Photo: Wayne Fife
By Sharon Roseman
Rebecca shakes the canister. The thudding sound is comforting. She imagines peeling off the top later, the macaroons tumbling out in clumps, mildly squashed. Looking like they need some attention before being eaten. She spent more than an hour going up and down the aisles, beginning with the crackers and then moving on to the “international foods” section. Nothing. Then she did a systematic inspection. Nope. There was no Passover shelf in the grocery store. No more macaroons, no matzah. She was too self-conscious to ask someone about it.
She hadn’t had matzah in a few years. The last macaroon she’d eaten hadn’t had anything to do with Passover. It had been during a baby shower for one of the nurses, held in the second floor lounge as part of an extended mid-afternoon break. Half of them hadn’t known the rituals. The macaroons were huge, as wide across as the cute baby bibs. The woman who’d brought them worked in reception at the blood clinic. She smiled ferociously, telling them about her two children who had helped her bake. Rebecca had nibbled on her macaroon and thought about when she could go back to the clinic.
Rebecca was tired of her memories but also recognized how their textures were worn down. Her flat sentences diminished all the other stuff. The ridges of the macaroons on her tongue teased her with their softness, bringing her back to her bubbe’s kitchen where she would sit at the small table and talk, her glasses becoming misty with steam and her nose filling with smells, from chicken grease to trails of matzah meal on the counter to mothballs in the closet by the front door where she would hang her coat and, finally, the faint scent of the chunk of yellow soap beside the sink.
She turns on her computer and types in “matzah recipe”. There are 478,000 hits, dozens of cooking blogs, articles, and recipe lists for all the English spellings of the Hebrew and Yiddish words, for homemade matzah, matzoh, and matzo. Some include comments about the food’s symbolic role. Unleavened bread, made in a rush: bread to remember what it was like to flee slavery in ancient Eygyt. There is advice about how to make matzah for non-Passover purposes (you can let the dough mixture sit for a bit) and for Passover (bake it immediately). She finds a bunch of recipes about foods to spread on matzah. And of course many variations, such as egg matzah, fried matzah, and chocolate caramel matzah brittle. She pulls an envelope toward her to make a shopping list. It’s from the telephone company’s latest flyer. Rebecca hates junk mail but takes solace from reusing all of its bits and pieces. She hardly ever cooks or bakes anymore so she doesn’t have flour. She does have tap water. She can’t find a baking sheet, and then remembers that she left it with Paul when he ended up staying in Montreal. She definitely doesn’t have the pasta machine some recipes recommend, or a rolling pin. She could try to find time to take the bus into Toronto to find some matzah but it seems like a tricky prospect. The idea of lugging groceries by bus. And of working around the terrible bus schedules. She decides to make matzah herself. In her family, matzah came from miles away, shipped from Israel or the United States, in boxes wrapped in cellophane. It was kept for weeks following Passover, much like other crackers. Fresh matzah. What an idea.
She’s pleased. The matzah turned out really well on her second try. She feels odd eating it before Passover. She needs to make it again next week. She realizes that she wants to share it. Should she ask her neighbour Joy from down the hall to come over? Should she actually have a seder? Can you have a seder with two people and only one of them a Jew? She laughs at herself. This was beginning to sound a bit ludicrous but on the other hand, why? She’d been planning to invite Joy for a meal. She was always so friendly and brought Rebecca a plate of fresh cookies one Saturday.
A meal, yes, but to invite Joy to her place for a seder of all things? Rebecca had gotten in the habit of never talking about her background. When people periodically asked her whether she was Jewish, she felt offended at the intrusion, and would usually mumble a vague reply. Once, a lab partner during her undergrad years at Waterloo had asked her what she’d be doing for Chanukah. She’d responded abruptly, asking him if he was Christian and which denomination he belonged to. He’d blushed and turned away to fiddle with the microscope. They didn’t speak about it again. She looks at the time and realizes that she has to get ready for work.
Rebecca sips her coffee and looks at the other people in the cafeteria, and it hits her. That intern Michael might be Jewish. His name is Michael Kohn. She had never thought about it before but now she studies him, wondering whether he goes to seders, already has a seder to go to, or would want to come to her place for one. How do you bring up such a thing? Is it hypocritical of her, given how she’s always resented people’s intrusive questions? Her friend Aanu had shared her reaction, ever since they met in grade ten. Aanu’s family went to the Hindu temple a few times a year but, like Joy, she didn’t understand why people thought it was all right to ask about whether they did.
“Hi Michael. We worked together in Emerg last week. It’s Rebecca.”
“I remember. Nice to see you. How’s it going?”
“Good. I feel a little odd asking what I’m about to ask, so please stop me at any time.”
His head tilted slightly down to the left, “Wow. This is sounding a bit ominous. What’s up?”
“It’s just that I learned how to make matzah and thought that maybe, for the first time in my adult life, I should host a seder. You know, to celebrate this new-found matzah-making skill and all.” Rebecca feels her face going warm and looks at Michael to see how he’s taking it. He is grinning in a kind way. “Sure, I’d love to come if I can juggle my work schedule. You’re talking about the first night, no? Can’t wait to try this homemade matzah, Rebecca!”
“Michael, you’re definitely the youngest. Find that afikoman!”
“Maybe Esther can help me,” Michael murmurs. His collie Esther’s ears perk up and she heads in his direction, standing in his way when he gets up, as though to make sure that he doesn’t leave without her.
“She’s so strong-willed, she reminds me of my great-aunt.”
“Is she living still?” Rebecca asks, seeing the dull hurt in his glance.
“Yes, but she has dementia.”
“What’s her name?”
