Ginger in the Soup
by Suzanne Hyman
Grace stood, counting out loud the number of places her maid, Charlene, had set on the dining room table. Eight sets of porcelain plates and bowls stared back at her as if they were determined to remind her of something. She tried her best but could not recall what it was that brought her to the dining room in the first place. Again she counted eight plates, bowls, salad forks, dinner forks, soup spoons, and meat knives. Not one was missing, though Grace made a mental note to talk to Charlene about her silver polishing skills. The silverware had been a gift from her mother on Grace’s wedding day, and after 55 years of magnificent service, they were beginning to show their wear. Grace was not willing to let them retire. An hour or so more of polishing a week would certainly do the trick.
The doorbell rang, startling Grace for the smallest of moments.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ve got it,” Lauren called down from the upstairs balcony. There was a slight strain in her voice, which was meant to calm her mother down but it unintentionally sent a cold shiver down Grace’s back.
“I should turn up the heat,” Grace said.
“No you shouldn’t,” Lauren called back to her as she approached the front door.
Grace noticed Lauren’s hand clutched tight around the spare key as she unlocked the door. So much stress in that hand and her whole body, Grace thought. Such a shame, she had not found anyone for her little angel, who was now far too old at 50 years of age to be referred to as a little anything. If only she had a husband. It was too late for children, even too late for adoption, a concept, which Grace had never warmed to, but she suspected she would have made an exception in her heart for Lauren if that had been her desire. She made a lot of exceptions for her angel.
Grace was convinced a husband could still be found for Lauren as long as she kept in shape and at the moment Lauren was slightly out of shape, just a little extra weight, but enough that it would not be able to distract any possible suitors from picking much younger, fitter companions. No reason to worry though, she was certain she could carefully and tactfully suggest to her daughter a little less here and there without upsetting her. Tact was of course one of her specialties and she prided herself greatly on her ability to avoid any unnecessary drama. “No reason to make a scene,” Grace’s mother had instructed her and she had always listened to her mother.
Grace made sure to smile wide before turning to greet her guest. She planted a dutiful kiss on the cheek of her son’s mother-in-law, Helen. Lauren had already offered her own friendly greeting when she opened the door but now she was forced to retreat back to the kitchen to check on the turkey or at least that was her excuse to leave the room.
The truth was that Lauren found it difficult watching her mother attempt conversation with her brother’s mother-in-law. She respected Helen, of course, as anyone would respect a Holocaust survivor, but she was still a very bitter and angry woman who liked to start arguments and Lauren had worked very hard with her Life Coach to create a beautiful balance between the energies. Unfortunately being around Helen threated to tip that balance and Lauren would do anything to avoid the nightly binges of her past, which were usually brought on by dealing with unnatural stress and if that meant being slightly rude, she would take her chances.
“What a lovely surprise it is to see you, Helen.”
“So lovely, Grace,” Helen said without the slightest hint of cheer. After 33 years it still took every bit of concentration Grace had to decipher Helen’s words through her thick Hungarian accent.
“And how are you doing, dear?” Grace gave a soft squeeze to Helen’s hand. “I heard about your fall.” Grace eyed Helen’s bandaged forearm. “How’s the arm?”
Helen glared at Grace with her tiny hazel eyes. “Oh it’s wonderful. I play tennis with my physical therapist three times a week.”
