Sweet Potatoes are My Comfort Food

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​Whenever comfort food is brought up, whether it’s a writing assignment or discussion or online meme, my head goes straight to chicken noodle soup and/or Kraft Macaroni & cheese in the blue box, although not eaten together of course. I will eat the mac & cheese as a leftover, but there is nothing like the taste of the macaroni from the blue box, hot and creamy, right when it’s first made.

Out of the pot even.

However, for real comfort, my heart goes to an evening that I was probably about eleven, maybe as old as twelve, where I am sitting in my mother’s bed, my legs sticking out from a nightgown that I hated wearing, with my back against the headboard.

The only light coming brightly from the hallway and that dim blue from the television just beyond the end of the bed. I was watching whatever happened to be on. There were not many options for change before remote controls, and with everyone else in the family downstairs, I was stuck with whatever it was.

On my lap was a plate, and on the plate, I am using my fork to smoosh around a thick piece of butter melting on a warm, soft, sweet potato. The orange flesh absorbing each bit of butter dripping off the pat. Long after this day, I’ve seen people put cinnamon and brown sugar, even caramel and marshmallows on sweet potatoes, but for me all it needs is the hot insides and the sweet, melting butter. 

Even today, the perfect, succulent, sweet potato brings me back to that sick day in bed, the smell, the taste, the warmth from the plate on my legs still warming me decades later.

The Neighborhood Drug Store

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​I don’t know how old I was but it must have been around high school or college; that young adult age before I could drive, and my mother asked me to run into Calvert to pick up whatever it was. Where’s Calvert? I asked. Next to the luncheonette was the reply. Now, the luncheonette wasn’t a luncheonette then, it was a five and dime, although in the 1980s it wasn’t a five and dime, and I don’t even think it was called that, more like a dollar store, but for a quarter or fifty cents. I think it was called Marty’s, but that was also the name of the luncheonette; when it was a luncheonette. I just can’t remember.

I tried to picture the row of stores where the luncheonette was the corner, the anchor, the first one you reached when you walked or biked through the labyrinth of suburban streets that led to this first bastion of civilization from the rows of houses set up in Levittown fashion.

Then my mother clarified: Kenny. She said it in the tone of someone speaking to a toddler who didn’t understand what to do with the sippy cup – Sink.

Oh! Kenny’s! 

Kenny was the druggist at the drug store where my parents got their prescriptions or we kids got ours when we were sick, which was almost never. He knew us all by name, and would just hand over our family’s prescriptions. There was no identification needed, no birthdate IDs, no signatures. He didn’t ask about our allergies; he already knew them. I was living elsewhere when he retired, but I was still sad. I don’t know where my parents went for their prescriptions when his store closed. I know that my mother had to get her insulin through mail order and that was a nightmare. It was never right. They had no concept of how that particular delivery system and how their way of dispensing it and refilling it was not only idiotic, it was absurd.

Kenny’s drug store was a small, square aisle-filled mecca of antiseptics, bandages, aspirin, aspirin substitutes, and whatever else he could fit. There were stationery supplies, a paperback book section, greeting cards, and more. If I recall correctly, he didn’t have much in the selection of gum. I’m almost certain that after Kenny’s, we’d take a detour to Marty’s and buy a pack of gum, look at the racks of magazines, maybe sit at the lunch counter if it was a special occasion. Very rarely, but sometimes, we would get an ice cream treat, a cone to take with us. He may have given us a Bazooka Joe piece of gum. I don’t think it was penny candy, but it couldn’t have been more than five cents.

It smelled like a hospital waiting room, and to get to the medicine, I had to walk all the way to the back of the store, to a huge, almost taller than me counter looming with Kenny behind it, smiling, wearing that bluish-white, collared short-sleeved pharmacist shirt, not asking what I needed because he saw me come in and it was already in his hand. I don’t believe there was a co-pay because I never remember giving him any money. It is possible that after the insurance, he sent a bill to my parents for any excess owed. There were no computers; only a big, metal cash register that clanged when the drawer opened.

Behind Kenny were the rows and shelves of medicine that he put into the bottles, printed the labels before he stuck them on, and then placed in the bags waiting for the customers; all done by hand. Sometimes, the labels were even crooked.

