother-in-law had her giving down to something of a science. a science of goodness, of calibrated, counted-out (and bargain-hunted) perpetual goodness.

it’s a goodness without measure, and she lived and breathed it every blessed day.

what stories do you tell of the ones you’ve loved most dearly? or even ones you barely knew but whose stories became the measures of your own every day?

for all these 15 years here on the chair, my mother-in-law was among its most loyal dedicated readers. she was the first to call if she liked it, and if she didn’t….well, the silence….

i tell her tales here with love. with so much love….

mama lu’s noodles

of all the rooms in a house, the one most inhabited with ghosts and stirrings from the past, surely, is the one with chopping block and place to wield a wooden spoon, and stove top and oven.

that’s not meant to be the start of any halloween tale (what with that a month away, it’s not yet in my scope).

but rather it is the alchemy of cooking, of heart, that happens when you come back to the kitchen, and find yourself standing side-by-side with souls no longer there, souls who spring to life with the mere flipping of a cookbook page, or simply an idea. a chunk of bread. a stick of butter. a bag of fat wide noodles.

and so it was, the other eve, when i, the irish cook, stood stirring for the jewish new year. oh, the big lamb stew, the one we’ve chopped and stirred and simmered for 20 years now (mind you, taking time to pause and eat it, not perpetually simmering for two long decades), that lamb stew was coming on the holiday itself.

this was the eve of rosh hashanah, and we were sliding from a work day into sacred time, and we hadn’t lots of hours to prepare some five-course feast.

so i was winging it. i’d started with chicken (jewish enough), added carrots (still sticking with the peasant basics), had grabbed a bag of noodles (not too far a stroll from the kugel i’d be stirring soon enough).

it’s when the noodles hit the boiling water. started up the noodle dance, as they bobbed and dove in roiling bubbling vat. that’s when mama lu, my long-gone german grandma, came strolling in the kitchen.

tapped me right on the shoulder, she did. shoved a stick of butter in my face. made me turn and grab the day-old challah, a loaf she never knew.

before i knew it, she had a knife in my hand, and i was cutting challah cubes. i grabbed the skillet, unwrapped the golden stick of butter, and let mama lu go wild. just like in the old days, in the days when i, no higher than her apron string, would stand to the side of her cincinnati stove, and watch her wield the cast iron and the wooden spoon as the butter oozed and bubbled. as she dumped in the hard-angled bread cubes. as it all spit and jumped and made a happy sizzle.

oh, mama lu’s noodles were a mound of joy to us. she let nothing get between those butter-sodden cubes and her noodles. no worries about fat grams or cholesterol (though her ice box door was ALWAYS plastered with cut-out cartoons of gals lamenting they weren’t skinny; my grandma, the original weight watcher).

and so, all these decades later, as i cooked my way toward rosh hashanah eve, my german catholic grandma joined me in the kitchen. and for the first time, her buttered crouton noodles were the crowning glory of the new year’s table.

my boys, the two still home, oohed and ahhed and ate.

i hope my grandma hung around to hear the joy uncorked. it’s a crazy gorgeous thing, the way the kitchen has no walls, no separation of the decades. the one room where we all tumble back together, over time and beyond heartache. where one lick of the finger, or one stick of butter, can bring us all to life, and join us at the heart.

who’s come calling in your kitchen lately?

i have to say one of the sweetest moments of the week was when my fellow stew stirrer, the one with whom i’ve stirred the rosh hashanah lamb-and-rice-and-chickpeas-and-apples-and-raisin-and-cinnamon-and-allspice stew for the past two decades, was poking around the cookery book, the one that opens to the splattered page, and found tucked inside, the receipts from our old city butcher shop from the year before we moved here, and sweetest of all, the sheet of prayers from the hyde park hillel where we spent rosh hashanah in 1993. when i was holding in my arms a fairly newborn boy, and rocking him in the tightly-packed pews was the holiest prayer i had ever prayed. that boy, missing from this year’s table.

