Everyone liked my mom, Beverly, and during her 88 years of life, she shared a multitude of friendships. One special friend was Sylvia, a Holocaust survivor several years my mother’s senior.
Sylvia was crazy about my mom. She would often tell the story about how difficult it was being a survivor trying to make “American friends,” and how she loved that my “American” mom loved her just as she was.
Sylvia and my mom did many things together, including making gefilte fish.
When my daughter Leah was in elementary school, she helped her grandma and her grandma’s friend Sylvia with the gefilte fish preparation. As a matter of fact, for the longest time my daughter often referred to Sylvia as “Mrs. Gefilte Fish.”
My mother passed away in April. The day of her funeral was unpleasantly windy, cold and drizzly. The services were graveside. Our many friends and relatives huddled under a large canopy that rattled with every gust of wind.
My 91-year-old dad wrote a eulogy for my mom and asked our rabbi to read it for him. It highlighted 68 happy and blessed years of marriage.
I spoke about growing up in a house that was open to everyone, and of my mother’s cherished virtues. My wife, Judy, talked about how my mom loved her “unconditionally.”
Leah had a very close and unique relationship with her grandmother. The rabbi called on her to give the last eulogy. Just six weeks earlier, he had presided over my daughter’s marriage; Grandma was there in a wheelchair, but could stay only for the ceremony.
“I once wrote a paper when I was a young girl in school,” Leah began. “I called it ‘Gefilte Fish,’ but it was really about my special relationship with my grandmother.” Then she read her school essay aloud:
“I hate gefilte fish. I hate the smell of it. I hate the way it tastes. I hate how gefilte fish makes your breath stink and I hate even more when you have to kiss a family member goodbye who just finished eating it. … Yet, most members of my family do not feel the same way as I do. They love gefilte fish and look forward to Passover, so they can eat gefilte fish my grandmother makes.
“One year, I slept over at my grandparents’ house the day before Passover. My grandma and her friend Sylvia make their famous gefilte fish together every year. This year, I was going to be part of their famous tradition. I was so excited.
“I helped crack the eggs, add the salt, matzah meal, carrots, etc. Then it came time to chop the onions. I didn’t even get to finish peeling one onion before I began crying my eyes out. My eyes stung, I was in so much pain. But I wanted to finish the job. When my eyes began to throb, I rubbed them with my hands that had been touching the onions, which made me cry more and harder.
“My grandma was so concerned about me and felt guilty for not warning me about the onions. As she washed my stinging eyes and hands, I could really tell how much my grandma loved and cared for me. Now that I think of it, even though I hate gefilte fish, I love being with my family celebrating the holidays.”
When she finished, we recited Kaddish. My mother’s casket was slowly lowered into the ground, the three shovelfuls of dirt tossed onto the coffin. People embraced one another and departed to the shiva.
For a moment, I was alone with my thoughts, looking down at the ground and thinking about the loss of my mother. I raised my eyes. Standing before me stood a frail old woman, braving the cold, supported by her son. Teary eyed, she looked at me.
It was Sylvia — Mrs. Gefilte Fish.
Residing for many years in an assisted-living residence, and well into her 90s, she was the last person I expected to see at my mother’s funeral.
Until this point, I had pretty much kept my emotions in check. I threw my arms around her, and with tears welling in my eyes, I said, “Now I am going to cry.”
Harold Witkov is a freelance writer in Downers Grove, Illinois.