Though the rebellious thought had been rumbling around in my mind for days, it rose to the surface and erupted when the oven door broke. The outer door had separated from its inner liner, which remained stubbornly stuck. Inside, getting too well done by the second, was my signature flourless chocolate cake, the one I made every year for the Passover seder, the ritual meal staged each spring when Jews gather to tell the age-old story of their liberation from Egypt while eschewing leavened foods. By rebellious thought, I mean my resolution never to host another seder.
As I contemplated the dishes waiting their turn in the oven, lined up on the counter like planes on a runway—brisket, three marinating chickens, three vegetable casseroles—my mother called, as she did every morning.
"What's wrong?" she asked, after I said hello. Though she's hard of hearing, she hasn't lost her disarming ability to detect my every undertone.
"Nothing. It's just that I still have a bunch of cooking."
"You know, you could just cater it and be done with it," she said. This suggestion, neutral to anyone else's ears, was a taunt, a booby trap with my name on it. How perfectly reasonable: why not cater it? I wasn't chained to the kitchen, enslaved like my foremothers in Egypt. The holiday itself is about liberation, renewal, mind over manacles. All its imperatives—to cherish freedom, to treat strangers as neighbors—could easily be enacted while eating a prepared brisket.
But wait. Had my mother ever resorted to this option when she was in charge of the holiday? Not on your life! And she didn't even enjoy cooking as I do. I learned to equate food with pleasure from her, a woman who hosted family seders well into her seventies, up to her elbows in food preparation for days in a kitchen so small she had to stash platters of puddings and cookies on fire escapes and in the bathtub. And oh, her special mashed-potato pancakes, fried to golden perfection on the outside, with a spoonful of chopped chicken liver secreted within. They sound revolting, I know; no one believes me when I describe them as delicious. More than the tastes and textures, the wonder of the surprise inside delighted me. (How did she do that?) As she'd bring the last dish to the table, she'd watch me take my first bite, and then slump in her chair, too tired to eat, but smiling, satisfied. There. She'd done it. Again.
To my mother, who inherited the holiday after my grandmother's death, producing the seder was nothing short of a colossal chore—a feeling she'd communicate with every pot she slammed on the stove. Meanwhile, my father, who discovered religion in what should have been the middle of his life, doggedly read through the Haggadah, the book recounting the Exodus, word by tedious word, with the single-mindedness of a recent convert, too self-conscious to lose himself in song. Those nights that my sister and I suffered through felt at least as long as the 40 years the Israelites had wandered in the desert.
As much as the holiday vexed her, my mother never once ordered food in. And if she didn't do it, well then, tempting as it was, neither could I.
"It's not the cooking that I mind," I started to say, because I knew that would annoy her, when I noticed two tiny screws on the floor. I hung up, pried open the oven, and screwed the two parts of the door back together. The cake looked suspiciously darker than usual and smelled slightly overdone. I contemplated tossing it and whipping up a new one, but in the end, I didn't have the heart—or the time.
A day later, 15 of us are gathered around a cobbled-together, multilevel table, which extends from the dining room into the living room. On everyone's plate is a copy of Michael Rubiner's The Two-Minute Seder, the perfect Haggadah for our loquacious but attention-challenged family.
I seat my son Ben, 26, across from me because I delight in how he reacts to the seder—questioning everything, pointing out contradictions. My mother is seated next to me so I don't have to see the vexation, frustration, and disappointment on her face. She hates my seders: they're too irreverent and freewheeling. Though I always try to bring us back to the text, everyone talks at once, the conversation skitters out of control, and the narrative thread is lost repeatedly.
She's annoyed at me because I took her aside before we began and told her that the one thing she couldn't say to me tonight was, "When are you going to sit down?" I reminded her that when she hosted dinners, she never sat; that hosting means serving others; that she can think what she pleases, but she can't say it aloud. She's resolved to say nothing.
