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Gefilte Fish and Ham

(by May Kesler)

My mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was ten or eleven, chestnut curls draping my face as I further hid by sitting in a corner of her room. I was untangling a necklace.

"I dunno," I mumbled my answer, feeling too confronted even though I did want to talk about it.

Still, my mother gently persisted. "A pianist? An interior decorator?" she suggested more gently.

"No, I don't think so, " I answered, surprisingly sure of myself. "I want to help people through movement, not medicine. I don't want to sit at a desk. I want to help people help themselves."

That declaration stopped the conversation short. My mom pressed her lips together, a forefinger touching the bottom one, where a quiet “Hmmmm” vibrated in her throat. I might have said I wanted to dance, but I knew already that would result in a lot of higher pitched strained words thrown at me, none of which I wanted to hear.

So I didn't say more, and my mother remarked again on my long fingers (they weren't), and how gracefully they moved (true). There's still nothing more calming to me than feeling the curve of my arm and how it connects to the lines of softly moving sinew in my hands, as I plié to ballet music. I access that every day, defining myself as a dancer and a physical therapist now.

With everything she did, my mother made it work, but she was not a cook. She tried, but had no patience for it, and neither did I. I throw things together and see what fits, then filter out the odd pieces. So did she. I remember she asked me to help her make Swedish meatballs for a cocktail party. I read her the recipe, but without stopping. That resulted in the ingredients dumped in a bowl, resembling nothing close to meatballs.

She was good at being a doctor, and as much as I wish I had had more of her, I was proud of her. I had a pencil, yellow with black lettering, reading "A gift from your doctor.” I put a piece of paper over that that said "mother."

My mother was both. She was a Holocaust survivor, a Harvard Medical School graduate (before women were acknowledged and accepted as MDs), married to another Holocaust survivor and an MIT graduate. She was the mother of four kids within ten years, a refugee, an immigrant, a Polish Jew. She came to the United States as a 23-year-old woman, on her own, starting life over in a land where she didn’t know the language. She was a sexual abuse survivor. She had red hair and freckles, and a loud infectious laugh that I would kill to hear again.

Closest thing to it was the voice of my aunt, her sister, but that was taken from me too. Around ten years ago, I called her as I usually did, and she said, "I can't talk to you now," and hung up.

That was the last time we spoke. My cousins, her sons, hadn't talked to us in decades either, though we had all enjoyed family BBQs and pool parties together before that, and cocktail parties where we snuck leftover champagne and kosher pigs-in-a-blanket, and more than our share of those Swedish meatballs.

My aunt's shunning of me was confusing, as there had been terrible times in my life (I was raped) when she had listened to me talk out my anxieties, coaxing me back to living. And she went shopping with me to choose a pretty floral skirt and blouse to wear at my engagement party. She met my daughter at six weeks old, and gushed over how beautiful she was. She held her, and looked into her blue eyes with her amber ones, fondly straightening my baby's velvet and lace gown. She knew that she was channeling my mom, that she was the surrogate. Perhaps she didn’t want to be.

She told me the story over and over about how at age 11, at the start of the Holocaust, she had gotten separated from the rest of the family. She realized she had to escape the ghetto she was trapped in, and fled to a church, saved by nuns hiding her. When I was a young adult, we visited for her Passover/Easter dinner, sitting down to gefilte fish, then ham. I wasn't sure what to make of that. One judgment after another chipped away at the comfort of love and acceptance. I didn't care what religion she practiced, but she believed that I did. I had the overwhelming desire to find the connection in curves of matching hands and the sparkle of matching jewelry, the familiar lilt of voice, and the drape of hair and dress over roundness of hips, regardless of size. I longed to see where her auburn and gray hair salted, as it might have been on my mother's, as it is now on mine.

My mother had cancer for over five years and died when I was 17. My dad died a few months ago. And my aunt died too, just a few weeks ago. I never saw what she looked like as she aged—she severed the connection with that crisp and cutting phone call. I don’t know now how I might look as the years pass. It will all have to be an improvisation of sorts, putting it all out there and filtering out the irrelevant parts.

So these mysteries of what I will be when I grow up remain unsolved. I wander into my daughter's room. She's grown now, home from college, having spent the last three days dying her hair the most startling and glorious shade of blue cornflowers, smelling faintly like blueberries as I come closer. She's sleepy, all warm and cozied up with the cat at her chest and the dog at her feet. She just got her Covid booster, and my arm aches a little in empathy for her. I hand her a bowl of chicken soup from the deli down the street and say, “Here you go, sweets, eat.”


May Kesler is a licensed physical and massage therapist in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She can be found at,, and on Facebook.

Swedish Meatballs

(adapted from The New York Times Cook Book)

2 T. butter, plus additional for frying

3 T. minced onion

1 c. fresh bread crumbs

1 c. milk

3/4 lb. ground beef

1/4 lb. ground veal

1/4 lb. ground pork

1 egg, beaten

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 c. flour, divided

3/4 c. cream

In a large skillet, melt butter and sauté onion until golden brown.

In a large bowl, soak bread crumbs in milk.

Add ground beef, veal, and pork.

Mix in browned onion, egg, salt and pepper.

Shape into 1 1/2-in. balls.

Roll balls in flour, reserving 1 T.

Over medium heat, melt enough additional butter in the skillet to cover the bottom, and brown the meatballs, shaking the pan occasionally so they keep their shape.

Remove to a serving dish and keep warm.

Combine the reserved 1 T. flour with the cream, and whisk into the pan juices.

Simmer 3 - 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve sauce over meatballs.

Serves 6.


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