grammy tuesday

as long as anyone around here can remember, certainly as long as two of ‘em truly can remember, tuesday is synonymous with only one thing: grammy.

thirteen years. six hundred seventy six tuesdays. give or take only about one or two a year. at the very least, it’s 650 tuesdays.

that’s nearly two solid years of her life (ah, what a math wizard, i am…), utterly completely devoted to the love and tending of her only two grandsons.

from the get-go, grammy tuesdays have had rules different from the rest of the week. she is two parts indulgence, one part old-fashioned mama. there will be elbows off the table, chew with your mouth closed. keep your bottom on the chair. comb your hair. tuck in your shirttails. patch the hole in the knee of your jeans.

she keeps us, and our house, in line. she will fix the wobbly neck of the lamp. glue the leg of the chair. rig up a rather impressive concoction to keep the cold air from blowing in under the door. and once she threatened to rebuild the inside of the toilet tank, the part where the water whooshes down into the bowl, does its thing. i told her to stop.

she reminds us to turn out the lights behind us. to not let the water run. to recycle every scrap in the house. she launches into her shpiel about keeping the world fit for her grandsons’ grandsons.

she reminds me i forgot to water the herb garden. forgot to deadhead the daffodils. forgot to haul in the porch furniture.

she thinks it a waste that we still have the little white lights strung on the crabapple. can’t believe i let the little one stay up ’til past nine, on a school night. asks for the umpteenth time if i’ve gone through the toys and the clothes to give to the place where the people have little to none.

oh my.

she is, in many ways, my walking, talking conscience. sometimes i’m sure it makes me crazy, leaping over this should, dodging that.

but you know something: i love her like crazy. she’s my mama. and i know i’m lucky to have one. right here in my house, every tuesday.

my papa died a long time ago, 26 years ago saturday. my mama was my age now when he died. she was 50. ever since, she once told me, she’s turned over her life to making life better for all those around her. a vocation of mercy.

wednesdays are soup kitchen. thursdays, for a long time, were a very poor school in what was once called the slums of the city. the rest of the week she is running a roast chicken to someone, cleaning the trail in the woods for the schoolchildren.

tuesdays, though, she saves for her boys. tuesdays are a day for chef boyardee, that gummy blah pasta in red runny sauce, a something their mama would scorn. tuesdays are a day for cinnamon toast and alphabet letters, all mixed, smack in the mid of the morning. for sitting on laps and reading of eagles. for building train tracks that curve ‘round the room. for going to the zoo. for getting the animal fries.

tuesdays are days for listening to stories while mommy types in the other room. for keeping things calm while mommy pulls out her hair. for making chicken rice grammy, a thing that i loved when i was a girl and now i eat it again, many a tuesday.

she’ll be here any minute, because it’s half an hour ‘til nine. and she is, like clockwork, always too early. maybe she can’t wait to come. maybe she knows that we need her.

