Of Song Sheets and Latkes
by Susan Messer
The family is gathered in the living room to light the candles for the first night of Hanukkah. There’s the father and the mother, uncles and aunties, cousins galore, the three young sisters who live in the house. The menorah is silver, and old wax residue dots its surface. The home is warm, the furniture is modest and comfortable. The air is heavy with latke smells. The mother is in charge, and she lights the candles and leads the prayers—three verses for the first night of Hanukkah. She turns to their little box of a record player and lowers the needle onto the record of scratchy old Hanukkah songs. She passes out the song sheets.
Why does everyone groan? They feel it is their job to resist the mother and the tradition she wishes to pass on. They groan every year, so why does the mother persist with the song sheets and the records? No one knows the answer. But still, she passes them out, and still they groan, and in the meantime, the songs work their way into the brain circuitry of the children. They will never forget the songs. They will know every tune, and every word—both in English and Hebrew. Oh, perhaps a few words are lost, but only a few.
Eventually, the daughters of this family grow up and move away. All the children become adults. The adults become old. One Hanukkah night, the mother calls her daughter. It is the first night of Hanukkah, and the daughter is alone in her little house. She doesn’t have Jewish friends, and she doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah or any other Jewish holiday. The mother is on one phone extension, and the father is on the other. The three make small talk—deliver news of this one or that one—and then the mother says she wants to sing Hanukkah songs. The daughter feels the reflexive recoil, the obligatory groan. She pictures the song sheets on their stained and yellowed paper, with their cracked and curling edges. When the mother starts the first song, in her husky Yiddishe voice, and the father hums along in his off-key way, the daughter sits in her little house with her lips pressed together.
Soon, something opens in her. Soon she sings with great feeling, and soon, she realizes, gripping the telephone and singing into the small black mouthpiece, the tears are flowing down her cheeks and into her mouth, salty and sad.
Many years later, after the mother has died, this daughter finds the song sheets, in a file labeled “Hanukkah songs.” The song sheets have yellowed even more. Everything about them is old—especially the blurry purple ink of the old-fashioned copying machine her mother used to print them.
The family always has latkes at least once during Hanukkah, usually on the first night of the holiday—the most special. Year after year, the daughter has watched the mother grate the potato and onion on the metal grater into the wooden bowl. One, two, three. The mother is fast. She can grate five pounds of raw potatoes in minutes. It is the frying that is endless and pernicious: oil spattering, smoky flare-ups, odors.
Still, the latkes are delicious, and the family eats them with sour cream. The latkes are hot; the sour cream is cool. The latkes are crisp; the sour cream is smooth. The latkes are salty; the sour cream is tangy. Thus the girl acquires a taste and appreciation for contrasts.
Many years later, after the girl has grown up and moved away, she comes back to her parents’ house for a visit. It is Hanukkah, and the family will go to celebrate at the mother’s sister’s house. Because latkes take so much time and effort to fry, each family attending the party is asked to bring a batch to place on the communal table.
In the girl’s family, something has gone wrong, and they have started the latke frying too late. They need to dress for the party, they need to fry the latkes, and they need to leave for the party—all at the same time.
The girl is at a stage in her life when she needs to impress her family with her flamboyance and worldliness, so she has brought along a special outfit for the party—jersey knickers, a black angora sweater, and a magenta feather boa.
The problem is that when one fries latkes, the oily, oniony smell permeates everything—house, clothes, hair, hands. The girl does not want her new clothes to smell like latkes, especially not the boa.
The mother is irritated—not at her daughter but at the time bind, and she says, with disgust, “We’re all going to smell like latkes.” The girl feels torn between the duty to produce latkes and the need to dress, to present the sophisticated image to her family. The father, ready to leave an hour ago, used to living with a household of women, is unconcerned about the smell of latkes, and he steps up to the stove. “Go get dressed,” he says to the girl and her mother. “I’ll fry the latkes.” The sight of her father, in his wool jacket and tie, standing by the sputtering frying pan, spatula in hand—so stalwart and ready—brings her to tears. Here is a man she will always be able to depend on. Here is a man who understands.
Many years later, after both the mother and the father have died, the daughter still celebrates Hanukkah. She is married. She has her own home. She has a daughter. The daughter hates the song sheets. She doesn’t like latkes. But the husband is fearless. He gets out every skillet in the house. He turns all the burners on high. He pours the oil into the skillets, flicks water off his fingertips to make sure it is hot enough. He opens all the doors and windows, even if it’s 50 below wind chill. He doesn’t care about his clothes; he doesn’t fret about how they’ll clean the pans or dispose of the oil after the frying. He isn’t bothered by the smell. He knows that all these problems will be solved. He knows that crispy latkes require high heat. And high heat is what he will give them.
The wife stands back and watches, anxious about the spatters, about the pans, about the stovetop and the walls, about the daughter who won’t even take a bite. She runs around the house, closing the doors of their bedrooms, hoping to keep out the smell. And when she is finished with all of that, she watches this spectacle—her fearless husband, armed only with the spatula, negotiating the oily haze that sputters off the latkes.
Susan Messer’s prize-winning fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and literary journals; her first novel, Grand River and Joy, is based on the story that won the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest in 2005.