“Look at this! Do you remember this?” Klara pulled a white enamel pot from the deepest recesses of the kitchen cupboard. “It’s the pot Grandma always used when she made matzo soup for the Seder dinner. As I recall, she only used it for Passover and not for anything else.”
“You keep it, Klara. I don’t want it,” her cousin Sally who was stacking the good china barely spared it a glance.
“I don’t want it either,” Sally’s sister Lena chimed in as she sorted through the silverware drawer.
“Just put it in the giveaway box,” Sally directed.
“But this is Grandma’s special pot!” Klara protested and held the pot up to the cool, spring sunlight streaming through the lace-curtained windows.
“So keep it, we said you could.” Lena looked up from the clutter of well-worn silverware with a sigh. “You can also have everything else here, as far as I’m concerned. There’s nothing of real value.” She shut the drawer sharply. The silverware rattled like a jumble of discordant bells. “If you want my vote, everything in this house should go to charity.”
“No charity would want this,” Sally said as she placed a sugar bowl in the giveaway box.
“That’s cut crystal,” Klara reminded her.
“No, it isn’t. Run your finger over the edge. Real cut crystal would be sharp. This is molded.”
“It was a wedding present from the ladies who worked with Grandma in the bakery before she got married,” Klara recalled.
“It doesn’t have a lid.”
“We broke the lid when we were children. You and Saul and I were—”
Sally interrupted, “I already said you could have it.”
Lena stood up stiffly. “My back is killing me, I’ve got to call it quits. Take anything you want, Klara.”
“I’m done, too. Cleaning out Grandma’s house took all my vacation time. I have to get back to work tomorrow.” Sally turned to her cousin and smiled sweetly. “Klara, can you finish up? The sooner the realtors get this house on the market, the better.”
Klara was stunned. “But Passover’s this Thursday. I thought we could stay here and have a Seder dinner together, like we did when we were children.”
“Be reasonable,” Lena argued. “Sally has clients waiting. I need my chiropractor. You’re the only one in good health with free time on your hands.”
“I suppose that’s the blessing and the curse of early retirement,” Klara sighed.
“Someone has to stay and put this place in order. Neither Sally or I can do it,” Lena insisted.
Klara threw up her hands in surrender. “All right, fine.”
“You’re such a dear,” Sally echoed Lena’s thanks as she brushed the dust from her fingertips.
“We’re heading back to the hotel. Do you want to join us for dinner?” Lena asked as she hobbled toward the door.
Klara shook her head. “I think I’ll stay a while longer.” She set the enamel pot on the kitchen table. “Maybe Grandma’s synagogue will host a community Seder.”
“I’m sure they will,” Sally said as she and Lena headed to the door.
After her cousins left, Klara realized they wouldn’t meet again until the next family funeral. She sincerely hoped that wouldn’t involve dismantling another elderly relative’s lifetime. She felt like an intruder, sorting through Grandma’s meager prize possessions as if they were so much rubbish to be flicked away like discarded bread crumbs.
Grandma had already divided her few good pieces of jewelry among her children when she was still alive, so there were no valuables to cull from the debris in her cluttered little home. The only remaining asset was the house itself, and it had deteriorated over the many years that Grandma had struggled to live alone. The neighborhood had depreciated as well. It had never been affluent, located as it was in close proximity to the State Mental Hospital. The family joked that they would only have to move down the block if life ever drove them certifiably insane.
Klara shuddered, remembering the handful of times that an inmate had wandered away from the hospital grounds and entered Grandma’s yard. They seemed attracted to her flower garden, which was always a cornucopia of color and fragrance. The family worried that one of the violent inmates might escape someday and Grandma’s safety would be in jeopardy, but Grandma steadfastly refused to move.
Mulling over her memories, Klara left the kitchen and went to work in the back bedroom where there was little of sentimental value to sort out. It was easy enough to pack up the old books and outdated clothing accumulated in the closet.
The next day she went to the supermarket that had replaced the neighborhood grocery store. She only intended to buy a few lunch items so she could snack while she cleared the house, but as she turned down an aisle she was astonished to find an impressively large Passover section. Without asking herself what she was doing, she bought a matzo soup mix.
“I’ll have my own Seder dinner.” She realized this idea must have been germinating in the back of her mind ever since she’d found Grandma’s enamel pot. “It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.” She added matzah, blackberry wine, a can of gefilte fish and sesame candy to her shopping cart. “I owe it to Grandma’s memory to celebrate one last Seder in her house.”
Now it didn’t trouble her to sort through the kitchen. She found Elijah’s cup and the china that was used only once a year as well as Grandma’s cache of good silverware.
“This has to be sterling. Otherwise it wouldn’t have gotten so tarnished. Lena and Sally probably don’t want this to go to charity. We’ll draw lots for it,” Klara mused, even though her cousins had told her that she could take anything she wanted.
Klara spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking the bookshelves and searching for Grandma’s worn Haggadah. She found six tattered copies of the age-old story of the Israelites’ redemption at the shores of the Red Sea and chose the one in best condition.