After we moved upstate, after I was married, and after Kenny had retired, we were looking for a pharmacy. They weren’t called drug stores anymore. Our landlord recommended a local place. It had been a local place for about seventy-five years, maybe more. We went there. The mayor was our pharmacist. His oldest daughter was on the soccer team with our oldest son. His neighbor, the mom of our son’s friends, was also a pharmacist there as well as School Board member. He is now an Assemblyman for the state. It was similar to Kenny’s, but not quite the same. We still go there despite living about fifteen miles away. I like the familiarity. I like that I have John’s phone number and he’s talked to me about saving money on my co-insurance at the end of each year. Although, one bone to pick would be that I have a hyphenated name, and they can never remember that the first part is not my first name. Come on! It’s been twenty years!

Still, I think I go there instead of the grocery store or the big box stores like Target and Walmart because it does remind me of a time before, of quality goods, of neighborliness, and care taken with the medicine that is there to save our lives and help us live longer and better. It’s just a little extra friendly that we could all use in our daily lives.

50-47 – Niagara Falls

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I can’t remember how many times I’ve been to Niagara Falls. It is the one place that I’ve been to in almost every place of my life. I went as a kid with my parents and siblings, I went with my husband while we were dating, we brought my young son right before he started kindergarten, and we recetnly went with our whole family of five.

The city iteself changes, and over the last forty years or so, the Falls have even changed, but yet, they still remain the same.

I recognize the crowded streets, the carnival like atmosphere, the bright lights, the cold spray from the Falls, the huge ferris wheel that we could see from our hotel room window.

Parking was worse this last time, and I had trouble with my knee, but overall it was a lasting memory that we will enjoy for a long time.

Standing across from the Falls, my hand on the cold stone wall that kept me from falling down the hill to the sharp rocks below. I would stand there and stare, occasionally taking pictures, occasionally closing my eyes and just standing there, listening to the wind, the water hitting the bottom. I couldn’t feel the spray from there, but I could see it.

We wanted to take the kids on the Maid of the Mist, but the boats had also changed. Maid of the Mist only docked on the American side. The Canadian had a new tour from Hornblower Niagara Cruises. The boats were red trimmed, and the ponchos were red and biodegradable. The boat was less choppy and I liked it much better than when I was a kid.

When I was a kid, I refused to go on until my family came back safe, then my Dad took me alone. Since they didn’t drown, I figured it was okay for me to go. The anxiety is strong in me. At that time, you couldn’t keep the rain jackets. They were much heavier, rubbery, and hot, so very hot.

This boat still rocked and we were drenched from going under or close enough to the falls that the spray was heavier than any torrential downpour I’ve ever been in.

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50-32 – Happy Halloween

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Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I tried so hard to find a picure of when I was a kid in the plastic Princess costume – it may have been Sleeping Beauty – but I could not find it. It’ll probably turn up around Christmas.

That is the first costume that I remember wearing as a kid. I have no real memories of other costumes until high school when I went as Oscar Madison one year and wore my Dad’s Army uniform another. Someone shaving creamed my back while I was wearing that and I was so pissed off because I wasn’t supposed to get it dirty.

Over the years, I’ve gone to several Halloween parties, some with themes like science-fiction [I was a Bajoran civilian from DS9] or superheroes and villains [as Poison Ivy].

For a decade I was in a medieval re-enactment group so every weekend was Halloween, only historically accurate.

I remember going through the drive-through at Burger King or Dunkin’ Donuts in full medieval regalia where I would get some odd looks. I went into a 7-11 once to buy soda.

Our friends have a summer family reunion that is a costumed event. Last year, we were pirates and cowboys the year before.

Gishwhes has also afforded me opportunities to dress up, most memorably as Batgirl, an homage to Yvonne Craig who had recently died.

Any excuse to dress up and have fun.

This year’s costume, as journalist/press person, is my first, perrhaps only politically charged costume.

This year, my middle son is a pink dinosaur person with a spear, and he is the happiest little kid in the world. He can’t wait until after Halloween because the pink dinosaur costume is also pajamas, and he will probably wear them every night this winter.

