In the days, long ago, when chicken soup was known to have medicinal qualities but before it became a cure for what ailed the American soul, Auntie Bessie stood over a cauldron of chicken carcasses set atop a hulking stove at Rubin’s kosher deli in Brookline. Deep inside the shop, away from the sunlit storefront, Auntie Bessie rendered pots of chicken fat and prepped giant pans in a white butcher’s apron that covered her from sternum to ankle. She kept the back door open, letting in air and what light there was from the parking lot. Even in the winter, when the wind rattled the screen against its latch, gusts of boiled chicken, carrots, and onions warmed and moistened the air.
Rubin’s housed the old world, what was left of it, sliced up and stuffed inside a bulky roll. At home my parents joked about the schmaltz in Jewish foods and Jewish mothers with their battle cry, “Eat, eat.” But at Rubin’s, the fat-marbled meats were sealed like museum treasures in glass cases. And for all the calories they served up, Auntie Bessie, who worked in the kitchen, and her brother, who owned Rubin’s, were lean—all gristle and bone.
On visits, my sister and I followed my father into the pungent aromas of pastrami and full-sour pickles. He was the son of Auntie Bessie’s sister, which made him deli royalty, and he strode straight through to the back of the shop and swung open the kitchen door.
“Hello, Auntie Bessie. Look who I’ve brought to see you,” he said. He held the door ajar so that Leslie and I could duck under his arm and enter the close room.
“Well, isn’t that something,” said Auntie Bessie. She put down her ladle and walked over, wiping her hands on a towel folded over the tie of her apron.
Auntie Bessie crouched down, though she didn’t have to. At the age of eleven, I was already as tall as she was, and Leslie was only an inch or two behind me.
“Girls,” she said, in her hushed, worried voice. “You must be hungry. What would you like?”
“Noodle pudding,” said Leslie.
“She means kugel,” I said, showing my superior knowledge of the world—the old world, anyway. With my frizzy curls and olive skin, I was clearly a product of the shtetl, while Leslie’s blond, straight hair and blue eyes made her look more all-American than I ever would.
Auntie Bessie cracked a smile. “Heh heh heh. Isn’t she something? She likes my lokshen kugel,” she said, glancing up through pointy glasses at my father. She turned back to Leslie. “Go have a seat,” she said, “and I’ll bring you your noodle pudding. Heh heh heh.” She shooed us out through the swinging door.
My father, Leslie, and I crowded around a table that barely covered our three sets of knees. Soon Auntie Bessie swung through the kitchen door, balancing a tray the size of an extra-large pizza on her shoulder. Leveling it on the table’s edge, she served us the promised square of noodle kugel, baked with egg and fragrant of cinnamon; meat knishes warmed to a perfect crunch; matzo ball soup; a roll of stuffed cabbage—a bite of this, a taste of that. She made three trips in and out of the kitchen and then, finally, she joined us. But she wouldn’t sit in the chair my father pulled over for her. Instead she draped her hand over the back of his chair and shifted her weight to one hip.
“Daniel,” she said, “how’s everything?” She called him “Daniel,” not Dan, and when she said his name, her voice was low, as if she were asking him for classified information. “How’s the soup? Not too salty? The kugel—too dry?” She pushed her glasses up, and the mole in her eyebrow pushed them right back down again.
“Everything’s good—a hundred percent,” he said, and to prove it, he hunkered back down over his plate and his bowl and resumed eating.
Leslie ate what she enjoyed of Auntie Bessie’s food and left the rest untouched. At first I too resisted the beef, slow-cooked with carrots and prunes; lumps of gefilte fish encased in jelly; baked-dry sponge cake. My favorite foods came out of boxes: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, made velvety with a half stick of butter and milk; frozen pizza, cooked to a crunchy, cheese-melty finish; Morton’s cream pie, defrosted to a perfect coolness. But Auntie Bessie’s eyes grew as dark as raisins, and I couldn’t steel myself against her disappointment. I picked up my fork. And though I ate what she put in front of me, I hungered for the foods I preferred and didn’t have.
Auntie Bessie was the only one of her sisters who worked for pay, preparing the same dishes they made for their families but in larger quantities. It was easy to imagine the four of them growing up like the storybook family I read about, the one that had a dozen daughters, plus one to make thirteen. Though I’ve forgotten the title of the book and have probably gotten the details wrong, what I remember is how the girls and their mother structured their days around housework. They polished the silver on Monday, washed the laundry on Tuesday, shopped for food on Wednesday, dusted and swept on Thursday, prepared the Sabbath meals on Friday, and, after their day of rest, they started the cycle of housekeeping again on Sunday. The fact that my room was a mess and I had zero interest in housework didn’t interfere with my fantasy of myself among these storybook girls: polishing, scrubbing, wiping, rubbing—my sleeves rolled up past my elbows, my shoulder brushing up against a sister’s arm.