She knew she ought to box up the knick knacks in the living room but instead she spent the day setting the table with the Passover china. She felt a little guilty about making the soup from a mix even though she was only cooking for herself.
“What’s important is the remembrance.” Memories flooded back of the family Seders she had celebrated in this little house when she was a little girl.
When the evening shadows lengthened, Klara sat alone at the dining room table spread with Grandma’s Belgian lace tablecloth. It seemed strange to receive no answer as she asked, “Why is this night different from other nights?” After she poured a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah and opened the door so he could enter, she returned to reading the Haggadah, but her voice faltered.
“I’m an old fool,” she berated herself. “I should just eat and be done with it.” When she got up to shut the front door, she came face to face with an old man dressed in the white, loose fitting garb typical of the State Mental Hospital’s inmates.
Klara froze as the old man stepped inside the house with an agility that belied his grizzled beard and long, gray hair.
“Oh!” Klara gasped and tried to think of something calming to say before she slipped surreptitiously into the kitchen to phone the police. “Are you lost?” she asked in her most solicitous tone of voice.
The man looked puzzled. “Not at all. I’ve been invited to dinner.”
“Well … please … do sit down,” Klara stammered. Then she realized there were knives on the table. She began to edge towards the kitchen. “I’ll get you a bowl of soup.” That was a good excuse to get to the phone.
“Don’t bother. I’ll just have a glass of wine,” the old man said as he took a seat.
“You … uh … shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach,” Klara cautioned and glanced at the kitchen doorway.
“I only drink one drop,” the old man said and dipped his finger into Elijah’s cup then put it to his lips. “One drop to represent the thousand tears that have been shed this past year.”
Klara was startled by his comment. “Did you know my Grandmother?” she asked.
The old man nodded. “She always set the Seder table just like this.” Klara felt slightly more at ease. Perhaps Grandma, in her loneliness, had befriended this old man and invited him to share her Seder table when her children and grandchildren were too busy to attend. She felt a pang of guilt as she recalled the excuses she had offered over the last few years.
“I’m afraid I didn’t make the soup from scratch.” The confession helped mitigate her past omissions.
“Good intentions are what count,” the old man assured her. She looked into his eyes for the first time and realized they seemed kind. For a moment, she forgot she wanted to notify the authorities that an inmate had escaped from the State Mental Hospital.
“Your Grandmother was particularly fond of this section of the Haggadah,” the old man said and began to read where Klara had left off, then he handed the book back to her. She read the next page and would have shared the book, but he closed his eyes and recited the following passage from heart.
They read back and forth—Klara from the tattered book and the old man from memory. As they recited the timeless story, Klara felt a pleasant warmth welling up inside her. When they finished, she looked up and thought she saw Grandma, wearing the pearl necklace she reserved only for holidays and her best silk dress, smiling from across the table.
Klara blinked and the apparition was gone. She looked around the room. To her astonishment, the old man had disappeared as well. She ran to the open door and looked up and down the street. The night shadows pressed around the streetlights’ glow, but the old man was nowhere to be seen. After she closed the door, Klara wondered if he could still be in the house. She hurried from room to room but the old man seemed to have vanished into thin air. Squaring her shoulders, she hurried to the kitchen and dialed 911.
“There was a man here—I think he was one of the patients at the Mental Hospital,” she told the dispatcher and gave a detailed description. A short time later, the hospital called. No patients had been reported missing. Nor did they have one that matched the description of the intruder.
“He wasn’t exactly an intruder,” Klara said, but stopped short of explaining the Seder dinner. The dispatcher probably wouldn’t be interested.
She returned to the table. To her surprise, her soup wasn’t cold. The blackberry wine tasted like nectar and the sesame candy was sweet as ambrosia. It brought to mind another Seder dinner, the first one she remembered celebrating in Grandma’s house.
“Grandma, why don’t we ever see Elijah?” Klara had asked. “He does come, doesn’t he?”
“Oh yes, Klara, he attends every Seder,” Grandma assured her. “We don’t notice because he only drinks one drop, to represent the tears we cry.”
“What does Elijah look like, Grandma?” the child Klara asked.
Grandma’s voice dropped to a whisper as if she were confiding a secret. “You only see him when you need to. He looks like an old man with a beard and long, gray hair.”
“Why is his hair long?” Klara wondered.
“He was a Nazarite, you see. That means he took a vow never to cut his hair. He looks very old because he lived in the desert for so many years. But he has the kindest eyes.”
“Have you seen him?” Klara wondered.
Grandma only smiled. “Even if you never see him, always remember that he will come to share your Seder with you.”
Klara sat bolt upright in her hair. “No, that’s not possible—” She ran to the door and threw it open again. “It couldn’t have been him,” she said aloud. But who else would know the Haggadah by heart? It had to be someone who had recited it for centuries, counting thousands of tears.
Published in Stories