Over There // My mother’s certainty, in uncertain times

By Sarah Shapiro

I’d just finished making a huge pot of soup and had turned off the flame, when somewhere in the crowded refrigerator, I recalled seeing a marinara bottle.
Alone on the lovely island of light to be found late at night in the solitude of one’s kitchen, I’d been chopping and peeling, slicing and dicing…into the wee hours before dawn. For the first time in so long, my son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren were coming! In other countries around the globe, the weird pandemic was still going strong, but here in Israel, the nationwide lockdown had been a success, and social distancing restrictions were being lifted, ahead of schedule. The virus was under control.

I wasn’t sure what “per capita” meant, exactly, in this context, but how proud I was anyway to see in the news the name “Israel” perched atop a comparative list of all the major nations, with the lowest rate of corona infection and death per capita of any other country. The dense, malevolent cloud of uncertainty that had been hovering overhead had suddenly evaporated…vanished in thin air, like a dimly recalled dream. Wake up! the government seemed to be instructing us. Re-enter your daily lives!

When I asked my son if there was anything in particular he’d like me to make, he was quiet a moment before answering tentatively, hopefully: “Your meat soup?”
My heart, that had been lockdowned, opened wide. “With joy.”

That night, while out in the dark the quiet world slept, I cut up into chunks the expensive meat that I’d bought l’kavod Shabbos, sautéed it with onions and scallions, then dumped it all into the pot of boiling water. Then came the carrots and parsnips, the pearl barley and dill…fresh parsley and celery… potatoes and squash…zucchini, kohlrabi, turnips, pumpkin… With a sharp little paring knife, I pierced open a bulb of garlic, peeling off the sticky, papery wrapping in which each separately-packaged little clove was ingeniously enclosed and sealed shut for long-term preservation, without any of mankind’s synthetic preservatives.

As the fragrant concoction bubbled happily on the stove, with great satisfaction I cleaned up the kitchen, set up the Shabbos candles, set the table, sponged the living room floor, and as the window panes hinted of day’s soft approach, I ladled out some soup in a cup, to see how it was doing. Delicious. But it did need…something. I sprinkled in salt, sprinkled in pepper. Tasted again. It still needed…something. Oh! Tomato! That’s the zing that would make the soup sing. But when I opened the refrigerator, of tomatoes there were none.

It took a few moments to find the bottle, half-full, lurking just out of view in the back of my mind. It must have been at the back of that shelf, I realized suddenly, since the last time I’d made meat soup. Could so much time have really gone by?
Extracted from the cold depths, inspection revealed the words kasher l’Pesach, expiration 20/03/2020

My mother, a”h—whose father died when she was nine, and who grew up with her widowed Russian immigrant mother in what she only realized with hindsight, as an adult, had been poverty—was incapable of wasting food. In my mother’s universe, there was virtually nothing of value that could not be salvaged. And if there were peels and scraps and leftovers, she would carry these out in pails to her compost heap, to fertilize the soil of her organic vegetable garden, or would end up in the chicken yard, as feed for her 50 egg-laying hens.

One thing, however, my mother strictly and scrupulously would not use: any food that was old enough to be showing signs—however slight—of mold. I don’t recall the details, but mold, she warned, is injurious to human health. So upon unscrewing the lid of the marinara bottle and setting it down on the counter, I first held the bottle for a moment under my nose, and breathed in.
Smelled fine.
Then, positioning myself directly under the overhead light, I peered judiciously down into the thick tomato sauce, tipping the contents from side to side.
Looked fine.
Lifting off the pot cover, I pulled in my chin, away from the sudden hot cloud-burst of moist, fragrant steam… then turned the bottle upside down and gave it a few good shakes, dumping it all in. Ready at last to waddle off to bed, I was about to shut the lights when something on the counter caught my eye. For the upturned bottle cap sported two furry, fuzzy grey….
I came closer.
Two fuzzy greenish-grey mounds, the size of two coins. A quarter and a dime. Two perfectly crafted circles of mold, as ingeniously designed to fulfill their purpose as the sun and moon above us in the sky.


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