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proud chicken
by sheila list

Chicken: Golden brown on top, rubbed with a little garlic and onion on the inside to give it flavor and seasoned with paprika to create a wonderful pungent smell. Occasional flakes of parsley float like miniature leaves in its juices. Moist, white breast meat—succulent, and very sweet. Served with small, whole browned potatoes and candied carrots. Delicious!

Flashback: the Sabbath meal. The candles are lit. My mother covers her head, closes her eyes, and says the prayer. On the lace tablecloth sits the Proud Chicken, Selma’s creation, sharing the spotlight with family and conversation.

We didn’t have a dining room. The table was kept in a foyer opposite the living room and before my parents bedroom. It was massive; dark English wood with two drop leaves and a burl center. Thick legs ended in a clawed fist and joined lattice woodwork to form an X in the center. It took three people to lift and carry it into the living room. We used it for Passover seder and when relatives came for Sunday dinner. A low cutglass bowl rested on a doily on the table, and was the only relief. My grandfather Jake had bought this monstrosity for my parents as a wedding present. I had to dust it every Saturday morning and got my revenge by putting my books, keys, and incoming mail in a not-so-neat pile on it. It may not have been beautiful but with a tablecloth on it, the Proud Chicken(s) still looked pretty good.

Family origins have always interested me, yet I know little about my grandmother, Dora. Information on the 1899 New York marriage license lists her father’s name as Abraham Shreiber, her mother’s maiden name as Enie Dim. She was a country girl from Northern Bukovina, Austria-Hungary. She came by ship to work as a maid in New York City. Her second cousin Jake Willner, a baker, met the boat. She and Jake were married on January 17, 1899. Both list their birthplace as Galizia. According to the 1900 census they lived at 193 Delancy Street. Jake’s age is given as 20 and Dora’s as 23. Abraham, their first son, was eight months old.

Everything familiar to her she left behind: the sights, smells, and the rituals; the way food was cooked and business conducted; her ability to be understood. And what did she know of life and men at 22? Did she really work as a maid? I feel certain that she did. When I was 14 I took a summer job as a Mother’s Helper for $15.00 a week in Richfield, CT. It was my first job. I wanted to get away from my parents who were fighting a lot. My mother was not thrilled. “Your grandmother Dora would turn over in her grave, if she knew a granddaughter of hers was doing that kind of work,” Selma said. So, I don’t think Dora liked her work, or stayed very long in it. But did she love Jake? What do you know about life and men when you’re 22?

She was a religious woman and lit the Shabbos candles on Friday nights. The house had been cleaned, the children bathed, the roast chicken meal prepared and ready to serve. The candles glowed brightly. A sense of comfort and safety pervaded the kitchen. All was ready for Jake, her husband, lover and friend.

My mother Selma never spoke much about Dora who had passed away six weeks before my parents married. "How do you plan a wedding without your mother?" I wished I had asked her. The rituals and traditions must seem hollow. I sensed my mother did not get along with her. She respected her because she was her mother, but the mind frames were different.

Selma always wanted to be a teacher. She was an excellent student and avid reader. By eighth grade she knew she wanted to go to high school. But that was not to be. My grandfather Jake by this time had a successful bakery and restaurant in Manhattan, and my mother and her younger sister Anna spent ten years working in it without pay. Selma kept a family album and the photos show two well dressed young women, so I guess my grandfather was never cheap about letting them buy pretty clothes...but no salary. And what did Dora have to say about all this? Didn’t she want better for her daughters than standing in a bakery all day? I felt my mother’s frustration; felt that Jake used his daughters as cheap labor.

Nevertheless, my mother had spunk. “Papa, I’m registering for high school,” Selma said. And he told her, “You will have to do whatever needs to be done in the bakery before school, and stand in the store after school as always.” It was too much for her, too tiring. But she vowed, “If I ever have a daughter she’s going to high school.” Now my sister Doris went to Queens College, graduated, and became a teacher. Selma was proud. But I was a horse of a different color. So, when I was an unhappy sophomore at Hunter College and wanted to drop out, my mother was horrified, and insisted that I finish. And she was right!!! Years later, in my heart, I thanked her...but I never told her so to her face.

Selma had a difficult childhood which I think made her a very strong person. She felt she had to fight for everything she wanted. In her early teens she realized the way out and up was education. Looking back, I realize that my mother had a profound impact on my career, how I raised my children and live my life. Now, at 60 plus, I think about my relationship with my daughter, Julie, and wonder what she will remember of me.

Sheila List is a retired librarian, braille text translator, and grandmother. She enjoys reading, quilting, birding, and tracing her family’s roots. She holds a B.A. in history from Hunter College, New York City, and an MLS from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.

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