My Aunt Shirley — she’s actually my Cousin Shirley; actually, she’s my father’s Cousin Shirley — recently downsized from her three-bedroom split-level house to a two-bedroom condo. As she confronted her closets, her basement, and her attic to winnow and purge a lifetime of possessions, she found a photograph and gave it to me the last time we met.
The snapshot showed a hair-bow-topped me, at about 4 years old, my older brother, and a table full of my young cousins, who today are parents and grandparents themselves. It was taken at the children’s table at Aunt Pessy’s Passover seder. (Aunt Pessy, Shirley’s mother, was actually my father’s first cousin, but because we were a small family, everyone got bumped up a few notches on the relative scale.)
Those Passover seders were the first of my Pesach memories. We would venture to Aunt Pessy and Uncle Joe’s, all decked out and ready for a long night of hagaddah, matzah, and mishpacha. From the red Manischewitz Malaga wine to the Maxwell House well-worn haggadah books that we used, to the generously peppered homemade gefilte fish that was Aunt Pessy’s specialty, to the protracted afikomen negotiations — these memories are part of the Passover lore that I will always remember. There is even some precious film footage that was taken of the seder table, everyone waving as they sat cheek-to-jowl on the railroad of tables that ran from the dining room into the living room.
They were wonderful seders. They were full of laughter, special Passover food, and good feeling.
Eventually, Aunt Pessy gave up presiding over these seders and her daughter, Ruthie, Shirley’s sister, took up the mantle. We would gather at Ruthie’s house for a similar version of the Pessy Passover.
I am reminded of these wonderful family holiday gatherings not only because of the season, as we approach Pesach, but because Shirley was someone to whom my daughter Shaina turned recently for a school project. Shaina was asked to interview someone of an older generation, and in the absence of others, Shirley was a willing participant. While seemingly ageless — or at least not nearly her age — she wears her 83 years with vigor, optimism, and enthusiasm.
And in the course of that project, I, too, learned a thing or two about “Aunt” Shirley and her family. Her family left Rovno, Poland, my father’s birth city, and followed their Zionist dream to what was then Palestine. Shirley was born in Tel Aviv in 1933, and then her family left, and traveled to the United States in 1939, the year that Hitler invaded Poland. They lived in Washington, D.C. — something I never knew — and then moved to Brooklyn in 1947, the year that my mother, who also was born in Poland and who survived the Shoah, came to the United States. Shirley married her childhood sweetheart when she was two weeks shy of her 17th birthday (at 16!) and celebrates 66 years with her husband Irving. When she was a youngster, her family had one of the first televisions on their block, and their home — no surprise — was social central. Everyone came to their home to gather around the latest, greatest invention — TV.
Shirley lived through it all. The Shoah. The birth of the State of Israel (which she calls “the greatest”) the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the ups and downs of more than eight decades. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to five.
She is a living memory. A treasure of the past and the link to the future. I am so happy to be able to wish her a sweet holiday.
As we sit and gather with our own families this Passover, may we remember our personal pasts and our collective pasts, as a people and as a nation. And may we celebrate with the hopes of a future that will be sweeter than any red Malaga wine.