Breathing in the Past

I invited my dead grandmother into my kitchen this morning.

It was not intentional.  But there she was, arriving as the first in a long line of others, connected in the ether to her mother, her father, some long-forgotten uncles and a host of other shadow figures. They carried with them gifts from a world that I have lost.  Memories attached to place, senses, emotions.

Suddenly I am in our family’s German butcher shop in Passaic. Sides of meat are hanging from the ceiling, the large fan above calming the air with its almost silent whump, whump, whump. There is the beef tongue lying slack, unmistakable for what it is, on a shiny metal shelf in the glass case at my tiny child eye-level.  There is the scent of Jewish rye from the bakery next door and the nose tease of sun-yellow lemons from the Italian produce stand in this neighborhood of immigrants.  Now I’m craving something I have not thought about in forever.  Freshly ground raw chop meat my great-grandfather would bring home at the end of the day, nestled in the embrace of two slices of that perfectly warm, chewy brown rye with only fresh onions, salt and pepper for flavor and crunch.  The simple miracle made possible by the diversity in that small block of humanity.

Then, as the swirl of friendly phantoms continues to fill my little apartment, I find myself half a century ago, curled up in their dining room, just outside of the kitchen.  Through the hem of my smocked dress I can feel the cool of the worn wooden floor on my bottom.  I am playing and watching and staying out of the way, as great-grandma pulls the strudel dough in impossibly larger, thinner circles on a huge round table.  My grandmother is at the kitchen counter, mixing the flour and eggs for spaetzle.  Steamy salted water is bubbling on the stove.  The cider vinegar-soaked sauerbraten is sizzling in the hot fat before it begins its long slow simmer.  I hear my elders chatting in a language I have long dis-remembered.  I am breathless amid this avalanche of memory.  And then my grandmother reaches down to caress my cheek, holds my chin in the curve of her palm and smiles.

A spark of hot fat lands on my hand and here I am again in the present, searing the meat to make my first sauerbraten.  Such is the power of our senses to connect us to our past.  It is a little ironic.  As I am looking ahead these days and clearing out the vestiges of a life that no longer serves me, this trickster of memory transports me so vividly into the palpable past.  Recipe cards in my grandmother’s handwriting – carefully tucked into plastic sleeves-  have triggered this today.  Springerle, kipferl, lebkuchen and stollen, the holiday sweets that are my loving ghosts of Christmases past.   A handful of this, a glass of that, a pinch of something strange with the warning to not use too much.  These were gifts from her when I “set up housekeeping” as a new bride, 30 odd years ago.  Yellowed, unappreciated until now.

Today I am making her sauerbraten, rohtkohl and hangover soup recipes for my grown children.  All week there have been hints of this flashback.  The meat must sit in a bath of cider vinegar, water, onions and spices for a week.  As I turned it once a day, as instructed by her cursive letters, I noticed that my hands have become soft, spotted and creased like hers.  Daily, as I breathed in the aroma of the marinade, heavy with vinegar, cloves and bay leaf, I was breathing in this past. Unconsciously gathering bits and pieces of people and places. The scent was released as the roast hit the hot fat this morning and what I had been inhaling all week became whole and tangible and reattached itself to me, hopefully not to be forgotten again.

Tonight, my children will join me at the table for a taste of their roots.  They will not remember Grandma, or her family, by the flavors of this meal.  There is a little sadness that my experiences and memories are only second-hand for them and will never be known in the same way.  But I have hope that although the chain of meandering genealogical spirits may be muted for them, it will not be broken. Because someday, when one of them rediscovers this recipe and puts the meat into the brine for the first time, I’ll be leading the conga line into the kitchen and thanking them for the invitation.


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