Grace giggled anxiously. “Oh Helen, it’s so good to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
Even though Grace had prepared a place setting for her, she was still shocked that Helen had shown up, especially since her son and his wife, Ann, were nowhere to be seen. She was even more surprised considering Helen hadn’t set foot in her home since the unfortunate incident the previous year when Helen had walked out during their grandson’s graduation party. At the time Grace had been in the kitchen preparing a feast as usual, when she heard the screaming, first from Helen and then Alan, her eldest grandson. Grace ran in the living room, just in time to see Helen hobbling unsteadily towards the door, trying to escape faster than her cane would let her. She almost completely lost balance when she pointed her cane in the air at Jessica, Alan’s then-wife, exclaiming, “She’s a bitch, that one you married,” before continuing to hobble towards Ann’s car, where Ann was waiting gleefully to escape her mother-in-law’s house. Afterwards Grace found out that the whole incident started because Helen thought Jessica didn’t say hello to her as she entered the house, but Jessica swore it wasn’t true. Seeing as Grace now considered Jessica “a bonafide hussy” for cheating on and leaving her eldest grandson for a goy, Grace was happy enough to believe Helen’s side of the story or she would have been if she were not all too familiar with Helen’s lack of hearing. The whole family had been begging Helen to get a hearing aid for years, but she adamantly refused.
Grace felt bad for Helen every time she saw her. She couldn’t help but glance a little at Helen’s worn, wrinkled face, covered in sunspots. She often forgot that she and Helen were the same age. The Old World must age much faster than the New World, she thought. But Grace was on the verge of being rude by staring at Helen, an act, which her mother would have never accepted. If her mother were there, she would have gently touched Grace’s shoulder, while whispering in her ear, “Remember, dear, you are a lady, and a lady never stares.” Grace, craving for her mother’s soft touch, caressed her own shoulder for a moment before leaving Helen and turning towards the door, where her grandsons, Alan and David, and her granddaughter, Sally, stood waiting.
Meanwhile, Helen grunted and hobbled towards the living room couch. She was happy to be able to sit down for a moment since her joints ached horribly. She was even happier to have an extra moment to herself before Grace hijacked the rest of the day. Helen wondered why she even bothered coming down to Baltimore anymore, especially when she had such an acrimonious relationship with her son-in-law and even with her only child, her daughter, Ann, who she had such high hopes for but had turned out just as bitter and unhappy as her mother. But as Helen looked at her grandchildren standing in the doorway next to their other grandmother, she smiled and remembered why she came down to visit so much. Sure she had been displeased with Alan for quite awhile but he apologized profusely to her ever since the incident with his ex-wife. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily but he was still one of her three grandchildren, whom she loved dearly. She did still hate Baltimore though, and many of its esteemed residents. She glared at Grace’s back and hoped her gaze might be able to burn a small hole through Grace’s perfect cream-colored cashmere sweater. She giggled at the thought.
“Good Yontif,” Grace greeted her grandchildren with kisses on each cheek.
“Hi Savta.” Alan returned the kiss. “How’re you doing? Everything fine. Looking pretty spry. Good for you, old girl.”
Sally playfully slapped Alan’s arm. “Stop that,” she whispered. “Savta, you look wonderful.”
Grace hugged her tight. “What I wouldn’t do without you.” Grace looked affectionately at her granddaughter. “And you.” She pointed to her oldest grandson, “You’re looking pretty spry yourself. How’s that diet going?” She patted his stomach. Grace was now forced to worry about his future love life as well, considering the recent divorce, which she could never bring up to Alan for fear of him throwing a fit.
“No diet today.” Alan smiled and they stood silently for a moment. “It’s Thanksgiving.”
“Well you all came just in time.” Even if it was half an hour later than what I told you, Grace continued in her head. Alan and Sally made excuses for the late arrival before heading towards the living room.
“No time for TV,” Grace called after them.
“But Savta, what about the parade?” Sally whined back.
“Go right to the table, both of you. Unless you like eating cold food?” She smiled at them before turning towards their brother, David, who still lingered by the door.
“How are you, Savta?” He sneered as he kissed her cheek. Grace replied with her usual cheerful smile. She couldn’t help but cringe a little when she noticed David’s yellow teeth, rotting in his mouth. It must be the drugs, she thought.
“I’m fine, dear. Is your father coming?”
“No, he’s stuck at the office. Some big case or something.”
“Well that’s too bad. What about your mother?”
“She’s at some coupon clippers convention in Catonsville.”
“Oh how fascinating.”
“But couldn’t she have waited until after Thanksgiving?”
