Last Thurs, Jan 11 was a Red Letter Day. It was my birthday and I was reared in a home where birthdays were respected. This means that a few days, or if you were younger, a few months, you began planning. You planned your party, if you were still of that mind, you thought over your presents and let the interested parties know, and most importantly, you planned your birthday dinner.
Presents were complicated since I am a January baby, which means that if my mother didn't look into my present in advance of my birthday, it would mean no present or not the right present, as in the case of the year that I wanted, really wanted, really, really wanted Dawn's Beauty Pageant and received, instead, Dawn Dance Party because they Beauty Pageants had all been bought out at Xmastime. Dawn Beauty Pageant looked just like a beauty pageant stage, albeith with Bert Parks, complete with runway with moveable device that you could set the doll on and move her up and down the runway. There was a Dawn doll that came, with a beautiful evening gown on, pink with spangles and such and she was a blonde, I recall, and certain to win the contest. It was Miss America, scaled down for the average girl. Dawn Dance Party was fun, but it wasn't the same. It was smaller and Dawn stood on this stand and you rotated her around in pseudo dance mode. It did come with Dale, who was this hip, Black, Dawn doll, complete with groovy orange mini. I still have Dale. Jess and I divided up the Dawn spoils a few years ago, most of it going to niece Elisheva, when she was smaller. I think Jess kept the blonde doll. In later years, I ceded the collection to Jessica, who was into minatures and I helped her build a lovely domicile for the dolls, complete with furnishing, wallpaper and other built-in design features that were my specialty as older sister. The house was built into the lower shelves of the bookshelves in the family room in Malverne. Sometime in the 3rd grade or so, the doll condo was laid to waste by Jess's friend Mindy Elfenbein who was bored one Friday night and said, "Let's stage a robbery!" Needless to say, there was quite the controversy after this but I recall that the house was rebuilt.
This past Thursday, a b-day dinner was planned in the most relaxed of ways, to be held at Jess and Daniel's place. We've gone to dinner at their house on the occasional Thurs as they have pizza night every Thurs with Daniel's mother, Rita and other friends of theirs who live in Mod'iin (it's a rotating cast depending on the Thurs). I was feeling at loose ends about my birthday as Thursday, Jan 11th, was also the day that my father was having a repeat CAT scan and having it read by his oncologist. It wasn't going to feel that celebratory or certainly had that capability. For the many of my readers who've asked continuously about his health, he's been doing well, continuing with his chemo - every other week - and has been alot stronger than he'd been when all this started in late August. That said, the thought of another CAT scan made us all, especially my mother and father, quite nervous. I was feeling relatively postive - that is, my father was stronger, he looked better, he was eating well and had regained all weight lost - but you never know. I hoped for at least no further growth in the tumor on his pancreas. So, if the news was good, my birthday dinner would be easier to celebrate and if not, at least we'd all be together. So as not to keep you on edge, I can tell you that the news was/is good. His tumor shrank by a centimeter which is quite significant - an overall 25% shrink. This was unbelievable news, to which Jess and I and my parents were the first one to be privy. The oncologist was delighted and we couldn't believe it. The chemo was, at best, only likely to be successful in 10% of cases in terms of shrinking tumors. More likely would have been no shrinkage, a 20% chance. Given those odds, we didn't no what to expect. The upshot, another round of chemo and we'll see how he does this time. If things stay good or even stable, perhaps a break from chemo in the spring. We got a good look at his CAT scan - quite fascinating, really, in an odd way. Saw the tumor and saw his stent, sitting pretty since August. I feel quite the expert on stents and livers, so it was just a continuation of my liver education that started with Liat and Don's livers last years. We all drove home together - my mother dropping me and Jess off at our respective homes - in a state of stunned happiness and agreed that we should have a bit of champagne later, at the now to be sure celebratory birthday get together.
