In so many ways, Grandma Beryl was the matriarch of our family and a wise dignified figurehead. She was almost always immaculately turned out, her hair a halo of wispy-white cotton-candy with not a strand out of place. Her elocution was invariably poised and precise, graced with a slight Mancunian lilt, and as mellifluous as any a Radio 4 presenter.
Through the best part of ninety years, us children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would congregate at Grandma’s each week, her home bursting alive with the sighs and squeals of newborn babies, the pitter-patter of toddler feet, children trampolining on the sofa, kids taking penalty kicks in the lounge, and grown-ups sporadically crying out “Mind the ornaments!”, all accompanied by the constant clang and clatter of cutlery and plates as they materialised on and off the dining-room table.
Of course she loved all this, the hubbub of family coming together. And ultimately she yearned for nothing more than her family to be happy and well. To that end, she connected deeply with each and every one of us, like the gravitational pull of a warm radiating sun round which all our lives orbited.
And when it came to my Grandpa Reuben, well she was beyond devoted. He’d been her rock, and she his; a husband she’d lovingly served in an old-fashioned way, a couple and a home steeped in Jewish tradition. (“Call me old-fashioned” was in fact her favourite refrain.) But even after he died, the family would continue to come, week after week, and she remained the constant, the glue, the fabric, by which our family were reassuringly held.
On second thoughts, ‘matriarch’ isn’t quite right. The word conjures up images of haughtiness and detachment which couldn’t be further from the truth when it came to Grandma Beryl. She was a warm, loving, generous soul, totally unassuming, always smiling, gentle in her humility, yet strong in her own way.
A real ‘people person’, she loved snatching a conversation here and there, with everyone and anyone, from taxi-drivers to Big Issue sellers. And she was naturally gifted with a wonderful sense of humour, somehow both knowingly cheeky and yet brilliantly bone-dry, radiant even until her very last days.
For 10th October 2016 was her very last day, when her life was no more and she was finally at peace.
It’s ok really.. deeply sad of course, and I miss her just so much, and I keep thinking she’s still around and that I need to give her a call. But she lived a good life, and she was just ready to go. Occurring just a few months after my Grandma Marilyn, this year has felt like a real end of an era.
Throughout my life Grandma has gifted me with so many joyful memories. Many of which are food related. Even when I was a toddler, her traditional fluffy chremsel pancakes were so good that I’d have total meltdowns in hungry anticipation of them: I’d literally pound my fists on the floor, wail up to the heavens in exasperation, and demand at the top of my voice: “PANCAKES AND JAM!!”
But if there’s one dish to remember Grandma by, it’s chicken soup. Because – and apologies to my own mum here, for pinning chicken-soup allegiances risks opening the Jewish version of Pandora’s Box (‘Pinchas’s Tefillin-Bag’, perhaps) – she made the world’s finest.
Now, when it comes to judging chicken soup, pay heed to this apocryphal Yiddishe parable. Once, a traditional Jewish wife finally had enough of her husband’s unappreciative whingeing over her cooking, and set about perfecting her once-stodgy kneidlach soup-dumplings. Experimenting with various recipes, she made them successively lighter and more refined, but her husband continued to complain miserably. Eventually she couldn’t bear it any longer: “That’s it Hershel, why do I even bother!” And so, unbeknownst to him, she reverted back to making the same old stodgy kneidlach. “Ahh!” he cries out at last, after his first bite, “Now you’ve got it!”
So, it may well be that my fond memories have been souped up by dint of familiarity; nostalgia is such fine seasoning after all. Still, the flavour of Grandma’s soup was undoubtedly deep and true, its soul steeped in the essence of chicken. Slices of carrot studded the crystal-clear golden broth like a bejewelled crown. And in between bobbed immaculate white baubles of kneidlach – large, regal and stately – and metaphorically and literally brimming with schmaltz, there being no coincidence that this term refers both to a sentimental kind of love and to chicken fat.
Every Friday she’d make it. And every Saturday she’d serve it, just after the kiddush prayers over bread and wine, and just before a traditional roast chicken dinner. Grandpa Reuben, who was otherwise the gentlest man who’d ever lived and the epitome of politeness, would slurp it down louder than a torrent of water gushing over Niagara Falls, enjoying every spoonful with such gratitude and gusto. Uncle Harry meanwhile would first dissect all the kneidlach into equal-sized chunks before even tackling the soup; ever the artist, his bowl resembled a cross between a Mondrian and a Japanese zen garden.
In this regime was embodied the routine of family life and the rituals of Jewish tradition. For Grandma was very much a creature of habit – as perhaps we all were – and such predictable trajectories gave her, and us, much comfort and happiness.
I don’t think I believe in life after death. And yet, whenever I glance into a glimmering pool of chicken soup, once the components have settled and the broth becomes crystal-clear, I see my grandparents reunited again, side by side, warm smiles on their faces, and love shining all around.
As well as this tribute to my Grandma Beryl and her chicken soup, I’ve also written a homage to my Grandma Marilyn, and the beautiful city of Vancouver she lived in: ‘Cinnamon Buns and Childhood Memories‘.