My daughter is Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad, and she is using all of her own clothes. Resourceful, and…a little scary. She decorated an old wiffle-ball bat and I put the makeup on her, and it is perfect.

This is what Halloween is. Kids and fun and candy, of course. This year, we’re also giving out toys and Halloween pencils that we had around the house, leftovers from a school party or McDonald’s happy meal. We did this last year, and the kids were so thrilled to get something like that.

The school parade is in an hour – my daughter’s last one in elementary school; then no more school Halloween parties. It is the end of an era.

50-30 – The Post Office

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I grew up in the post office. Sort of. Both of my parents worked for the post office, and I’d visit them often from when I was young, in elementary school right up to college and after.

I knew where the employee only door was to visit my mother, and I’d walk on through even though it said, No Admittance, Employees Only. This was also my way of bypassing the line and I would give my mother my mail and she’d dump it into the sorting tray.

I used to send a lot of letters and cards to friends and pen pals. I didn’t realize that stamps had to be paid for; that thyey cost money. My parents never asked me for money for stamps.I thought they were a benefit of working for the post office.

I’d leave my mail sticking out of the medicine cabinet mirror in the bathroom at night, and the next morning they’d be gone and on their way to the addressee.

I sat at Gloria’s desk, twirling in her chair, pushing around the cigarette butts in the ashtray with a pencil. I’d use the stampers on blank pieces of routing paper: First Class, Air Mail, Fragile.

On ocassion, I’d sort the mail into the carrier’s trays by zip code.

I would address letters to my grandmother by simply writing Grandma and her address.

I knew the importance of the return address and using a zip code. I rebelled against the zip plus four.

For a long time, I could identify a state by its zip code, and I was one of the only kids in class who knew all the postal abbreviations for all of the states.

Even today, two hundred fifty miles away from those childhood post offices, I still feel at home sending out my letters and packages. I sneak behind the second counter to build my boxes, pack them, address them and tape them closed. This isn’t an official counter where the stamps and money are kept. It is alongside the retail section. It might have had a cash register a long time ago for just the retail items, but it’s just a great space to pack up and get my Christmas presents ready for mailing. I do get asked a lot of questions, though because everyone thinks I work there. I can almost always answer the questions, which makes me feel good too.

As a kid, I knew not to put any mail in the blue neighborhood boxes. I still don’t although the problems that happened in the 70s don’t really happen too much anymore – fireworks in July, eggs at Halloween.I do hand my already stamped mail to the clerk about ninety-nine percent of the time.

Fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous? My clerk knows I know it, and he has to say it anyway, so I just smile and wait patiently to answer him. Usually it’s the first three, especially around the holiday season.

I automatically hand over my credit card, knowing the clerk needs it for the credit transaction.

I’ve asked for tape and markers and staplers.

I almost always use priority mail. I remember when priority mail was guaranteed like express mail is.

The price of stamps almost always goes up right after Mother’s Day, at least it did two or three times in a row.

I remember when computers came into the station, and at my parents’ first station together, we could walk to the pizza place and back. Joe’s Pizza.

As an adult they kind of frown on you spinning the chairs around, but there was not a chair that I didn’t spin when I was a kid.

50-24 – Green Candy Dish

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Top of the dish, closed. (c)2016


That candy dish came to our house when my grandmother moved in with us. I thought it was the most hideous thing ever. There was a mosaic tiled tray that didn’t go with it but managed to fit into the hideous theme that apparently my mother was going for. The green on it was the same color as my grandmother’s green velvet couch, two pieces that separated. When she moved in one half of it went into the basement where I wouold lie down on it, legs over the arm watching baseball and eventually the US hockey team beat the Russians.
Looking at the dish now, I don’t know what it was that I didn’t like. I love the shine of the green even under the specks of dust. The colored tiles seem like painted slate. Someone worked very hard on that art. When I pulled it out of the bookkshelf, I started thnking about where I might put it in my office instead of keeping it safe behind glass. Perhaps put it in my mother’s curio with her rabbi and upside down ashtray that makes him taller.

I also wonder how my grandmother came to have this piece. Was it a wedding gift? It’s proably not old enough for that. I don’t recall her ever going to Israel like other family members did on my mother’s side. 

