Tag Archives: family

Bette Ellen’s Christmas Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 14 oz. Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup walnut halves
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:

  • Line an 8 or 9-inch pan with foil or waxed paper.
  • Combine chocolate chips with sweetened condensed milk in a medium, heavy duty sauce pan.
  • Warm over lowest possible heat, stirring constantly until smooth.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Stir in nuts and vanilla extract.
  • Spread evenly into prepared baking pan.
  • Refrigerate for two hours or until firm. (Overnight works best).
  • Lift from pan.
  • Remove foil/wax paper.
  • Cut into perfect squares.

Some notes: 

I cut each chocolate square precisely — no errant rectangles! — and think of how I want to find you on the front porch of your girlhood home on South Sanborn in Mitchell, or in the sepia eyes of your grandfather, who built that house and carved its staircase by hand. But I haven’t made it out to South Dakota yet. It seems so far to go, and I am afraid of what I might find, and what it means to accept you as part of me. Instead, I look for you in Nestle chocolate chips melding with Eagle brand condensed milk on my stove, as if I’m working a conjuring spell. If only I could get the recipe right, I might resurrect you. If only I could find the metaphor in the melting.

But what I’m trying to say is less about food as a window to memory, and more about the irony of what I’m doing before I fold in walnuts and a dash of vanilla. We didn’t really know each other, you and I. I can never say my grandmother stood with me beside a stove and said, “Here’s how you make fudge.” Not that this labor should have been your job. And yet I want so badly for an alternate narrative of our family to exist. I can’t stop my heart from wanting what it wants, my embarrassing hunger for clichés

So forgive me if I don’t yet have the perfect word for what I’m doing in my kitchen this morning, not so much cooking as stirring the pot.

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The kitchen counter where my grandmother Bette (pictured on this mug) would have made her beloved fudge. Grateful to her daughter Monica for allowing me to take this photo and sharing stories of her mother, so I might know her now.

In the Desert

When I visited the Sonoran Desert for the first time in September 2006, the landscape left me speechless. I felt like I was underwater, experiencing an ecosystem that was entirely “other” to what I always knew growing up on the East Coast.

Carl took this photo of me on our first hike in the Sonoran, a month before he asked me to marry him.

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This was our first hike together, and I was not prepared. But my smile is genuine, even though I’m wearing fashion sneakers that slid all over the pebbly sand. I did not become athletic or even outdoorsy until a few years into our marriage. This trip was a turning point because it showed me what I could do.

Now I am drawn to the Sonoran Desert because of the constant interplay between life and death. While this interplay exists in all ecosystems, it’s most apparent to me here.

We live in a culture that tries to erase death at every turn. Instead of died, we say passed away. Instead of funeral, we say Celebration of Life. But death cannot be erased in the desert. Death defies erasure. The desert is the most necessary memento mori that exists.

Leaving always breaks my heart.

___________

From what I’m told, my paternal grandmother loved the desert too. She’s buried there now, in the shade of a Creosote.

She lived in a neighborhood studded by prickly pears and Palo Verdes. But she planted shamrocks in her backyard, made them bloom beneath her kitchen window.

The first time I stood in what was once my grandmother’s backyard, my aunt pointed out her shamrocks. I tried to photograph them, but it was too dark. I couldn’t capture their essence. As I stood in the spot where her hands once plunged into rocky earth, I could feel my grandmother’s faith. Her spunk. I could sense her capacity for imagination.

The great sadness of my life is that I didn’t know this grandmother. She moved to Phoenix before I was born. My parents separated a year after my birth. Their divorce was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf messy. But the aftermath is what I remember, and I think it was worse. With the exception of my father’s father, I was cut off from the rest of the family.

Until the day she died, my grandmother carried my photo in her wallet. She wore my name on a charm around her wrist. She never stopped loving me. But I have no memory of her.

Still, I always think of her when I walk the desert. I conjure the story of who she was, and who we could have been together.

Last weekend, when I hiked Saguaro National Park with Carl, tears pooled in my eyes. “I should have seen this with my grandmother,” I told him, then blew my nose.

___________

Grief is not linear. It’s more like a wave that rolls right back out to sea once it hits the shore. There’s no end point. No exit.

The first time I visited my grandmother’s grave, I wept as I wept when my own mother died. I did not expect the crush of sadness I felt. I placed my hand on her grave, as if I could touch her. This motion staunched my tears. I resolved to know her as best I could.

