By Liane Kupferberg Carter
“A tasket, a tisket, Joan will make a brisket.”
My mother’s friends serenaded her with those lyrics at my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary party. Mom was famous throughout Flushing, Queens for her brisket.
As soon as she heard someone was facing illness or surgery, she’d call the butcher. Then she’d cook and deliver that person a braised brisket so delectably tender you barely needed a knife. Easy to freeze, it tasted even better the second day. Her brisket served with mashed potatoes was the ultimate comfort meal. Food is the mamaloshen – the mother tongue – of Jewish families. Mom didn’t speak Yiddish, but she understood it, just as she understood the healing properties of food. When there was a death, my mother took over the job of setting up for shivah. She’d lug out her 50 cup electric coffee pot, hard-boil the eggs and start slicing the bagels.
As a child I thought I lived in a boarding house, because there were always so many people at the table. Cousins, aunts, and uncles spilled in and out the front door in time for meals, and my mother’s friends, many of them elementary school teachers, showed up at 3:30 most afternoons. She served cinnamon coffeecake, cigarettes and conversation. Her phone rang incessantly. There was always the sense of something exciting about to happen: a faraway guest about to arrive unannounced, a meal, a bed, a welcome for anyone who needed it. My mother thought nothing of cooking dinner for twenty. She was less than thrilled, though, when in the midst of frantic Passover preparations, the kitchen steamy with chicken soup and simmering brisket, Great Aunt Rose and Uncle Babe from Brooklyn arrived four hours early and sat expectantly in the living room, waiting for mom to serve them cake and coffee.
There was dancing in that house, and noise. The brown velvet loveseat was pushed aside for a child’s impromptu ballet recital, or for my mother to give a clumsy cousin waltz lessons on the eve of his marriage. Guests revolved through the front door in an ever-changing nightly cast — that same great aunt and uncle from Brooklyn who often showed up uninvited on Sunday just in time for dinner; the former landlady from Provincetown who came for a weekend but stayed six weeks; my pot-head boyfriend my father despised even as my mother kindly welcomed him.
We moved into the Moorish-style brick colonial in Queens in the spring of ’56. The plumbing, circa 1927 was original; the radiators distressingly large and clanky. But the level back yard was just the right size for children’s birthday parties, and the low limbs of the crabapple tree just right for climbing.
And there was music. Show soundtracks on the hi-fi, like Gigi. Camelot. Fiddler on the Roof. My Fair Lady. The musical parodies of Alan Sherman. Benny Good man stomped at the Savoy, and Artie Shaw began his beguine. Best of all, my mother played the piano. She was innately musical, able to play a song after hearing it only once. As a child of the Great Depression, she was entirely self-taught; her parents were too poor to waste money for such frivolities as piano lessons. As an adult, she would sit at the Baldwin spinet that had been her mother’s, an ancient dark wood instrument tucked up against the stuccoed wall of the sun room. Her favorite piece was a wistful bit of music she played for herself. “What’s that called?” I asked once.
“It’s just a little something I wrote for my mother,” she said. “It’s called ‘Liane forever more.'” Her mother had died young; I was named for her. Often she’d segue into a second, hauntingly lovely melody that evoked a yearning sadness in me. She’d sing softly to herself, “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see….” She played it so movingly I thought she’d written that one too. Only years later did I realize it was George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Every evening before my bedtime my mother and I would peer out at the moon through the window on the stair landing. She would sing me a song that years later I sang to my own children: “I see the moon and the moon sees me, the moon sees somebody I want to see. God bless the moon, and God bless me. And God bless the somebody I want to see.” The somebody for her, of course, must have been her mother. As young as I was, somehow I understood that she was sad in a place my kisses could never touch.
That house was my mother’s domain, comforting and safe. I basked in the warmth of her sustaining love.
Still, she was a slapdash housekeeper. Clean, but not neat. She was too busy making books of Braille for the blind, editing newsletters, running the temple bazaar, driving people to doctor appointments or reading to the geriatric residents at the local psychiatric institution. Years later and all grown up, my brother and I would periodically check the back of the kitchen cabinet to see if she’d thrown out the packet of yeast which had expired in the early 1970s. “Still here,” he’d announce with satisfaction.
“You need Carbon 14 to date it,” I said.
But the mess was oddly reassuring. “I wish I could be as sure of other things in this world as the fact that this housework will still be here long after I’m gone,” she often said.
When I moved into my first apartment, she packed me off with a set of Marimekko melamine plates and the Temple Beth Sholom Sisterhood cookbook, Home on the Range. I was single, working, living alone. She didn’t call to check up on me. She never asked when I planned to get married. “Other mothers like to bother their children,” I complained.