David shrugged his shoulders. “She says she needs to be at her best for Black Friday.”
Grace was barely surprised that her daughter-in-law would miss Thanksgiving in order to “prep for shopping.” She was more disappointed in her son for choosing work over his family. It was not the way that she and her late husband raised him and she was certain that Ann was responsible.
David walked towards the table. Grace shuddered as she watched his muddy sneakers stain her gray rug with each dragging step.
“David, honey, why don’t you sit near me tonight?” Grace placed a cold hand on the wooden chair next to hers. At least she could keep a better eye on him if he sat closer, not that that would help her trust him again. She had not been able to think of David the same way, ever since he and half a dozen friends had nearly destroyed her home, pouring bleach over the doors, ransacking the house for jewelry, driving her brand new Lexus before she even had the chance to, harassing the security guards of the gated community, and causing over $20,000 worth of damage the year before when she was in her beloved homeland, Jerusalem, a month-long trip she took annually for the past 30-odd years.
“But Savta, I’d rather sit over here.” David pointed to a seat in the corner as far away from Grace as possible.
If only she had put place cards, she thought. Place cards! That was what she could not remember earlier. She could have kicked herself for not writing them. “Oh but honey, it would mean the world to me if you could sit right here.” Grace smiled and David grit his teeth.
“Sure Savta, whatever you say,” David said and Grace made a mental note to get the locks changed again soon.
“All right, who wants to say the blessing?” Her eyes looked past Lauren, Helen, and her grandsons until they reached…“Sally?”
Savta wasn’t asking, and Sally was smart enough to know it. Her grandmother never asked, she demanded, but always in a pleasant tone. She would use interrogatives, and her tone was always sweet, but there was a strong strangling force that crept into her voice. Everyone in the family could recognize it. It was that subtle addition that rang, informing whomever she was talking to that she controlled their comfortable little lives, but of course her grandmother would never admit that, even though it was true. Her late husband, Norm, had left her a lot of money, millions in fact. It was enough to take care of her and anyone else she wanted to, and she did. Savta still helped pay both of her sons’ bills, Sally’s father’s and his brother’s, and even her grandchildren’s, paying Sally’s full tuition at Amherst. And for this, all her grandmother wanted was what she believed she deserved, their respect.
“It’s not a Jewish holiday, you know, but sure Savta, I’d love to say the bracha.” Sally smiled at Grace and began to say the blessing over the bread using the very little Hebrew she knew. “Baruch ata hashem elochanu melech haolom hamotzi lechem min haaretz.”
David stared at both his grandmothers. He smiled at the noticeable increase in wrinkles on Grace’s face. From the time he was young, Helen always had visible wrinkles, lines deeply etched into her skin. He respected her, for having those lines, for having the tragic life that she had during the Holocaust and after as a new immigrant without any education, family or language necessary to prosper in a new world. His bubbe was the only one who believed he wasn’t using drugs, the only one who actually worried about him and his well-being, and the only one who gave him a monthly allowance so he had enough money to buy—the things he needed to buy. David clenched his jaw as he watched Grace, who was beaming proudly at Sally’s mispronounced Hebrew.
David’s older brother, Alan, glanced at him from across the dining room table. He was amazed that David had actually decided to brush his hair today. He almost looked like a human being. Even his ears lacked their normal ring of yellow wax. And he barely smelled of body odor, which wasn’t the norm, considering David often forgot to shower for days at a time.
“So David, how’s it going?” Alan asked, taking a piece of bread and passing it to his sister.
Poor Alan, Sally thought. He is always trying to be nice to David. Alan had already apologized to David for everything from when they were young; every bruise, every tiny scratch, all of the emotional pain of being tied to a tree naked, the physical burns from being shot at with a Super Soaker filled with boiling water, and any broken bones from wrestling. They were all products of brothers playing with each other and growing up together and beating the crap out of each other except that Alan was three times the size of David, who had always been a scrawny little thing. Over a decade had passed since then, though David wasn’t the type to ever forgive or forget. Sally knew Alan was wasting his time, but he would never give up.