Maybe it was her new authority in our house that I transferred to her stuff. She lived with us now. She became mean, like a third parent, telling us when to be home, to wash our hands before dinner, you know, usual kid complaining stuff. I could have been better.

Maybe it’s true that we mature as we age, and despite not liking this candy dish as a kid, now that I’m older, I appreciate the fine work that went into it; the distance it traveled to come into my household, and wanting and asking for it when my mother died.

Dish, open. (c)2016



Detail of bottom. Made in Israel. (c)2016

My kids have a better appreciation for their grandparents’ things. They appreciate where they came from and the lives that they lived as kids and young adults. They’ve each had the opportunity to interview my mother-in-law for biographical reports for school and so they talk about her and her experirences often. I wish I was more like them when I was a kid.

50-8 – Summer in the City

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Then and House Rules for Now.

I have one very distinct memory of childhood that doesn’t come from a picture or someone else’s recollection. I am in a very small square kitchen with a few other kids – I want to say a bunch, but a bunch seems too many. We are standing around a small white stove – gas, of course, and there is an adult, but for the life of me I can’t remember which adult it was. I don’t think it was my mother or my grandmother so it may have been a neighbor or the neighbor of a friend. We wandered in those days. Someone was always watching and even if you couldn’t see them or if you didn’t know them, they knew you and your parents and your parents always found out.

The stove was next to a back door and just outside the backdoor was a strip of asphalt or more accurately a cement walkway between the door and the rest of the house, and a patch of grass. There may have been a fence, but that is less clear to me.

We’re standing around the stove, not too close, and the mom whoever she was, and yes, she was a mom, was wearing pants and a turtleneck. The whole scene is colorful in my mind, but I don’t see physical colors; I just know they are there.

The stove is lit with that blue flame that comes up from the pilot and the gas, and the tin foil of the Jiffy Pop is expanding exponentially. The pops popping faster and faster until the foil splits and the popcorn is ready. I know we had red juice to drink, probably Hi-C or more likely Hawaiian Punch Fruit Punch. To this day, whenever my kids are at a party and that is the drink of choice, I always steal some and it tastes just like summer in the city, eight or so years old, running out the back door with a cup spilling over our hands and the other hand carrying as much popcorn as is humanly possible.

My kids saw Jiffy Pop once and it was a fandom thing, but I might have to get one for this summer. They know precisely how to make microwave popcorn and for them that is their pop-popping memory, but there is something about the foil splitting that says it’s ready that really has all the feels.

As a kid, we were never the Kool-Aid house. We lived in a court so if the kids wanted anything they went home for a minute or two.

When I had kids, I wanted to be the Kool-Aid house, but that lasted all of three minutes. I babysat for a couple of kids when my son was young, and they were great kids. Really. But every time they would jump on my furniture, not a constant jumping, but a normal, excited, jump, once, no big deal, it would make me crazy. I had to walk away so as not to yell at them because even though I didn’t realize it was an anxiety thing, I knew that what they were doing was appropriate for their age. It just bothered me, and most of the time, I bit my lip and let them be kids, but it was hard for me. I know that some of that comes from my mother having a “formal” living room with plastic on the furniture that even when company was over, we weren’t allowed to sit on. That was for company. And so despite none of my apartments having a den, I still felt that my living room was more for adults than kids. We kept glass out, and decor because my son was really good about not getting into things. Other kids, though… And his brother and sister when they came along had no concept of don’t touch, don’t drop, don’t, don’t, don’t.

We’re always cluttered. We have toys and magazines and comic books and hair ties all over the place. We live in our house even if sometimes we feel claustrophobic from all the disarray. We’ve gotten most of it under control for my son’s girlfriend to visit – the dreaded popover. My daughter has a friend who lives a few houses down. He came by and didn’t knock but waited patiently for someone to hear the screen door open. He’s done that three times already. The other day, it happened: “Can I give M some water?” Sure. “Can M use the bathroom?” Um…okay. And so it begins. With or without the fruit punch, we might be the Kool Aid house after all; for at least one friend. It must be time for –

HOUSE. RULES.