it’s brisket weather…

borrowing amply from mr. capote, who in his delicious and utterly memorizable 1956 treasure, “a christmas memory,” tells us of his eccentric sixty-something-year-old cousin who presses her nose to the kitchen window, gauges the novemberness of the outside tableau, and exclaims, “oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!…it’s fruitcake weather! fetch our buggy. help me find my hat.”
and at our house this weekend, i woke up, sniffed my nose in the air, and proclaimed, “it’s brisket weather.” with that i trotted off to the butcher who had cleaved and wrapped seven and a half pounds of pure red steer, laced heavily with adipose. he marked it, mahany, and as he handed over the white-paper-wrapped log, he raised one eyebrow and quizzed, “that jewish?” well, no, mister meat man. but my husband is, my boys are half and half, and we do hanukkah.
the thing about being an irish catholic mother in a jewish-catholic family is that you have no long lineage of recipes you call your own. you have, forgive me for braggin’, something far better than that: an amalgam of adopted jewish mothers and the best of their best. i’ve got ina’s matzo balls, aunt joni’s tips on storing, freezing and reheating latkes, liat’s hamantashcen, audrey’s “tzimmes with potato kugel topping,” that one cut from the los angeles times, now yellowed and long ago scribbled with audrey’s thoughts on how to improve it.
brisket i’ve got in triplicate: susan’s famed brisket, one boasts; sandra’s working-woman’s brisket; and the one i now call my own, brisket from harlene ellin’s mom. now, mind you, i have met harlene ellin’s mom once–at the side of a pool at a 7-year-old’s birthday long long ago, where the meeting was doused liberally in chlorinated pool water. but harlene’s mama and i, once or twice a year, we make brisket together. listening closely as she insists it must be heinz chili sauce, nobody’s else’s. following carefully as she guides me through the rinsing and patting dry of the beef slab.
last night, i leaned heavily on mama ellin. she swears you need 50 to 55 minutes per pound in a 325-degree oven. do the math: that was 6 and a quarter hours. being a good catholic girl, i did what i was told. even though after a while i started doubting the wisdom of all this baking and baking. was i en route to the leatheriest brisket ever served at a hanukkah dinner? as i unearthed said brisket from the oven, well past bedtime, and noted the bayleaves had started to blacken, my knees how they trembled, my calm how it shattered.
quick, i grabbed mark bittman. he tells me how to cook everything. he said nothing about brisket being cooked for a full quarter of a day. i googled brisket. the longest stretch there was five hours, for a five-pound brisket. but i had the motherlode of all briskets. my meat man set me up with 7.5 pounds, for cryin’ out loud. i had no option last night but to stay the course with mama ellin. i did as i was told, vaulted it from roasting pan to refrigerator pan, tucked it in under a taut aluminum blanket, turned out the kitchen lights and hoped for the best.
frankly, my brisket dreams did little to soothe me.
called the butcher first thing this morn. he swears i did the right thing; only he cautions a low long oven is the best route to brisket heaven. he goes overnight at 200 degrees. has brisket by the mound for breakfast, he does. maybe i should have turned down the heat.
all i know now is it smelled a bit like heaven around here for six-plus hours on sunday, all chili sauce, red wine, cloves and those bay leaves. i wasn’t about to lower the burn on that celestial scent.
we had 12 coming for brisket tonight, but little tedd has a fever of 103. so, for now, me and my brisket we are on hold. we are whispering prayers, jewish and catholic, for fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth, mind-if-i-help-myself-to-more. dinner is rescheduled for wednesday. we’ll let you know if our brisket prayers they are answered.
here’s how harlene ellin’s mama and i go at it, year after year:

Brisket
3 pounds first-cut brisket (these things a Catholic girl must learn, who knew from first-, second- or even third-cut?)
1 C. Heinz chili sauce
½ C. brown sugar
¼ C. dry red wine
¼ C. water
1 small or medium onion, sliced
3 cloves, whole
6 black peppercorns, whole
3 bay leaves

Rinse brisket and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl combine chili sauce, brown sugar, wine and water. Mix well. Pour ¼ of chili sauce mixture into a roasting pan. Place brisket on sauce, fat side up. Place onions, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves evenly over brisket. Top with remaining chili sauce mixture.

Cover roasting pan tightly. Bake brisket in preheated 325 degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes per pound, or until meat is fork tender. Remove meat from pan and place it in a container. Remove bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves from gravy, and put gravy in a container. Refrigerate meat and gravy for several hours or overnight.

To reheat brisket, slice against grain to desired thickness and place in covered casserole dish sprayed with cooking oil spray. Remove and discard any congealed fat from gravy. Pour the gravy over meat. Cover and reheat in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or until heated through. (Brisket can be reheated in microwave.)

Serves 6

feel free to add your brisket thoughts to this melt-in-your-mouth conversation….