Keeping My Mother’s Spirit Alive
Esther Mizrachi Moritz, an attorney who lives in Austin, Texas, writes fiction, personal essays, and educational materials for students in grades K through 12. Her personal essays have been published in Lilith magazine, and she is currently working on her first novel. This piece was written especially for Mother U.
Directly after my mother’s funeral in February of 2009, a crowd of people filled my parents’ tiny Brooklyn living room. I made a beeline for the freezer. Heart pounding, I opened it, hoping to find some sambusak. I was obsessed with the idea of bringing home my mother’s Middle-Eastern delicacies to my children, Alexis and Jesse, then 13 and 16.
Sure enough, at the very back of the freezer, I found a plastic bag with two artful, cheese-filled treats. The buttery aroma of my childhood filled my nose as I remembered standing in front of the oven, hunger pangs in my belly, asking my mother whether they were done yet. She would laugh and say, “Patience is a virtue, mi amor.”
My mother’s kitchen, a testament to her Latin/Jewish roots, was always abuzz—Salsa music blasting on the radio, Middle Eastern spices wafting from the stove, the yellow phone wire stretched across the kitchen as she chatted loudly in Spanish. Occasionally, she would burst into song or do a little dance while chopping vegetables and stirring pots. When she made sambusak, her boney hands were as efficient and exacting as a machine, a skill she had learned from her mother, an Egyptian Jew.
“Press the dough thinner and more evenly,” she’d comment when I tried to help. “Not so much cheese, they will explode in the oven. Pinch them more consistently so you make a pretty pattern around the edge.” I tried, but when my little crescents came out of the oven, they didn’t look like hers. “You’ll learn,” she reassured me. “Just keep trying.”
As I stood in her now empty kitchen, her two last sambusak in my hand, tears filled my eyes. Even frozen, the dough was a tangible connection to my mother and to her mother. I realized in that moment that I needed to keep my mother’s spirit alive—not just for my children but for me.
I have since learned that helping your children remember a beloved grandmother–and keeping her alive in your own heart–is not easy. But, as my mother once advised, I keep trying, focusing on the ways that she touched our lives. Here are some strategies that I’ve learned from my own and others’ experiences:
Cherish sensory memories. Tastes, smells and sounds can evoke joyous moments. I also make stuffed grape leaves and hammod, a Sephardic lemon-mint soup. The aromas and tastes of these foods transport me and my children to my mother’s bustling kitchen. Similarly, when I hear certain Spanish songs, I can almost hear her singing along.
Continue rituals and traditions. Each year, on my mother’s birthday, the kids and I have agreed to make sambusak in her honor. Recently, a friend told me that she was busy sewing together a half-made quilt her mother had started for her daughter. Other rituals can be less overt. Every fall, when I take my daughter shopping for clothes, I recall the excitement of similar expeditions with my mom.
Reminisce about funny memories. My friend Rachel recently laughed with her children about her mom’s embarrassing habit of bursting into song as they walked down New York City streets. One day, as she was telling her mother to stop singing, Peter Falk of Columbo fame, walked up to her and told her that she should appreciate her mother’s joyful exuberance. You can also make your mother part of a solemn occasion. In his Bar Mitzvah speech, a friend’s son tenderly acknowledged that his beloved Grandma was there in spirit.
Small tokens can evoke big memories. Stashed in my son’s closet is a large penguin cookie jar from my mother’s house. My friend Christy acquired her grandmother’s costume jewelry collection and frequently wears pieces of it to keep her grandmother with her.
Don’t try to be your mother. Just stay connected and cherish the moments when you see that you really are keeping her spirit alive. This past year, for example, after months of trying to make sambusak just like my mother did, I knew I hit a milestone: “If you close your eyes,” my son said as he tasted one hot out of the oven, “you can’t tell the difference between yours and Grandma’s.”