Facing the window over the kitchen sink watching the white peach tree leaves rustle, there were two directions someone with a mastery of the clank and bang of cooking could go: left to the nook with curved built-in bench and table; or right to the formal white table clothed length of seating for many more. As a kid, I bumped elbows with Jill and her little brother, Greg, at the bench as we jostled through our breakfast. Joyce plunking down some hot spectacular egg preparation that wasn’t my standard scrambled or slightly burnt frog-in-the-hole – Joyce’s eggs arrived poached or soft boiled with plenty of salt. Then, before you could blink we’d be on our way out the door to her dad’s car, which smelled of tan newness.
This bustle of being felt new. Early to school, scrubbed, punctual and polished: these ways didn’t exist in our house: one mom could only do so much. I didn’t miss the snarled hair struggle and tight precise pigtails that escaped from the list of things that were important after my father left. I might have missed a poached egg or unburnt toast. I made my own lunches, fixed my own hair. My own homework remained a mess. Unless, I was staying at Jill’s house, where the whirl of wife/mother, father daughter and brother made me feel like I had just been dropped among the exotic white angelfish they had in a tank in the den/TV room/library; so much swirled around me I hadn’t seen before- a black piano, carpeted stairs (perfect for sliding down in sleeping bags), windows with a view to the ocean, Jill’s room in another wing, red orange betadine instead of hydrogen peroxide (because “my dad is an ER doctor,” Jill explains), and Scope mouthwash we always had ACT (because “my mom is a dental hygienist”). There were other prominent things, a letter that looked like pi carved by the door, a menorah and photographs of people in black and white: years later I would learn were Joyce’s family, the ones that were lost/ died in the Holocaust.
It is 2016, and I have been invited to my first Passover seder. Funny that it is my first at forty-three, even though at three I picked the one and only Jewish preschool eschewing the three options which brought me to clinging tears. Tuvia pulled me in with art and song, Shalom and hush little baby nap time. And my friend Jill. Whose mom, Joyce, became my mom’s best friend for the next thirty five years.
Even though I taught in a school district that was predominantly Jewish, have cousins and Jewish relatives, the bar and bat mitzvah celebrations were the only celebrations I really knew/were invited to. Mom always sewed herself a new dress. I always loved the dancing and watched entranced as cousins, friends and second cousins either stumbled or flew through the Hebrew verses on to becoming an adult. Mom threw me a sweet sixteen pool party, to mark my transition to an adult; I don’t feel I have grown up yet.
I am not sure what it means to be an adult exactly, but Joyce came close to my ideal of one. She earned a PhD, once the kids were out of high school, after she divorced Jill’s dad. She became a LMFT and worked out of a house she bought herself one block from the ocean. She hosted amazing holiday feasts for Thanksgiving and helped my mother see me for me. Then, they took out half her uterus and half of her stomach and looked into clinical trials for her cancer was genetic. She continued to work and I was not, so she hired me. I helped her clear up her client files and organize her recipe folders. This small act of offering me a job, helped remind me of my worth and ability to work/ offer service. I could not change her diagnosis, but I could do this thing, set up a system for organizing her files, pitch countless folders into the dumpster/shredder, try to make some sense of four drawers of recipes.
I was in the habit of taking a folder or two home, cleaning up the clippings and returning then to the drawer. I took the Passover folder home and before I finished, she died. She and Jill had already put her best/favorite recipes into a cookbook, so there was no need to keep all that stuff, Jill said. I threw everything out, folders and frayed pages torn from newspapers and magazines some shiny with color others tan and smudged with age. I kept the Passover folder, I couldn’t throw it away because on the reverse it showed repurposing from her Opus, Thanksgiving.
I knew what Thanksgiving meant to Joyce and my mom, we often spent the holiday with Jill’s family, no longer an unfamiliar fish tank but a swirl of love, loudness, acceptance and singing, ma vie en rose, exes and uncles, best friends, delicious food. The thorn was her death, a loss that isn’t covered in the lists of meals made, menus carefully cursed and collected in the folder: passover 2002, 2004,2005, names of people just on the periphery of my knowing like the people in the black and white photographs, and looping handwriting. Who was there and what we ate, seemed to be all the history remaining.
I read the names turned the brown and brittle stapled clippings over, noting the shift to modern and a new twist on an ancient tradition. I pulled two recipes for Passover, one matzoh crackers covered with chocolate, dried fruit and nuts, another for chocolate dipped strawberries, I have been asked to bring asparagus, I will make a vegan hollandaise with a dash of horseradish. I contemplate the spices and prunes that flavor a roast, and wonder how I might veganize it. Modern? Contemporary? Passover with a new twist on ancient tradition?
I will find a yellow tablet, list the names and what we ate hearing the echoes of Joyce’s voice in the kitchen between two tables, rooms left saltless without her presence.