Never Forgetting Sarah

I was thinking about my friend Lillian Ross last week as I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge on my way north to an enzyme bath and massage in an outdoor Japanese tea house in Occidental. (I was celebrating freedom after submitting my manuscript for a book on families and family life.) Lillian’s the one who, when asked by her children what she wanted on her 70th birthday, told them that she always had this desire to walk across the bridge with them.

Lillian is a pixie with Jungian wisdom. I wrote a column about her in 1992 for the Los Angeles Times. She began writing children’s books after her 60th birthday, with titles such as “Buba Leah and Her Paper Children” — the tale of an old shtetl woman whose only contact with her children in America were the letters they wrote to her. Every time Buba Leah read a letter, she kissed it and thanked God that her children had not forgotten her.

I thought about Lillian’s Buba Leah character a week later, while I sat on the floor of my kitchen and examined my grandmother’s Passover dishes — the Depression-blue glass dishes and the plain, white Syracuse china plates that I see at the Santa Cruz crafts fair selling for prices my Grandmother Sarah would never pay. I picked up her blue-and-white tea cup, made in Japan, and I can picture her holding it as she sat at her small Formica kitchen table (also on sale at the crafts fair), sipping Lipton’s and eating honey cake. I kissed the cup as Buba Leah kissed her letters, and I thanked God for the memories of Sarah.

Simon & Schuster may have my work, but I am Sarah’s girl, and Passover was our holiday. Pesach was the only time I was allowed to help her in the kitchen — a room entered by family members while looking over their shoulders.

My grandmother was the culinary commander in chief. If I asked her what she made for supper, she’d say, “Supper.” If I asked her what kind of meat, she’d snap, “Meat.” But Passover was different. Together, we scraped the scales off the fish given to my Uncle Al from guys with hooks who worked the docks of New York. We washed the dishes that now decorate my table. We brushed the crumbs out of shelf corners.

Sarah never shared her kitchen with her five daughters or her other granddaughters. Today, 15 years after her death, I am the only one of Sarah’s girls who makes a seder. This year, the California wing of the family decided to have the seder earlier than the rest of the Jewish population so that we could be together. I actually thought, “What would Sarah say about this?” Besides having to eat the bread of affliction for two extra days, would she disapprove? “Whoever enlarges upon the telling of the exodus from Egypt, those persons are praiseworthy.”

Sarah never shared her kitchen with her five daughters or her other granddaughters. Today, 15 years after her death, I am the only one of Sarah’s girls who makes a seder.

Seated at my seder table, drinking wine from the same navy-blue glasses I used to abuse Manischewitz from, were three of Sarah’s grandchildren, their spouses, a great-great-granddaughter (my daughter) and my granddaughter. The youngest who knew Hebrew was Julia, my daughter.

We sang “Hinei Ma Tov,” and everyone sat down. I lit the candles; we told the story of the Exodus. Seventeen years ago, Julia asked why this night was different from any other night, and she asked again. She never hesitated — the words came through her, not with the speed of a 13-year-old anxious to get it over with, but with a joy that made us all feel connected to one another. My brother hid the afikomen, and my granddaughter, Kaya, found it. My cousin Hattie jangled the tambourine I brought back from a trip to Egypt as we sang songs, and my sister-in-law Alana made sure that we didn’t make any mistakes.

When we opened the door for Elijah and Miriam, I read a Chassidic saying: “If you always assume that the person sitting next to you is the Messiah waiting for some simple human kindness, you will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands, and if the Messiah then chooses not to appear in your time, it will not matter.”

Sarah’s children had not forgotten her.

Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out this fall from Simon & Schuster.

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