We are in Bermuda on vacation with my grandparents. This is the first and only time we will vacation with them. My grandpa is sick. Is it lung cancer? Kidney failure? I can’t remember what will lay him to rest within the year.
We spend mornings on the beach, rocky outcrops shielding us from the big waves. My dad and I explore the tide pools left behind in the crags and dips while my mom and grandma sit in low, folding chairs watching my two-year-old sister play in the sand, her diaper warm and soggy. My mom wears a wide, brightly colored fabric headband and huge, bug-eyed sunglasses. My grandma has her signature shmata on her head, a white triangular kerchief that keeps her hairdo in place.
My grandpa stays in the apartment, too tired to make the trip to the water’s edge. He wears a white v-neck undershirt, proper trousers and brown leather slip-on sandals, sometimes with socks and sometimes not. He always wears the dark brown leather belt that he fashioned himself decades ago in his leather goods shop, before the accident, before the medical bills wiped him out and he had to go to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. From the beach I can see him out on the small balcony reading a book. He smiles and waves at us from behind his clip-on shades.
When we come back up for lunch, my grandpa is mixing a batch of potato pancakes in the small kitchen. It’s not Chanukah, but he knows it is one of my favorite foods and besides a nice pastrami on rye, latkes are one of the few dishes he knows how to make. There is no grating the potatoes. Instead, my grandpa pulverizes them along with the onions using the blender he found in the cabinet. I quickly change out of my wet swimsuit and join him at the counter. I stir in a little flour, a single beaten egg, salt, pepper, maybe a little chopped parsley. We eyeball the mixture, adding a little more flour. The oil is an inch deep in the wide frying pan and beginning to sizzle. I drag a chair over to the stove. My grandma protests, worried about the flame, worried about the hot, splattering oil. My grandpa waves her off. “It’s fine Helen,” he says. “She can do it.” I’m only seven, but when my grandpa says I can do it, I believe him.
Carefully, carefully I drop the mixture by the spoonful into the pan. Immediately the potatoes begin to sizzle, the oil jumping at my hovering hand. I draw back against my grandpa’s chest and he laughs, putting his hands on my shoulders. He is a slight man, only in his 60s but he seems so old to me, his gray hair thin on the sides, gone on the top. He smells like Barbasol, like a clean fresh shave. He flips the latkes at just the right time. They come off the stove a crisp, golden brown. We pat them down with paper towels but they’re still plenty greasy. I wolf down three doused in a combination of sour cream and apples sauce, then help him make the rest. When we’re done we call everyone else to the table. There is nothing but latkes. It is the most glorious meal.
After my grandpa died, my dad took over the latke making, using the same simple recipe, eyeballing the ingredients and frying them up in a skillet of oil. When we’re at my parents’ house during Chanukah, my kids stand at the counter with my dad, adding flour and salt to the potatoes and onions, pretending to be amazed when my dad announces, like he does every year, that the secret ingredient is a dash of nutmeg. This is my mom’s addition to my grandpa’s recipe and it is the perfect ingredient. My older girls carefully drop the mix into the pan, but let my dad do the flipping. The little one watches from her stool at the counter. I gorge myself on the crispy, greasy pancakes, smothering them in sour cream and apple sauce just like I did when I was seven in Bermuda, sand stuck between my toes, my hair salty and lank, my grandpa flipping and smiling at the stove.
This post is inspired by the Day 11 prompt of the Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories group I’m writing with this month: “What family traditions have fallen away or transformed into something new over the years? What foods evoke the rituals of your past?”
It’s also inspired by this week’s Finish the Sentence Friday prompt, “This holiday season, I hope…” to remember my past and pass it on. Hosted by Kristi at FindingNinee and Lisa from The Golden Spoons.