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Love, loss and latkes

In a time of sadness, a humble childhood tradition reminds us that joy is found in the little things

| 26 Sep 2023 | 11:53

Not that long ago it was Max and my 30th wedding anniversary, which was kind of a big deal, even for me. Typically, I’m not into Hallmark holidays. I mean, if you really want to honor me on Mother’s Day, skip the card and flowers and clean my bathroom. And now that I claim my five percent discount on senior Wednesdays at Shoprite, I feel like birthdays are better off ignored, like the dust bunnies accumulating under my bed.

But this anniversary felt like a milestone worthy of celebrating, and I began mulling over options months in advance. Maybe reenact our first date, with a sushi dinner followed by a midnight movie? Or a weekend up at the bed and breakfast in Vermont where we got married? Or even a grand fete here in our old house, with friends and family and top shelf alcohol? We still hadn’t firmed up any real plans when all thoughts of a celebration came to a screeching halt with the untimely death of my husband’s sister, Patty.

When a loved one dies, everything else in your life gets shelved as you face the excruciating process of coming to terms with it all, plus dealing with the million things that must be dealt with. These events consumed our lives for months, and even though we still had time to plan what should have been, for us, a thing worthy of celebration, it somehow felt all wrong. This got me thinking about how we celebrate life events, and why we do these things a certain way. I thought back to when I was a kid, growing up very poor, with a limited budget for anything outside of basic survival. For some occasions, my mom, young and single and nearly always broke, would let us pick a special dinner, which was invariably Kraft macaroni and cheese with a side of Jones breakfast sausage. But best of all, for really special events like birthdays, Mom would make us potato latkes, a hands down favorite. I remember digging into that plate of greasy, salty pancakes, and feeling happy, special, and loved. It was this kind of specialness I longed to recreate for us, but that was a very different world, and life had since become decidedly more grown-up and complicated.

When the big day arrived, I still had no ideas. Out of desperation, while Max was at work, I bolted to the local home goods store to buy him the dreaded card. I agonized over the choices, finally settling on something not too mushy, not too festive, with a sentiment that seemed at least mostly genuine. I got in my car to head home, but detoured instead to the liquor store, where I fretted, which wine goes best with a joyous occasion buried in all-consuming grief? The cheap stuff? Fancy? Really fancy? I grabbed a bottle of some ridiculously expensive French vintage, then burned rubber to the supermarket. With a terrible combination of guilt, uncertainty and wretched determination, I piled items in my cart: grass-fed steaks, two kinds of smoked fish, an assortment of fancy crackers and imported cheeses, then dashed to the checkout and froze. Was this too much? Was it special, or was I trying too hard? Did it speak to the monumental milestone this day signified for us, or was it a silly attempt to pretend that we could ignore the gut wrenching sadness consuming our lives? I put everything back and went home.

When Max arrived home from work, we exchanged our cards with what we both knew was a false sense of cheer. Spying the expensive wine on the counter, he said, “What’s for dinner?” with a hint of hopefulness in his voice. And for some reason, that was when the cheerful veneer I had mustered for the occasion cracked. We gave into it, and cried and reminded each other how much we missed Patty, and why it was okay to not feel celebratory or even the least bit happy. It was going to be okay, eventually, but we were not there yet.

And yet, that night, we ended up celebrating our marriage in a special and meaningful way, with a toast to our 30 years of love and commitment with that fancy French wine along with a most humble heaping plateful of greasy, salty potato latkes. To my happy surprise, they paired quite well.