I was twelve when my father asked me on a Saturday afternoon if I wanted to be a waitress during my upcoming month away at a Jewish camp. At the dining room table, the check-book and camp applications spread out before him, he sat with his back to the sliding-glass door and the snow-covered grass and talked up the value of having a skill to fall back on. He’d been a waiter in the Berkshires for two summers in his teens, and he’d had a ball, he said.
An opened box of chocolate chip cookies was placed, flaps up, on the table. My father didn’t care what I ate, but my mother did. She leaned over the sink with a cigarette, on the other side of the doorframe, near enough to hear my father and me. She’d argued with him earlier that afternoon about the cost of overnight camp—he didn’t think it was worth it, even if it did provide my sister and me with a “positive Jewish experience.” Now I had a chance to bring their disagreement to a peaceful resolution. All I had to do was concede to my father’s request that I show up at the dining hall an hour earlier than the other campers and make some money setting tables, fetching jugs of juice, refilling bread baskets, and clearing away empty platters. Like Auntie Bessie, I would get paid to do the types of chores I did at home for free.
But why, I wondered, was this so important to my father? The fifty dollars I’d bring home wouldn’t do much to offset the cost of camp. My future earning power was what he seemed more concerned about. Was he worried already that no man would marry and support me?
At my check-up that year, the doctor had told my mother I could stand to lose ten pounds. And, he’d added, as I sat in my white slip on the edge of the examining table, she might consider giving me a nose job, if she wanted me to marry a doctor.
“There’s nothing wrong with her nose,” my mother said.
My shoulders stiffened beneath my adjustable satin straps. Who said I wanted to marry a doctor? Who said I wanted to marry anyone?
Now bare-armed trees wintering in the backyard were as motionless as my father was. He waited at the dining room table for my answer.
“Yes,” I said.
My father checked off a box on the camp application.
My mother picked up her ashtray and melted out of sight.
I reached into the cookie box. Taking care not to crinkle the waxed liner, I fished out several crumb-coated discs of sweetness to bring back to my room.
Three years later, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and confronted me with the pharmacist’s allegation that I was taking several more hypothyroid pills than the daily dose the diet doctor had prescribed. My thyroid was now functioning at a dangerously high level. “Why?” my parents asked, and when I shrugged them off, they pressed me harder. “Why would you do such a thing?”
It was obvious: I wanted to lose weight and also be able to eat what I wanted. But instead of saying so, I confessed that the table of boys I’d waited on three summers before had tortured me all month, three times a day, at every meal. They’d made fun of my frizzy hair and my smile and my eagerness to please.
“They called me a dog,” I said, and like a woman blessing the Sabbath candles, I covered my face with my hands.
My father shot up and out of his chair. “Is that any way for Jewish boys to act?” he said, pacing the hallway.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” my mother said.
Later that afternoon my mother knocked on my bedroom door and came in. The blinds were drawn, the room in shadow. My mother smoothed the edge of my unmade bed and, sitting down beside me, told me the boys’ taunts weren’t true. They hadn’t even meant what they’d said. They were just looking for someone to pick on, and there I was—an easy target.
She was right. I knew that. My looks weren’t so bad. But she was wrong too. There was something about me, about the way I was.
According to family gossip, Auntie Bessie didn’t have children because of her husband’s hernia. Every morning, Auntie Bessie helped Uncle Irving into a corset to contain the bulge, and every night, she untrussed him before they retired to their single beds. He refused to have surgery. Instead, Auntie Bessie treated him with bland, meatless meals—a diet of overcooked spinach, warm milk, and lightly toasted slices of challah. He ran his private chiropodist’s practice out of the bedroom in their apartment, which was directly across the street from the deli, so that at lunch Auntie Bessie could run home to serve his meal and then hurry back to work. When she went with Uncle Irving to bar mitzvahs and weddings, she packed his food in glass jars and slipped into synagogue kitchens to warm it up in a small pot, a “little fendela” she brought from home.
A few months before she died, Auntie Bessie told me she’d married Irving with the understanding that they wouldn’t have children. Now she regretted the bargain she’d made.
“I don’t have anyone to remember him by,” she said.
I took her hand in mine and rubbed her work-worn knuckles with my thumb. I was only in my early thirties, but I didn’t have children either—and I didn’t plan to.
“Who’ll say Kaddish for me?” she asked.
“I’ll say Kaddish for you,” I said, though I rarely set foot in a synagogue.
“Aren’t you something,” she said, her glasses slipping dangerously low on her nose. She patted my hand, then let it drop. “Nu? You’ll have something to eat,” she said. She pushed her glasses up, and the mole in her eyebrow nudged them back down again.
“I’m fine, Auntie Bessie. I don’t need anything.”
“A little something,” she said.
