Mom used to tell me stories about growing up in London. She was born in 1941, during the war, but was too young to remember much. She and my grandmother were evacuated to a farm near Ely in the fens (a flat area between Cambridge and the sea) during the blitz on London. My grandmother Millie was pregnant with her second child. Apparently, Millie saw a young girl fall down a flight of stairs in the house where they were billeted and the experience shook her up so much she miscarried. Barbara, my mom’s sister, was born just after the war ended.
As a little girl, Mom lived in the same Victorian house as her grandmother for whom I’m named. She and Barbara would often stay with Booba Miriam. Their favorite game was to comb Booba’s long silver hair which was usually kept up in a bun. They spoke in Yiddish, played cards, and snacked on Booba’s rugelach. One of the most upsetting stories Mom tells is how, coming home from school one day a neighbor yelled out to her, “So, they buried your Booba today.” Mom was 16 years old. “What?” she asked. “They buried your Booba,” the neighbor repeated. Panicked, Mom rushed home to discover that it was true. Booba Miriam, who had already had a number of strokes—and slept in a big bed in the large kitchen area—had had a fatal stroke some time in the morning. By the time Mom and Barbara got back from school, Booba Miriam had already been buried.
I don’t think I ever heard an explanation of why Mom was never told. I can only guess that her mother—my grandmother Millie—thought she was saving Mom from heartache by not telling her.
This would not be the only time Millie thwarted her daughter’s emotional expectations. She hid Mom’s acceptance letter to Birmingham University to study French for fear Mom would meet and marry a non-Jew; Mom attended typing school instead.
I think of these stories often in relation to Mom. What would it have been like to live with a mother who misread your emotional landscape, who operated under some mistaken altruistic over-protectiveness? And how could Mom trust adults to tell her the truth if her own mother had lied—or if not lied, then twisted the truth—to suit her own needs?
Unfortunately, Mom can’t remember the details of these stories anymore. Most of them I verified with Barbara and with my dad. Mom often accuses people of lying to her when they try to explain that, yes, she did just eat breakfast or shower or watch a movie. Perhaps this anger at being told she’s forgotten her most recent activity is related to this mistrust. Maybe it’s this same mistrust that makes her reject help when she really needs it, like in dressing each morning.
My grandmother Millie just celebrated her 100th birthday. She was so aware and excited by the attention showered upon her. A few days later, when I visited, Millie spoke in full sentences about her parents and their home in the East End of London. Friends suggested it was a kind of clarity that comes near the end of life.
I pray that when it is my grandmother’s time, she’ll pass quietly in the night, like Booba Miriam did. We’ll have to shield Mom from Millie’s death; in her Alzheimer’s state, Mom, who has lost the concept of time, will not comprehend the death of her own mother. Or, she’ll remember with howling pain each time she discovers it anew.
We will have come full circle.
Rugelach, in Yiddish, means “little twist.” It’s a perfect way to describe these tasty chocolaty cakes. I don’t know what recipe my great-grandmother might have used to make her rugelach, but here’s one that I find easy to work with.
3½ cups flour
1½ Tbsp yeast
2/3 cup milk (or milk substitute)
1/3 cup sugar
1 pkg vanilla sugar (10 gr)
1/3 cup oil
1 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
¾ cup cocoa
½ cup oil
2 tsp cinnamon
Warm milk (or milk substitute) in microwave for about 25 seconds, and mix with yeast and snoneugar so that yeast partially dissolves. Add flour, eggs, vanilla sugar, oil and salt, and kneed until a supple dough is formed. Set aside to rise for at least 1 hour. (You can also let rise overnight in the fridge, which makes the dough less sticky.) In another bowl, mix filling ingredients and set aside. When dough is ready, kneed again and divide into three parts. On a floured surface, take one part of dough and roll into a thin circle. Dough may be sticky, so be sure to keep flouring the surface. With a pizza cutter, cut dough into 16 small triangles. Place a small amount of filling at the wide end of each dough triangle and spread with the back of a spoon along the triangle. Dip spoon in oil to spread the filling with ease. Roll triangle from widest to narrowest end and place on cookie tray. Repeat until dough is all used up. Use an additional egg to brush the tops of each rugelach before baking. Bake at 350° for 12-15 minutes.