We all have memories — some vivid, some fading with time, some painfully buried, others that make us smile. One of my most cherished childhood memories is preparing for Pesach and attending the Miller family seder.
I can recapture those memories with astonishing clarity — the smell of sponge cakes, brisket and tzimmes; the achy feeling from hand grinding hard-boiled eggs, onions and liver pieces to make my mother’s chopped liver; the soreness in my fingers from cracking almonds for stuffed dates rolled in sugar and sneaking a piece of wrapped raspberry and Barton’s almond kiss candies from my bubbie’s candy dishes … the very ones I was supposed to be filling. Every year the routine was just about the same and it was that sameness that made it so special.
How wonderful it was to sit with my father in his big chair, his arm around me, as he patiently helped me learn the Four Questions, or as he referred to them, the feir kashes in Yiddish. It became our own 15-minute nightly ritual, repeating the Hebrew words over and over, until I mastered them well enough to recite at seder.
My Aunt Shirley will turn 99-years-old this month. She is the matriarch of the Miller family, whose tradition of sharing in the first seder together started before she was born. It began with my grandparents, Anna and Jacob Miller at their home in Baltimore over a century ago. As a child, I remember celebrating seders at the home of Aunt Irene and Uncle Herman (Soble) and in later years at Aunt Shirley and Uncle Bernie’s (Polakoff). As a young adult, it was Aunt Roz and Uncle Gordy (Miller) who hosted them. And then for more years than any of us can remember Cousin Carole (Diamond) opened her home to our ever-growing family.
The aunts always did the organizing, shopping and most of the cooking, while my uncles assisted with set-up. In recent years we began ordering from a caterer at the insistence of the younger generation who felt it was too much of a burden on our aging relatives. With some coaxing, my stepmom Shirley Miller finally stopped making her delicious fluffy matzoh balls, sometimes as many as 80 to 90 at a time. We can always count on cousins Arleen and Michael Cohen to bring shmura matzah from New York every year, a thoughtful gift from one of his patients.
As far back as I can remember my dad, Leslie Miller or “Bim,” as our family affectionately called him, led our seder. It was one of his greatest joys — giving commentary, asking questions and trying to keep order over the din of the sometimes talkative crowd. He did so until his short-term memory failed him and the beginning of Alzheimer’s began to surface. He took the responsibility of leading the seder very seriously, and it was not until he realized he was losing some of his capabilities that he decided to step down. He passed the leadership onto the next generation, and my cousin Jill willingly took over the role. She designed a new haggadah for our family entitled, “From Slavery to Freedom; From Bondage to Balmer,” a more user-friendly version that holds everyone’s attention.
Although there are dozens of cherished memories from past seders, how could we ever forget the time when my brother David and my cousin Jeffrey decided to hide the afikomen in the second floor laundry chute. Thank goodness Uncle Bernie grabbed his legs, as David had already started to disappear head first down the chute, trying frantically to retrieve the matzoh that had dislodged. Or the time when my nephew Chad mistakenly entered the wrong house and found himself in the home of an African-American family.
We were a really close-knit family back then. Most of us lived in and around Baltimore City and Baltimore County, a few within walking distance of each other. Now we are scattered around the country in Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona and all over Maryland. Our lifestyles seem more hectic, demands on our time more consuming and yet we all try to come back. Most, but not all, make it every year. Some years we welcome new spouses or new children as our family continues to grow and sadly we remember those who are no longer with us, leaving an emptiness in everyone’s heart.
This Passover four generations of the Miller family will come together to celebrate our time-honored tradition. What a gift this ritual has been for our family over the years, a constant in our lives that brings us together each year to celebrate the holiday and each other, strengthening our family ties.
Yes, Pesach is about retelling the story of our departure from Egypt, the saga of Joseph, the 10 plagues, and the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, but for the Miller family and for thousands of others it is also about the wonderful bond that unites us as a family — a glorious time of sharing in our rich and sacred heritage.
L’dor v’dor — from one generation to another.
Susan Miller Garbett is a local freelance writer.