Counting in Seders

“Next year in Jerusalem,” we call out together, as usual, at the end of our family seder in Chicago, while I silently wonder who among us will see another year. “If I die tonight, that would be good,” my cousin’s 98-year-old mother-in-law, housebound and blind, tells me before dinner. My aunt confides that the rent keeps going up at the retirement home where she moved last year, and she has no idea what will happen if she needs additional medical care. My mother’s oxygen tank hisses softly next to her place at the long Passover table.

The brick bungalow on the city’s South Side where my aunt and uncle hosted each year’s seder half a century ago is long gone; it burned to the ground in a mysterious fire soon after they sold it. We’d pack their dining room to the walls to retell the story of our people’s escape from Pharoah’s bondage, across the wild waters. At the kids’ table, my cousins and I would fiddle with the heavy silver spoons and the linen napkins that Aunt Isabel and Uncle Herman brought out of storage each year, just for these two nights.

While the adults took their turns reading aloud — the heavily accented English of the immigrant generation slowing everything to the raw edge of patience — we kids read the Peanuts comic books that my cousin Pammy inserted into each of our Haggadahs before the service. Finally the Maxwell House booklets would be stacked on the sideboard, the chicken soup and matzah balls would appear, and we’d eat for hours.

My aunts and my mother and grandmother always spent the entire day before the seder making gefilte fish: boiling carp and whitefish; slicing open the slick, flopping bodies; picking among the bones for hunks of warm flesh. Aunt Isabel would turn the heavy handle of the iron grinder that she’d lugged up from my grandmother’s basement while my mother and her twin sister Shirley added matzah meal and eggs, cracking shells in succession and mixing quivering yellows and blobs of filmy gel until my grandmother was satisfied. The next night, in their holiday dresses and pearls, they’d open their palms over the seder table and laugh about the lingering stink of fish.

Now my mother’s oxygen-depleted voice hardly carries across the noisy table. I talk with my cousin Danny about his impending retirement from NASA, and we remember the sleepovers at one another’s houses when we’d gather in front of the bulky TV to watch John Glenn, and other astronauts who followed him, blast into outer space. Who could have imagined that 30 years later one of us would be working for NASA? If we were lucky, we were allowed to stay up late, bundled in our soft pajamas, to watch Flash Gordon and Superman streaking across the heavens.

Danny tells me that his 90-year old father is fighting to keep his car, even after his driver’s license has been revoked and his auto insurance cancelled. Uncle Arnold’s wife Beattie was the first of that generation to die, at only 52, after a brutal decade with cancer. At the funeral my sister and I, and Beattie’s best friend Ruth, were loaded into the back seat of a black Lincoln Town Car. When I reached over Ruth to lock the door, she searched my face briefly and then turned away and cried out: one raw sob, straight from the heart. This year, my sister has just turned 52.

At the 85th birthday party we gave last year for my mother and Aunt Shirley, my mother was so excited that she forgot to bring her after-dinner speech and we had to rush back to her house to fetch it. There in the hallway were the dozen quilted bags that she’s collected, to carry her oxygen tank, each a different color and pattern.

This year, the rolls of gefilte fish that my mother makes are from a frozen package. Before the seder, I see her inspecting cousin Evie’s gefilte fish, neat slices laid out under Saran Wrap in the kitchen. My mother is still calculating for the future.

“Next year,” she tells me, pushing off slowly from the counter and turning to face me, “I’m going to try it this way. Next year I’m going to roast the fish instead of boiling it.” She makes a note on a piece of Evie’s scrap paper, folds it and puts it in her pocket.

After the seder, riding the quiet, cocooning streets home, my mother will admit that she needs more oxygen this year than last, that she can no longer fight with the wind to walk outside, that she’s afraid to travel.

Still, we are lucky, I think. When we look around the Passover table, we know that here is more than just this place, that now is more than just this year. Much more than just tonight.

Joanne Jacobson teaches at Yeshiva College. Her most recent book, Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood, is about growing up Jewish in suburban Chicago.