LONDON UK – It was about six years ago and my mother and I were about to leave her flat on Steeles Rd. in Primrose Hill. We were standing in the small hallway when she put on her new navy blue gabardine coat with a hood.
Typically for her, she looked to me for approval in sartorial matters. I have strong opinions about my garb. In contrast to her style of dress – classic tunic-style dresses, shirts, slacks and cashmere cardigans mostly purchased at Viyella on Regent St. – I am usually clad in vintage, leopard and generally bohemian clothes. It’s a style of dress I’ve developed and honed over the years since buying my first 1940s ivory blouse with gold filigree buttons at about age 20 when I was a student in Edmonton, Alberta.
That day, my mum – Ruth Schachter (née Nisse) – turned her head to one side (she had a girlish, coquettish manner), fixed her baby blues on me and asked: “Do you like this coat? I bought it at Aquascutum.”
I had been waiting to use the brilliant line from a “Roseanne” episode I’d stored in my memory for a long time – and this was the perfect moment. I answered: “Mum, I can’t believe I spewed forth from your loins.”
We both had a good laugh. It was a tender moment and told everything about our mother-daughter relationship.
My sweet mum died a year ago at age 95 on April 21, 2018. She passed away peacefully in her sleep. Til, a Nepalese nurse, together with another devoted caregiver called Sosi, had cared for her at home for a couple of years while my brother Eric stayed overnight. Til was holding her hand at 8 in the morning when she stopped breathing.
Mum had been bedridden when her health declined soon after falling down the concrete stairs to her garden flat in late 2014. For a couple of years at the end of her life, she could neither walk nor talk. However, she was happy to see me when I visited from Canada twice a year. I told her funny stories, mostly about my rambunctious, roly-poly dad Mel who died in May, 2000. She would smile, her bright blue eyes intently focused on me.
Lucky for me, we shared a sense of humour. We also shared a love of food and cooking – but more of that later.
Born in Montreal, I spent my formative years – from age four to 19 – living in the quiet North London suburb of Finchley amid a complicated family. We were secular Jews. Both my parents had funny accents. We ate funny food. We had funny things in our house. Example: My dad stored a full skeleton he used to teach anatomy to medical students at University College in our dining room cupboard.
I once asked my dad – apropos of fitting into my white bread, white collar neighbourhood – if I could go to Sunday school with friends. He said: “You can’t. You’re not Christian.” I replied with the obvious existential question: “What am I?” He gave the anti-nationalist response: “You’re nothing but, if you were anything, you’d be Jewish.” This contributed to my ongoing anxiety.
Another thing compounded it. My refined mother was incredibly accomplished. She was a bookworm and a culture vulture. She spoke five languages fluently and maybe six or seven if you count Latvian and Swedish. She had a legion of friends and fans. She was an unattainable role model. She was brainy, beautiful and buxom.
It was a lot for me to live up to as her eldest child and her only daughter. I expressed that emotion when I spoke a year ago at a heartwarming celebration of her life in her sunny living room packed with friends, neighbours, her bank manager, my dad’s former colleagues and my two brothers. They sipped wine, told stories and munched on snacks.
People talked about Ruth’s political activism. She once ran for Labour councillor and lost. She sat down in Trafalgar Square as part of a ban-the-bomb protest and got carted off in a paddy wagon.
They cited her immense knowledge on diverse topics. One friend said he was in hospital for an appendectomy diagnosed by my doctor dad at our home and she brought him a copy of War and Peace – she had read it several times in the original Russian.
I recalled that she had explained cloning to my son-in-law Nate. Also, that I once caught her reading Goethe’s poetry in German with her morning coffee. Bashfully, she said: “I find it soothing.” Pure mum.
I was born in Montreal with a shock of dark hair, grey-green eyes and a feisty personality. All those qualities I inherited from my dad. I also inherited his sensitivity that caused anxiety and insomnia for both of us..
I didn’t connect with my blonde mother from the word go. My brother Eric, who is one year younger then me, did. I grew up with an aversion to mum’s favourite activities: reading ponderous novels, visiting museums, long nature walks and listening to classical music, especially opera.
At age 61, I crashed and hit bottom from a cross-addiction to sleeping pills (lorazepam and imovane) washed down for the last year with alcohol. It was life-threatening. I went into rehab for six weeks. The hungry ghosts had finally got me.
But this has a happy ending. Six years ago, I went to visit my mum and had a miraculous breakthrough. I was in early recovery. On a sunny day, we sat in her garden and I asked her to tell her family story. She did it – willingly.