“I don’t like to pry,” she said. She especially hated having to disturb me at work. She didn’t want my boss to think I was getting personal phone calls on the company’s dime. If she absolutely needed to telephone me at the office, she’d leave a pseudonym. I’d return to my desk to find such messages as, “Call Margaret Dumont,” or “Maria Ouspenskaya returned your call.” She knew I’d recognize the allusion to our favorite old Marx Brothers and Lon Chaney werewolf movies.
“Mostly I just like saying “Ouspenskaya,” she admitted. “It’s so satisfying.”
She wasn’t the only one with an alias. When I was a high school senior, I answered an ad in the back of a magazine for the Famous Writers School correspondence course. “Do you have a restless urge to write?” it asked. I did. I ordered the free copy of their “revealing” aptitude test, but hesitated to use my real name. Mom and I had recently watched “Citizen Kane” on late night TV, so I said I was “Rosebud Kane.” Months later, a man rang our doorbell. This was still the days of Fuller Brush salesmen and Avon ladies making house calls, so it wasn’t unusual to find a salesman on your doorstep. “I’m from the Famous Writers School,” he said. “Are you Miss Rosebud Kane?” Mom instantly knew. With a straight face, she said, “She’s not available. I’ll tell her you called.”
The cliché has it that some people will give you the shirt off their back. Along with the shirt, Mom gave the skirt, the shoes, the pants, the purse and money for cab fare. I once gave her a beautiful sky blue silk robe she said she loved. She packed it when she flew down to Florida to stay with Aunt Jeanette, who was very ill. When Aunt Jeanette’s nurse admired the robe, Mom gave it to her. I asked her why she had done that. She said, “because I hope she’ll take extra good care of Jeanette.
She took extra good care of everyone, except herself. I was in my late 20s and newly married when she began to have worrisome bouts of coughing. Shortness of breath. Bronchitis that lingered too long. I nagged her to stop smoking. She laughed it off.
The house too showed signs of neglect. The rickety piano bench bulged with tattered sheaves of music she no longer played; issues of National Geographic and The New Yorker magazines piled up, unread. The gold wall-to-wall carpet once so plush it held the trace of her slippered feet each morning oxidized to dirty mustard. Like an aging aristocrat, the house still got by on good bones, increasingly shored up by the scaffolding of my memories.
Eventually that carpet bore the indelible indentation of a tall tank of oxygen. It loomed large against the living room wall, a giant metal canister susurrating ceaselessly. Plastic tubing snaked from room to room, the translucent umbilical cord tethering her to that tank. Increasingly she turned to watching game shows and old Fred Astaire movies.
That Thanksgiving, I cooked the entire meal at my house, packed it all up and brought it to her, but she could only manage a few mouthfuls. “Everything is delicious,” she apologized, “but it’s just too hard to eat and breathe at the same time.”
Cigarettes were her undoing, but that miasma of nicotine also contained the life breath of my mother’s laughter. Ten days after I gave birth to my second child, she was rushed to the hospital. We got a call at 3:00 a.m. to come say goodbye. Gathered around the bed, we held her hands and stared at her, our eyes filled with unshed tears. Finally, she spoke up. “Sorry it’s taking me so long. You shouldn’t=t have rushed. You know I’m always dressed too early to go places.”
She revived. The doctor sent her home with only weeks to live.
“Promise me one thing,” she said. “Don’t let the rabbi do that ‘Woman of Valor’ speech at my funeral.”
I knew what she meant. Every rabbi reads the psalm about “the woman of valor” whose “price is far above rubies.”
Through tears, I said, “I swear.”
Valor. The dictionary says, boldness or determination in facing great danger. See also, courage.
“There’s a song I want you to play at my funeral, she told me. Nothing too sad. It’s from The Fantastiks. It’s called Try to Remember.”
The day after she died, Aunt Adele brought us a brisket. It wasn’t as good as Mom’s.
Mom showed me that making a home is a journey, not a destination. She taught me to love Gershwin, Big Bands, Beethoven and the Marx Brothers; to use clear nail polish to stop a nylon run, to take care of others, and yes, how to braise a brisket.
Author’s Note: Last fall I was asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on women and food, and to include a recipe. I wrote about my mother’s brisket. But when I shared the piece with a colleague, she said, “This isn’t about food. It’s really about your mother. Send them a different piece.” Which I did. I haven’t been able to write much about my mother since her death 19 years ago — until now.
Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Parents, Literary Mama, Brevity, The Manifest-Station, and in several anthologies.