IF you ask Grandma, they’re blintzes, or blini as they call them in the old country. She folds the ricotta into the cream cheese with a spatula to make a sweet, cumulus filling. You go to the basement, where the jars of blueberry jam on the shelves are deep bruises between vessels of rubied pickled peppers and silvery herring, all labelled with strips of surgical tape. You choose an opaque jar, almost black, because the jam is thick and will rest gracefully on the steaming pockets.

If you ask Omi, a hemisphere away, they’re pfannkuchen, meant to be sprinkled with sparkly brown sugar, cinnamon and applesauce, then rolled loosely, and decorated with dollops of whipped cream. Both grandmothers ladle pale batter onto inverted cast iron pans on the stovetop, and in both kitchens, the liquid runs to the end of the edgeless dome and hangs on the horizon. Then it solidifies into a golden sheet and peels off like a perfect sticker.

• • •

At public school, you’re the expert on latkes and the Maccabees. With a snap of your forefinger and thumb, you send a dreidel whirling off the wooden desk. You hand out gold chocolate coins and everyone wants to learn how to play.

Other times you carry plates of German cookies to class and point out the different kinds: Zimtsterne, the cinnamon and almond stars Mom let you paint carefully with egg whites; the crescent mooned Vanille Kipferl covered with icing sugar; Ausstecher, the lemony shortbread pressed into angels and snowflakes. Some kids laugh at the names; teachers say they’re pretty enough to be sold in bakeries.

• • •

In a small town outside of Stuttgart, nestled at the foot of rolling green hills growing heavy grapes that your mom mischievously plucked as a girl, you sit three floors up in Omi and Opa’s dining room for lunch. The table is covered with a starchy, white tablecloth free from wrinkles; it falls symmetrically off the corners in crisp folds. A pyramid of bratwurst, three different salads, and a pot of spätzle with lentil stew wait patiently. Before lunch, you watched Omi grate the floury dough into a pot of boiling water and waited for the little dumplings to surrender to the surface.

There is too much food, as always. The potato salad squeaks when tossed in its oil and vinegar dressing, as it should, and the bratwurst snaps between your teeth. You try not to leave scraps. As a kid you saw Opa finish an entire apple, including the core, and a lemon slice with the peel. During the war they had nothing, Mom told you later. In the four years since you last saw them, Omi and Opa have become variations of your memory, like they’ve slipped quietly out of the solid outlines that existed in your mind when you thought of them. They’re thinner: Opa moved his wedding band to his middle finger, but it still slides down to his knuckle when he pours the wine. Everyone is supposed to speak louder, although with your rusty German you barely speak at all, except in smiles and enthusiastic nods, with laughter. You can still understand. You take more salad and more spätzle, until it’s impossible to stomach more. Then you wait ten minutes and accept another spoonful.

After lunch, while the coffee brews, you all gather in the living room and lean over a crisp album of black and white photographs of relatives. Opa points out people in family portraits, and you notice how they sit with such straight spines. Their faces glow like moons. Stopping at one page, he tells you, “I think their kids live in Berlin now.” He flips the page and says, matter-of-factly, “He died in the war,” and points at a photograph on the opposite page: “They moved to America, maybe you could find their grandchildren on the Internet?”

A warm breeze flows through the windows and it’s not the flowers blooming wildly all around the apartment building that you smell, but rather the sharp scent of the soil they’re planted in. You hear the laundry flapping in the wind and picture it half-pirouetting in the sunlight, held at the shoulders by wooden clips. You wonder if the flowers bloomed during the war, if anyone tended to them. Did the laundry dance then, too? You wonder what it smells like here in the winter.

• • •

Back home, most Sunday nights are spent at your grandparents’ house. In their dining room, the table is draped with a creamy tablecloth that gets tossed in the washing machine after dinner, and spills are abundant: the red wine, the gravy, a smear of margarine meant for the challah. The cloth becomes a map, a topography that could be studied to piece the whole evening back together. The semi-circle of crumbs collected where your brother sat; the drops of merlot rained from Grandpa’s glass when he laughed.

The cabinets in the corners host relics from the decades. Your eyes always settle on something new: blue china platters that have never felt food, blown glass vases from a trip to Venice, or a set of gold-rimmed teacups lined up like soldiers, all their elbows angled identically. You stare into the dark, oily paintings of forests and rivers hanging around the room.

The silver folding chairs are carried up from the basement to squeeze in all the great-aunts and uncles on special occasions. On those nights, Grandma rushes to and from the kitchen with plates of kugel and slivers of turkey glistening on lettuce beds. You have to tuck in your elbows to cut your food, and you spend more time passing around dishes than eating. You serve each other with shiny ladles and enormous three-pronged forks. How many pieces do you want? One, two? Take three!

You wonder, of course. At Passover Seder, you take two slices of tangy Gefilte fish loaf and watch your brother struggling with his sliding yarmulke across the table, and the thought flits from ear to ear. You think: in different times, in other circumstances, would you have been the first to hide? You tell yourself you were born when you were born, because of history, not in spite of it. Change one thing in the past and the whole present shifts. But still. What if?

• • •

Your fourth grade teacher scrawls Holocaust on the chalkboard in cursive and you watch the letters loop together so easily. She turns to the class and you see the words, the things that you are, shoot out of her mouth into the air in bold and italics. You want to raise your hand to ask What if I’m both? But you don’t want to step into the light. A knot begins to grow in your stomach, frayed with sadness, wound with guilt and the inevitable questions. Do you want to trace your roots through the soil?

• • •

In the cabinet above the stove, your mom’s cookbook collection ranges from The Joy of Jewish Cooking to a German cookbook filled with penciled notes you squint to read. She makes latkes at Christmas and the smoke from the bubbling oil fills the whole house with a greasy haze that stings your eyes. You laugh and open the windows, the front door to let it escape. You eat squeaky potato salad with cucumbers in the summer, and noodle kugel with apple and cranberries in the winter. Your parents broke a glass beneath their feet to shouts of Mazel Tov! at their wedding; they bowed their heads to cheers of Prost! before tasting the wine. The dance floor felt the tiptoe of the waltz and the bouncing of the Horah.

• • •

You taste the recipes of your ancestors at two tables; in each seat, you feel whole in different ways and more so with every bite. It’s later, when you’ve left the dining room, that you consider the similarities and the differences: the lack of salt, the added salt, the portions, the gentle garnishes. At two tables, over different cloths, you savour the tastes. You take seconds. One day, the cookbooks will find a way into your kitchen, and you’ll try to read the cursive in the margins.


© 2015 Madeleine Leznoff. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, June 2015.


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