Old memories come out of storage each year.
Like the children of Israel leaving Egypt, the dishes emerge from the darkness of the Rubbermaid bins at the back of my garage, launching a reunion with long-gone relatives who come rushing across the parted sea into my patient, waiting arms. Slowly, I unfurl the newspaper wrapping and announce Pesach’s arrival in my home.
My thoughts are of childhood seders, when we would crowd into my grandparents’ Bronx apartment, encircling a table that spent the rest of the year pushed against a wall in the entryway. On Pesach, though, it made its way to the center of the living room, where the narrow surface was miraculously unfolded and extended and widened to seat whatever number of us had gathered together.
I delighted in Grandpa’s presence as he reigned from his easy chair at the head of the table. Conducting much of the seder in an undertone, he would cue us when to dip the karpas vegetables, when to eat the maror and when to ask the Four Questions. I sat there, lulled into a trance by his Hebrew muttering, the mysterious melodies and the aromas emanating from the kitchen.
During the meal, Grandpa would amuse us between courses with songs from the Vaudeville act he once had with two of his brothers. My eyes would flit between his antics and the knaidlach bobbing in and out of the chicken soup, served in real China bowls even to the children. Brisket followed, joined by a bountiful feast of delicious Yiddish recipes from the Old Country — chremslach, meichel, ingberlach — along with the nachas my grandparents took in having us all there together.
All too suddenly, the time came for Grandpa and Grandma to hand off the seder-making reins, as their mutual health began to ebb and her time was devoted almost exclusively to his care. His strength fled right on the heels of his memory, leaving me desperate to preserve my own — of his magical silliness and his love — while struggling to keep the newer images — of his frailty and his inability to know who we all were — at bay.
Nearly forgotten at the back of her infinitely deep bedroom closets, Grandma’s Pesach dishes grew weary from disuse in warped cardboard boxes, but their sadness was eclipsed by Grandpa’s death. I mourned him. I mourned the loss of those enchanted holiday evenings in their apartment. I mourned the silver trim and dainty pink flowers on those dishes that represented everything blessed and beautiful in my childhood.
Years later, a few months after my wedding, Grandma rang me early in the day and asked me, with a rarely employed urgency in her voice, to take the train up to the Grand Concourse that evening. Curious and concerned, I entered the apartment to find her in the bedroom, at the back of one of those unending closets, dragging out the treasured stories stashed away with the Pesach pots and pans.
I listened as she reminisced about seders we had celebrated together, about those led by her father when she was still a young girl and the first ones with Grandpa. She talked about her mother, too, who bequeathed to me a remarkable legacy and a Yiddish name, and that night, a shallow chopping bowl and a mixing spoon.
Trembling, I opened my palms to accept Grandma’s nutcracker that had reduced thousands of walnuts to bits for charoset and the manual eggbeater, bent from her firm grip. But it was the folder of recipes, written in her distinctive hand on the backs of envelopes and pantyhose packaging, that finally broke me as I considered the inevitability of her passing from this world into the next.
By the time that day arrived, she had already missed several seders, simply too weak to join us those last few seasons of her life. No one would ever fill her place at the table, but I could still speak with her in the weeks leading up to the holiday, seeking seder-making advice and the chance to hear her crackling laugh just one more time.
Now that she has gone, the first things I unpack when I set to cooking are the items she herself once used to make Pesach — a spoon that remains from her mother’s silver service, a sifter, the nutcracker — and gently lay them out on the counter. With the eggbeater, I froth egg whites into snow-capped peaks, working the crank around and around, as if I could turn back the hands of time at the moment when I miss her most.
While the soup boils in her stockpot, I set the table with her delicate, white porcelain, my finger tracing the floral garlands tied in ribbon. I deploy Grandpa’s kiddush cup to the center of the table for Eliyahu Hanavi. After so many rounds of packing and unpacking, the pedestal on which it rests leans to the side, as we all do when we drink the four cups of wine, like royalty, as he was for me.
I sigh exultantly, placing a dinner plate where my husband, my children, my parents, and my guests will each sit. My mother arrives in time to light candles.
Another year together, she offers, admiring the table. Another year without them, I respond.
Merri Ukraincik is a freelance writer and professional artist who lives in Edison, N.J., with her husband and their boys.