My mother, though I hope not yours, was a terrible baker. Maybe it was the absence of joy in her life that caused everything to taste like margarine, especially at Passover.
We held our Seders with her childhood friend, Bubbles Ackerman – a wonderful baker. The two of them had grown up in adjoining houses; swimming in the same ocean, hopping up and down on the same sidewalk potsy squares. After separating for college, they came together in nearby suburbs in Westchester County, New York and southern Connecticut, to raise families. They had everything in common historically, and nothing in common temperamentally.
Bubbles’ facts were not effervescent. She married badly. Her children were troubled. Yet the name was accurate; a lucky nature kept her buoyant. A few towns away, my mother married well and for love, then was widowed early with young children. She led a life of perseverance and generosity, but joy would have been too much to ask. She was deeply and inconsolably sad.
Bubbles became a professional violist. Her sunny house, where she hosted the Seders, was full of string instruments and a set of bongo drums in the den. She taught musical theory, played in orchestras and, when she moved into a nursing home, led a string quartet until she lost her vision. In a harsh and atonal world, every note seemed to bring her joy.
Even as a child I knew their friendship enriched my mother’s life, and it certainly enriched mine, since Bubbles made the Seder desserts. After the enigmatic gefilte fish, the annual brisket and vegetables (traditionally underdone), magic appeared: jam glazes dripping down the fat sides of a sponge cake. Frosted potato-flour creations rising into five-layer cakes. Platters of meringues and macaroons. It was as if Bubbles had turned herself inside out for the world to see.
And the view was always – to use her favorite word – marvelous. For Bubbles, my mother was marvelous. Being together at the Seder was marvelous. The brisket: marvelous, marvelous. Our fresh Passover outfits each year with new patent leather and taffeta petticoats: more marvelousness. All marvelous.
Without the good fortune of a buoyant nature, life for my mother was not marvelous. “I tried to bring your mother with me,” Bubbles said in one of the conversations we had before she died. You could hear the strings of a cheerful waltz in her voice. “She wouldn’t come.” I know why. It would have required bridging a distance too far. My mother taught me many things – devotion, dignity, kindness, moral clarity – but also, that our sorrows are our own. You can’t enter someone else’s suffering, and don’t let a soul ever tell you otherwise.
But for me, an emotionally ravenous and mildly plump child, Bubble’s deserts were a form of joy. I can still remember a fantasy that amused me in childhood: Bubbles is baking in her sunny kitchen, while a viola or two are sitting in straight-back chairs around the table, their bows in their laps, their legs comfortably crossed. They’re chatting with her while she beats the milk and egg together. The cello would be greasing some cookie pans, and the violin was tuning itself in a corner. The bongo drums were probably in a closet, banging their hearts out. The whole musical family was present, and the room was full of happy sound. Smells were spectacular (not that string instruments can smell) and not a thing tasted like margarine.
Each year, we children rehearsed hard for the Seder, as all anxious and accomplished Jewish children do; practicing the usual prayers and songs, dreading mistakes in the all-important quartet of questions, feeling the weight of that moment as we chanted and chanted again on the turnpike heading over. I wish I could say these efforts were for spiritual reward. Mine were for jam cakes, layer cakes, and cookies; always the same bounty that Bubbles brought to the table.
At its center, a Seder is filled with questions. Why do we recline? Was the wicked son really evil? Did the plagues have to be so punishing? How can one set of human beings enslave another? This friendship of my mother and Bubbles that lasted their whole lives, this joining of temperamental opposites, was one more question. I understood a bit about my mother. I understood a bit about Bubbles. But this I did not understand: how could someone living in such dark be loved by someone living in such light?
Many years later, I finally understood. My intelligent, intuitive mother had found someone who could live in light for her.
After my mother’s death, I asked Bubbles to send me the recipe for her Passover macaroons – so moist and excessively rich, so full of self-love. She copied it onto a sheet of musical staves, and the instructions begin a few lines under the G clef. I treasure all 11 words.
“One can condensed milk, plus one bag coconut, plus one egg.’
I will be baking them soon. No need for temperature or timing. That which is marvelous will know when it is ready.
Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.