Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Happy Marriages and Honey Cake

Bubby and Pop Pop Katz had the happiest marriage in my family.
It wasn’t just because she got up every weekday 6AM to cook him breakfast before he went off to his jewelry shop on Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
(Not cereal and milk. Nuh-uh. Oatmeal with fresh-squeezed orange juice, some nice toast , soft-boiled eggs.)
And it wasn’t just the twinkly way he looked at her every time she spoke, or that sometimes he would ask us, as teens say now, randomly, “Isn’t the Bubby pretty?”
They came every year for Succos—in their celery green car, which was probably the bane of motorists up and down the Jersey Turnpike. (Apparently, Pop Pop was a tailgater.)
We would wait at the living room window or in the driveway playing on the hopscotch board our Dad painted for us, my sisters and I.
We’d scream for my mother, jumping up and down as the little car pulled carefully up to our Queens house.
Pop Pop, tall, handsome and gallant, would open the driver’s door, then go around to open up for Bubby, who, (I realize now) might have held the holiday honey cake in her lap for the full two-hour trip.
My mother was very close to her parents, and, (I realize now) must’ve always felt a little guilty for leaving them, when my Dad became a professor in far-off NYC. Their reunions were very tender and I remember Pop Pop examining her face carefully, as if to take in every bit.
As soon as we all got inside, my Dad always poured a little shot of something for his shver to uh, resteady the nerves. (Probably lots of those Turnpike motorists were having this done for them, as well.)
What needs to be stated now is that Bubby Katz was a phenomenal and wondrous cook.
The honey cake was baked in a large, rectangular pyrex glass dish that had first been covered in wax paper. The way the cake pulled on the edges of the paper, like a juicy secret—I’m telling you, you couldn’t wait.
Also packed just for us in a special suitcase were the chocolate chip cookies that Bubby swore was “just the recipe from the Toll House chips package” but in her magic hands had just the right amount of bite and give—just the right ratio of chip to cookie-- so that you couldn’t possibly stop.
Her poppy seed cookies in the shape of—Yiddish pun alert!—moons and stars.
And, of course, the piece de resistance: Salmon Croquettes. Packed they were, glistening here and there with fried onions in an enormous Breakstone’s plastic tub. (I’m having a hard time because I want one so badly now.)
She couldn’t have come without them, so picture Bubby all decked out in one of those snap-front light-blue flowered aprons, grating carrots and onions, mixing “matzoh “mayl” (the way she said it) into the salmon and egg, with some freshly mashed potato and carefully placing those scrumptious croquettes to fry in those Bubbyish pans that no one else has.
Pop Pop, in a more manly apron, would be standing by with a spatula, ready to “turn them over.”
I know for sure that “As the World Turns” was playing loudly on the tiny kitchen TV. Which shouldn’t spoil the old-fashioned Bubbyish vibe, since she would be clucking her tongue the whole time at the rogues and rakes on the show, warning the pretty (actresses!) girls not to get involved and kiss them: “uh uh uh—he’s NO good—NOOOOO good!”
I can still smell that kitchen. I can still taste their visits.
Bubby and Pop Pop would sleep on the fold out sofa in our living room and in the morning we would run downstairs to snuggle with them and Pop Pop would turn over his pillow “to the cool side” but really so we wouldn’t go bald like him.
Bubby had even more superstitions and to this day I will never sew up a hole in something for my kids while they’re wearing it—lest I sew their brains together, nor will I walk over someone, anyone, say, who is sitting on the floor--lest they stop growing.
Bubby and Pop Pop spoke to each other like in the Yiddish song “Achtzik Er un Zibetzik Zi.” No raised tones, no clipped words, no snide asides—just simple back and forth, easy and natural. A question, an answer, a smile.
They used each other’s first names: Sam and Sara. They really had the utmost admiration for each other and an old-fashioned respect no one sees anymore.
He had seen her outside the synagogue, 18 years old (her skin still as smooth 50 years later—cold cream!) and had walked her home. And that was that.
Once I actually saw Bubby upset at something. I missed it but I heard Pop Pop say: “Sara. You have to tell me what you’re thinking. I can’t read your mind, you know.”
I remember being shocked—of course he could read her mind. Wasn’t that the whole point?
But now I realize. Happy Marriages are built on talking. Talking and talking and talking.
And I realize even more that Happy Marriages are built on talking nicely.
It took me a second try, but I’m trying.
When Sruli reads the Mourner’s Kaddish from the pulpit he always says to think of something good about the people you are remembering. Try to incorporate that good trait into your life and in this way your loved ones will always be alive—and a part of you. I always think of Bubby and Pop Pop Katz.
I baked my very first Honey Cake today. The twins cracked all the eggs and insisted on smelling all the spices and doing the mixing so it took twice as long. But, as I posted on Facebook, the best cakes are made of memories.
Sruli also always mentions during the Kaddish, that perhaps one day, someone will remember you that way.
The Honey Cake was fantastically delicious. Not a crumb left. Baked by a good wife, to sweeten the tongue.
And perhaps someday-- a granddaughter who will want my recipe for more than just Honey Cake.