Thirty minutes later, when we're done with the two-minute seder, I begin serving the soup. There's a choice of sweet potato soup, which I made in honor of my younger son, who couldn't make it home for the holiday, and matzo balls, which, I warn everyone, I've never made before. Miraculously, there are enough matzo balls to go around. I'm serving seconds when Jack, my cousin's 10-year-old son, walks into the kitchen with his soup bowl. He wants another matzo ball. "They're delicious," he tells me.
The compliment catches me completely off guard. Until this moment, I hadn't thought that I showed up on his radar screen at all. "You just made my day," I say to him, and we each put down our ladles and bowls and he allows me to give him a hug. He's wiry, bony, just like my sons used to be.
Back at the table, noting what's being gobbled up, whose plate needs refreshing, which dish needs an extra serving spoon, I'm too distracted to eat. I slowly realize why I take this meal so seriously: what I lack in religious faith I hope to gain in culinary zeal. But in the lull that arises during every successful dinner party, when conversation dwindles because everyone's contentedly chewing, I realize that I'm famished. Excusing myself, I slip into the kitchen to indulge in my secret craving—picking the dark meat off the chicken carcass. I'm sucking at the sweet, fatty bones when my mother walks in, carrying some stacked plates. "You don't have to clear the table," I say, taking them from her.
"I have to do something," she says. "I can't just sit there." I look at her more carefully than I have in years. She's lost inches, she's lost weight, her hair is white. I really study her, trying to find her mother's palimpsest in her face. But I can't see anyone but my mother; she remains stubbornly herself, only older, trying to remain active, useful.
"Thank you," I say.
"Thank you," she says. "It's a wonderful seder." We stand there, in front of the oven, and then move into each other's arms. Formerly a bit stout, she's now as bony as Jack, I realize with a start—probably the same start she's experiencing as she probes my new fleshiness. "I think I'm gaining the weight you're losing," I say, and though we both laugh, the hug suddenly turns into a clutch, or rather, she clutches me; I can almost feel her give way. We can't let go of each other, or of the thought that seizes us: that we're both passing through time much more quickly than we want to. We cling to each other with a ferocity I can't recall, and with an unusual sweetness. The poisonous back and forth, bait and switch, the friction of "don't say this" and "don't think that," the background sniping, the murky tide of envy and jealousy that's crested and ebbed between us all our lives, stops. We aren't struggling against each other; it's no longer a contest.
Instead, she's genuinely thanking me for doing what she hadn't been able to orchestrate, a happy and delicious seder. And I'm not feeling guilty or resentful or angry, just protective—and grateful in return. I may have learned to equate food with love from my grandmother, but I learned how to be stalwart from my mother, too: to do your job as well as you can; to keep your commitments; to show up and come through when needed, as she needed me now.
It's a hug of reckoning, of recognition, and the first inkling of our final good-bye.
When we finally part, her eyes brim with tears—something I've seen only once or twice in the 56 years I've known her.
"When's cake?" Ben calls from the dining room. My mother wipes her eyes on a dish towel and goes back to the table. I brew tea and coffee. "This chocolate cake was almost ruined," I say, slicing it, and relating the near oven disaster.
"In other words," Ben says thoughtfully, "the cake cooked too long, whereas the matzo we eat was bread that didn't get cooked enough. Interesting."
"Ben always loved patterns," says my mother. Looking at him leaning back slightly in his chair, I wonder what pattern he sees when he looks at my mother and me, side by side. Where will I sit at his seder table, if indeed he ends up hosting a seder? What will he ask me not to say? How will we look? How will it feel to hug him, when he's bald and I'm white-haired? He's entertaining and charming, but is he stalwart? How will we begin to say good-bye?
Next to me, my mother pulls out my chair, inviting me to sit down and at least have dessert with everyone else. I oblige. Then I notice Jack gesturing to me from the other end of the table. Everyone is talking, shouting, laughing, so he cranes his delicate neck forward and mouths, "There are chocolate chips hidden in this cake!"
I smile. It's my little surprise.
"This is the best chocolate cake I ever ate," he says.
"Thank you," I mouth back. "I'll make it again next year."
This blog is excerpted from "Timelines," by Roberta Israeloff. The full version is available in the November/December 2009 issue.
Photo © Mykyta Starychenko/Dreamstime.com