“It’s Rivka,” he smiles, saying the name with a kind of twang. Rebecca smiles, recognizing how he’s playfully trying to make it sound “non-Jewish.” She realizes that Joy is talking.
“Where does she live, Michael? How old is she?”
“She’s in a home in Toronto. I feel awful about how long it’s been since I’ve gone to see her. She’s almost ninety-four.” Michael looks at them. “Would you two come with me to see her this weekend? I could use the company. Neither of us is on call Rebecca, no? Are you working, Joy?”
Joy says that she’s sorry, she does have to work to meet a writing deadline.
Rebecca is startled. She’s so used to her own routines on her days off. But she feels obliged to keep him company.
“I can take care of your right-hand canine pal if you like, Michael,” Joy offers.
“Thanks Joy. That’s all right. I always leave her with my friend Tom. He has a fenced yard. So what do you say, Rebecca?”
They pass a boarded-up video store and a Chinese restaurant. A man is leaning against a car outside an old-fashioned men’s clothing store, drawing deeply on a cigarette and watching them through his squint. Michael pulls into a space in front of a bakery. A handmade cardboard sign in the window advertises blintzes.
“Did you want to get your aunt a treat, Michael? I thought that you said she had diabetes. But I’m sure we can still find her something suitable. Are you also hungry? If you want to go for a meal before we go see your aunt, I don’t mind. We’re not in a rush, are we?” She’d begun to babble out of an odd kind of nervousness that she hadn’t expected. She felt as though they were going to see her relative rather than his.
“Yeah Rebecca, I definitely do want to go for a meal but maybe we’ll do that after we see her. But there’s something else I want to get here first. Are you coming?”
“Sure. I’ll come in too.” She suddenly feels exhausted. Michael is holding open the door to the bakery. He waits a few more seconds and then goes in, gesturing that she should lock the car when she comes.
She sits for a moment and then opens the car door, pushing the button to lock it before getting out. She lobs her knapsack onto her shoulder and goes into the bakery. Michael waves her over and she sees that he’s popping Passover food into a wire hand-held basket: matzah meal, horseradish, gefilte fish, a box of spelt matzah. “Only because you don’t make it,” he teases.
She now understands why he’d stopped there, and grabs her own basket.
When they get to the retirement home, despite a dingy front entry hall, it seems clean and warm. The woman at the reception desk is smiling.
In her room, Rivka is sitting in a yellow corduroy recliner with a patchwork quilt over her knees, facing the window and a radiator that is whistling softly. She is taller than Rebecca had anticipated. A radio on the window ledge is playing the news and Rivka has her hand on it as though to stop it from falling.
“Rivka, your nephew and his friend are here to see you,” the receptionist says.
“Rivka, you have visitors.”
The woman turns and grasps her long white hair in her right hand and quickly slips a black hair elastic around it with her left. Rebecca steps back so that Michael can move closer. It’s a tight space beside the wall. She glances at him but doesn’t say anything at first.
“Who are you?” she then asks.
“It’s Michael, your sister Anita’s youngest grandson.”
“Anita? Does Anita know Kristina?” she asks.
Michael shakes his head almost imperceptibly at Rebecca to signal that he doesn’t know who Kristina is.
“Probably, Auntie Rivka. Can I turn your chair around so we can visit?”
She pushes herself out of her seat, moves the few feet to her bedside table and rummages in the drawer. Rebecca sees that the older woman’s grey cardigan has a piece of loose wool hanging from the seam below the right-hand sleeve. Michael turns the recliner around and gestures to Rebecca to indicate that she should sit on the one plastic chair in the room. He perches on the end of the bed.
Rivka brings him a black and white photograph. “Kristina is wearing her new hat.”
She then notices Rebecca and cries out sharply, startling Michael who drops the photograph. It flutters under the radiator. Rivka stumbles and grasps Rebecca’s left hand so hard that Rebecca can’t believe that this elderly woman could be so strong. Rebecca stands up to steady her.
“I’m Michael’s friend Rebecca.”
“Kristina! Kristina, be careful. Be careful, Kristina. He’s dangerous for you and also for my family.”
Rebecca doesn’t know what to do.
“It’s all right Rivka,” she says, feeling very strange. “It should be fine.”
Rivka switches to Yiddish and Rebecca can’t follow her any more. She begins to cry and shake and grabs Rebecca’s face and kisses her on the lips.
“Neyn, neyn! Don’t let them take you, Kristina.”
Rebecca pulls the shaking woman close. She strokes her hair and rubs her back. After several minutes, Rebecca encourages Michael to talk to his aunt about something else. He’s pale. He bends down and reaches carefully under the radiator, retrieving the photograph. He gently wipes off some dust with his sleeve. He turns it toward Rebecca and she can see a short young woman of about eighteen with long hair and small-framed glasses like hers. Rebecca is now afraid of saying goodbye to Rivka, of drawing her attention again. But she does. Then she backs out of the room and walks towards the exit to wait for Michael.
Michael doesn’t let her take a turn at the wheel although she asks three times. When he pulls up to her building and offers to help her upstairs, she says she’s fine. She hauls her bags of Pesach food out of the back seat and waves to him.
At her floor, she gets out of the elevator lurching from the awkward weight. Joy’s putting her garbage down the chute. She smiles her warm smile and asks Rebecca how she is.
In Rebecca’s apartment, she spreads her bounty on the countertop, admiring each item before putting it away. She tells Joy about the trip, slowing down and making it not just about the words. She tells her about Rivka’s photograph and her fear and her grief, about Michael’s reaction, and about how long she had held Rivka, how wet her shirt had become, and how she felt she should go back and see her, with or without Michael.