“Ok, ok,” she said in what I think might have been an annoyed kind of tone.
“I’ll show you how. Come downstairs later and you can watch me. But I don’t know amounts…just watch…just watch.”
Later, I watched.
Her tiny hands, even smaller because of the arthritis that kept her fingers curling in, worked at a steady pace.
I took out my notebook.
3 eggs…1 (glass) cup oil…1 (glass) cup orange juice (plus a splash or two)…1 teaspoon (small pile in middle of palm) baking soda…no that’s 2 teaspoons…1 tablespoon (big pile in middle of palm) salt…poppy… don’t forget the 1/2 cup poppy…handful flour…no two…three…three handfuls…mix…more handfuls flour…mix again…another handful…flour until doughy. Drop spoonfuls…medium sized…then shape them into ovals…stick a fork in each one…you have to do this…it’s important…bake until you can see the tiniest bit of brown on the bottom – no more.
She smiled and we brought some of them upstairs and put the rest in plastic bags in the freezer.
That first Rosh Hashana, I made a triple batch of them.
We ate some on the chag. I put some in plastic bags in my freezer. The rest, I brought to my brother.
“Taste it,” I insisted. “It’s just like Bubby’s. I watched her.”
He put them in plastic bags in his freezer.
And then years passed. A lot of years. Too many years.
And today I thought of them…fleetingly.
I almost missed it.
But then I added some things to the list.
Orange juice…poppy seeds.
I pulled out my notebook…I measured…I mixed…I added a bit more flour…mixed some more…and I made sure to poke them all with a fork…and I took them out as soon as I saw the slightest tinge of brown.
I bit into the first available one.
The memories flooded me…poured through me relentlessly…and now I sit, with poppy seeds stuck between my teeth…and my heart full of a past begging me to let live on these pages.
So I write…
…about a car full of kids, traveling for forever until the sounds and smells of New York waft through the windows and suddenly no one is cranky anymore and everyone seems to have too much energy for one seven-seater van stuffed with at least ten people.
We’re finally here, but we have to work out the parking first. The driveway is never empty – no matter what year it is, and no matter that we are expected. Someone runs upstairs to announce our arrival and plead for help with the tricky navigation.
After circling the block too many times, we’ve squeezed in and now have to figure out how to squeeze us and our luggage out.
It happens somehow, and we race up the front stoop and across the porch, through the doors that squeak, up the stairs that creak, careful to skip those three steps that are mere triangles attempting to stand in for a gradual turn as we stumble through both the door to the living room and the door to the kitchen and suddenly stop in our tracks because at the end of the day, this is foreign.
The language is foreign, the people are foreign, the neighborhood is foreign and we are looked at here and made to feel like we are foreign.
She always calls out to her mother in question form…and follows it with words jumbled together that make no real sense but we know it means she’s saying hello.
It smells like fried onions – never garlic – mixed with industrial cleaning agents and a hint of pine from an aerosol can.
It sounds old…creaking and cranking and gravelly voices speaking in tongues…and it’s maroon and orange and brown…but there’s some green and blue and even pink if you take a step back and really look for her little artistic touches.
When all our senses readjust to accommodate all…all THIS…we focus on her.
She’s smiling…not too broadly, but enough to put us at ease. She half hugs us all because there’s something in her hands because she’s always doing things when we arrive.
It’s late and we really should go to sleep, but first, we need a little something to eat.
There’s marble cake in the pantry, and popcorn and chips…chocolate mints in the fridge…and yeast cake in the freezer…and always plastic bags of frozen poppy cookies…mahn kichelech…but we never say it like that because it doesn’t come out sounding right.
We drink weird soda…Half & Half or 50/50, depending on the era…and we split up for sleep.
There’s the orange room…the one my mother used to share with her grandmother…and it still smells like her, especially in the closet where a lone dress hangs.
The blue room is the boy’s room, even when the girls sleep there. The laundry line hangs out the window and when all the beds are pulled out, it’s like a giant trampoline.
The living room is sometimes the favorite…when you get the bottom of the pull-out couch…because then you’re sleeping under the table. The sheets are shiny brown and you know it’s going to be a slippery night.
Then there’s the little room.
It’s off the master bedroom and there’s no real door. The piano is stuffed into the corner and covered with bags of old clothing. The bed has a pile of linens and blankets on it that slowly goes down as everyone chooses a spot and settles in.
I stretch out on the bed, my legs raised slightly above my head, and I know that I will wake up in middle of the night feeling like I have been folded in half and have to rearrange my body on the lumpy bed quietly as my Zaidy snores and my Bubby’s breath whistles through the air.
We wake up early in the morning. Zaidy is already sitting at the dining room table after eating toast and cottage cheese, or stale cake dipped in milk, and Bubby is bustling around the tiny kitchen because, of course, it’s Erev Pesach…or Erev Sukkos, depending on the year.
There’s only so much we can do to stay out of the way, but we manage to do it all each time.
The porch game is the best. We step out onto the old, crumbly porch that’s off the room that’s off the master bedroom, and we play something we don’t know is called chicken. We have to venture away from the wall and slowly walk across the porch. It takes a good five minutes to get to a spot deemed far enough by the others, and less than a second to be back against the wall on more stable ground. We know someone is going to fall straight through the floor and die on the porch below. If not this time, for sure next time.
One year we arrive to find a new, smaller porch attached to the house made of something safer like iron or something, so the game is over.
We explore the attic. It is so scary. Scarier than the porch. The stairs are wooden and you have to lean over the banister to pull the string to turn on the light. Sometimes that part is too scary so we go up in the dark.
The rooms are gigantic and there are treasures we’d love to play with if we didn’t keep hearing ghosts.
We have to come up here if the bathroom is occupied downstairs. We try our best to avoid it. Sitting on the toilet in the corner, behind lines of laundry, not sure if you had locked the door but unable to run across the massive room to check, you do your business quickly and only wash your hands for like a half a second.
The bathroom downstairs is normal in size, but the claws on the tub and the sloping floor that makes you feel like you might go flying head first off the throne and have to be rescued with your underwear around your ankles is almost as scary as hearing the drums in the attic while you’re trying to remember whether or not you locked that too-big bathroom door.
I live the days out with little care.
I don’t know that the cow’s tongue I see unrolled on the counter will affect my taste for certain delicacies for the rest of my life.
I don’t know that I will remember the washing machine in the kitchen, or the way twenty people will shift around so that the kitchen door will open so that another family of ten can wiggle in and go looking for treasures in the pantry and the freezer.
I don’t know that the sights and smells and sounds that I am experiencing are embedding themselves deep in my soul and creating memories strong enough to make me stop in my tracks and forget to breathe.
All I know is that I am at Bubby’s house, and I am starting to feel a little less foreign than I felt when it was dark outside and the day had been long and I didn’t really want to sleep in a human sandwich-making bed and think about falling off the house with the porch.
A little piece of poppy just won’t come out on its own as the memories wist away and I pick at my teeth thoughtfully.
I once called my grandmother, at the insistence of my mother-in-law who feels strongly about that sort of thing.
Hi Bubby, how are you?
Who is this?
It’s Bracha…you know, from Israel.
Ah! Bracha’le! How are you?
I’m good. How are you?
Oy, Bracha’le, you don’t have to call. Your mother tells me everything.
Ok, Bubby. Have a good Shabbos.
But now, as my house fills with the smell of something old and precious to me, I think that maybe I’d like to call again…before it’s too late.
This is not a eulogy…this is a memory…one that I’d like to share with my Bubby, who still has a freezer full of treats that have the power to melt me and turn me into the child I thought could never live again.