We live in an age where we are surrounded by stuff. Much of this stuff we can live without: the closets full of clothing, enough dishes and utensils to outfit an institutional kitchen, furniture and cars, computers and cellphones to which we have become virtual slaves. At the end of the day, how much do we really need?
I recall an article written by a man who came to collect his deceased mother’s belongings from the nursing home where she had lived for years. He recounted that although all her belongings fit into two grocery store plastic bags, the legacy she left behind was enormous.
The lesson is obvious – we are defined by so much more than our possessions, despite our rampant consumerism. Yet I believe that for each of us, there are one or two objects that resonate so much, they indeed cut to the heart of who we are.
For me, that object is the most unlikely of treasures. My family heirloom is not an antique ring or a sepia photograph or a faded handwritten letter. It is a wooden chopping bowl that belonged to my late maternal grandmother. Brown and mottled, that bowl means more to me than almost anything I own.
My grandmother’s bowl is paired with an old-fashioned double-bladed chopper with a chipped and faded black handle. The outside of the large bowl is smooth from age and the inside is scratched and worn from years of exuberant chopping. When I hold it in my arms, it conjures up the most precious memories of my grandmother’s kitchen.
My grandmother Sarah, who would have been 100 years old this year, was born in Toronto to parents who had emigrated from Poland. Her father arrived in 1903 and sent for his wife and three sons a few years later. Sarah was brought up in downtown Toronto and raised in a home filled with love and traditional Jewish values. The kitchen was the heart of the home and Sarah and her three younger sisters all learned to cook at their mother’s side.
In those days, using minimal kitchen gadgets, my great-grandmother Ethel prepared wholesome, albeit high-cholesterol, meals. Plenty of chicken, fish and vegetables were served, but also lots of potatoes and schmaltz – rendered chicken fat. Many of the dishes required the ingredients to be chopped, and a wooden chopping bowl was indispensable.
My grandmother continued her mother’s tradition and used the bowl to make hearty meat loaves, and to prepare gefilte fish and fiery horseradish for the Passover seder.
As a little girl, I loved nothing more than to stand on a chair in her kitchen and help her chop food in that bowl. No doubt I was more hindrance than help. I would place my chubby little hand over hers and feel her strength as she wielded the chopper. But she always told me what a wonderful help I was, and rewarded me with a cookie or a bowl of steaming hot chicken soup and noodles. I felt nurtured and loved in that kitchen, and I guess to this day, the bowl represents all those feelings for me.
As I grew up, the relationship between my grandmother and me continued to flourish in her kitchen. I was no longer just an onlooker and she was happy for both the help and the company. Never one for idle and mindless chatter, she was always slightly reticent. Although I was a child of divorce going through a rough time, we never talked directly about my family’s problems. There was no prying or discussions of feelings in that kitchen. Instead, we would work side by side, often in silence.
In Bubby Sarah’s view, nothing was ever to be gained from complaining about your lot in life. Though she had been widowed when she was just 49, I never heard her complain about being lonely, or about anything else for that matter. Just move on, chop up your ingredients and get the job done. All in all, a valuable lesson for an impressionable teenager, and our time together provided an important respite from the probing questions of other well-intentioned relatives and friends.
A few weeks after my grandmother passed away 14 years ago, I walked around her apartment, soaking in all the sights and smells one last time. She had died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 85, having lived a full and independent life to the very end, but of course we were all devastated. The photos, the books and the furniture all evoked so many wonderful memories for me. It was hard to believe I would never see her again.
In the living room, my mother and my aunt were noisily going through Bubby’s stuff, deciding what to keep and what to give away. It all made me rather queasy. I made a beeline for the lowest kitchen cupboard, where I knew the most valuable object of all was kept. I grabbed that chopping bowl and left the apartment without a word. I knew they would never miss it and they would ridicule my sentimentality.
To this day, though, I use that chopping bowl at least twice a week to chop meat for the meatballs or meat loaf that my husband and three sons eat with gusto. Most important, I try to stay true to its message. Don’t complain – just move on, chop up your ingredients and get the job done.
Ellen Chaikof lives in Toronto.