The youngest person present at the Seder table asks: What makes this night different from all other nights? The Red Sea Haggadah.
"Mother, will you make a potato kugel for the Seder tonight? We haven't had your kugel in years."
"Kugel?" Sarah looked puzzled. "Me? Make a kugel?" She frowned at her daughter, wrinkled her nose as if she'd gotten a whiff of a foul smell. Squeezing her eyes shut, she shook her head of freshly tinted, coiffed and sprayed-in-place hair. "No, Ellen. No. I don't want to cook."
It was Passover Eve; Ellen was at home in Scarsdale, expecting the rest of the family for the seder. Sarah was there early, as always, up from New York City.
"Warm Wheat" she'd read from the slip of paper in her purse when Ellen had admired Sarah's new hair shade. "Bernard said the 'Rusty Autumn' made my skin sallow."
"Did I pronounce kugel wrong, Mother?" Ellen brought the bowl of the Jonathan apples she was peeling for the charoses to the table. "Want a piece?"
Sarah inspected the apple pieces. "No. I'm not hungry," then pushed the bowl away. "Besides, kugel is kugel is kugel. How could you pronounce it wrong?" She glanced down at her freshly manicured nails.
"Pearl Pink." she'd quoted earlier from the same slip of paper, pleased that Ellen had commented on her manicure. Sarah prided herself on her beautiful hands, her impeccable grooming. "Attractiveness is my trademark," she often told Ellen.
Ellen's husband, her three grown children, her brother and his family were on their way. She'd spent the past three days polishing silver, changing linen for the house full of sleep-over guests, ironing napkins and the lace tablecloth.
She had mixed feelings about holidays. Growing up, celebrations had not always been happy family gatherings. Festivities came intermittently. Some years, no Passover, no Thanksgiving, no Birthdays-- other years, all the trimmings.
Alternating years of giving thanks along with parties and presents, but then the missing years, when Mother's deep depressions ruled, and everyone's life halted. Their house became silent and cold as a cave. She and her brother, Morris whispered to one another in dark corners, tiptoed apologetically across the hallway to the bathroom; the whole family hibernating like bears.
In Ellen's teen years Sarah began having special Friday night family dinners when she was well: Challah, roast chicken, potato kugel, tall candles, a B'rocha. Funny, they'd hadn't a special night until then. "Where did this custom come from?" Ellen asked her father. "Why didn't we do this always?"
His response was mystifying. Wordless, he rolled his eyes and offered a sheepish shrug. Ellen had wondered if she'd spent the preceding decade asleep in an attic chest, and had just awakened.
On this Passover, Sarah was, as she had been since her husband's death several years ago, a self-appointed critical observer at her daughter's house. Unwilling to participate, arms folded across her chest, gloomy, watching, she made occasional bitter, sarcastic comments. "I see you're still dressing like the farmer's wife, Ellen. And why didn't you get your hair done?"
"I like my hair this way, Mother."
"You never have shown proper respect to me, so I don't expect you'll start now, but don't you respect a sacred occasion?"
"Oh, stop already, Mother."
"You'd think you were brought up in the woods. I sometimes suspect you wear those shlumpy clothes to spite me."
"Mother, I promise I'll dress for seder. I got a new outfit. But let me make the matzoh balls first. I've too much to do to change my clothes right now."
Sarah eyed her daughter doubtfully. "I'd hoped you'd have a keen sense of style because you're my daughter; that choosing tasteful clothes was in the genes. But I guess not."
"Wait till you see my new dress, Mother. I think you'll like it." Actually, Sarah was right. Ellen didn't care about clothes, would never have bought fashionable new ones, except to please her mother. She hadn't developed Sarah's interest in looking elegant. More to the truth, she didn't trust her own judgment; relying on Sarah's good taste, she bought what she thought Sarah would approve of.
"The children ignore me. Not one of them calls or comes to visit like they used to when Daddy was alive." Sarah fingered a pearl necklace. "They admired Daddy. To them, I'm a foolish old lady."
"That's not true, Mother."
"When Daddy was alive, I got respect from my family. We had money then. Daddy was always throwing it around," she reached into her purse. "Now he's gone, the money's gone. You don't earn respect, you know," she said weepily, "That's a myth. You buy it," she blew her nose loudly into a dainty handkerchief, "and I don't have the funds."
"Please, Mother, enough. It's Passover. You're getting yourself, as well as me, all upset."
Sarah wiped her eyes. "I didn't mean to do this. You're right, you know. I promised myself on the train coming up, that I'd be cheerful for the Seder."
"Well then, how about it? Will you make a potato kugel? We all remember your wonderful kugel, Mother. Before Daddy died you often made it on the years we had Seder."
