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A Safe Distance

(by Marian Leah Knapp)

My mother, Anne, was quite young when her mother, Minnie, stopped taking care of her. A Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe in 1891, Minnie birthed 11 children and lost three from accidents or illnesses. My mom was next to the youngest surviving child, but sorrowfully, her mother gradually began to withhold food, banishing her husband and daughter to the basement in the multi-family building where they were renters. There was a makeshift stove where my grandfather would prepare greasy food for himself and his daughter. My mother chalked up her mother’s rejection to the notion that she had dark hair, whereas her younger sister, Gert, was a blond, and Minnie liked blonds better.

(Mom, aged ten. She hated the hat.)

They lived in East Boston, Massachusetts, on a main street where Minnie rented a little store to sell dry goods—products such as textiles, notions, maybe tobacco. Ultimately, she couldn’t manage it. Customers were afraid of her, especially when she threw glass milk bottles at the occasional car because it was too noisy. I don’t have a photograph of Minnie. There used to be one, but I think my mom “disappeared” it because it brought back too many unpleasant memories. When my mother was a junior in high school—1925—her father moved the family to a Boston neighborhood called Mattapan, which was more suburban and quieter. He thought that taking Minnie away from the noise of East Boston would calm her down. It didn’t make any difference.

Anne’s grandmother, Leah, and grandfather, Abraham, lived in Boston’s West End. When Anne and Gert were old enough to go by themselves, they took the ferry every Friday to their grandparents’ tenement building. When the little girls started making these visits, Leah was about 75 years old and already blind. Knowing that her daughter was not taking care of Anne, she would bathe both of the girls, washing their hair in a metal tub that was set on the floor in the kitchen and was filled with water heated on the cast-iron stove. She cooked dinner and baked thumbprint cookies, even though she couldn’t see. My middle name, Leah, honors her.

I don’t know how my mom learned how to cook. Maybe her grandmother was her inspiration. It was unlikely that Minnie did much teaching. By nature, my mother was a problem solver. To get through her difficult childhood, she purposely and firmly decided not to let her mother’s irrational behavior get to her. If she did, she realized, she “…could go crazy too.”

My mom tolerated her mother, visited when she could, and helped her when needed, but I think she learned early on that she had to distance herself from her mother. A telling memory for me is that when my brother was about to have his bar mitzvah, I urged my mother to invite Minnie. I was 11 years old. She was my only grandparent; all my friends had grandparents, and I wanted one. My mom was resistant because she knew how disruptive Minnie could be, but she gave in, bought her mother a new dress, and read her the riot act. I remember her shaking her finger and saying something like, “You’d better behave yourself.” I think my mom saw that Minnie was mentally ill and didn’t have control over her behavior. She just tucked her childhood into the recesses of her psyche and moved on in her regular, practical way.

My mom loved her grandparents and remained close to them until their deaths—Leah at age 94 (married for 75 of those years). Minnie died at age 86, when I was 18. I visited her with my parents a few times, but had no relationship with her. She was unpredictable and scary, and living in a protected residence.

(My great-grandparents)

I think that my mom’s practical persona helped her figure out how to cook. She had a small metal box that held four-by-six index cards on which she typed or pasted clipped recipes. In the “Desserts/Cookies” section, there are recipes for Oatmeal Cookies, Peanut Butter Cookies, Chocolate Chip Cookies and Bars, and Various Brownies, but no Thumbprint Cookies. I have no idea what my great-grandmother’s recipe was, but Leah probably would have used vegetable shortening, not butter, following the kosher rule: no dairy with meat.

I have my mother’s recipe box. It sits in a cabinet in my dining room. I don’t go to it very often—mostly when I am cooking something that has become part of my own family tradition. But the recipe cards tell something about who she was. She frequently named the source of the recipes—for example, “Sour Cream Caraway Cookie - Community Cook Book,” or “Pin Wheel Cookies from Sara M.” She would type or write suggestions to enhance a recipe—more or less salt, substitutes, or the size of cookies (“Don’t make too big!”). She sometimes kept track of who liked what. On her Hamantaschen recipe card, she typed her daughter's husband’s name (noting that he preferred prune filling), and then crossed it out when they got divorced.

The recipe I use most frequently is for Passover Bagels, which my mom typed and then annotated. As was typical, she named a source; this time it was herself: “Annie G.” The process is similar to making choux pastry, except with the substitution of matzah meal for flour. But over many years, I have learned that if I don’t follow each and every instruction, the bagels don’t come out right. If I do everything as she says, they’re great. If I don’t, they cave in.

My mother lived to be 95 years old, about the same longevity as her grandmother. We were very close, and I took care of her over many years until her death in a nursing home in 2003. She sat for a number of years waiting for and wanting death. It wasn’t morbid, just realistic. She was done with living. As she continued to age, I would visit almost every day to talk and sing with her. Then she stopped eating. I figured that she didn’t like the food, so I brought one of her favorites—egg salad. I offered it to her, reminding her that she loved it. She closed her mouth and not-so-gently slapped my hand away. I recoiled in astonishment; she was such a gentle person. She didn’t or couldn’t say it, but her vehement gesture implied, “Leave me alone, I am ready to go.” Her act forced me to acknowledge that she was prepared for her death, but I was not. I was the one who had to let go. She died a short time later, perhaps knowing that she had convinced me to accept her departure.

Her wisdom, guidance, and enormous pragmatism are still with me. I think about her a lot and her powerful, no-nonsense legacy—especially when her Passover bagels come out exactly as she intended.


Marian Leah Knapp is a writer and community activist. Her latest book is South Providence GIrls: A Clique in Time. Her book Prohibition Wine: A True Story of One Woman’s Daring in Twentieth-Century America, is about her widowed paternal grandmother who sold illegal alcohol during Prohibition to feed herself and her six children. She is also the author of Aging in Places: Reflective Preparation for the Future, A Steadfast Spirit: The Essence of Caregiving, and with Vivien Goldman, The Outermost Cape: Encountering Time. For more than ten years, she has written a regular column for the Newton Tab. When she was 64 years old, she went back to school to obtain a Ph.D. and passed her dissertation defense right before her 70th birthday. She lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Passover Bagels

1/2 c. oil

1 c. water

2 T. sugar

1/4 t. salt

1 1/2 c. matzo meal

4 extra large eggs

margarine or butter for greasing pan

Bring oil, water, sugar, and salt to boil.

Lower heat and add matzo meal, mixing well.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Grease a cookie sheet with margarine or butter.

Drop batter by heaping tablespoons on cookie sheet.

With finger dipped in cold water, make a dent in the middle of each bagel.

Set aside for 15 minutes.

Bake for 40 – 45 minutes.

Turn off oven, leaving door slightly ajar, and leave bagels for 5 minutes more.

Remove from oven and continue to cool on a rack.

Makes 9 or 10 sandwich-sized bagels; can be made smaller.


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