How My Grandmother's Legacy Lives On In Her Chicken Soup
August 13, 2005. The night of my 39th birthday. Instead of a happy celebration, that day became consumed with fear that my birthday would forever be known as the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. At 88 she had been in failing health, with many a scare that her last breath was fast approaching. On that Saturday night, I could hear the collision course in my head. My beloved grandmother was going to die on my birthday.
Hours after a family Hibachi dinner, my parents would head to the assisted living facility that had become Mama’s happy home. The pact became “No matter what the clock says, Mama is not going to die on August 13th.” Thankfully, it never came to that. She died at 3 a.m. on August 14th, which in my world was still too close for comfort.
To have a grandmother in your life for 39 years is a blessing most people can’t relate to. As I tried to cope with my grief, the words of consolation to just feel lucky that I had her for so long fell on deaf ears. What people failed to understand was the meaning behind having her for so long. Everything I did going forward held a memory or connection to her. I would stand in the kitchen cutting up a cantaloupe and remember how the first course of every dinner at her house was a wedge of melon. An escalator ride in Macy’s launched me into a flashback of being a little girl and going shopping with her. Driving past a car moving at a snail’s pace would remind me of the time she got a ticket for driving too slow. The memories surrounded me constantly, some bringing comfort and some fueling outbursts of sadness and tears.
One month after Mama’s passing, we were facing the first Jewish holidays without her. It had been years since she was at the helm of the celebration, but she didn’t need to be in the kitchen for us to enjoy her food. As a child who lost her mother at age 7, Mama had taught herself to cook some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted. Her brisket recipe was a must during the holidays, always accompanied by her famous green Jello with pineapple. But her one true signature dish would forever be her chicken soup, homemade for every holiday in a special pot that we all decided added an unknown magical ingredient to make it taste so good.
"The miracle of that first holiday and every single one that followed was the fact that Mama could still celebrate with us. The food made any house smell like her house. She could be there even when she wasn’t."
The miracle of that first holiday and every single one that followed was the fact that Mama could still celebrate with us. The food made any house smell like her house. She could be there even when she wasn’t. And whenever it was my turn to make the soup, my dog would bark at her pot as if to say that she was proud of me for continuing our special family tradition.
Mama’s chicken soup became much more than what some people refer to as Jewish penicillin. For our family, it was now a bonding thread. There is something about that soup that instills excitement in every generation of our family. It’s a given that before every holiday someone in the family will ask, “Are we having Mama’s soup?” One cousin makes it a competition to have as many bowls as possible when we get together for Yom Kippur to break the fast. This year, he will proudly tell you that he downed five bowls, matzoh balls included. And during the first few months of the pandemic, my son refused to leave New York City until I lured him home with Mama’s soup. During those trying days, I was especially thankful for the power of that soup.
Mama’s soup also made its way onto the pages of my son’s college application. He was asked to write about a family legacy and he didn’t have to think twice about what subject matter to use. He went into great detail about the fresh ingredients, the amazing taste, and the immeasurable value of a fresh pot of soup. I’m sure there were many reasons that he received an acceptance letter, but deep in my heart I know that Mama’s soup had something to do with it.
Mama left behind a legacy that includes kindness, generosity, and overflowing amounts of unconditional love. As time naturally fades the recollections of our special moments together, I am so grateful that we have a way to consistently bring her back to life. Mortality is inevitable for all of us, but in our family, we have one way around the unavoidable ending: chicken soup never dies.