She heaved herself out of the chair, grabbed her tripod-bottomed cane, and shuffled toward the kitchen. Soon the apartment smelled of roasting chicken, vegetable soup, and noodle kugel that made the rooms smell like cinnamon as it warmed.
The training I got at camp had given me the skills—memory, speed, attention to detail—that I needed to land after-school and summer jobs at restaurants. The old-lady hairnets I began to wear and the uniforms whose hemlines I shortened outlined another, sketchier set of accommodation that had to do with mastering an attitude of service, particularly female service. I had only to tap into my desire to please to turn my skills into tips. Over time, I mastered the varied rhythms of the breakfast shift, the dinner shift, and, one summer, the graveyard shift, leaving each eight-hour stretch ravenous and aching from my hips to my soles.
So it came to be that between the ages of twenty and twenty-three, after I dropped out of college and before I went back—a time when I had only the vaguest notion of who I was and what I wanted—I had, at least, the confidence to step into a restaurant and ask if there were any openings for a waitress. Each time that I walked out with a uniform, a menu to study, and a shift to work the next day, I proved my father’s point that having a skill to fall back on was handy—for both of us, since it allowed me to support myself with only occasional help from him. By then my family had fallen apart. My parents were dating other people. My sister had moved away. Only when I was working among other waitresses—wiping down tables, brushing elbows at the coffee station, standing back-to-back in the changing room, rolling pantyhose up over knees and thighs—did I feel I belonged.
I was twenty-three in 1981, the year Rubin’s changed hands and moved down the street to a bigger building. (It remains in operation today, under a third owner—one of the last kosher delis in greater Boston.) Auntie Bessie retired when it was sold. But she continued to cook enough for a crowd in the galley kitchen of the one-bedroom apartment that she shared with Uncle Irving, across the street from the original storefront. On days off from my restaurant jobs, I trekked around the city, getting around by bus and subway but mostly on foot in calf-high hiking boots and a short corduroy dress, an outfit that signaled my confused aspirations—hippie chick gone ’80s punk. I timed my visits to Auntie Bessie’s, making sure not to drop by so often that she, like my father, would feel entitled to nag me about going back to college and finding a nice Jewish boy to marry already.
In the marble foyer, high-ceilinged and strewn with circulars, I went for the button next to “Dr. I. Cohen,” the white letters of his name punched out on a red label. Pressing the buzzer, I counted one, two, three, four, not letting go until Auntie Bessie appeared on the first-floor landing, behind the glass partition. I waved, a timid gesture that asked, “Is it all right that I’m here?” But I wasn’t deeply worried. I was her sister’s granddaughter, Daniel’s daughter, and for Auntie Bessie that was enough. She waved back, disappeared into the apartment, and buzzed me in.
“Alisa,” she said in her worried voice. “Let me look at you.” She grabbed my wrist and scanned me up and down, from the toes of my hiking boots to the tips of my wild curls, her eyes alight with the same pleasure she’d shown when I was eleven. Then she pulled me down for a kiss. She smelled of soap, baby powder, and a hint of sweat, undercut by medicinal ointment.
“You’ll have a little lunch, a little soup, a little chicken. I have a kugel in the oven,” Auntie Bessie said. She led me past the accordion door that hid Uncle Irving’s chiropodist’s chair, his wheelie stool, instrument tray, and patient files, and into the main room. Two living room chairs were squeezed next to the dining-room set, and the two single beds, covered in mustard-colored spreads, were pushed up against the front windows.
At the head of the table, Uncle Irving held court with the cousin or friend or sister of Bessie’s who’d also dropped over. His dry lips only grazed my cheek when I kissed him hello, but when I sat down, he took an interest in whatever I had to tell him, even if all I could report was that I had a job at a restaurant and that everyone in my family was fine. While he and the other guests gossiped and chatted about the news, I spooned up Auntie Bessie’s food, which tasted sweet and savory in the familiar proportions.
“How’s everything. Good?” Auntie Bessie asked.
Later, Auntie Bessie would send me on my way with a plastic shopping bag of chicken, mandelbrot cookies, and a square of lokshen kugel. She’d double-wrapped each leftover separately in a sheet of waxed paper covered with aluminum foil turned the wrong way out. The bag thumped against my bare knee as I hiked toward the Coolidge Corner streetcar stop. When the train lumbered up, I climbed on, settled into a seat, and headed back to my life, holding the kugel, still warm, on my lap.
Alisa Wolf has worked as a feature writer and editor on the staff of three magazines and, more recently, as a financial services marketing writer. She earned an MFA from Vermont College and has developed and taught adult education classes in fiction, memoir, and essay writing near her home in Medford, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Calyx, Pisgah Review, AGNI online, Red Cedar Review, Sojourner, and in the Papier Mache Press anthology I Am Becoming the Woman I’ve Wanted. (updated 9/2010)