I realized in middle age that my mother was traumatized from her older sister’s suicide at age 19, from the subsequent escape from Riga, Latvia, in 1939 and the horrific realization on arrival in Montreal in 1941 that her entire extended family was brutally murdered at the Rumbula Massacre. They were the loved ones I never met.
My mum was a Holocaust refugee with PTSD who almost never talked about her trauma. See my multi-media project called Mum and Me for her story and mine.
That day in her peaceful walled rose garden, I found the compassion to forgive my mother. She did the best she could. Love begets love. We made our peace.
In recent years, I have listened to Schubert, Mozart, Brahms and Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I have cried in art galleries. I like short walks in the countryside and recall my mother pointing out specific birds, trees and fungi on similar outings. I have read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – it spoke to me.
My dad and mum were married for 56 years until he died in May, 2000. They met as students at McGill. He was studying medicine. She was studying zoology and botany.
My father, who grew up in the immigrant, working-class Jewish ghetto of Montreal (in between Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler at Baron Byng school) was a handsome, angry, brilliant young man who became “my son, the doctor.” He was instantly attracted to my refined, intelligent, beautiful mother. She learned English at school in Riga mostly from literary greats like Charles Dickens. She described their first meeting thus: “He came into our lab to dispose of a frog,” and added, “I was wearing a particularly ‘fetching’ sweater.” He offered to carry her microscope and their courtship began.
My mother was a Jewish mother but the antithesis of the stereotype. I was wont to quip: “You never call, you never write.”
But she was an avid cook and a good one. She gave me a beige folder with her favourite recipes when I turned 21. It contains mostly cakes – she was a scientist and baking requires precise measurements – including several kinds of light and dark fruitcake, Sachertorte, various apple desserts, a delicious Kugelhopf made without yeast and her famous Linzertorte.
Her mother Agnes Nisse was a pediatrician and blue stocking who employed cooks to prepare meals. But my mother, a high school biology teacher for most of her life, came home and cooked for our family. She specialized in European dishes: Beef Stroganoff, Schnitzel, Swiss Steak and Rouladen. There was always a salad and milk on the table when I was growing up.
I now have her favourite cookbooks: The now tattered 1940s edition (without a cover and most of the index missing) of the Joy of Cooking from which my mum, newly arrived in Canada, learned to cook. The Settlement Cook Book with the old-fashioned subtitle The way to a man’s heart. She loved the books by Edouard de Pomiane and also the Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery By Rosemary Hume and Muriel Downes.
These are my other blog posts about my dear mum followed by her beloved Russian dish called Coulibiac – salmon and mushrooms encased in puff pastry. I’ll serve this preceded by cold borscht and followed by Linzertorte with vanilla ice cream on her anniversary.
I will picture her this week sitting opposite me at Patisserie Valerie after taking in an art exhibit at the National Gallery. She is eating a chocolate eclair and sipping black coffee. And yes, she is wearing that navy blue gabardine coat from Aquascutum.
Coulibiac with Yogurt Dill Sauce
I like to use fresh salmon but my mother often used two or three 213-gram cans of canned salmon and added their juices to mushroom mixture. A package of President’s Choice all-butter puff pastry is perfect.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 lb/500g brown mushrooms, sliced (about 4 cups)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp flour
¼ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1 tbsp cornstarch
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
1 tbsp lemon juice
450g package frozen puff pastry, thawed
1¼ lb/625 g boneless salmon fillet, skin removed
1 egg, lightly beaten
In large skillet, heat oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper; cook about 4 minutes. Sprinkle with flour; cook, stirring and shaking, until browned, about 4 minutes more.
In small bowl, combine yogurt, cornstarch, dill and lemon juice, Stir into mushroom mixture.
On parchment paper, roll pastry into large rectangle about 10 x 12-inches/25 x 30-cm and about ¼-inch/5mm thick. (If pastry is pre-cut into two sheets, align them and press together to form one sheet.)
Spread half of mushroom mixture down centre of pastry, leaving 1½-inch/4 cm border at ends. Place salmon on top; cover with remaining mushroom mixture. Fold ends, then sides of pastry over filling to form a rectangular package. Using parchment paper for leverage, roll over so seam is on bottom. With knife, make a few slashes on diagonal. Chill Coulibiac in fridge until firm, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375F.
Brush egg over Coulibiac. Place, with parchment paper still underneath, on baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes. Serve with Yogurt Dill Sauce (below).
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Yogurt Dill Sauce
⅔ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
⅓ cup mayonnaise
⅓ cup chopped fresh dill
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in bowl with fork. Chill.
Makes about 1 cup.