My bubbe died from lung cancer when I was 6 years old. I remember the flashing lights of an ambulance flooding my grandparents’ living room late one Sunday evening — a few months later, she was gone. Most of what I remember about her is dampened by hospital beds, wigs to hide hair loss and a melancholy atmosphere during our visits. As I attempted to process her death at 6, it felt as though she was simply on vacation — away temporarily, but existing somewhere else in the universe.
I think of my bubbe often despite not remembering exactly who she was. I don’t remember which words frequently occurred in her vocabulary or the sound of her voice as she called my name. I can’t recall how her body shifted as she walked across the room or the unique shape of her smile as she watched her grandchildren light the Shabbat candles. I’ve lost all the little details that become engrained in our minds of those we have the luxury of time with. Sometimes it feels as though I’ve lost all of her. While I do recall her hugs, I can’t feel them distinctly, and although I can see her face, it exists in my mind amid static. Mostly, I remember my bubbe through her cooking.
She’d glow when we came for dinner each Sunday. Happiness radiated from her like sunshine as she wore her signature apron with brown and orange stripes. The taste of sweet marinade transports me back to my grandparents’ cozy dining room where I can almost savor my bubbe’s one-of-a-kind chicken once again. Dessert in her home was equally as memorable. Chocolate cheesecake brownies were her specialty. While I can’t always pinpoint exact ingredients, similar flavors bring me back to the day I last saw her before her diagnosis, as she sat at the table admiring the family surrounding her — the apron I remember so distinctly hugging her small frame.
She was a chef of all my favorite American dishes, but my early memories of Jewish delicacies stem from her kitchen as well. I recall her perfect potato latkes, fluffy matzah balls and brisket baked to perfection. I was her youngest grandchild — we shared such a small piece of our lives, yet her cooking filled this tiny pocket of time in a way that makes it feel complete.
In my 20s, when I first felt her absence deeply, I realized she was slipping from my thoughts. Her face was disappearing from the image database of my brain. Remembering her meals most robustly, I thought my bubbe’s recipes could help solidify my fading memories of her. If I could make her matzah balls and latkes for my own children, maybe Hanukkah could be celebrated with a piece of her present.
But by the time I was old enough to show interest in them, the recipes were gone. The heirlooms I wanted most of all — her Gourmet Magazine clippings, the newspaper excerpts with recipes and her handwritten ingredients jotted onto notepaper — had disappeared, just like my bubbe.
But then I found her apron.
When my grandfather passed away during my college years, I went to their house to help prepare the home to be sold. In the kitchen, beside cabinets filled with pots and pans, drawers of Pyrex measuring cups, and below a KitchenAid stand mixer from the 1960s, I found the very apron I remembered from our time together. As I held this article of clothing in my hands, it instantly triggered the smell of her chicken baking in the oven, the taste of her cheesecake brownies in my mouth. This apron brought me back to holidays past, to the smell of wax dripping from Shabbat candles, to the image of flames dancing upon my grandparents’ menorah. I saw my bubbe in her apron, comforted by the warmth of family from one holiday to the next — across seasons — throughout the tiny pocket of time I came to cherish like no other.
The darkness of a now uninhabited house turned bright and lively, the air overflowing with memories of my bubbe’s home cooking once again. I put the apron on and buttoned the very buttons she’d snapped with her own fingers, and I could feel the warmth of our final Sunday dinner in 1989 comforting me. My bubbe lived in this apron. Now I wear it, too.
I may not have my bubbe’s recipes in hand, and I know I’ll never taste her chicken or matzah ball soup again, but perhaps the apron she wore while cooking them brings me closer to her than any list of ingredients could. At 39 years old, I still feel her with me, especially as I prepare dinner on Sunday evenings in the apron — the one with brown and orange stripes — that holds the secrets to my bubbe’s lost recipes and her everlasting love.