"Again kugel?" Sarah looked alarmed. "What are you talking about? I never did, Ellen. I don't even know how."
"Yes you do!" Ellen insisted, impatient. " Sometimes you can be so difficult. Why don't you want to take part?"
"I never made kugel in my life." She glared at Ellen.
"Look, Mother" Ellen whipped out a crumpled letter. "You sent this recipe to me when Michael and I married. I'd written to you and asked you for it. I've kept it all these years in my recipe box."
Sarah had written, "I know you want my recipes, Ellen, and I pride myself in my cooking but I have never used a recipe. I cook by instinct." In the letter, Sarah had given an overview, the approximate ingredients for a kugel. No measurements. "Grate a few potatos. Add an egg or two, a couple of grated onions, a little Crisco, matzoh meal, baking powder."
"Look Mother, here's your letter. I've saved it."
Sarah looked at the letter, written in her neat, but strangely undecipherable handwriting. She pushed it back into Ellen's hand. "I can't read this," she said angrily. "It's illegible."
"But you wrote it, Mother."
"The handwriting. It's impossible."
Ellen was exasperated. "Then I'll read it to you."
"No. I told you I don't want to cook," Sarah said. "I just had my nails done. And my hair. I didn't get all dressed up, my hair, my nails, and schlep a suitcase to Grand Central, take the train to Scarsdale to cook for you. I don't even want to be in the kitchen." She stood up and headed for the door.
"Tell you what," said Ellen, blocking her path, "We'll do it together. How about it, Mom?" She swiftly began getting out the ingredients.
" Well, I'll watch," Sarah sat down again reluctantly.
Ellen started grating and her mother watched. She added an egg, the dry ingredients, the seasoning, all the while reading aloud Sarah's written words. She put the greased Pyrex in the oven.
Suddenly, Sarah called out in a quavering voice," Wait a minute. Wait." "What, Mother?"
"Now I remember. You have to put a lot of Crisco on the top of the kugel so the crust will brown nicely."
Ellen looked at her mother, now eagerly smiling at her, proudly. "And a very hot oven, dear," she added. Slowly, her eyes clouded again and she looked away.
"You really don't remember how to make a kugel, Mother?"
"I don't." Sarah began to tremble. "And I'm so frightened." Ellen sat down silently; she didn't know what to say.
"I know what everyone says," Sarah dabbed at her eyes, "that when you get older you lose your memory a little. Everyone does. But this is something more than that... I know it is, because of what happened to Grandma," she closed her eyes, "but there are some things from long ago I do remember, clear as yesterday," she brightened, a little, "like what Daddy said when proposed to me," she began to giggle, "if I married him, he told me, I could have everything I ever wanted, that we would have a ping pong table in the living room if I wanted."
Ellen smiled. "He adored you, Mother."
"Your father, what a character. He was a gawky teenager back then. His mother, his sisters were crazy about him. So spoiled. Handsome. Tall."
"My handsome Daddy."
"Things from the past I remember quite well. And I can still do a crossword puzzle. I don't know why."
"You can still do a crossword? Well that's something. But you don't...."
"No. I don't remember things. I don't remember how to cook. I'm so frightened." She grabbed Ellen's hand. "Promise me you won't tell anybody."
"I won't, Mom, but.."
"Your father and I put Grandma in a home when she forgot how to do things. She was just about my age. When I went to visit her the next day, she lay in bed, her face a blank. When she saw me walk into her room, she turned to the wall. She died a few days later. I never got to say good-bye."
Ellen remained silent, stroking her mother's hand.
"You won't put me in a home, Ellen, will you?"
"Of course not, Mom." She held her mother for a long while. She didn't know what else to say.
The living room clock chimed. Guests would soon be arriving. "Time for me to get dressed, Mother. Come up with me. I want to show you my new outfit." She put her arm around Sarah's shoulders. "I think you'll like it."
Sandy Steinman's Biography: I began writing poems, essays, one-act plays and short stories seven years ago, after ten years of teaching Fine Art Photography at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Five of my short plays have been produced at local colleges and a sixth will be presented in a short play festival this April. "Then and Now" a book of poems and prose was written and self-published in 1998 along with poet Larry Drake. This April I won the AWG short fiction contest. Just this month I was thrilled to win 'Doorknobs and BodyPaint's' Sudden Fiction Competition. I 've also had recent work published in "The Writer's Quill," "Big Bridge," "The Shallow End," "Amarillo Bay," "Zimmerzine," "A Writer's Choice Literary Journal," "The Pacific Sun" and "The Albany Poets Workshop". In the summer I garden and grow months of tomatoes. All year round, I participate in, and attend poetry and monologue readings. Contact the author at: the following email address.