I was making strawberry pancakes. It was early, well, early for me at least. Probably around 10:30 or so. The rain was coming down outside and the clouds cast a sullen shadow over the neighborhood. Grandma was at the kitchen table sorting through yesterday’s mail.
“What’s this?” she said to herself. I had my back turned, my concentration on the dried up Aunt Jemima batter I was trying to unlump in a bowl. “A circular? What is this?” She wanted me to tell her. That’s how she asked. It was never would you please do this or can you help me with that? It was always, “Oy I’m so tired today. If only I had the strength to change that light bulb.” Or, “Such a smell from that garbage! It could kill a person. Pee-yoo.” I put down the fork and walked over to the table.
“Let me see.” She handed me the long red envelope.
“Maybe I won the lottery,” she said, her eyes opening wide, her gap-toothed smile stretching across her face.
“It’s from CVS, Grandma. I don’t think it’s the lottery.” But she was still smiling. I tore open the envelope, or unhinged the paper lock rather (the envelope was tucked into itself like the top of a take-out Chinese food container). Inside were free samples of hair dye or shampoo or something like that.
“I didn’t order anything,” she said, her voice questioning and her furrowed brow furrowing further.
“They’re free samples,” I assured her.
“Oh, free samples. How about that.” Her brow unfurrowing as she tugged the envelope from my hand to check out her loot. Halloween had come a week early for Grandma. I shook my head and went back to mixing the lumpy batter. She kept babbling about the hair dye and how she had just run out and how the people at CVS were so nice and how the “Chinamen” (she retained an archaic prejudice against minorities and immigrants forgetting that she herself had emigrated from Russia just before World War II) next door to the CVS would squeeze every penny out of you (coming from a woman who returned a half-empty carton of orange juice after realizing it was the wrong brand-the one she wanted was on sale the week before for $0.39 cheaper). Her hypocrisies had an endearing quality to them, though. They were prejudices that came from over 50 years of culturally isolated living and were based in simple naivety, not spite.
The metal fork scraped against the ceramic bowl as I mixed. The methodical click-scratch was lulling me to sleep. “How long are you going to mix that batter? By the time you’re done you’ll have butter.” Grandma’s “battah” and “buttah” along with the husky cackle that followed roused me from my trance. She was right; the lumps were smoothed and the batter was becoming stiff from the over-churning. I cut the strawberries next, pulling the short kitchen knife through the fruit toward my anchoring thumb. I used to cut everything on a board, but watching Grandma work the knife-peeling, cutting, slicing, everything with the blade coming to rest at her thumb-made me want to learn how she did it. I started on the fleshy strawberries. It would be a while before I worked my way up to peeling and slicing potatoes.
“Twenty-five dollars! Who do they think they are?” I looked over my shoulder, still cutting the berries as I glanced. Grandma had forgotten about the free samples. “I’m not going to no twenty-five dollar dinner. It used to be nine dollars.” She was talking to herself. I looked back to the strawberries and took a bite from the one in my hand. The fruit was sweet, a little overripe, without any bitter hint to it. Perfect. “You know,” she was talking to me now, “when your grandfather and I used to go to shul, they would give us free tickets to the events. He was such a respected man.” Her voice had gone soft. Then she laughed. “And Adam Needlemeier, his father must have been a tailor, would come up to your grandfather for advice on the market. ‘What do you think, Jack.’ They would all call him Jack.” Then her voice dipped disapprovingly. “And Robert Herzl would say, ‘What are you listening to him for, Adam. He’s just a baker.’ But your grandpa knew what he was talking about. He was very successful for a baker. Everyone would come to him and ask him questions. Mrs. Salvino down the street would come in on Tuesdays with sausage and peppers or veal cutlet for him. Frank Blatz, the doctor, would come in. Everyone would come to the bakery to see grandpa.”
I didn’t have to look up from the strawberries (which I was pouring into the batter) to know Grandma was beaming that split-tooth smile of hers. I heard the same story told so many different ways-different names, different foods, different days of the week-but they were always about Grandpa and the people that loved him. I barely remembered Grandpa. He had died when I was young, maybe four or five.
