The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why my mother’s dying lesson was about Passover brisket

Brisket (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

One year ago, three weeks before Passover, my mother lay dying in her bedroom. An intense whirlwind of a woman, a judge and a chef and the convener of her large extended family, she had been reduced by pain drugs, not sleeping and not eating, to a wisp who barely spoke and shuffled along the plush carpet and polished wooden floors. Cancer was having its final ways with her. But that Saturday morning, she got out of bed, put on a dry-cleaned pair of chic, gray wool pants, a crisp orange blouse, gold hoop earrings, combed what was left of her hair and went to the kitchen.

She had a brisket lesson to give.

For Jews, Passover is the Super Bowl of food ritual holidays. Eight days follow a backdrop of intense dietary restrictions — which can include no bread, pasta, beans, rice, corn, nothing that could rise — meant to remind Jews of fleeing Egypt. And we sit down for the big ritual meal, a Seder, which, like a play, is one dramatic reenactment after another of ancient history through weird food items like salted herbs and roasted shank bones.

Holiday food rituals have always felt so deeply comforting, some kugel or sponge cake that connected me like an endless line of plates into my memories and deeper, into my family’s past.

To my mother, one’s history and traditions were to be deeply honored and guarded. She was a child of the World War II era, and she agonized her entire life over how her faith and culture would be passed down — or if it would.

And that morning, she had an important date with the future.

Three special young women were coming to learn how to make brisket. These were the wives of her nephews, young men in their 30s whom she saw as nearly sons. The women were not Jewish, a fact that triggered a slew of complex feelings in my mother. She was a traditionalist, ambivalent about interfaith marriage. Yet at the same time she was instinctively progressive, a cosmopolitan traveler whose closest friends were almost all non-Jews. What she was really trying to reconcile was herself.

She had fallen in love with the three young women, who are each wise, loving, accomplished, and, amazingly, willing to join our crazy brood. She happily officiated at two of the three weddings and soon worried about and celebrated and voice-mailed them as if they were blood.

She was a fitting example of how complicated and unpredictable and personal today’s identity wars are. Here you have this judgmental, agonizing matriarch who was also the one usually bringing people of different backgrounds and beliefs together.

And that’s what happened that Saturday with the Passover brisket.

For a few years, my mother and her new nieces had plotted and giggled about learning to make “Aunt Bev’s brisket.” The guys would be ditched, and she’d clear her busy civic and professional calendar and they’d cook, kind of a throwback event, back to an era when it was a given that the older women passed tradition and recipes to the younger women as a matter of basic life training. In modern family life, where the men are often just as likely as the women to cook and everyone works all the time, the concept of the event was sweet but powerful. Aunt Bev’s Passover brisket was delicious, but everyone knew more was at stake for her in connecting to the past. The lesson was always an idea for another date.

Last spring it became clear that it was time. So that Saturday morning, the young women had traveled from far and near. We’d defrosted huge slabs of kosher beef and put them on the counter, along with jars of Heinz chili sauce and bags of onions. And the lesson began. The 5 x 8 index card with my mom’s distinct, elegant script handwriting was propped on the counter.

As amazing and storied was this handed-down family recipe, the truth was that Bev’s Passover brisket is easy to make. It has about five ingredients, simple marinade and then some added onions, sliced thin.

The complex part was my mother, a woman who had barely been able to speak or move, standing there in pleated slacks giving orders for a marinade. It was a cruel, sweet glimpse into the past, into an alternate future that wasn’t to be. The room was bright with sun, the vibe almost electric with Mom leading what we knew was her last lesson. I stood to the side, against the wall, in tears.

There she was, passing her faith on to the next generation the way so many Americans do: not through some rigorous scripture study but through a powerful blend of love, guilt, theological contradictions and some really delicious meat.

We were a few ingredients in when it became clear my mother was just visiting the present, and her time for the day was up. Her drug-addled brain became confused by the onion-cutting tool, one she’d used for decades. The crowd in the kitchen seemed to frustrate her in what way she could express only by a furrowed brow. The brisket lesson seemed to overtake her, and this began the cracking of the emotional center of my family.

She returned to her room. We all stayed and finished the recipe, trying to follow her slanted handwriting.

“Marinade a few hours or overnite.
Cook w/2-3 cups water, covered” — yet the 2-3 was crossed out, it seemed, and a “1” written above. Was it 1 or 2-3 cups water?

The cooking time appeared to have been “3 hrs” but the “3” was crossed out with what was possibly a smudged “2.5”

By this time she was way under the covers of her bed, in her nice outfit, asleep, or in some other inaccessible state, and we wouldn’t be getting the answer that spring day. So we forged ahead, cooked the brisket as best we could and put it in the freezer.

Passover was in three weeks. Would she make it? That day and in the days that followed it seemed impossible. She was fading deeper and deeper away until her existence became hours of wordless shifting in a metal-sided hospital bed, small sucks on a water swab and a rotating cast of friends and relatives reading the books she had last requested about Judaism and Israel.

The president as pharaoh? Trump is turning up in Passover seders.

My journal entry for Saturday, April 23, 2016, the first full day of Passover, starts: “Well, Mom made it to Passover.”

She was clearly in her last lap, and had remained at home as she had wished. The family had decided to hold the large ritual meal there, in the house, so we could be together but near her as well. Whether she understood was impossible to know. At the center of the Seder table was Aunt Bev’s brisket, surrounded by her blended modern family and a brew of devotion and grief.

As my mom lay down the hall, her family recited the prayers, stories and songs of the Passover Haggada, all about slavery and freedom, and they ate her brisket. She died during the night. The next day she would have turned 75.

As Passover begins, we are feeling around for our new shape as a family without my mom. People have gone in different directions emotionally. My father is selling the house, and everything, from the Passover sets of dishes to the ironed tablecloths to those elegant clothes she wore, has been boxed up or sold at an estate sale.

Ahead of Passover, my mom would have had food cooked and frozen, flowers ordered and linens dry-cleaned weeks ago; this year, we hammered out a menu last Wednesday. I put a shoutout on Facebook for a side dish recipe. To me it felt like we were neither trying to replicate Passover with my mom nor moving ahead; we are in stasis. The rituals tying me directly from a clear past into a clear future seem blurry.

Tonight this big family will gather again for our Seder, perhaps the most scripted eating of the Jewish year. The table will be full of people from near and far, including a newborn baby named for my mom. Many rituals will be familiar, and for that I am grateful. Yet somehow, these traditions feel newly strange with my Mom gone.

The merger of something as ancient as Passover with something as new as the feeling of our family without her makes me think so much about whether and how things are carried on — or not.

This year we didn’t make brisket. Maybe next Passover.