It’s the smells I remember most clearly. Sunday afternoons were reserved for Grandma and Grandpa, for visits to The Home. Not their home, mind you, but The Home, with all the finality, rigidity, and coldness those capital letters exude, the “H”resembling a hospital bed. Their home had been a place of warmth with the wonderful smells of baking, fresh flowers, and various lotions and creams. The Home smelled of urine, disinfectant, and decay. What had once been soft and inviting, with colorful scattered rugs and large deep pillows from an older time, was now all shiny tile and bright light, a white communal hall of doors, windows, and nurses.
We would sit together on red patterned wingback chairs in a small alcove in the back, the recessed walls lined with books. It gave the space a cozy feeling as if it were a private little office. Grandma was a bit more with it, mentally, than Grandpa, but both perked up when we came to visit. Mom and Dad always brought some treats for us all to share. I guess it was also a bribe for me, so I’d object less to spending part of my weekend there. I was, after all, only eight years old and didn’t realize how precious time was.
“How’s my girl today?,” Grandpa would ask, as he always did. He called me “his girl,” I see now, because my name escaped him.
“I’m fine, Grampa,” I would answer, as I always did. The conversation was predictable, a script of pleasantries and banalities spoken to fill the time. A talk of obligation.
“You are so beautiful, isn’t she beautiful Sam?, Grandma said to Grandpa. leaning forward to take my face in her cool blue veined hand, cupping my chin and stroking my cheek with her thumb. “Sam? I said isn’t she beautiful?,” she repeated a bit louder.
“Yes, yes, of course, she’s beautiful,” Sam said, absently holding a hardback book and caressing the spine with his gnarled fingers as if it were a talisman. He had always been a voracious reader and the tactile memory the book elicited in him seemed soothing. But there was no magic here. There hadn’t been for a while now.
“How is school darling, what grade are you in now again?”
“I’m in third grade Gramma.”
“Third grade,” she said slowly, letting each word sit a moment, as if to examine it. “Well, that’s wonderful darling. Third grade. Imagine.”
“Dad,” my Mother softly asked, turning to her Father, “do you know who this is?, motioning towards me. “Who is this Dad, do you know her name?”
I remember Grampa looking at me with milky red splotched eyes, wrinkled lids drooping nearly closed. Studying me. After a long pause, a slightly crooked smile lifted one side of his face, “I’m not sure who she is, but I know that I love her,” he said in a trembling hoarse voice. Mom, rose from her chair, bent over him and kissed his stubbly white head. He turned his head up and vacantly looked into her face. She had tears in her eyes.
And that’s how it goes. We end up as windup dolls, unable to retighten our loosening keys.
It’s the smells I remember most clearly. It’s my time now to make the Holiday, as we say, and my preparation entails many of the traditions I first learned from my Grandparents. But many in my generation have fast tracked those traditions in the name of expediency. This years Passover Seder will be the first held in my home. I have taken up the mantle from my parents and I guess it’s mine now, till my little ones grow up. I partook in my parents Seders over the years, helping with the cooking, asking the four questions during the Seder, entertaining my baby cousins and just generally being the junior host, but it’s my Grandparents Seders that speak the loudest to me. I was, of course, much younger and I suppose more impressionable to all the customs of the meal. Those rituals still glow for me as a yersite candle glows in remembrance of the deceased. I make the Holiday to honor those that came before,
to remember, because they are still in me and with me.
I can still smell the fresh horseradish that Gramma made from scratch. The odor coming from the kitchen could clear your sinuses it was so pungent. She would use a hand cranked metal meat grinder, vice gripped to the counter, to grind the fish for her homemade gefilte fish. Now that is a stinky messy chore and one that still lingers through the freshness of all these years. The Seder itself lasted hours, reading, singing, drinking and dipping till we were finally allowed to eat. By that point, I remember, many of the older men had removed their shirts and sat in their white, what were then called athletic shirts, and what we now call wife beaters. I prefer the former, but I’m of a mind that considers our People, in general, neither. Neither athletic nor wife beaters. Some would argue.
My Seder will be much shorter. Much like the App for Six Minute Abs, I have the Fifteen Minute Seder, which moves the ceremony along at a nice quick pace. We say the prayers, we dip and drink, tell the story of Exodus, break the matzoh and sing, all in an abbreviated fashion, then eat. Horseradish is a bottle of Golds and gefilte fish is made from a frozen log of pre ground fish mash. I still make the soup, chicken and brisket as per old family recipes. So, the recipe for the traditional holiday celebration morphs into something more contemporary, accessible and simple, but the essence, the tradition, if you will, remains the focal point for a celebration of family and survival. Something old becoming something. . . not new, but newer.
And that’s how it goes. Another step up the proverbial ladder of life, or is it down? My Father called on my fortieth birthday and asked how it felt to be at the top of the ladder. Now you start going down the other side, he said. I was not amused but maybe up there at the top the view is better and we can more clearly see the downside and those on the lower rungs, the ones who have preceded us, standing there, waiting to step off.