(by Deborah Weiss)
I stood graveside while the rabbi recited kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, for my favorite uncle. Lost in reminiscing about the past, I felt someone’s arms around my waist. When I turned my head, it was my aunt’s BFF, and she was tying her shawl around me.
“Your trousers split,” she whispered in my ear.
The day only got weirder.
My sister, brother, and I had flown to Detroit for the funeral, where our mother had just spent the last days with her brother. In her late 70s, Mom still exuded energy. She had traveled from Los Angeles every six weeks to support her brother through his battle with cancer. She never stopped moving and never looked back. It was her way of coping. She had been this way since she was 38 and my dad died. As a pre-teen, I blamed her for Dad’s death—really just an irrational response to losing him to pancreatic cancer. (Maybe I expected her to save him since moms are supposed to fix everything.)
I spoke to Mom multiple times a day, making sure that she knew I was there for her. But as is her way, she kept busy, keeping track of her 14 grandchildren, playing mah jongg, helping out friends, refusing to acknowledge grief.
From the cemetery, we returned to my uncle’s house to sit shiva, the ritual of spiritual healing when mourners receive condolence calls for the seven days following a funeral. In the living room, Mom and her sister Carole sat as far away from each other as possible. They’d had a strained relationship for years, although I could never pin down what caused the rift since Mom got along with everyone. Their falling-out tainted my relationship with Aunt Carole, so we had not talked in years. The house wasn’t big enough to avoid her so, with the shawl still tied around my waist, I walked over to say hello.
She threw her arms around me and gushed, “Why has it been so long?” I wanted to say, “You were always mad about something.” But instead, I said, “Well, going forward, let’s make it happen.”
Then, really out of nowhere, Aunt Carole said, “You know, I have all of Grandma’s recipes.”
When we were kids, my sister and I loved to bake with our grandmother. Mom had no interest in cooking. When she was widowed with four kids, she needed to support a family on a single income, so there was no time to be Julia Child. She cooked everything in the microwave. She would set a plate of chicken pieces on the table, skin pocked as if it was still raw. A puddle of liquid oozing beneath the bird and the fact that it was hot were the only indications that it was cooked. When I refused to touch it, Mom said, “I always make it this way, and you have always liked it.” (Years later, I shuddered when I caught myself saying that exact phrase to my own children.)
But Grandma was a wizard, turning a pinch of this and a shake of that into a mouthwatering extravaganza. Her specialties like brisket bathed in barbeque sauce and her famous lemon meringue pie more than made up for Mom’s culinary shortcomings.
My sister and I thought Grandma’s recipes had died with her nearly 30 years ago. But if we could play the roles of adoring nieces, we had the chance to reconnect with our childhood in Grandma’s kitchen.
Mom was chatting with other mourners and seemed unaware of the conversation with Aunt Carole, but that evening I told her about it. A saccharine sweet smile formed, and she said, “I have wanted those recipes for years.”
The next day, Aunt Carole handed my sister and me some papers clipped together with “Notes From A Jewish Mother” printed on top. The recipes were written in Grandma’s careful cursive, which perfectly outlined each letter before connecting it to the rest of the word. I rifled through recipes for “fast” cabbage soup, sour cream coffee cake, and no-bake fruit pie made with fruit cocktail, canned pineapple, and Cool Whip. There was nothing remotely appetizing to me. Was it possible that Gram relied on memory alone to bake my favorite recipe? But when I reached the last page, I saw it: lemon pie. I couldn’t wait to share the recipes with Mom, even if she wasn’t going to make them.
That afternoon, before heading to the airport, I hugged Aunt Carole and promised to keep in touch. She had given back to me the gift of my grandmother’s love. When I shared the recipes with Mom, she responded, “When are you girls going to make the lemon pie?”
I became obsessed with the pie, but I didn’t want to bake it alone. Part of the magic was baking with Gram, who taught me to wear an apron, to clean up as I went along, and to always add a little extra vanilla. (Also to marry a doctor or lawyer.)
Overcome with anticipation like I had found the map to Blackbeard’s buried treasure, I went to my sister’s house with the recipe, six Meyer lemons from my tree, and cream of tartar.
“To do this right, we need Prosecco,” she said.
And as we separated eggs and grated lemons, we toasted Grandma who had given us such happy memories—not to mention our mom. It was like Grandma’s oven mitt reached up from the grave to bring us together and end the feud between Mom and her sister. Eventually Mom called Aunt Carole, and they got to talking. When Aunt Carole’s husband got sick, Mom flew back to Michigan to be with her.
Deborah Weiss is a Los Angeles-based writer and lecturer in law at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in Salon, Westways Magazine, and The Independent, among others. She is currently working on a World War II-era novel.
Gracie’s Lemon Pie
2 c. water
1 1/2 c. sugar + 3 T.
7 T. cornstarch
1 T. butter
juice and rind of 3 lemons
4 eggs, separated
9-in. pre-baked pie crust
1 t. cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Place water and 1 1/2 c. sugar in a saucepan, and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium.
Mix cornstarch with a little cold water to dissolve, and add to the pan, stirring until thickened.
Stir in butter.
Add lemon juice and grated rind, and remove from heat.
In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks.
Add a few spoonfuls of the warm lemon mixture to the egg yolks.
Over medium-low heat, slowly add egg yolk mixture to the pan, whisking until thickened.
Pour into pie crust.
With a handheld or stand mixer, beat egg whites with 3 T. sugar.
Add cream of tartar, and continue to beat until stiff.
Spoon over pie filling, spreading to the edges of the crust.
Bake until golden brown, approximately 20 minutes.
Let cool for 2 hours, then refrigerate, loosely covered.