My nan passed away 9 years ago, on 29 October 2000. I was nineteen then, and I’d missed seeing her on her last visit to the northwest, because I’d spent the summer working and living in southern Oregon.
I don’t think I knew then what it meant to lose her. I naievely assumed I’d miss her less as time went on. I’ve been surprised to discover that I feel her absence more acutely with every passing year.
She was born in Philadelphia on 23 January, 1918, to Edward and Minnie Saller. Her parents immigrated to the United States as children, from Russia and Lithuania, respectively. They married in 1911, and raised their family over their tobacco, ice cream and candy shop on the corner of 12th and Mifflin Street. They kept the store open from 6 am to 2 am every day but Sunday, when they had shorter hours. Frances played in the neighborhood, and savored her rare trips out of the city to visit Atlantic City, or her aunt’s Lena’s farm northeast of Philadelphia. She graduated from South Philadelphia High School in 1935, and worked in a department store, then as a secretary at the Naval Yard.
(I know this because my mother thought to ask. There is a reason I am hungry for stories. I grew up that way.)
She met Morris Fox in 1948, through Ruth Kaplan, a mutual friend. Frances and Morris enjoyed each other’s company a great deal, and one day, as they stood waiting for a late streetcar, my grandfather proposed. He’s told me many times that if the streetcar had been on time, they might have dated forever. They married on 16 January, 1949, and moved into a tiny apartment over Edward and Minnie’s store. My Aunt Ellen came along the following year, and my dad Howard was born in 1953.
They moved into a newly constructed rowhome neighborhood on Baldwin Street, where Frances developed close friendships with other young mothers and her children roved the sidewalks with a gang of neighborhood children.
Once her kids were a little more independent, she returned to work at the Naval Yard. She survived breast cancer while my Dad was in high school, something I never knew while she was alive. My sweet Nan, a fighter.
Once I was born, followed by my brother and sister, Nana and Grandpop traveled regularly to visit. She always packed her recipes, and kept the kitchen warm with baking. She knitted on the couch, while Grandpop read the newspaper. We took day trips around the northwest. She called me kid, even when I got older, in a way that was filled with warmth and love and utterly devoid of condescension. She and Grandpop taught me bits of Yiddish, and I fantasized about what their childhoods must have looked like in 1920s Philadelphia.
A few years ago, after she’d passed away, I had a dream that she came to visit me in Logan, Utah, where I was working on my master’s degree in history. It was one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had. She met me at my office, and I showed her my desk, and introduced her to my colleagues in the department. We walked down the hall, and went to a cafe for lunch, where we ate steaming tomato soup in robins’ egg-blue bowls, and shared a piece of pie for dessert. After lunch, we walked to a park and found a place to sit. We both worked on our knitting, and I noticed that we held our loose yarn in the same fashion, keeping the tension with a bent knuckle. We talked about being in our twenties, and she told me about her womanhood in Philadelphia in the Great Depression, about meeting my grandfather and having my dad. Finally, as if we both knew the dream was ending, she gave me a hard candy from the tiny wallet in her purse, as she always used to do, and then she walked away, leaning into her cane, in the graceful uneven way she developed after her hip surgeries.
I had that dream four or five years ago, and I remember it like I dreamt it last night. It still makes me cry.
I thought missing her would be a matter of calling up memories from a finite set, like paging through an album of photographs that fade with the passage of years. I thought missing her would be a matter of fixating on the way I missed her in those photos, and on static little memory clips of the way her voice sounded when I was five, or the way she bent over the warm cave of the open oven, checking on almond cookies when I came home from school at twelve. Or the way she’d hold up pieces of the sweaters she knit for me, to see how the fit was coming along.
As I age, I am coming to realize that missing her is less about clinging to that finite set of dear memories, and more about wanting to share my life as it is now with her. To have her sweet laugh in this house, this living room. To drink tea with her in this kitchen. To bake her the recipes I’ve learned lately, and to show her my garden, to introduce her to my husband. To show her my book, when it finally gets published. To hear her say “I’m proud of you kid” the way she always used to, except about the things that I have done lately. She always told me that, and I can hear it clearly. But its been so many years. I’ve done so many things since she last said it.
I want her to be my friend as I cross the threshold into my thirties.
I want her to tell me stories I never even thought to ask for.
And this kind of missing is so much harder than the other.
But its sweeter too.
It makes loving her fresh. I don’t have to leave her in those memories, in those static photograph images and frozen nostalgic sound files.
I get to keep her close for the rest of my life. I get to keep dreaming about her, and imagining the visits we would have. The things I would show her. The stories I would tell her, and the ones she’d tell me. About my dad’s childhood, and life with my grandpop, and her solitary dreams. The way she would smile and the way she would walk. The way we would knit together.
We would cook together too. She used to worry about the desserts she baked, as my grandfather has had a series of heart problems over the years. Many of her staples—kugle, knish—were loaded with eggs and butter (and lordy, were they delicious). I’ve been on a mission for several years to create a vegan version of her knish bread, my favorite among all of her exquisite desserts. Its hard to replace four eggs, and every attempt has ended up in the compost up till now. Last night, I finally succeeded. In honor of my Nana, I am sharing the recipe. Its by no means identical to her knish, but its a pretty delicious, much healthier alternative. And Grandpop gave me the thumbs up. So that’s all I figure I really need. You’ll need a couple of old-fashioned ice cube trays… easy to find at thrift stores… just discard the metal innards that separate the ice cubes, and use the tray! If you can’t dig up any, use small bread pans.
Vegan Knish Bread
1 c. sugar
1 c. oil
[Whisk together 4 Tbsp. ground flaxseed with 12 tbsp. water. Be patient… eventually it will acquire the
precise consistency of eggs!]
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
several squares of dark chocolate chopped fine
handful of nuts, chopped fine (almonds, pecans, or walnuts are good)
pour batter into foil-lined ice cube trays or bread pans. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
Lift baked knish loaves out using the foil. Slice into 1/4 or 1/2 thick slices (the thinnest slice you can get without them breaking apart). Lay out on a baking sheet. Bake ten minutes at 350, then flip and bake for another 10 minutes.
I love you so, Nan. We all miss you. And we are all so, so, so grateful for the time you spent with us, for your warmth and sweetness and and your humor and your generous heart. I see you in my Dad, and I see you in myself.
You are still with us.