Comfort Food: Remembering My Grandmother

2007-DEC-30
Grandma Helen with my nephew Ben and my daughters Ruby and Ella in 2007.

Leaning forward in the backseat of the taxi, nose pressed against the window, my breath fogging it up with each exhale. No car seats, no seatbelts, the bare-bones car rattling along FDR Drive, the East River black and glassy on the left, the enormous red and white Coca-Cola sign forever winking just across the water. The mid-morning sky is wintry gray, solid and low – nothing like the sun-kissed blue of my now home thousands of miles away in the southern hemisphere. Apartment buildings rise high one after the other. Green and white streets signs whip by: E. Houston, Delancey, Grand.

It’s 1975 and we are back in the States on Home Leave, the official company term for the six weeks we take at the end of each year to travel the world and visit family back in the U.S. Home. Leave. We are both coming and going, leaving and arriving, traveling between our temporary and forever homes, each anchored at one end of the world.

We tumble out of the taxi onto the rough concrete sidewalk. I race up the path towards the towering building, my mother calling out to me to wait. I don’t. I can’t. I pull at the outer door, feeling the suck of heat on the other side. Inside I press the worn, black button: A. Moskowitz 7A. A faint buzz fizzes through the brass-plated speaker. I bounce on my tiptoes waiting for the responding buzz that will open the glass double doors. We push through to the vestibule, past the mailroom towards the elevators. Our fast footsteps echo down the hallway’s linoleum floor. We take the elevator up and before the doors have fully opened, my grandmother is reaching for me, pulling me to her.

“My shaina maidela!” she cries, beaming. She is of mothballs and lilac powder, of Helena Rubenstein lipstick and Nivea face cream. Her floral housecoat hangs loosely about her, a few strategically placed curlers dangle from her head. She never tries to hide the before and after, allowing us to see every transformation. The plucked chicken on the counter soon yields a delicious, belly warming broth, the boiled and wilted cabbage leaves patiently await their meat and rice mixture, their tomato sauce bath. The plain white box tied with string holds the most delicious chocolate seven-layer cake I’ve ever tasted. Before the last crystal water glass is filled, my grandmother will appear perfectly coiffed, her skirt pressed, her filmy blouse billowing about her arms, ready to serve.

The candy dish on the marble cocktail table overflows with M&Ms and mini-Hershey bars. My sister and I kneel on the Persian-style rug digging in. The plastic-covered sofa is not a place we like to perch. Cousins, aunts and uncles three generations deep arrive with boxes of chocolate and rugelach, gelt if it’s Chanukah and candy fruit slices at Passover. The deep, meaty scent of stuffed veal swims in and around the lighter, sweeter smell of chicken roasting in apricot sauce. There will be chopped chicken liver first, then perfectly ripe cantaloupe sliced just so, bite sized pieces carved from the curve, balancing on the rind. There will be matzoh ball soup with knedelach, a crisp salad lightly tossed in Italian dressing and stuffed cabbage, pan roasted potatoes and sautéed green beans that I’ll scoot to the side of my plate, hoping no one will notice I didn’t eat them.

This is my comfort food, dishes prepared over days, eaten over hours interspersed with games of Backgammon and Gin Rummy, family lore and Yiddish jokes. Between dinner and dessert we’ll sift through fading photographs I’ll never tire of seeing year after year. My great-uncle Hymie will pour himself a brandy, then another. My cousin Mindy will braid my hair and let me play with her Barbie. This is the home I never want to leave. This is the home I’ll come back to again and again decade after decade, after we move back to the States, after my grandfather is gone and the family is too far-flung to meet in one place.

This is where I’ll find my grandmother, in her housecoat and slippers, a light rouge on gently sinking cheeks, the top of her head barely coming up to my chin. After reaching up to cup my face in her soft, dry palms and exclaiming over my height or my hairstyle, her next words were always, “Come. Eat, eat. You must be hungry.” And I always was.

My grandmother would have been 102 today. She passed away six years ago and while I didn’t know it yet, I was pregnant with Lilah, my surprise third baby. Grandma Helen always cooked up a storm when we visited, always encouraged us to eat “More!” – and we always obliged. The chicken soup, the roasted meats, the savory mushroom kishka – this is how she loved us. 

This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post. This week’s sentence is “How I grew up to be the one I am now…”
and is hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee and sentence-thinker-upper Upasna Sethi of Life Through My Bioscope.

The original inspiration for this post came from the Edible Memories online class offered by Jena Schwartz and Cigdem Kobu of The Inky Path. If you’re looking to get your writing groove on, head on over and see what wonders they have to offer. 

 

8 thoughts on “Comfort Food: Remembering My Grandmother

  1. This is absolutely stunning. Wow, what memories, brought back through your words.
    You share these glimpses of the past with us and glad of it. It all is so very relatable, even if the food served or the religious traditions aren’t all exactly the same.
    My grandmother loved us through feeding us too. It’s a mothering/grandmothering must, for their own reasons, wanting things for us, maybe that they once went without. I don’t know if this was the case for your grandmother, but I know mine was motivated by her own memories of living through war and knowing what it felt like to be hungry.
    They want only the best for those they loved. Nothing purer than that.
    So happy I clicked on this FTSF post tonight. Thanks again.

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    1. Thank you so much! Yes, it was definitely the case with my grandmother that she wanted us to have in excess what she didn’t as a child in Europe — lots and lots of food. Food is such a powerful love object and comfort for so many of us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gorgeous writing and a beautiful tribute to your grandmother, Lisa. I miss those huge family meals with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. Everybody is all over the place now… I want my son to experience them as well. I guess he does but on a smaller scale. I love love love “this is how she loved us” so very much (sniffle).

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    1. Thank you Kristi. I miss those kind of meals too. With my sister on the east coast and the cousins all over the place it’s harder to get together for sure. Family is what you make it I guess 🙂

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  3. This is DELICIOUS and wow…such evocative writing. I felt as though I could smell the chicken, the apricots, the rice…the condensation on the windows, and the lilac and Nivea cream. What rich, beautiful family memories. Thank you so much for sharing them.

    And yes…I love that you show how people love in different ways. I was thinking about that recently, and cooking for people is DEFINITELY a way of showing love 😀

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