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Cissy’s Tiny Kitchen

March 23, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

The lessons I learned from my Great Aunt Cissy are helping me deal with the coronavirus.

We’re are living the new normal. My kids’ schools have moved online. My workplace is closed temporarily. I woke up this morning with no place I had to be and nothing pressing to do - so I followed my mother's advice: “Think of what Aunt Cissy would do.”

My Great Aunt Cissy was a widow living alone in London, and for years I visited her every Saturday for Shabbat lunch. Those weekly visits taught me to face many of life’s challenges. With the coronavirus pandemic causing stress and panic, I find the lessons I learned at Cissy’s table more important than ever.

When I was living in London as a grad student, each Saturday I’d walk up the crumbling steps to Cissy’s door. Once a grand house, it was now divided into apartments. Mrs. Barton lived on the middle level - after fifty years she and Cissy still weren’t on a first name basis - and on the lower level a rotating bunch of short-term renters blared music day and night. Cissy lived at the top of the house and would call “I’m in the kitchen!” as I mounted the steps.

Cissy with my mother

She practically lived her life in that kitchen. The rest of her apartment had long since turned to ruin – there was no heat and the walls were damp and moldy. Cissy kept the oven on day and night in cold weather and would open the door for heat at nighttime. “Sometimes when I wake up I ask myself: am I really warm here in bed, or is it just hypothermia?” Cissy used to quip. Yet she never felt sorry for herself. “Worse things happen at sea,” she used to say. No matter what challenges and difficulties she had, she’d always seen worse - or knew someone who had - and knew that even the worst of nightmares can come to an end.

Up and dressed, Cissy went downstairs to buy a newspaper and the day’s supplies, then take up her position at her small, two-person kitchen table. A small tv turned to mute showed the news all day long in the corner while Cissy read the paper from cover to cover. She was passionate about politics and incredibly well-informed.

On Shabbat the tv was off and the newspapers stacked in a corner. Cissy sometimes wore the one necklace she owned. The delicious aroma of Shabbat lunch hit me as soon as I opened the building’s door to the street. “Come on up, you’re right on time!” Cissy would call out.

Cissy subsisted on toast and frozen foods during the week, but every Shabbat she cooked a feast. For years I was her sole company for those wonderful meals, but Cissy never skimped or thought of not having a festive Shabbat lunch. I think of her now when I read social media posts from acquaintances asking whether or not they should “cancel” Jewish holidays because of coronavirus. Shabbat and other Jewish holy days were the highlight of Cissy’s weeks and months. She’d never consider changing a thing, no matter how lonely she felt.

I’d settle into her kitchen chair, Cissy would bring out our farshpayz (Yiddish for appetizer) of egg salad, and she’d start talking. Sometimes she’d tell me about growing up speaking Yiddish in the old East End of London. She taught me old music hall songs and the Yiddish lullabies her mother and grandmother sang her. Cissy would tell me about her work during World War II as an air raid warden. In 1942, the year that she married my great uncle, Cissy recalled London was bombed every single night. It was her job to make sure people went to the air raid shelters.

She told me about becoming a widow when her children were very young and finding jobs to support her family. Far from being sad tales, the way she told them sounded like adventures. She worked at the Hoover vacuum company and they gave her a free vacuum! She worked at an office nearby and it only took her a short time to get to work! Cissy used to make me think of the Jewish sage Rabbi Eliezer who counseled that we should cultivate a “good eye,” an attitude of looking at the best in people (Pirkei Avot 9:13). For Cissy, every person and situation seemed to hold a lesson to be learned and a pleasant story to come away with.

After lunch Cissie would quip that we’d “solved all the world’s problems” with our conversation. Sometimes we’d sing together; sometimes she’d open up a volume of poetry and read. When it got dark, I’d warmly bid her goodbye. It always seemed jarring to walk out of Cissy’s front door and back into reality. After hours steeped in warmth and love and reminiscences, the “real” world seemed like a colder place. Though she had very little, Cissy’s tiny kitchen managed to feel like the most satisfying place on earth.

One year neither Cissy nor I had any invitations for the Passover seders, so we spent them together. That’s another thing I’ve been thinking about as I read social media posts from people asking what they can do without travelling or having lots of guests. Cissy and I sang from the Haggadah together: Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt. No matter how hard life was, that was a lesson that Cissy seemed to know intimately: we’d survived previous difficult times together and better times would come.

The last time I saw Cissy I promised to come again soon. She passed away suddenly just before her eightieth birthday. I’ve been remembering Cissy each and every Shabbat since then: her cheery face, her delicious meals, her determination to keep Shabbat and Jewish holidays beautifully even when she was lonely, even when it was hard to do so.

Cissy’s Jewish name was Zeesel, or Sweetness, in Yiddish. In these trying times, that’s what I’m trying to cultivate – a sweet demeanor, a determination to look at the good in others. And like my Great Aunt Cissy, a stubborn insistence on creating a beautiful Jewish atmosphere inside my home, no matter what comes.

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