Carrie M. O'Connor
LITANY FOR A MOTHER MAKING KUGEL
The Shekinah, the Sabbath Queen, came to my house every Friday night when I was a child. I envisioned her in white satin wearing a resplendent tiara on black curls created by foam rollers and Dippity Do. She remained ever a fantasy because I always feel asleep waiting for her blessing.
I had my mother to thank that she came at all. My ima, my pretty little mother, made a portal for the holy one through her cooking, tireless cleaning, and Manischewitz candles.
Forty years have passed and my mother still serves as high priestess at her altarŅ the kitchen butcher block. My mother has moved into her new condominium, which provides smaller kitchen space. She doesn't mind because the polished stainless steel enchants her and the fresh white paint reminds her of possibility.
The Realtor knew that she had sold the unit when my mother brushed her hand across the granite countertops and said enthusiastically that the kitchen is the center of the home.
Divorced and childless, I spend most of my time on my living room sofa thumbing through Talbots catalogues while sipping Kendall Jackson. My mother prefers a cup of Folgers at her kitchen table, where she studies A Cook's Wares, comparing the prices of food processors and industrial meat grinders.
She doesn't need these things to perfect her craft. At 72, she juliennes carrots with such grace that a sushi chef would nod his head in acknowledgement. She longs for better appliances to make greater quantities of matzo apple tea cakes for shut-ins, brownies for my nephews and hamantaschen at Purim for the synagogue sisterhood.
The need to produce vast quantities of food escalated after my father died 10 years ago and my brother, Henry, already married to his legal practice, took his wife. My mother's baking compulsion is met every few days when she levels a cup of flour into a Pyrex bowl, adds the yeast water and turns the dough on the counter to knead it.
Her spatula-shaped hands are strong, like those of a woman who works the earth, which is odd because she is thin, and bony. When I squeeze my mother's hands, I feel relief, because I feel life. I am always afraid we will lose my mother to the breast cancer that appeared six years ago.
This fear is intensified by the number of friends I have who live with the disease and the fact that I had my first biopsy last week, which thank the God above, was benign. I say this was my first biopsy because I'm a realist.
The etiology of this mystery illness, this wild-eyed Jack, eludes me. I have spent hours reading the scholarly literature, surfing the Internet, and staring into X-ray screens, trying to understand.
I once liked the New Age philosophy that one created an illness with negative thought patterns. How wonderful to be ultimately responsible for the formation of runaway cells, who, like children, need discipline and structure. But when I look into my mother's face, I can't blame her. And the fact that there is no one or nothing to blame is excruciating, at times, for both of us.
It is still difficult to talk about the cancer. She never liked to discuss anything related to the female anatomy. She gave me a book about the facts of life at puberty. She delivers her thoughts related to sexuality with absolute stoicism.
Last year, I overheard her tell my Aunt Pesche, in hushed tones, that summer camps, boarding schools, and women's colleges lead to "practicing homosexuality." Fortunately, for all involved, I practice heterosexuality, but occasionally with nonJews. I keep this, my penchant for Zen Buddhism, and my intense dislike for my mother's kugel a secret. Some things are better left unsaid and I rehearse this mantra every Friday night when I come to my mother's home for Shabbat dinner.
Tonight, my mother lights the candles and says the blessing. This act is holy to me, not because it is a commandment. When I hear the match strike and my mother speaks in Hebrew, I imagine my foremothers encircling me and joining hands as they utter a call to God. These primal symbols of connection sustain me.
Traditionally, the Shabbat table conversation should focus on connections made to God through Torah. Even if we speak of spiritual matters, my mother and I become engaged like two Kenpo students on the mat. If I try to walk away, she pulls at my gi until I face her.
She throws the first jab.
"I'm going to get a girl to start cleaning for Passover. Do you want her to come over to your place, which by the way could use a good cleaning?"
"Why? We never do this. We aren't Kosher."
"This year, I'm going to do this. Mrs. Shapiro says this girl is very good."
"Mrs. Shapiro is a nut case."
"She is a very devout woman."
"She eats fried shrimp on paper plates and has cream in her coffee after the meat plates are cleared. She makes her own rules."
"Ach. It's the heart that counts."
She has performed an effective downward block. Ellen Shapiro is indeed sincere and the state of one's heart is very important to my mother. When she was sick, she worked so hard at keeping a good heart that I ached, while honoring her at the same time. During chemotherapy, and surgery, it wasn't enough to just say polite words and get out of bed every morning. She made a fashion statement with colorful angora caps, joked and gossiped with visiting neighbors as she shared cookies, her personal affirmation of life.
My mother repositions her stance, calculating her next move. She delivers a spinning back kick and I am unprepared.
"So, I hear that you had surgery," she says coolly.
"I had a biopsy."
"And I have to hear this from my son's wife."
My mother does not understand her daughter-in-law, who has two closets filled with designer clothes, attends yoga daily and leads Bunco parties.
"I asked Rebekah to take me because she has more time than she knows what to do with."
This outward block buys me time. I cut my kugel into little pieces and pretend to eat it. I wind a particularly long noodle around my fork.
"I always have time for you, Ericka. And why didn't you have a needle biopsy?"
"Because I didn't."
"Now you have a scar. You're a young woman. You shouldn't have scars."
My mother pours herself another glass of Kedem wine and takes a long sip. She purses her lips together and grips the back of her chair.
"Ericka, are you afraid of getting the cancer?"
She has left herself vulnerable. I could finish the match with one roundhouse kick. But I just walk off the mat and glide my hands through the air in a bow.
I take in the scent of burning candles and breathe deeply. This gives me the strength to pull my shoulders back and look her in the eye. I only need to pretend for three minutes.
"No, Ma. I'm not afraid. I'm more concerned about my stock portfolio and how my garden is going to look next month."
"Because it's not like before, you know, these implant things. Your cousin had it done and she didn't even have the cancer. Imagine."
My mother frantically takes another sip of wine and I cannot hold back my laughter.
So, it is tonight, on Erev Shabbat, that I let her cut an extra large piece of kugel and package it. I clasp the brown paper bag and kiss her on the cheek. She is my Shekinah, my personal Sabbath queen in black hush puppies and blue polyester, and she has delivered her blessing.
A fourth-generation native of Hawaii, Carrie M. O'Connor has published nonfiction and fiction in Ms. Magazine blog, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Newfound Journal, Bamboo Ridge, Bartleby Snopes, The Vehicle, Wild Violet and other publications. This story was published in 2006 in the print journal Auscult (the Medical College of Wisconsin).