A Cooking Lesson by Susan Earl

The day after my grandmother died, I stayed home from school. She’d had a heart attack when my parents and I were on a picnic at Bear Mountain State Park. By the time we heard, it was too late. Although he had two brothers and a sister, my father was the closest to his mother. He never said it, but I knew he was filled with guilt not to have been with her when she died. My parents went to the funeral home to make arrangements and left me to spend the day with my other grandparents, the Leitsteins. 

….

They return a few hours later, and my father is crying. In the Leitsteins’ living room, he perches on the ottoman of the easy chair, and sobs—loud, deep, gut-wrenching sobs. Bent over, head between his knees, hands covering his eyes. I’m balanced on the arm of the easy chair. Seeing him cry scares me, so I look away, toward the sofa where my mother is sitting. He can’t even talk, so my mother does. She says the funeral will be tomorrow, the same day as my fourth- grade class trip to the Statue of Liberty. 

“But what about my class trip?” I’ve been excited about the outing, but I’ve never been to a funeral and I’m curious about it. I know I should go, but I’m also afraid. What if everyone there sobs like my father? In the end, my parents decided I should go with my class. At first, I’m relieved. But if I don’t go will I still be part of the family?

I loved my grandma, but because she hardly spoke English, our communication has centered around smiles and hugs. I understand some Yiddish but, afraid of mistakes, we’ve both been shy about speaking each other’s language. We live in the Bronx, a car ride away from their Manhattan apartment. My mother doesn’t drive so we only visit when my father isn’t working. Because he works six days a week, our get-togethers have always been reserved for special occasions like the Jewish holidays.

….

Soon after the funeral, our family has a new Friday night routine. My father brings my grandfather home for dinner. Since my grandmother died he’s been eating all his meals in a neighborhood restaurant. 

  He clinks glasses with my father, says L’chaim, and they down shots of scotch.

My mother passes me the plates of appetizers, and I serve him the gefilte fish. “Grandpa, don’t you know how to cook?”

  “Nu,” he says, eyes twinkling behind his wire-framed glasses. “Maybe you can teach me?”

A few days later, my father and I drive to my grandfather’s so I can show him how to bake a potato. We park outside the brick building at 551 Wadsworth Avenue and climb the wide flight of stairs to the second floor. The payphone on the wall outside their apartment is for the use of all second-floor residents. A call costs a dime. My grandparents have recently acquired their own private telephone— black, with a rotary dial. It squats on a table just outside the kitchen. 

First, we walk down the long, high-ceilinged hallway hung with ornately-framed portraits of relatives from Ukraine. The sepia-toned images of men in fedoras and women with scarf-covered hair are unnamed family members who never made it to America. Lit with a single bulb, the dim hall makes them seem even more mysterious. The apartment is cold and quiet.

Except for its clean white cloth, the long dining room table is bare. Crystal goblets with ruby-colored stems are safe behind the china cabinet’s glass doors, awaiting Passover.

At last year’s seder, the table was crowded with family and noisy with song. Crimson wine glasses, dangerously full, waved in grown-ups’ hands as they kept time to the music. Presiding from the head of the table, my grandfather led the seder, a gray fedora covering his yarmulke. The warm room was festive with candlelight. The single wine glass in the middle of the table, filled to the brim, ready for the prophet Elijah to come and drink. 

I checked it frequently. Has he been here yet? 

Impatient for the seder to be over, my older cousins stopped pretending to follow the text in their Haggadahs, the booklets prescribing each step of the centuries-old ritual. They’re offered free at the grocery store, courtesy of Maxwell House Coffee and Manishewitz Kosher Foods. All through the songs and prayers, they’ve been pestering their father, my Uncle Isroel, in loud stage-whispers, not caring who else heard: “Dad, how much longer before dinner?” 

I’d learned to read Yiddish at the Emma Lazarus Folkshul, but Hebrew is different. Struggling to keep up, I lost my place. My father read my confused expression and rescued me, discreetly pointing his finger to the correct page.

  Finally, the seder paused for the meal. The loud conversation was mostly in Yiddish, largely incomprehensible to us first-generation American kids. My mother, and aunts Lee and Ida, carried steaming bowls of chicken soup with matzo balls from the kitchen. We passed platters of brisket and golden brown chicken around the table. The room filled with their sweet meaty aroma. When everyone had eaten more than enough, my grandmother Trana brought the dessert— a warm, homemade honey cake. She beamed, pleased to see her family all together, and tried to not think about her daughter Esther, dead at thirty-two, the only one of her children she couldn’t save, the bitter with the sweet.

….

  As soon as I walk into my grandfather’s kitchen, the seder memory fades. I peek inside the pantry hoping to see the bottles of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup and the blue seltzer siphons—delivered weekly by the seltzer man— in their accustomed place on the floor. I’m pleased they’re still there but realize other things will have changed. I’ll miss drinking my grandmother’s egg creams. And there won’t be any pieces of halvah or sesame candies slipped from her apron pocket into my waiting palm. The cellophane wrapping crinkling as I carefully untwist each end. Because she had diabetes, her candy was our secret.

When she hugged me, she was pillow-soft and so warm. It was hard for me to reconcile this sweet, plump grandmother with the heroine of my father’s stories: Trana Litvak Tinkelman of Teplik, Ukraine, who saved herself, her children, and her townspeople from the Cossacks during the pogroms. But they were one and the same. 

Like the rest of the apartment, the kitchen is cold. While I demonstrate how to turn on the oven, my father sits at the table. My grandfather wipes his glasses with his handkerchief and approaches the stove. He bends and studies the dial. Aside from Friday night dinners at our house, in the past few weeks of eating out, he hasn’t eaten much. Although he’s supported a family for decades, first running a laundry, then, a successful automobile seat cover business, keeping house isn’t among his accomplishments. 

My voice echoes in the high-ceilinged room. “Grandpa, you have to make holes in the potato with a fork. Watch how I do it. See? Like this. Otherwise, it can explode in the oven.” 

“Is that so?” He nods attentively.

“Turn the oven to three hundred and fifty degrees. Then wait until the bell rings before you put the potato in.”

My father knows how to do this. He’s a good cook, but he’s brought me, a ten-year-old child. Am I here to teach this lesson because I’m a girl? Does my father understand it will be accepted from me, but not him? We haven’t talked about it. 

I continue the instructions: “Grandpa, you leave the potato in the oven for thirty minutes, then turn it over for another thirty. When it feels soft, it’s done.” 

My father promises to bring me back next week for another cooking lesson—how to boil an egg. My grandfather bends down to hug me. A tall man with ramrod straight posture, he still has a head of carefully combed, thick, silver hair. He wears his customary winter outfit—a herringbone tweed jacket, white, button-down oxford shirt and tie, and a gray, knitted sweater-vest. With his slight frame, he has always guarded himself against catching a cold. 

Moist behind wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes reveal the truth: he is clearly in foreign territory. He is lost, just six steps from the dining room where for forty-two years, he ate three meals a day prepared and served to him by his wife.

Susan Earl is the co-author of “Waddie Welcome & the Beloved Community,” a non-fiction book published by Inclusion Press. She lives in Savannah, Georgia. 

2 thoughts on “A Cooking Lesson by Susan Earl”

  1. So many memories come from the kitchen. My mom made our mayonnaise when I was a child. She always needed one of us kids to pour the Wesson Oil at just the right speed as she used the rotary beater. It was a time to be close and to talk. Thanks, Susan, for sharing a piece of your family history. The account is so “filling”.

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