“So Alan, how’s your ex-wife’s new fiancé?” David shot back, shifting his glare towards his older brother’s wet eyes. Lauren, gently patted her nephew’s back before Alan excused himself to the bathroom for a moment.
“David.” Grace gave her grandson a warning look, while noticing the smudge marks he was leaving on her antique silverware. Next time, she planned to serve everything on plastic plates with plastic silverware. At least then she wouldn’t have to count the silverware at the end of the night, worrying that her own flesh and blood was stealing from her.
Helen shook her head but not at David. She would never say anything to that poor boy. He had enough troubles, what with his sickness and all. She had wished Alan had heeded her advice on his wedding day, begging him not to marry that trash, but no, it was too late, that girl had her claws into him too deep by then. Helen cringed from the memory of them happily walking down the aisle together that day. She knew it would only end in misery. And she was right, she thought as she smiled to herself.
“You’re an asshole,” Sally said to David amongst gasps and shocked expressions from both her grandmothers.
“Sally, I’m sure you didn’t mean that. Did you honey?” Lauren nodded at her niece, encouraging an apology and hoping to keep the peace in some manner for the night. She felt bad for David, she really did, but he was always lashing out as if the whole world was against him. And Sally, well, Lauren knew that she was just defending her older brother Alan, but the inappropriate language that was certainly from their mother. She could only admit it to herself but Lauren was glad that Ann didn’t show up. After all misery only loves company.
“Sally!” Helen scolded her granddaughter but turned quiet as soon as Alan returned to the table. Alan reached for the breadbasket but Grace quickly grabbed it and placed it next to her plate.
“We’ve got plenty of food coming,” Grace sang in a semi-sweet tone. “You don’t want to spoil your appetite,” she warned.
“I’m 30 years old, Savta. I think I can figure out how much I can eat,” Alan said through clenched teeth.
“All I’m saying is that we have soup and salad and turkey and stuffing and vegetables and sweet potatoes and pie.” Grace could hear her mother’s sweet voice in her head, saying, “A moment on your lips and forever on your hips.” Alan’s hips were already wide enough. They came from his mother’s side of the family.
“Savta, I’m not stupid.” Alan said. “If I want more bread, that’s my decision and mine alone.”
“How about we have some soup?” she offered, trying to change the subject. “You all have a choice between sauerkraut with my homemade mashed potatoes or chicken noodle with a matzah ball.” She made sure to emphasize “a” in case Alan was getting ideas about eating multiple balls.
Alan stood up and quickly snatched the breadbasket away from his grandmother’s side. Grace looked appalled, Helen smiled, and David laughed. “I’ll have sauerkraut,” Alan said as he stuffed a giant piece of bread in his mouth. Grace sighed heavily as she was reminded again of the necessity of place cards. She made a note to place Alan as far away from the breadbasket as possible next time.
“I suppose everyone else wants chicken soup?” she asked and Lauren stood up to help her bring the soup dishes in from the kitchen.
Lauren turned to Sally, “Don’t you want to help serve the soup, sweetie?”
“Is that a trick question?” Sally smiled and then got up to follow her aunt into the kitchen.
Helen always scrunched her nose when Grace talked about her famous sauerkraut soup or anything else that she claimed was “homemade.” She glared at Grace again when her back was turned. Wherever her eyes focused, she would imagine new holes in that cashmere sweater. She giggled to herself again.
“Bubbe, what’s so funny?” Sally asked her grandmother.
“Oh nothing.” Helen smiled.
“Here you go.” Grace handed Helen the hot bowl of chicken soup, accidentally spilling a little on Helen’s blouse. “Oops, I’m sorry, dear.” She did feel awful, but truthfully Helen could do with a new shirt. The one she was wearing must have been bought while that Israel-hating, anti-Semite, was still in office. “My hands are so clumsy these days.”
“Of course, Grace.” Helen sneered. “Women of our age have these problems.”
