Eat, Memory: On Passover, and the Perils of Perfectionism

As a little girl, I loved dressing up for special occasions. Dresses with lace collars, special tights with rhinestones on the ankles. My mother would even let me wear shoes with a tiny heel. I felt so grown up. I loved seeing cousins from far away, girls who were older than me who seemed so adult, their hair teased and feathered, wearing outfits that looked like what I saw in magazines.

My Grandma Dorothy would rule over the kitchen, delicious smells emanating from the oven, from the stovetop. Every surface of the countertops filled with something delectable she’d prepared. The Seder table set to perfection with my grandmother’s embroidered linen tablecloth, fine china, sterling silver serving pieces with mother of pearl handles.

While we waited for dinner to be served, my grandfather helped me use the nutcracker to pry open walnuts, which I thought to be the height of elegance. Another perk of holiday time: sitting like a grown up in the spaces usually reserved just for company. Come holidays, we were the company.

When it came time for me to take over the reins and host the family Passover Seder, I felt I had so much to live up to. I meticulously researched brisket recipes until I found one that was just right. I did tastings for two weeks prior, with my mother-in-law and my parents all placing their votes. I loved the one with crushed tomatoes and fresh garlic, but ultimately (incredulously), the one with the ketchup base and onion soup mix won out.

I bought new linens for the tables. I created a seating chart on my computer, which I’d move around each night to get things just right. I started cleaning my house a month before the holiday — it would take that long to get things in order and to get rid of the clutter. I even ordered fresh flowers, which I’d arrange the day before my company was set to arrive.

The morning of the Seder, I was ready. I put the brisket in the oven at 7 a.m., just as the recipe instructed. Across the kitchen, my husband tussled with a five gallon water bottle as he tried to switch out an empty bottle with a fresh one. Earlier in the week, I’d explained to him that running out of bottled water would surely make our Seder a failure.

He lost control of the water bottle, and sent cascades flying across my kitchen floor. All five gallons crashed onto the porcelain tile at once, leaving my husband speechless. Still in my bathrobe, I rushed over with a dishtowel to contain the mess. But I hadn’t anticipated how much there was, how high it had settled; I slipped on the water, glided past my husband, and fell face first onto the corner of the wood base that divided my kitchen from my family room.

I fell to the ground. The pain was blinding. I cried out, and my husband rushed to my side. As a doctor, his instincts took over and he quickly checked out my head—no skin had been broken, and I was lucky to have hit my forehead, and not either of my eyes. As he walked me up to our bed for some rest, I said: “Don’t forget to check on the brisket.”

Within an hour, I felt nauseous and dizzy. We went to the Emergency Room, and on the way, called our family to ensure them that the Seder would most certainly still be on. I assumed I would quickly get better. I did a mental calculation of what time I’d need to get home in order to shower, blow out my hair, and put on the dress I’d decided to wear weeks prior. But as I waited in the ER for a doctor to see me and then got a CAT scan, I began to feel worse.

It was just a concussion, the doctors told me. I was lucky.

“Good,” I said, “because I have family coming over at 5 for a Passover Seder.”

The doctors looked at me, and then at my husband, and then back to me.

“You should probably rest,” they said.

“I’ll rest after the Seder.”

The Passover Seder never happened. By the time I got home, my head was ringing. It was difficult to keep my eyes open, which the doctors had warned me about. By 4 o’clock, I admitted defeat — the Seder would not be happening. After all of my meticulous planning, after all of the taste tests, my brisket would go to waste. Well, not completely — my parents picked it up and brought it over to my brother and sister-in-law’s house, where they took over the duties of hosting the Passover Seder. I spent the better part of the evening in bed with the lights out, willing the buzzing in my head to die down.

I was so disappointed. The next day, my mother called me to tell me how delicious my brisket had been, and how much I’d been missed at the Seder. How worried everyone was about my concussion.

“I just wanted for everything to be perfect,” I said. “I wanted to do a Seder like the ones that Grandma Dorothy hosted when I was little. They were so perfect.”

“Perfect?” my mom laughed. “They were far from perfect!”

My mother confided in me that all those Passover Seders I’d idealized from a young age weren’t nearly as perfect as I’d made them out to be in my mind’s eye. The food was never ready on time, the Seder service was a rowdy mess, and the table was always too crowded.

But that’s not how I remember them.

Even so, this year, I’m not striving for perfect. This year, I’ll be happy with a holiday table full of family, where everyone is healthy. What’s important is getting together, making fun memories, and not what we’re wearing, or whether the food is served on time, or even if it’s good. (But for the record, my brisket will be very, very good.)

There will be no nutcracker, no walnuts. There will not be an embroidered linen tablecloth that requires ironing; I’ve got a wash-and-wear wrinkle-free tablecloth with matching napkins. I will not serve on good china; I’ll serve on plates that go into the dishwasher. I will not use serving pieces made of sterling silver with mother of pearl handles; I’ll be using silver-plated, also dishwasher safe. There will be finger puppets of the plagues, along with matching masks. There will be lots of laughter. Lots of good food. Lots of good memories.

But still, in many ways the table I set will be the same as my grandmother’s: filled with generations of people who love each other, and who will remember my Seders as perfect.

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Eat, Memory: On Passover, and the Perils of Perfectionism

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