Essay: The Little White Box
Shelley Yorke Rose
The acrid smell of boiled tongue greeted us as my mother flung open the door to my grandparents’ apartment on Outer Drive in Detroit. “Dad, are you making tongue again?” she asked, annoyed. No answer. Then my grandmother, all five feet of her, peeked out of the kitchen, apron wrapped tightly around her well-girdled figure, resplendent in a snug blazing red and black shirtwaist dress that barely restrained her ample bosom. She shrugged, admitting defeat in keeping my grandfather away from the deadly foods he so loved. Grandma Minnie knew where Grandpa Hyman hid the Lay’s potato chips, the shriveled salami, and the halvah; although she appeared to rule the roost, she was helpless to prevent his next heart attack. Grandpa had had two by the time he turned 40 and another in his fifties. The fourth, in 1964, a few years after this brunch, would be his last.
The tongue was simmering and Grandpa was nowhere to be found meaning he was out picking up delicacies for our family brunch – neatly wrapped packages of odorous lox, smoked fish, butter fish, herring, onion buns, bagels, bialys, cream cheese, and cookies. I hoped that there would also be a single small white bakery box, tied with white string, just for me.
Grandpa Hyman bustled in a few minutes later, carrying bags of food that Grandma Minnie and my mom transferred to china serving dishes on the dining room table. I watched expectantly, salivating like Pavlov’s dog. By now my mother’s younger brother, his wife and three children had arrived (my other uncle and his family lived in New York). The women made frequent trips back and forth from the kitchen until the table was overflowing.
Since we were in the way of all the preparations, my younger brother Rick and I ran into the small den with our younger cousins, Barbara, Gary, and David. We took turns twirling each other on Grandpa’s new swivel rocker, careful not to bump the near-by hi-fi console loaded with Broadway, classical music, and Yiddish records. When my turn being spun was up, I dizzily lurched over to the basket of magazines near the hi-fi, where I thumbed through Grandpa’s collection of detective magazines, covers splashed with colorful and bloody murder scenes. I wondered why so many of the victims were beautiful curvy women who inevitably – and fatally – trusted the wrong men.
Called to the table at last, we staggered out of the den to take the plates our mothers had prepared for us. My grandfather ate the tongue while the rest of us recoiled from the giant organ that too closely resembled the ones in our own mouths. At the kids table, we carefully picked bones from our fish and cleaned our plates. When our mothers and grandmother cleared the table for coffee and dessert, I could feel my heart beating faster. Where was my special white box?
The table soon filled again with cookies, rugelach, a babka and one of my grandmother’s homemade strudels, warm and bursting with fragrant apples and plump raisins. Although these were all delicious treats, my nine-year-old heart sank. Had Grandpa forgotten the best treat of all? I started to take a piece of strudel when my grandfather jumped up. “Wait a minute, Bublichki,” he said.
I followed Grandpa into the kitchen, carefully scanning the bags and wrappers covering the counter. Lost among them sat a small white box tied with white string. “Is this what you were looking for?” he said. I nodded, surprised that he noticed my longing in the tumult of the family gathering. He took a small pocketknife from his pants pocket, flipped up a blade, and sliced through the string. He handed me the box. “Ess (eat), shayna punim (pretty face),” he said, patting my shoulder with his large, calloused hand.
I carefully carried the box out to the dining room where I opened it and transported my treasure onto one of my grandma’s delicately flowered china plates. A single slice of seven-layer cake. My favorite. I didn’t consider offering a forkful to my brother or cousins, nor did they ask. This was a special food connection between my grandfather and me. I savored each bite, making sure it included an equal amount of dark chocolatey ganache frosting, spongy yellow cake, and cocoa buttercream filling.
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Even now, more than 50 years later, I look forward to carefully unwrapping a thick slice of chocolatey Jewish bakery heaven once or twice a year. Today though, I count 10 layers – to the original seven, I add a bitter layer of guilt for the unspeakable number of Weight Watchers points I consume with each tantalizing bite. The ninth layer is laced with complex notes of my relationship with food, my weight, and my health – no heart attacks but 25 years of colitis took its toll. The tenth layer is the sweetest, filled with memories of Grandpa Hyman, who made me, one of his seven grandchildren, feel special simply by remembering my favorite childhood treat in its little white box.