Read an Excerpt
I can still hear them. It's as if I could just walk into the next room and see them again, that's how they live in my memory. Each one still impossibly here, stopped in time like a painting, like the Last Supper. Only it's not the same picture Da Vinci painted, it's Grandma Rae, the matriarch, at the head of the dinner table surrounded by her apostles--the agitated stew of her family.
Children as tiny and green as baby peas or as broad and thick as carrots, surfacing above the table for a moment to tear off a handful of yellow challah bread, or grab a square of schmaltz-laden potato kugel, then diving below the table to climb into laps, steal shoes, scrabble with each other, or feed the panting maw of the ever-grateful dog. Aunts like bubbles of foam skimming the edges of the table with a tureen of soup or stuffed cabbage. Plumped uncles, ready with a fork or ladle to nab the fattest dumplings or the juiciest bits of conversation. My mother and father, the bouquet garni, a bundle as spicy as hot peppercorns or as subtle as thyme, and never one without the other. And the grandparents, the little old men and women bobbing up and down like misshapen potatoes in a boiling broth of family, everyone gossiping, eating, arguing, stage-whispering into the closest ear whatever they never dared to say to each others' faces, trading recipes, interrupting, gesturing and shouting and talking over each other.
You know, Selma, it's just as easy for Nancy to marry a rich boy as it is for her to marry a poor boy.
Ach, money doesn't mean anything to her, Rae. She wants love.
When the money goes, love flies out the window.
Grandma Rae and GrandmaSelma and Papa Eddy and Papa Max. They don't make them like that now, like discontinued patterns of blue-veined china, faded and chipped, from long ago. They're lost or broken and you can't find them anymore. All you're left with is rough fragments to try to glue together: odd-shaped glossy photographs from old cameras, yellow handwritten letters with pages missing, a necklace or watch you would never wear - it's not your style - but keep safe in a box, a check you never cashed, a card you thought you'd lost, a rolling pin, a linen tablecloth bunched up in the back of the closet. It has a stain.
Where did Nancy get a meshuggeneh idea like that anyway, Rae, to be an artist? What kind of life is that?
God forbid she'll end up an old maid yet.
And I'll never see my great-grandchild.
You should live so long.
There were others too. Not just the ones who sat around the table, but the ones who made their grand entrances later. Notorious great-grandmothers and great-aunts and cousins who had long ago had a handful of dirt thrown into their graves or else traveled so far away that they couldn't make it back to our table. One by one they would return as Grandmother Selma's mandelbrot cookies were dunked and the stories unfolded. These stories were like big weather, like events that could change your life forever in a few minutes, like earthquakes or hurricanes with names. Bella. Esther. Nathan. And at every holiday dinner they would tell those stories, sitting around my mother's big dining room table dunking mandelbrot in cups of tea, the table spread with the creamy linen cloth--a wedding present--that Grandma Rae had hand-embroidered with a thick yellow thread as rich as egg yolk.
When Nancy gets married, Rae, I have beautiful things for her. My silver, my lace.
I wouldn't hold your breath.
My mother kept her sterling silver in a velvet lined box. She would take it out and tediously polish it just for the holidays. My mother would polish slowly, thinking maybe this was the holiday that would work out all right--without any "scenes," without tears. Working late into the night in her quiet kitchen, she would infuse her hope into the filigreed pattern of the silver with the soft, worn cloth, polishing the veins in the silver leaves, the hard edges of the silver petals on the spout of her teapot. She brought her flowered bone china out of the glass breakfront, where it usually sat like objets d'art in a museum. Grandma Rae would call.
What should I bring?
I'm bringing a stuffed cabbage.
Then Grandma Selma would call.
What should I bring?
What's Rae bringing?
Grandma Selma's Mandelbrot
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (6 ounces), softened, not greasy
1 cup sugar
3 ounces sliced almonds
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
Prepare the dough:
Combine flour and baking powder and set aside. Cream butter and sugar until light. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add flour and baking powder to egg mixture, mixing only until flour is incorporated. Do not overwork the dough. Divide dough in half. Add almonds to one half and chocolate chips to the other. Refrigerate the dough for several hours or overnight.
Bake the mandelbrot:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and wet hands slightly. Roll each piece of dough ino a two-inch-wide log. Place logs on a parchment-paper--covered, nonstick, or greased sheet pan. To prevent overbaking of the undersides of the logs, place another sheet pan upside down under the one the logs are on. Bake logs until medium golden and firm, 25 to 35 minutes, turning tray once during baking to ensure even color and temperature. Place the sheet pan on a rack and cool the logs for about 10 minutes.
Rebake the mandelbrot:
When the logs are still very warm but not so hot that they crumble, carefully cut the logs into slices about 3/4 inch thick, using a very sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion. Let these slices cool completely. Bake the sliced mandelbrot again, cut side down, at 375 degrees on doubled sheet pans. After 5 minutes of baking, turn the slices over and bake another 5 to 10 minutes, until the slices are light golden and feel slightly firm to the touch. Cool slices completely on a rack. Store in an airtight container for up to ten days. Yields approximately three dozen cookies.