Lauren quickly ran to the kitchen to get a wet washcloth for Helen. She grasped onto the kitchen counter for a moment. “Breathe, just breathe,” she told herself. She could feel the tension between Helen and her mom so intense that her arms were covered in goose bumps. She knew tonight would be a difficult night especially with all the leftovers from Thanksgiving sitting in the fridge, yelling at her to eat them while her mother would be asleep. She reminded herself that she was only visiting for a couple days before she would return to her stress-free, feng shui house in Philadelphia. Lauren walked back into the dining room and handed Helen the washcloth.
Sally, sensing the growing anxiety in the room, tried her best to distract her grandmothers. “Oh Savta, the soup is so good. Did you make it yourself?”
“Of course, honey.” Grace smiled sweetly at her granddaughter. “How could you expect anything else?”
Sally prayed that the true answer to that question wouldn’t spit out of her mouth or even worse, Bubbe’s. She stared at the bowl of soup, which looked remarkably like the one made from Suburban House, the kosher-style restaurant in town. Of course Savta made some changes, adding a lot of spices, and always a small piece of ginger that somehow mysteriously found its way into Sally’s bowl every time. Sally lifted her spoon to her mouth, hoping for a miracle that her soup could be ginger-free for once, but she wasn’t so lucky.
“Oh gee, I guess I got the ginger.” Sally said.
Grace laughed. “That’s wonderful.”
“I’m not exactly the biggest fan of it.” Sally didn’t want to sound bitter, but she couldn’t help it. It was always hard for her to hide her emotions about anything.
“Oh but it’s so healthy for you, Sally.” Grace said. “Just ask your aunt. She’s a doctor after all.” She nodded towards her Lauren.
“I have a PhD, Mom,” Lauren said.
“You’re still a doctor,” Grace pointed out.
“In 17th Century Feminist British Literature.”
“Do people call you Doctor?”
“They usually call me Professor, but yes, sometimes they call me Doctor.”
“There you go, you’re a doctor. Now everyone stop talking and enjoy the meal.”
By the time the pumpkin pie was served and devoured in two seconds as if by vultures, everyone except for Lauren had made their hasty goodbyes to Grace.
“They flew out of here like a bunch of bats outta hell,” Grace said to herself. “Bye Savta,” Alan and David said with two meaningless kisses on her cheeks. Sally was a bit friendlier when she said goodbye, stopping for a second and giving Grace a sincere hug and a kiss. Helen didn’t even bother saying goodbye. She could already imagine Helen’s bitter complaints to Ann later, and she was right. As soon as Helen walked out of the house she was on the phone leaving a message for her daughter, saying, “Who does that woman think she is, pretending to make a home-cooked meal when everyone knows she bought that soup from Suburban House, and that turkey already prepared from the kosher butcher? Do you remember how I used to make all your meals from scratch with my bare hands?”
No one appreciates me, Grace thought. She looked at the dirty dishes sitting in the sink. She thought about leaving them for Charlene when she comes the next morning, but she couldn’t. She knew her mother would have been aghast if she saw a sink full of dirty dishes left for the maid. “Maids are for tidying and polishing, not for cleaning,” her words rang in her head. Grace added soap to the sponge before plunging her hands deep into the muck.
“Let me help you with that,” Lauren said as she walked into the kitchen and gave her mom’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “I told you the dinner would be fine.”
Grace wiped off leftover cranberry sauce from one of her silver-rimmed porcelain plates. “It was more than fine.” She looked up at her daughter. “Considering the company.”
Originally from Baltimore, Suzanne hopped on a plane to Israel for a yearlong volunteer program after graduating from Emory University in 2008. Six years later, she’s still there, living and working in Tel Aviv. Over the years, she’s worked as an English teacher, copywriter, content writer and editor. She recently finished a Masters in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University, and is currently working on her first novel and a pretty weird collection of short stories. This is her first publication. You can follow her @SuzanneHyman or read her blog at www.anamericangirlinisrael.wordpress.com.