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cancer

The Only Passover Kugel That Matters to Me

Matza

I was nervous. The assistant principal running late, so I sat alone in a hard chair in a Brooklyn high school guidance office. I wiped my sweaty palms on my new suit, hoping I looked older than the students. I tried to breathe as the minutes dragged on.

A redhead with wild curls peered into the office, and raised her eyebrow at me.

“I’m interviewing for the guidance position,” I told her.

“I’m Paulette,” she said, leaning against the doorway. “I’m a counselor, too.”

By the time the assistant principal came into the room, Paulette and I were already on our way to being friends. After our conversation I was, miraculously, calmer — my legs and voice were steady when I rose and introduced myself.

Paulette grinned at her supervisor. “Hire her,” she advised. “She seems nice.”

I got the job, and on the first day of school in 2005, I was given the office across the hall from Paulette. She started her career the same year I was born, and I was pretty sure she knew everything. Between student crises and piles of paperwork, I spent my time with her, learning from a master.

It was a surprise to realize how much we had in common, outside of work. Paulette and I were alike in so many ways — for one, we both loved to cook, especially Jewish foods. I spent many evenings at her house, sharing meals and recipes. Paulette insisted that white wines in blue bottles were always the best. We meticulously researched her theory and discovered that it was true.

We were both talkers — even after spending all day working together, we could chat for hours. When I got a new job at another school, we still spoke by phone often.

When we met, we were both dating men that we knew we wanted to marry. We spent the first year of our friendship jokingly wondering whose boyfriend would propose first — and we ultimately got engaged one week apart. Her wedding was a year before mine, in June 2007, and I helped her plan it. She was a beautiful bride. My fiancé and I hugged her tightly and wished her a lifetime of happiness.

But a month later, she called me, crying hard. “I have cancer,” she choked out. “It’s bad. They told me that if I’m lucky, I’ll live for another year, maybe two.”

I felt suddenly scared and angry, with a little pinch of denial mixed in. “You’re going to be fine,” I insisted. I could not imagine my life without her.

Paulette’s treatments were aggressive. We lived half an hour apart, but she was often too tired to travel. We saw each other less frequently, but our phone calls got longer. In hindsight, I realized we were making up for the years of conversations that we knew we’d miss.

Paulette invited me for a Passover seder at her house in 2008. She had been sick for several months, but still she insisted on cooking everything herself. At dinner, she added a giant piece of matzah kugel to my plate. It was missing a corner, which made me laugh — I knew she always taste-tested her dishes before serving them to guests, and she had given me the piece from which she sampled.

I took a bite. Like everything she made, it was delicious. Before the night ended, I begged for the recipe. Paulette gave it to me and told me to follow the instructions exactly. I made her kugel for my parents’ seder the next evening, and everyone raved. I saved the recipe in a folder to keep it safe.

Paulette’s health deteriorated. My wedding day approached. I prayed that my friend would feel well enough to attend. Paulette had promised she’d be there — and she was. She and her husband sat in the front row for the May ceremony. She was too thin under her soft pink dress, and she wore a wig that covered the remains of her hair. But she was there.

By the winter, she was moved to hospice care, and my husband and I went to visit. We joined a roomful of people there. She’d always collected friends like stamps, and I was grateful for the day she collected me. “I love you,” she told me on the phone one January night. Her voice was barely a whisper.

Paulette died nine days later, on February 2, 2009.

Winter melted into spring. Passover edged closer. I took a steadying breath and lined up the ingredients to make Paulette’s delicious kugel. I mixed everything together and baked it in rectangular dish. The sweet scent instantly transported me to Paulette’s dining room in Queens. I took a moment to remember her laughter.

Since then, I’ve made Paulette’s kugel every year. My whole family has come to expect it at the seder — it is my daughters’ favorite dish.

Making Paulette’s kugel has become one of my personal Passover traditions. While it bakes, I drink a glass of white wine from a blue bottle. I lose myself in my cinnamon-scented memories. When the kugel is finished, I sample a corner. It is always delicious. Paulette would approve.

Paulette’s recipe is this Apple Matzah Kugel. As Paulette said, follow the directions precisely, and you won’t be disappointed!

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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