This year, when I touched her grave, I breathed Creosote and said the metta prayer: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be at ease.

My grandmother died not knowing that I loved her. There is nothing I can do to rectify that fact. On Sunday, I placed a rock I collected from the Chesapeake Bay on her grave. This rock came from the same beach where I scattered my mother’s ashes five years ago. Before I left the gravesite, I picked up a pink pebble and tucked it into my purse.

I wanted to carry a small part of this place away with me, as if I could merge with the desert, with my grandmother, as if such a thing could be.

We Want to Wish You a Merry Chrismukkah

I came downstairs the other morning to find our Hanukkiah sitting on the living room floor, beside Carl’s work backpack.

How sweet, I thought. He’s getting our Hanukkah decorations out to make sure my holiday doesn’t get dwarfed by Christmas. This has been our routine for a few years. I go crazy making sure all his grandmother’s hand-tatted angels find their way onto our Christmas tree branches. He counts the Hanukkah candles leftover from last year, then orders enough from Amazon to last us through the whole eight nights.

Turns out, I was half right.

Carl retrieved our Hanukkiah for our use, but also to light during the Christmas Eve service at the Unitarian congregation where he serves as minister. For the first time since 1978, the first night of Hanukkah intersects with Christmas Eve.

Most families might not notice this cosmic coincidence, determined by a lunar cycle that means Gregorian dates for Jewish holidays shift yearly. In our family, we can’t help but notice. Carl grew up celebrating Christmas. I celebrated Hanukkah. When we married at my family’s synagogue more than nine years ago, we chose Judaism as the dominant religion in our home.

As if the Judeo-Christian complexity of our December holidays weren’t enough, there’s also the minister issue. This is arguably the busiest time of Carl’s professional year, although he might disagree. All I know is that on Dec. 24, he’s officiating at a wedding, followed by two Christmas Eve services.

He’ll be back at his pulpit by 10 a.m. on Christmas Day, a time when most normal people are unwrapping presents or eating breakfast casseroles. This means we will not eat Christmas Eve dinner together, nor will we have time to unwrap presents on Christmas morning, as we have done for the entire twelve years we’ve been a couple.

On Christmas Day, we’re hosting a lunch for his mother, my sister, her husband, and their three kids, all of whom keep kosher. I will be cooking for hours beginning Friday night. As I peel two pounds of grapes for Carl’s grandmother’s fruit salad recipe, I will no doubt be channeling my Bubbie Fran: Eat. Eat. Eat. This is appropriate because Jews will outnumber Christians by 3 to 1 at our holiday table.

I would be lying if I wrote that I felt at peace this holiday season. The darkest time of year is hard on us. But I’m trying not to get swept up in the holiday crazy, to become aware when I feel consumerism’s pull. Sometimes I get it right. The other day, when a man honked at me near Walgreens, I flipped him a peace sign.

Still, I truly lost it earlier this week when a large package arrived for Carl. He’d ordered himself the exact same monastery made meditation cushion I’d purchased for his Christmas gift. This means it’s Dec. 22, his mother’s flight arrives tonight, and I still don’t know what I’m getting the man who wants nothing for Christmas. (Lump of coal? Lump of coal?)

Still, it’s amazing to me that I even have money to purchase holiday gifts. I grew up in a family where money was scarce, and sometimes I didn’t know if I would receive presents on Hanukkah. They were always small gifts, always something I needed. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I wish I’d cherished everything my mother ever gave me.

Now my mother-in-law lavishes me with gifts, which she wraps in Hanukkah paper. She spoils me beyond words, and I appreciate her consciousness at a time when it’s 100 percent more likely that the receipt checker at Costco will wish me a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Hanukkah” or miracle-of-miracles Chanukah sameach.

My mother-in-law still lives in the small South Carolina community where she took her son to a big steeple Baptist church a few times a week. Where she finds Hanukkah wrapping paper, I will never know. I do know that I’ll be making her and Carl blueberry blintzes for breakfast on Christmas Day, before they scurry off to church. (Thanks, Bubbie Fran.)

I also know we create refuge by sharing in each other’s traditions, rather than foisting traditions on each other.  I still do not know how to live without shouldering other people’s expectations. But that’s what New Year’s resolutions are for.