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50-4 – Kitchen Zest

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In recent months and recenter days my monthly writing workshop has given prompts that refer to the kitchen. Well, let me correct that. The November prompt was about the kitchen and how it was different and/or similar to the one we had growing up. The March prompt was zest, which I took to mean the kitchen item, so for me the two prompts were about the kitchen. By way of this introduction, I hope that I succeed in blending the two into a competent essay (is there another word for essay – that sounds very middle school-y. Also article makes it sound dull and informative. Everything around me speaks to my writing, my words and the use of them. Including this whatever it is about kitchens.)

My kitchen growing up was already pretty modern albeit with the avocado and mustard colors of the seventies. I. understand that these are coming back in a retro look. One word: why? Lord, please no. Not that my current black and white cow kitchen is all that special, but seriously, just no.

In our house, we complained constantly about loading and emptying the dishwasher. We don’t have a dishwasher. I would love a dishwasher even if my husband does do most of the dishes.

My parents always had a coffee maker. My Dad drank coffee every day, throughout the day. He would often make a full pot as if company were coming and still go out to the local deli for a Styrofoam cup there too. In my house now, we only recently got a coffee maker because my son asked for it as a Christmas present for his father with the half wink that he wouldn’t mind using it as well. I know for a fact that if I was a coffee drinker we’d have one of those machines that does everything from grinding the beans to foaming the milk. I’m a tea drinker. The most complicated device for making my tea is the loose tea strainer that must be emptied and rinsed. It is the only thing I wash immediately upon finishing its use.

In my parents’ house, we had a clear glass pot. It must have had a lid at some point, but I never remember it. We never had a kettle. This was the pot we’d boil water in for tea or hot chocolate. More often than not, I’d boil eggs for my father for him to enjoy hard-boiled eggs. Ironically that along with not drinking coffee, hard-boiled eggs repulse me. My grandmother had one of those metal percolators. To me that will always be the three-dimensional puzzle that I played with on her kitchen floor. Fitting all the pieces together in the right way was how I spent much of my toddlerhood and preschool life.

Our kitchen looks modern with an electric stove and a microwave that is twenty-one years old, but doesn’t look a day over ten. Our counters are Formica or some other kind of plastic, very similar to my family’s old kitchen table. The sink leaks although we’ve changed out the faucet and now it’s much better. The fridge is a testament to American craftsmanship, and hopefully will continue on until we have the money to replace it, millions of years in the future.

The one thing my kitchen has that my house didn’t is a window over the sink that looks out over the backyard. I actually enjoy doing the dishes if I can look out of a window to the world outside. Depression killed that small pleasure.

My mother had a toaster and a toaster oven. We have both in one appliance. It was a gift from my brother and it is probably the most useful thing that we have in our kitchen. Also the most used.

I have about a thousand spices more than my mother’s kitchen. She had four – black pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and onion powder. Salt didn’t count as a spice but she had that as well. Morton’s, of course. When I was married and moved into my first apartment, my mother gave us a container of Morton’s salt (it’s a Jewish tradition to give bread and salt for a new house, although I’m sure it’s not limited to only that culture). We had that same original container of salt when we moved, had our first child and moved again.  My spices come from Penzeys or the Spanish section in my local supermarket. My friend also sent me spice samples from California – one month Indian, one Asian, one Hispanic, and soon I was hooked into playing around in the kitchen with a variety of tastes and flavors, mixing cultures and flavors and loving it.

My mother was not much of a cook. She had one or two things that she did and she did them really well. The smell of meatloaf baking or a roast beef just come out of the oven take me back to the couple of the things my family actually cooked. My mother made roasts all the time – regular roast beef from an eye round or top round, and pot roast in a Ziploc oven bag from a bottom round. I was the meatball and meatloaf maker and mixer. My Dad loved it and so it was my job to make it every couple of weeks. My kids finally like the meatloaf, so it will become a staple in our kitchen again. Instead of ketchup, try it with some HP Sauce. Check the international aisle – it’s from Great Britain and it’s fantastic.

