My first apartment in New Jersey, after I returned from the West Coast, was at the back end of a long, two story half-empty building, where the only other tenants on my floor (or so it seemed to me) were an older woman named Marcia and an older man named Harry.
Harry lived next door to me, and he hadn't been well past mid-life, I would have said he was having a midlife crisis. He drove a red sportscar and had a bleach-blonde older girlfriend. I didn't see much of him, beyond his comings and goings. I may or may not have heard him (and his girlfriend) at night.
Marcia lived across the hall from me, in an apartment that always seemed to be full of steam. Our building was perpetually cold (because our landlord was a miserly SOB, earning tax credits for his empty apartments, despite our super's best efforts to make the place liveable), and so Marcia would boil great pots of water on her stove, heating her cramped space as best she could, covering herself with hand-crocheted blankets in the most raucous of colors. When I knocked at her door, I knew that I'd be in for an hour long conversation, and that she would implore me (in a way that was impossible to refuse: "Zhus-tin," she would call) to come, to sit, and to eat: small hard blueberry muffins, or dry crumbly cookies, or something that her son had brought, which was "too much" for her to eat alone.
Marcia was a Holocaust survivor. Her sister, who lived in Brazil, was her only other surviving relative; sometimes when I went to visit, as I often did on the weekends or after work, I would find her laboring over her letters, or talking a million miles an hour in Hebrew, long distance. She never told me her story, though she alluded to it; she didn't want to talk about it, she said, because it was too sad for me. (She eventually published a memoir, here, which I discovered just this week.) I never understood what she meant by that, but I told her it was OK, and that I loved her, and that I was glad I lived there with her, grateful for her friendship. On rare occasions, wiping away her tears, she would confide to me she thought she was spared for Ora, her granddaughter, to leave her legacy with her. Selfishly, sometimes, though I would never tell her so, I thought she was spared for me, too.
I dated my husband when I lived there, and when we got engaged, she was one of the first people we told. I remember her blessing us, and trembling with joy, and telling me how sad she was that I would be leaving, but what a happy life we would have together. One day she called us in, presenting us with a wedding present: a silver serving plate, embossed in great detail with grapes and leaves and vines. She told us that it was symbolic; that in Jewish weddings the secret to happiness is in the blessings over the wine.
We visited her occasionally those first few years; she left our complex not long after I did, when her son, finally taking issue with the lack of heat and other creature comforts, decided to buy a condominium for her with a scenic view of the park that boundaried the nearby river. I loved seeing her in her new place, with the same crocheted blankets flung over the backs of furniture. She still fed us cookies and fruit and tea. But after my son was born, we slowly lost touch.
We don't have much in the way of fancy serving ware, but every once in a while, we use Marcia's plate for a special occasion, usually to serve bread, wrapped in a cloth napkin; every time, I remember her blessings.
I took Marcia's plate out of the cabinet last week, thinking that I'd put it in the bin to bring over to the new house, and decided to polish it up a bit first. I hadn't realized that it had so tarnished over the years that the spaces between the details were outlined in black; S. and I both thought it had been that way always. I scrubbed and scrubbed with polish and paper towel; we tried a soft-bristled toothbrush to get the polish in between the cracks; S. tried submerging it with aluminum foil in a baking soda solution. I've spent hours on the project, and though in some spots it now gleams, still, the more I polish it, the more I see the tarnish left where I have more work to do. Marcia, reminding us not to put her away for too long this time, to do the hard work of memory that keeps legacies visible.
Legacies are complicated things. We never know what kind of impressions we've made. But I hope that I'll leave behind pieces of myself that are as stubborn and beautiful as Marcia's are, even now.
A friend shared this recipe, and refers to it as "Mother Hudak's" Soda Bread. I don't know who Mother Hudak is, but I'm glad that she's left me this piece of herself, whoever she is. Though it's from a very different tradition, it's actually not all that different from something we might have been served at Marcia's over tea.
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½ c sugar
1 c raisins
1 c sour cream
¼ c milk
Preheat oven to 350, and prepare a baking pan by greasing it or lining it with parchment.
Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl with a whisk. Add raisins to mixture.
Beat egg and make a hole in center of mixture – add beaten egg, and mix well with a fork.
Cream together and add to bread mixture the sour cream and milk. Fold dough together gently using a spatula.
Dump the dough from the bowl onto the pan and shape into a loaf; bake for 35 minutes to an hour depending on how crusty you like it. When crust looks brown and done, it’s likely not baked thoroughly inside. You'll likely want to cover the bread with aluminum foil on top and continue baking for ~ 15 more minutes.