A bit about the birthday dinner. This meant that you could choose. My mother was not one for discussion when it came to dinner growing up. She cooked, we ate. There wasn't much talk or kvetching about what we didn't like or not. Maybe she was lucky and we weren't picky. Maybe she was a good cook, unlike the mother's of some of my friends who were challenged in the kitchen - she was/is a good cook. All I know is that she prepared a respectable meal every night for a billion years. Meat - this included London broil (which I never liked), meat loaf and it's cousins, including hamburger and sloppy Joe's and such (some of which I liked and didn't like), minute steaks (which I didn't like) and chicken (this was always fine with us but I never met chicken breasts until later in life, we dined on dark meat, which my parents preferred or learned to prefer in feeding 4 hungry children). Fish was a once a week occurrence - Thursday nights, and always teemed with chocolate pudding or we never would have eaten it. It was also frozen, as was the style of the time and therefore, somewhat lacking in taste, altho I did love my mother's fish chowder and probably at least once, requested it for a birthday dinner. One could easily eat it and look past the bits of fish for the potatoes and tomatoes. There was always a sensible salad to open with, or, a half of grapefruit, which we children would carefully cut and segment using the grapefruit knife. Sister Sarah, used to eat her entire grapefruit, down to the pith, which always seemed horrible to me in earlier years. A starch to round out the meal and here's where the trouble came in. My mother, to stave off cooks' boredom (and I know of what I speak), would try different things from baked potatoes (always good) to brown rice with mushrooms (bordering on questionnable) to kasha (absolutely horrible). My father, who actually liked kasha, would smash his kasha down into a nice flat mash and then tunnel into it, creating windows and doors and tell us (ostensibly to amuse us but it was horrifying, really) how tasty it was while eating his creation. I mean, had she made kasha varnishkes, we might have coped but she was a purist and probably looking for the easy methodology but really, what kid is going to eat a pile of kasha?
My mother had wonderful specialty dishes, mainly for Shabbat - veal ribs with sweet and sour sauce (definitely requested if your birthday fell on Shabbat), stuffed veal breast (this, I actually requested one special birthday), and a range of kugels, sweet and savory, particular favorites being her potato kugel (she makes the best one) and sweet, dairy, noodle kugel, each piece being at least 2000 calories and probably 15 grams of fat, but hey, she only made it for break fast and for Shavuot. Lasagna entered into our repertoire when I was in HS, I think, and her recipe used cottage cheese (who knew of ricotta) and had tuna in the sauce, which Sarah's Italian friends at college thought was really wierd. It did have mozzarella and I remember that my mother wrote to Polly O asking about their cheese manufactoring methods because it didn't have a hechsher/kosher marking, and she had never used such a cheese before. They must have responded the right way as she started making lasagna regularly. My favorite pre-lasagna, pasta dish, that really, was the only dish she made with pasta besides spaghetti and meatballs ("it's a favorite with everyone," said Father), was tuna casserole. That perfect blend of pasta with tuna and, you guessed it, cream of mushroom soup, topped with a few slices of american cheese (which isn't a cheese but who knew), and baked to perfection. I definitely used to request that for a birthday dinner, and in later years, when my mother tried out new pasta thems, used to ask and then make myself, her spinach noodle casserole with salmon and poppyseeds - Umm good. I will tell you that when Daniel came home from his last trip to the States, he brought home, in addition to cranberries for all of us (which are in my freezer), 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup. I said, "Mom, you can make a white sauce. It's easy and healthier than canned soup, which has all sorts of nasty things in it." My mother replied, "It's easier to open a can and besides, I like it that way. How often do I make it, anyway?"
Back to my birthday dinner. Nobody asked me what I wanted. The menu on Thursday never changes. It is always, pancakes (made by Rita and they're quite good and a perfect appetizer, esp when Jess is making pizza which takes time), pizza (homemade by Jess on special occasions. like my birthday) with opt toppings (olives, onions, peppers, mushrooms) and salad (we must have some salad to round it out. Dessert - ice cream of course but not mandatory. I was concerned about birthday cake and prevailed on Ira and Gabe to bake a cake that I wanted to eat and they made an excellent apple cake but like all things baked in our oven here, it burned. My parents were coming too and that was good, and Sarah and Noam were going to drive up and get there a bit late. Miriam, Daniel's sister came along for the fun and to see Sarah. Missing were Natan (rehearsal), Amira (Daniel's oldest, had a field trip at school and got home late), and the rest of Sarah's crew (Michael in Belgium, Benjy busy and Elisheva in training in the army). Jon, et al, were busy and that was fine. I wasn't looking for a 21 gun salute.
We had a good time. We laughed, drank scotch, ate pizza, pancakes and salad and felt happy. It was the first time in my adult memory that I sat around and had dinner with family members, other than the immediate, to share my birthday. I even got presents, which was so nice and it made the whole day great. Meaning, had I not gotten presents it still would have been nice but everyone likes to be remembered once in a while with a little something. The pizza was dandy, Sarah baked an excellent apple cake (she knows what I like and this way we saved our burned but still tasty cake for Shabbat) and the company was perfect. My first birthday in Israel, (actually my second but that was 24 years ago), not bad at all.
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