For a long time during my childhood, my grandmother (or her sister, my aunt) lived with us, practically the whole time, so she did all the cooking since my parents both worked. Nothing really stands out which is sad. I’m sure she must have made some good meals. What’s really sad is that I would probably remember them more if they were terrible. After she went into a nursing home, it fell to my parents. I was often asked by my father to make those meatballs or a meatloaf or even to boil the eggs for him. We never ate chicken unless it was fried chicken from a take-out place. Best. Fried. Chicken. Ever. My mother had a real aversion to raw chicken.

When I got married and started cooking real food, I cooked everything. I called it “from scratch” but I didn’t bake bread or mix my own icing or anything like that. I’d buy the boneless chicken, put a sauce on it, bake it and make the rice and some kind of frozen vegetable boiled on the stove top. At least I stopped eating canned except for green bean casserole or what cans we get generously from the church. I actually never used my microwave except as a timer that first year and probably not even until after my son was born. As I mentioned above, we still use that same microwave today. Popcorn, leftovers, frozen burritos.

The reason I’m reminded of this is that simple word, the prompt – zest. I had no idea what it was, what it meant. There was a soap called Zest; somewhat reminiscent or similar to Irish Spring, but putting that in an ingredient for cake didn’t make much sense at all. Even to a novice in the kitchen like me.

Having quite the Tupperware collection, I definitely had a zester; it was one of those freebies you got for attending a party or playing a game. I still didn’t know what it did.

Was the zest the same as the rind? What was the rind anyway? Do you mean the skin off the lemon? Orange? Limes? People use limes?Why? Do they mean the part that gets peeled off and thrown away? The garbage? You want to put the garbage in the cake or the pie or the syrup? I just don’t understand.

And I wouldn’t for many years. If it called for zest or rind, I left it out or added a tiny bit more extra juice – same thing, right?

Finally, a close friend took pity on me. He taught me how to bake bread over the phone. Caramel, too. And how to zest an orange. Or a lemon. It’s pretty much universal, I think. He is why I have a small jar of dried orange peels in my refrigerator at this very moment.

I still don’t understand what difference it makes.

All I know is that my children will never know this intellectual emptiness of wondering and being embarrassed with their lack of zesty intelligentsia. Fortunately for them, when I’m cooking or baking or experimenting in the kitchen I have my trusty tablet, one screen opened to my cookbook, one opened to the Google home page for any questions that might arise. like that loaf of fresh bread under the tea towel. Why they’re called tea towels is another mystery to my pre-cooking self; one that will undoubtedly be rehashed here in future days.

50-3 – My Earliest Memory

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Several of my early childhood memories come from photos; things I think I remember but can’t possibly. Or I remember the distorted memory combination  of vagueness, photograph, and someone else’s recollection.

One thing that I distinctly remember happening was when we were living in a Queens apartment. It was a somewhat dark apartment with table lamps and heavy drapes. We lived on the second floor and there was a big picture window across the living room. I think I was wearing a yellow dress and my hair wasn’t a bob – it was too messy to make a proper bob, but it was neck length and all over the place with those baby curls that nearly everyone has in toddlerhood.

We had no screens on the windows and they opened with those crank handles. There was a bird sitting on the windowsill, chirping, and I wanted him to come in to play or to visit or whatever toddlers think they want when nature is so close and yet so far.

I cranked open the window and in he flew.

This was great for about a second and a half until the bird realized that he was inside and I also realized that he was inside. He didn’t bounce off walls or shriek. He left that to me. I ran around our living room and then into our kitchen – it was a combination kitchen/dining area and stood on the table, yelling at. my mother to get rid of it.

It swooped and hovered and never once tried to leave.

My mother with all the grace of a cackling scarecrow chased it around the apartment with a broom until he flew right back out of the window.

My mother cranked the window shut and that was the end of my bird watching days.

She may have given me a glare as reprimand.

This might be one of the reasons that my family never had any pets.

I Remember…Chanukah

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This is my daughter’s dresser. I don’t know how her clothes fit in here. With the closet and the pjs under her bed, sweaters in the basket next to the dresser, she manages to get it all in. Mostly. This was my dresser when I was a baby, but what I remember this dresser most for was hat it sat in the living room of our NYC apartment (and later of our suburban house). In our two bedroom apartment it was placed against one long wall directly across from our green patterned sofa. During Passover, we’d walk along it on our way to leave a glass of wine for Elijah on the radiator.

