Monday, March 16, 2009

His Aunt's Lokshen Kugel...

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Won't Bring Back My Father or His Cousin Shirley

My cousin Shirley (aka Surah-Rivkeh/Sarah-Rebecca in English), newly of blessed memory -- since Friday -- had a housekeeper in her family's home in Bethesda, Maryland for 25 years, Melede; never before, or since, had I heard of the name. Melede appeared to be Latina; yesterday, she spoke Spanish with her assistant while slicing lokshen kugel during Shirley's shivah.

At the funeral prior, one of Shirley's (z"l) granddaughters was among the eulogists and said that Melede knew how to cook her great-grandmother's [my dad's aunt's] best recipes; Melede was the best cook of Jewish cuisine still left in the family, said the granddaughter, looking at Melede in the pew, sitting devastatedly with her husband among Shirley's kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Back at Shirley's house, I entered the kitchen with my sister Deb and felt my mouth watering, and my eyes welling, as I watched Melede slice generous squares of the sweet, cinnamony side-dish onto a platter.

My mother's idea of Jewish cooking, I've written here before, was to take cooked Tater Tots, flatten them with a fork, and serve them as latkes on Chanukah. I mean no disrespect of my mother, who instilled most of my Jewish values in me, but cooking was not her favorite thing.

Stories Did Bring Him Least for an Afternoon

"Your dad was a talent," said one of his prom-dates, and another sitting next to her said, "He was clever in everything: Once, he wrote me a card, 'Congraduations!' as a graduation-wish."

"He [made up a fictional product] and wrote a slogan, 'Hotsy-totsy Toilet Paper -- Comes in three colors: Pink, Blue and Bourdeux.'"

I added, "He called his alma mater, the 'Rhode Island School of Desire' --"

"That was your father...."

"Were you the girl whose mother wondered if my father were Hermann Göring?" I asked. My dad had told me about that. (I just saw the photo in Wikipedia, and he did look like a bit like him when young.)

"It was my grandmother, and I don't even know how she knew, since we didn't have TV back then, but your father showed up for the prom in his ROTC uniform with a saber on his side and he was so tall, with such a broad chest...." The woman actually looked off in the distance as she spoke of my dad, Her husband of 60+ years was sitting right across from her(!), and he was a great sport.

We spoke more about their youth, and how they were part of an especially culturally-aware and engaged Jewish milieu. One of the women said, "We spoke what was known as 'literarischen(sp?) Yiddish'."

"My mom always said that my dad spoke 'the king's Yiddish.'"

"And I'll tell you something else: Your grandfather and my father both owned grocery stores. My father loved his business; he would tickle the carrots....As a kid, I would be in your grandfather's store and I saw that for him, it was just a way to feed his family; he sat there on boxes, writing poetry."

"I have a leather-bound book of his poems," I said.

"I knew it," she said, satisfied at her precocious powers of perception.

Not having my own kids, I am not conscious of the role of genes in a daily way, and so this was extra-special, to be reminded of my father's and grandfather's literary gifts; typically, I think that I love to write because my mom was a journalist. I guess I can thank both sides of my family for my writing-desire, if not for great cooking-sense....

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