I put some butter in a frying pan and lit the ancient gas stove with a match (the pilot light has been out for longer than I have been alive) that I took from the stack of boxes next to the oven, there for just that purpose. Grandma was talking about Robert Herzl and how she’ll never forgive him for saying that about Grandpa. She remembered everything and rarely forgave trespasses like loshon hora, the evil tongue (yet she did nothing but gossip-another hypocritical loophole she managed to slip through). The butter melted as she spoke. I started to ladle the batter into the pan.
“Last time I was at shul I looked for grandpa’s plaque. I looked and looked and looked and I couldn’t find it.” Her voice took an aggravated tone. “It used to be right in the center.” I heard tapping syncopated with the syllables of “right-in-the cen-ter”-she was tapping her finger against the wall as if to show me where the plaque would have hung if the kitchen were the synagogue. “So I went to Susan in the office and I said, ‘Excuse me, but my husband’s plaque seems to have been misplaced. Would you kindly return it to its position in the center.’ And Susan, she’s such a nice woman-been there for,” she paused to think. I flipped the first batch of pancakes. The pan was no good. Half of the pancake was near burnt while the other half was barely cooked. This was going to take some true genius. “So Susan went to see where the plaque was. And you know where they moved it?” I could tell she was smiling, like a schoolgirl with a secret.
“No. Where did they move it?” I spoke as I flipped.
“In the corner down by your knees.” Her voice normally sounded as if she spoke through a fan, like it had a small flutter to it, but when she got angry it was smooth and robust. It was smooth and robust now. “It used to hang right at eye level.” I heard the tapping against the wall again. “And you know whose plaque was there where Grandpa’s plaque used to be?”
“No, Grandma. Whose plaque?” I put the first batch of pancakes onto a plate. A little crispy as Grandma would say. (They were burnt.)
“Robert Herzl.” She cackled. “How do you like that? Even from the grave he manages to knock on Grandpa. Some chutzpah, I tell you.”
“I don’t think he had any say in the matter, Grandma.” The next batch was coming out a little better. The pan must have started to heat evenly.
“Well I told Susan, ‘I paid five-hundred dollars for this plaque,’ five-hundred dollars I paid out of my own money for that plaque and they push it aside like a dog made on it. And I said, ‘I would like it to be returned to it’s previous position, Susan. Thank you.'”
Now the pancakes were golden. The strawberries mixed with the scent of the cooked batter and the whole kitchen smelled delicious.
“Mmmmmm. That smells good,” Grandma said, the flutter returning to her voice.
“They’re almost done.” I was on the last batch, which was turning out to be the best of the bunch. When I finally pulled them from the pan and turned the flame off, the plate was steaming goodness. I brought it to the table and placed it between Grandma and me. “Would you like one, Grandma?”
“I’ll just take the smooshed one,” she said pointing a bony finger toward one of the pancakes from the first batch. Her eyes and lips were smiling, entranced in the pancake prospect. I stuck the cake with my fork and she took it from the tines with her hand. Then she took a bite and laughed. “There goes my diet,” she said before finishing the pancake. She wasn’t on a diet. Just last night I had watched her eat a half bag of licorice and four mini-Snickers (“These Snickers with almonds are delicious. Here, take. Mmmmm.”) “Mmmmm,” she hummed as she munched.
I ate my pancakes happily as Grandma continued talking about the synagogue and the people and the bakery and CVS. And as I ate I thought about that wall of plaques and thought about all the people that must be on that one wall and thought about how many synagogues and mosques and churches and other places there must be with walls with plaques with people with stories. And I wondered how many of the people on those plaques used to be bakers. And I wondered how many were misplaced and how many people there were fighting to keep them in their spot on the wall. And then I thought about how delicious these pancakes turned out and was happy I chose to put strawberries in them because-
“They don’t even need any syrup,” Grandma said, taking another dingy pancake from the bottom of the pile.
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