As soon as my family finished eating dinner for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother immediately began setting the table for Passover-a holiday falling roughly two seasons and seven months later. In between these meals, however, our dining room resumed its museum-like status. I was convinced that anyone who tried to enter would be incinerated by laser beams like those trying to pass through the facing Sphinxes at the Great Riddle Gate in the Neverending Story.
My mother took little comfort though in her advance preparations: she rushed through the cooking to get to the dinner, only to rush through the dinner to get to the cleanup, which only gave way to the setup for the next dinner.
My mother’s particularity and diligence resulted in the exact same Passover seder every year: the kitchen was a hub of nervous energy as my mom and my aunt spent the day rolling matzo balls and wondering if the honey cake would come out of the pan in one piece. Once finished we all sat down at the table where someone invariably spilled her wineglass and we all debated who had been the spiller last year. My brother did his impression of the Ten Commandments while my cousin made me laugh by telling me repeatedly to stop looking at the shank bone. My mom would yell out boils as we ran through the plagues, telling us kids they were her favourite one. Returning to the table after slamming all the kitchen cabinets hiding the Afikomen, she would then hurry my dad through the non-eating part of the meal so the brisket wouldn’t get cold. Our dinners proceeded so quickly that they often wrapped up before other’s even started, allowing my husband and I to conveniently eat the full meals with both our families.
Whatever their speed, holiday dinners in the dining room felt familiar and homey. I only wish they had lasted longer because there is something about losing a matriarch that fundamentally changes things. Each holiday since my mother’s death, I find myself missing her and her dinners, more and more. It’s not like my mother had any secret recipes or anything, passed on from generation to generation. Her egg kichlach that I loved so much came right out of the Second Helpings cookbook owned by every Jewish woman from time immemorial. I can make all the recipes. I can slam all the cabinet doors. I can use all her beautiful serving dishes. My brothers and I can talk about her and tell her stories. But I cannot replace my mother’s incredible spirit. And without it, things just aren’t the same. The holidays will never be the same. Boils can never be my favourite plague. Sitting around the table now with so many loving family members, I feel an emptiness that my father’s delicious kugel and my mother-in-law’s tasty chicken just can’t fill. I miss my mother’s kichlach. I miss my mother shooing me out of the kitchen while she cooked. I miss my mother taking my plate away with one hand and serving dessert with the other. I miss my mother’s restlessness. I miss my mother’s laugh.
The year she died, we knew it was going to be her last Passover. Even though she was in the hospital, I was determined to soak up all I could of her. My brothers and I brought food to her tiny, shared room, hoping to enjoy together what we could of our last holiday. Unfortunately my mother’s roommate received bad news that evening. My mother hurried us out so we could make it to other people’s seders and give her roommate quiet privacy. “Go on,” my mother said kissing my cheek, “She doesn’t need people here eating chicken soup and you’re going to be late for dinner.” But I wanted to eat chicken soup with my mother. I wanted to drink it down slowly and savour it as best I could. I wanted to go back to the last holiday dinner when my mother was well, so I could know it would be my last time tasting her food and hearing her chuckle as she banged kitchen doors. I wanted to know I was eating my mom’s last kichlach. My mother could not live in the moment, and now the moment was gone.
Before the end, my mother was preparing for the end. And before she was preparing for the proverbial end, my mother was preparing for the end of something else: the end of the day, the end of a phone call, the end of my teenage years, the end of a book, the end of my brothers’ medical school, the end of a line, the end of her marriage, the end of a movie, the end of summer, the end of her bottle of perfume, the end of a holiday dinner. No matter the task at hand, be it joyful or tedious, my mother was always looking ahead, preparing for the next and then the next after that.
There’s a line at the end of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides that I love. Resigning himself to his traditional life Tom says:
“At the top of the bridge, with the stars shining above the harbor, I look to the north and wish again that there were two lives apportioned to every man and woman.”
I read this and wish it most for my mother. I wish so much that a second life could be apportioned to my mother so she could sit back in her dining room with a piece of honey cake, on any day of the week, and enjoy the sweet rewards of all her hard work in the first.