The ProsenPeople

Memory, Scent, and My Mother

Friday, May 13, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Molly Birnbaum wrote about her first writing teacher and the scent of Passover. She has been blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. In celebration, my mom and I went out to lunch. We ate crisp salads and tuna sashimi. We laughed a bit too loudly, tipsy after a glass of white wine. Before that we had been shopping, trying on summer dresses and sandals with straps twisting up our ankles—a little too hopeful for the immediacy of warm weather as we listened to a chilling thunderstorm soaking the streets outside.

I write about my mother in my book, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way. After all, she took care of me after I was hit by a car while jogging in 2005 – the accident that broke my pelvis, tore the tendons in my left knee, and fractured my skull; the one that ultimately robbed me, an aspiring chef, of my sense of smell. In the months of my recovery, I found it devastating to not be able to perceive the scents that had once been so closely aligned with my memories of my mother: the smell of her lilac perfume, of her rosemary-mint shampoo, of the chicken dish she used to make with dried cherries and cream. I understood the importance of scent in terms of taste and flavor. But I had not realized how intrinsically it is tied to memory and emotion, too.

I’m lucky, though, I know: I recovered from all of the injuries I sustained in the accident. My sense of smell slowly returned—once scent at a time, over the next six years. And all the while, my mother was there—supporting, comforting, helping me to move on. I’m incredibly lucky to have her, too.

During lunch, my mother and I watched the rain come down in torrents through the tall and airy windows of the restaurant. It was cozy inside, warm with the scent of yeast rolls straight from the oven, and the taste of a fruity white wine lingering on the back of our tongues. Instead of immediately leaving to face the weather once again, we decided to linger over coffee and dessert. We shared apanna cotta. It was silky and smooth, laced with vanilla, and topped with fresh strawberries, which were an almost neon red. Very little has tasted better.

Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way is now available.

The Scent of Passover

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Molly Birnbaum wrote about her first writing teacher. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

On the first night of Passover, my boyfriend and I attended a seder on the grounds of a mental institution.

That sounds strange, I know. But that’s where my aunt and uncle live: in a new condo development on the campus of an old hospital, one of the many developments constructed over the last few years in this surprisingly popular real estate hot spot. And as we drove our car up the road leading to their home, I thought of the complicated mental landscape surrounding this land, of the myriad diagnoses and dramas that had run their course on the surrounding acres. And you know what? It felt fitting.

Not that my family is crazy.

They’re just quirky. And dramatic. And loud.

Like any Jewish family—like any family at all, really—my family has eccentricities. We have whimsical retellings of our past. These traits seem to come out around the holidays, of course.

And I love this about them. I love them very much. But that didn’t make it any easier the first time I brought my new boyfriend, Matt, to his first seder in their company, now three years ago last month. That seder was in upstate New York, before what has become a mass exodus to Boston, where we all seem to live now.

Matt, who was raised Protestant, had never been to a seder before. He had never tried Manischewitz. Or gefilte fish. He’d never heard the Four Questions, or attempted to sing poor translations of Hebrew prayers. He gave it a great shot, though: One of the many reasons I love him; one of the many reasons I followed him from New York to Boston when he was accepted to a graduate program at Harvard, even knowing that my entire extended family would be right around the corner from our new home. Matt loves gefilte fish. And thus, my grandmother loves him. Who woulda thought?

This year, when Matt and I walked into my aunt and uncle’s condo, I had a fluttering feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because two of our friends, a married couple named Charlie and Marie, were joining us, and they were a new addition to the crew. Perhaps because this was the first Passover spent together as a family in Massachusetts. The first away from the state many of us had called home.

But the kitchen smelled like brisket, which my stepmother, Cyndi, had been cooking for hours. There was matzoh ball soup simmering on the stop top, and salads vibrant with green spinach and purple cauliflower already lining our plates. The horseradish was neon pink, and the charoset an earthy brown. Just like before.

My grandmother had made the gefilte fish from scratch, like she’s done for decades, even though she’s now in a wheelchair and can no longer reach the kitchen shelves. My cousin, Jenn, had cooked a matzoh kugel, sweet with currants and rich with eggs. It was studded with apples and apricots, laced with cinnamon and sugar. It smelled like breakfast, but also dessert. It reminded me of the noodle kugel my mother used to make when I was a kid, before my parents divorced.

As we sat for the seder, and later ate dinner, I thought of these tastes and smells, ones that I’ve known my entire life. The fatty scent of meat, cooked low and long, will forever remind me of my family. Just like the taste of gefilte fish and sticky sweet Manischewitz wine. The kitchen of Passover smells like my childhood, the food tastes of my past. And that’s comforting. No matter what demons—crazy or otherwise—are hanging out with Elijah right behind the front door.

Molly Birnbaum is the author of Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way


My First Writing Teacher

Monday, May 09, 2011 | Permalink

Molly Birnbaum is the author of Season to Taste: How I Lost my Sense of Smell and Found My Way. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

The first book I ever wrote was with my grandfather, Morris, a big-boned businessman who lived with my grandmother in upstate New York. He was a talented amateur artist. I was five.

We wrote a whole series of books together, in fact, over a number of years, lying belly-down on the living room rug, surrounded by sheathes of blank paper and boxes of colored pencils, pastels, and crayons. I spun tangled stories — often minute variations on the same one about a nurse, her puppy, and the bright red convertible they drove around town — that my grandfather transcribed in his spidery scrawl. He would then illustrate the blank pages of our makeshift books with intricate line drawings of people, animals, and cars. Under his watchful eye, I filled them with waxy strokes of color.

For some reason most of our stories were set in Florida. This was most likely because my grandparents, like many Jewish grandparents, wintered there. But also because I loved the exotic curves to palm trees on paper, and the line my crayon took when I filled them in with green. At the time I thought I wanted to be an artist. It was only later that I realized it was the writing that drew me in.

My grandfather passed away in 2008. I was 25 at the time, and it had been many years since he and I were close. Divorce and drama had soured the relationships among many of my family members and I had pulled away, content with avoidance. When I thought about the grandfather of my youth, I remembered a tough guy with a loud laugh, famous for refusing to wear a jacket when the winter temperatures would plunge far below freezing. I remembered his love of dried apricots, which I thought looked like wrinkled brains, and the fact that he put extra salt on everything. But when I flew from California, where I was working as a newspaper reporter, to New York for his funeral, I began to think again about those books.

I loved those books. So did he. Even between my childhood visits, when I was at home with my family in a suburb of Boston, my grandfather would send me new books in the mail — some that we had talked about, a few we worked on together, but many he created completely on his own. They arrived in big manila envelopes that had decorated with whimsical scenes of elephants and trapeze artists rendered in thick black ink.

My first book, Season to Taste: How I Lost my Sense of Smell and Found My Way, will be published on June 21st by Ecco/HarperCollins. It took me years to write. There are no pictures inside. But I wish that I could send my grandfather a copy, shiny and new. I’ d mail it to him in a thick manila envelope, covered with sketches of elephants, apricots, and palm trees. My own drawing would be far more amateur than his, but I’ m pretty sure he’ d be shocked to see how far I’ve come.

Come back all week to read Molly Birnbaum‘s posts.