published through: Pearl Press
I cut up eight apples for the cake that I made for Lena’s shiva. I held it close in the bumpy car ride through Queens, and sliced out a piece for my uncle, Sender, to try once we arrived. Papa and I walked across the aisles of gateways until we reached the somewhat familiar stairway with the new shrubbery lined up on the patio. I began thinking of what I will consume, food for thought maybe. “Like most humans, I am hungry…” M.F.K. Fisher writes, “...our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it...” After much of my consumption for Fisher’s writing, I discovered that food for thought may have another explanation.
Cutting apples for the cake she was making for dessert, Babushka fed the rest through a juicer for me. I remember the smell as if walking through an orchard in their small Queens apartment. Babushka and Dedushka lived in Forest Hills for the entirety of my life. As a child of about four or five, I was a picky eater, pushing away food I so happily would scarf down now. The apple cake that Babushka was preparing was the simplest joy, a pound cake filled with apples in its most basic form, but the flavor is complex like nostalgia. Sweetened with vanilla and spiced with cinnamon, it was a staple for our family parties, I remember because it was almost all I ate. I pushed away the borscht so I could save more room for Babushka’s apple cake. Everyone would come, Babushka and Dedushka prepared the meal and that is almost all I can remember. Being so young when they passed away, I have few memories that I can recall without the playing of an old tape or a story from my parents. I couldn’t quite understand what it meant when Bab and Ded weren’t there anymore. As adults, we reflect, we think about our choices, our family, our past, passings. Now, I reflect. The memories that I taste are of apple cake which started to quickly become a speciality of my Great Aunt, Lena’s. Moist and warm. I soon created new memories of Lena and her cakes and spending time inside with family.
Lena had beautiful red hair and wore the most incredible patterns. She shared her earrings and necklaces with my sister, Michal and me and told us how pretty we looked with her clip ons dangling off our lobes. I can’t remember if her ears were ever pierced but I do remember the pain of the clip on shortly after it was clipped off. She made us borscht and potatoes and different salads, tea and apple cake. A lot of Lena reminded me of Babushka, her kindness and her smile, her warmth and her open heart. Much like Bab and Ded, Lena and my Great Uncle, Asik lived in Queens and had a house in the Poconos that I adored. Every time we went to see my grandparents, we would visit Asik and Lena, drive up their curved driveway and bust through the screen door excited to run around in their enormous backyard. The best part of their homes was the carpet; jumping around barefoot in it right after playing marbles on the floor. My favorite marble was clear with the prettiest specks of color all around. The Poconos felt like my second home, on carpet is how I feel ‘at home’ nowadays.
Visiting the Poconos as I got older I was able to see Babushka’s golden curls, the way that the Pocono Mountain sun hit her pale skin. I see her blue eyes that shone for her husband, her children, her grandchildren. I see the beach. It wasn’t a very large beach but a quaint one, from home videos and maybe from my recent trips, I can make out a lifeguard in a very tall chair, a few park benches placed in the sand, clear water and Michal running toward it calling for me to run by her side. Babushka sat in the sand with us and let us play with her curls, pinning them up with her lobster clip while Dedushka swam in the open waters, swimming far to show us bravery. I would ask papa how Dedushka wasn’t scared to go out far, not knowing if he’ll be able to get back to the shore, and papa just smiled because he knew his father, he knew what he was capable of. Papa smiles for me like that now to show me what I am capable of.
I found Babushka’s apple cake recipe a few months before Lena passed away. My first round at making the cake was hardly a success. It looked as if it’s volume was deflated and its spice subpar, but papa seemed to like it. That night, I ate the majority of it, critiquing it each time I took a bite. My second attempt was getting there. The airy pound cake complimenting the acidity of the apples, perfectly sliced by hand as I watched Casablanca for the first time. The next round I decided to bake when Michal came home, she helped me with the batter while I sliced. Each attempt got closer to Babushka. When I realized that baking helped me feel that way, I ran with it. Lena knew exactly how to mimic the cake along with her other delicious creations that I loved so very much. Like Babushka, she put her heart into her baking and you could taste it in the batter.
The night of Lena’s shiva, papa and I walked up the stairway, the one I climbed only a few months before to visit Lena while she drank hot tea and sat smiling at us, love radiating off of her warmth. Papa and I found the door, we rang the buzzer and entered the crowded apartment. I saw old and new faces, family and family friends. I smiled and put down my apple cake so I could grab a knife to begin slicing. Sender received the first piece, he said the cake reminded him of his mother’s. Papa smiled at me as if I had swam across the ocean to get there.