It was the first Thanksgiving after my father’s death. The gathering of family from coast to coast that once seemed both automatic and mandatory was not going to happen this year. There had been too many trips back and forth during the two intense months of my dad’s illness. Too many anxious long distance phone calls, full of the effort of trying to find the right words that might help put my mother together again. Everyone was tired. Those that were far away were staying put. My grown up daughter and I plunged into the traffic headed north out of New York. We would spend the holiday with my mother. And we needed a plan for getting through it.
“Let’s ask Granma to teach us how to make rugelach,” my daughter suggested. Rugelach is a delicious Jewish confection made by rolling special dough in a mixture of sugar, nuts and cinnamon, cutting it into small triangles and carefully forming the triangles into snail-shaped pastries. It is time consuming to prepare and bake, and my mother didn’t do it often anymore, but she had a well-deserved reputation for her rugelach. When I brought up the idea, she was characteristically negative about it. “It’s too much work,” she said. “And we certainly don’t need the calories.” For once I glossed over her objections and told her to get the ingredients ready. I was desperate for a shared activity.
The rugelach recipe was written on a lined 4X6-index card, yellowing with age and stained with fingerprints of ancient dough. “Frieda Schankopf” was written in my mother’s handwriting in the upper right hand corner of the card and underlined twice. “Who is Frieda Schankopf?” I asked as we started gathering up the ingredients, “I thought this was Grandma Gertie’s recipe?” My mother didn’t answer. She was frantically searching the kitchen cupboards for the bowl that she used the last time she made rugelach.
“How about this one, Ma,” I ventured, holding a large Pyrex bowl for her inspection. “It looks about right.” My mother added the bowl to the growing jumble on the table with an exasperated sigh. “Let me do this,” she hissed at me. “I know what I’m looking for.”
I poured myself a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove and looked around the kitchen. The appliances were green—avocado green—and the floor covered in heavy linoleum tiles in a gold and white design. Around the edges, there were signs of wear—little cracks and tiny pieces chipped away. There was no brown-skinned turkey overflowing with Pepperidge Farm stuffing, no candied yams waiting for their turn in the oven.
My mother paused in her frenzied search in the front of the only window in the kitchen, which looked out on a small brook. The ducks had long since departed and the forsythia bushes that lined the banks were bare. The only sound in the room came from my mother’s plastic reading glasses, which she was rhythmically clicking open and closed. My mother, who never leaves the house without make-up and matching accessories, was wearing a green polka-dotted cotton robe and pink slippers. The robe, worn thin along her spine and torn in places, hung just above the knees, exposing her thin legs, the skin dry and almost translucent. It was hard to tell what she was looking at — maybe the brook, maybe the array of bowls spread about on the counter tops and table, maybe something no one else could possibly see.
We had made a reservation for three at La Trattoria, a family owned bistro nestled between the video store and the pharmacy in a strip mall near my mother’s condo. Our table was jammed in between two large family groups who were noisily passing huge bowls of mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce. An elderly couple faced each other silently across a small table by the window, nibbling listlessly at their food. In front of each table sat turkeys of varying sizes, some carved down to the bone, others majestically awaiting the quicksilver knife of the proprietor who moved from table to table, greeting guests and carving white or dark meat onto their plates. I missed our old Thanksgiving. I missed my father, slightly ridiculous in a flowered apron, and the pleasure of stealing a perfectly crisp piece of turkey skin from the platter as he carved in the kitchen
After the first course, my daughter excused herself to go to the ladies room. My mother picked at her salad and, paused for a moment with the wine list in her hand. I held my breath, trying not to meet her eyes. But she ordered a diet coke. My mother was not drinking today. I was relieved and grateful, but still could not think of a single safe topic of conversation. Instead, I was drawn into fragments of dialogue from the tables around us and began imagining the tangled relationships of the other families with whom we were sharing our first public Thanksgiving.
The waiter snapped a group photo of the large family at the table behind us, and my eye caught on a young girl in the center. She was 13, maybe 14, slim with long, dark hair, flawless skin, smiling radiantly into the camera. I wondered what it would be like to be so beautiful and confident at that age–to be in the center of an admiring family.
It was only 5 o’clock when we finished our pumpkin pie and coffee. As we headed out into the gathering darkness, I reminded my mother that we would finish making the rugelach when we got home. This was my plan for getting through the long hours till bedtime.
The kitchen was cold and dark on our return from the restaurant, with bowls of every size and shape scattered across the counters and table. It seemed impossible that just a year ago this kitchen was filled with smells and sounds of a family Thanksgiving dinner in preparation, made even more special than usual by the celebration of my father’s 80th birthday.
We had gathered everyone — uncles and aunts, and cousins seldom seen. The traditional dinner was topped off by a mocha cake, splendidly decorated with orange and red frosting roses and set ablaze by the eighty candles that my son and his girlfriend insisted on placing across its surface. The look on my father’s face, lit by the candles that marked his years, was one of pure joy. He had survived two quadruple bypass surgeries in 12 years and was slowing down, but the final devastating illness that would take him away from us a few months later was not visible on that day. Halfway through the after dinner sprawl, before TV football took over, my father bolted upstairs to retrieve his latest letter to the editor. He wrote letters to the editor of the local paper on a wide range of topics ranging from the threat of nuclear war to his pet peeves about local sports coverage. We were frequently treated to letter readings at family gatherings. This latest offering had actually been published.
Where is he now, I wondered, as I watched my mother pace around the kitchen? It seemed too late to withdraw from our rugelach-making plan and I didn’t have the words to stop my mother’s frantic spin. If my father were here he would give her one of his looks: “For God sakes, Ruby, cut it out.”
Late in the evening of that first Thanksgiving without my father we finally found a bowl that would do for making the rugelach and carefully rolled each delicate pastry. The tantalizing smell of cinnamon drifted through the house. I wandered upstairs to sort through some of my father’s papers and photos, reading his letters to the editor through a mist of tears. My mother lay on the edge of her king-size bed, dozing, with the TV on too loud and her pink slippers still on her feet. The last batch of rugelach burned and had to be tossed in the trash.
In the morning, as we packed the car to head back to New York, we finally had a laugh. “They’re not my best,” my mother said as she handed me the tin full of rugelach. This is the family code—a shared memory from a long-ago time. “It’s not my best,” my Russian grandmother, the original rugelach maker, always said as she set before us a steaming bowl of cabbage. “It’s not my best” as she placed a plate of brisket and potatoes swimming in savory juices on the table. “It’s not my best” as she cut a slice of her richly delicious sour cream coffee cake.
Not my best.
And for whom, I always wondered on the way home from our Sunday visits, is she saving her best?