In front of the radiator was a television stand, one of those carts with wheels that our television sat on. I remember sitting on that sofa watching Fonzie jump over a shark on Happy Days (although I think that it’s the sofa I’m remembering and not the apartment.) I also remember spending a day or two curled up there, under a warm blanket when I was sick and stayed home from school. It is a comforting memory of warm soup or mashed sweet potatoes with butter and the television.

Behind the television cart is a medium sized picture window that I can still see my brother and I looking out of while we were home with the chicken pox. When we recovered, my sister got them. Some things we didn’t mind sharing more than others.

What I remember most about that dresser, though is the three little piles of Chanukah presents on the floor in front of it, waiting to be opened each night after we lit the candles on the menorah. The menorah was placed on the dining room table on a small sheet of aluminum foil. My mother would never put the burning candles on the dresser; they might start a fire. As the oldest and the only one attending Hebrew school as it were, it was probably my job to do most of the lighting. The candles came in a box of forty-four, different colors that were randomly chosen each night and lit, reading the prayer from the side of the box. We might sing a song and play dreidl. My cousins lived in the same garden apartment complex so they were probably around more often then not. We went to the same shul where we learned the songs and traditions of the holidays. I thought I remembered it differently but when I saw those cousins recently they had the same memories of music in the school basement and we kids not being allowed into the temple on the High Holidays. We used to play in the parking lot, which seems a ludicrous idea today.

Describing the gifts as a pile makes it seem much bigger than it actually was. Yes, there were eight gifts, but they were all small things. Each one wrapped carefully in white paper adorned with multi-hued blue Stars of David and dreidls. We would of course get dreidls and gelt, probably on the first night. One of my favorite things about celebrating Chanukah today is the taste of the gelt. It’s not anything fancy or special but it tastes exactly the same as it did when I was a schoolgirl. My kids wonder why I won’t share mine with them. After all, they each get their own bag of gelt.

Choosing which gift to open was a several minute decision making process. Picking each package up, shaking it slightly, bringing it to my ear as if I would hear something or smell something underneath the packaging and the paper. Nothing was hidden; it was all wrapped around whatever the shape of the package was. Shake the rectangular box. Should I open the Barbie doll shaped package? Or the Barbie doll clothes shaped package? There might have been puzzles and books too. No Nintendo. No tablets. No smartphones. What a simple, beautiful time that holiday was. Everyone in our court had an electric menorah in their windows or their curtains were open and we could see the candles burning deep inside their apartments.

There were also latkes to look forward to. They came from a box, but after mixing and refrigerating and then frying them in the pan, they were as homemade as they could be. The house smelled of the oil, and they were eaten hot with applesauce and sour cream. Back then, they were the only thing that I ate sour cream with. When I cook them today for my family, I still use vegetable oil. They are the only things that I cook in vegetable oil. I tried olive once, but the smell didn’t work for me, so I went back to the usual vegetable oil and they were perfect. Applesauce and sour cream could give any kind of potato pancake that latkes taste, even frozen or those triangles from Arby’s, but there is nothing like the real thing, frying them alongside the burning candles on the dining room table.

For the holiday we celebrate in our family with my children, we keep Chanukah separate from Christmas. That is my personal thing; pet peeve if you will; the one tradition I don’t want to share. I’m fine with families that celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas; we’re one of them, but I prefer to keep the two separate even when they fall in the same week. My personal feeling is that it keeps their significance and their importance significant, and important. For Chanukah, we don’t give eight presents anymore. Some years they might get one larger gift on the first night, but most years they get a new dreidl and a bag of gelt. Some years they get stickers or pencils or an extra something, but we still keep it a little simpler.

Simple, minimalist, centered on the eight candles burning like they kept the fire burning in the temple for eight days until the oil could get there. Just like Christmas, it is a reminder of a time long ago, a history that we forget too often, and the simplicity of working together and taking care of each other.

That’s what this dresser reminds me of – my family and all the special things they taught me, especially when they weren’t trying to teach me anything at all.

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Happy Chanukah.