Did you send me a package from Eichlers?”
The words were out of my mother’s mouth before I could even say hello. I could hear the excitement in her voice and knew she was smiling on the other end of the line.
“I couldn’t resist,” I replied. “I was feeling nostalgic and thought you’d appreciate it.”
The package my mother was referring to, which came from a Brooklyn Jewish bookstore, was a CD titled “Yanky At The Pesach Seder with Zayde.” When I was growing up, my mother would play that record every year while pulling out her grandmother’s soup pot. She used that heirloom to make her famous matzah balls. We would sing along with Yanky about the 10 plagues and the afikoman while baking cakes and cleaning the house. I can recall moving the needle back to the beginning of a song we missed because we couldn’t hear over the sounds of the hand-held beater whipping up the eggs for my mother’s famous sponge cake.
Over the years the record must have worn down, leaving my mother with no choice but to dispose of it, forgetting all about it. Until that day in early April when the package arrived at her door.
In mid-March, when the Covid-19 pandemic began shutting down schools and synagogues, my brother and I made the decision to break the news together to our parents that we would not be spending Pesach with them. It was a tough phone call, knowing how important it was to our mother for the family to be together for the holiday. But our fear of unknowingly passing a deadly virus to our immune-compromised mother outweighed our guilt of not being together. It was a decision (she would later tell others) made with love.
Over the next couple of weeks, as we began our Pesach preparations, I tried to think of ways to make the preparations fun for my three kids and to keep all of our spirits up. I remembered that Yanky record from years ago and knew I had to find a copy to send to my mom.
So when my mom called after the package arrived, my heart filled with joy when she said she couldn’t wait to play it while cooking for Pesach, even if she was only cooking for two people this year. I smiled thinking about my mother, who always cooked for an army, struggling to cook for two. I suspected she would make her usual amount and then call to tell me she didn’t know how to halve the recipe so she would save some matzah balls, which she knew my kids love, for me to come pick up when this lockdown was over. When, true to form, my mother called and said she had plenty of soup and matzah balls in the freezer and we could drive to Brooklyn anytime to pick them up, I laughed and assured her that we would try to do that as soon as possible.
I had no way of knowing then that in just 12 days my mom would be gone. She was rushed to the hospital April 14 and died later that night. She had spent the last days of her life on her terms. She cooked, chatted with family and friends, read, and I’d like to think she sang along to “Yanky At The Pesach Seder with Zayde.”
And she made sure, in her own way, that her grandchildren got her soup and matzah balls. On the day she was rushed to the hospital, I drove to Brooklyn to be with my dad and brother. My sister-in-law and I went downstairs to the freezer to bring up some food for them to eat over yom tov, which began that night. We saw multiple containers of chicken soup and even more containers of matzah balls. So I did what I knew my mother would have wanted and brought some containers home to my kids.
That night, the seventh day of Passover, my family sat at the table and felt the comfort of her presence with us. My mother would leave the world that same night, but somehow she managed to be with us for Pesach after all.
Elisa Cohen lives in West Orange with her husband and three children and plans to pass down her mother’s matzah ball recipe to them and her future grandchildren.