I learned how to make Nana’s chicken soup
by shadowing her steps in the kitchen,
taking notes on a white paper napkin.
A cauldron of sorts is required, as well as a
once-animate chicken submerged above
the stove’s blue flame.
“You put in the onions,” Nana said,
her Russian accent as fresh as the breeze
must have felt on her face when she debarked
at Ellis Island in 1916 or so.
“How much salt?” I wanted to know—
and when she shrugged I could see
a palimpsest of the girl she was at my age.
The water boiled and the air filled with steam.
Not offering an answer in words,
she poured salt into her upturned palm
and tipped it out into the pot.
No measuring cups for my Nana.
“A little this, a little that,” she’d say,
cocking her head, adding a pinch of black pepper
and copious piles of carrots and celery.
I thought about the chestnut-colored braid
my mother showed me, wrapped in a piece of sea-green silk.
Nana was beautiful when she was young.
Everyone said so.
Cleaning a leek, she told me, “I don’t know
what it’s called, but it makes the soup good.”
Sixty-four now and all my elders dead,
I add a parsnip as well, just as I watched Nana do,
and I feel the velvet touch of her hands on my forehead.
All the old people I knew
spoke English with sounds borrowed
from Russian and Polish, Yiddish and Romanian.
I assumed, as a girl, that I would speak like that, too,
when my hair turned gray and the pads of my thumbs
grew soft and pillowy.
Gathering parsley for the soup from my garden,
I seem to hear Nana saying my name
made rich with her guttural R’s and broad A’s.
“Bahbra, dahlink!” the birds are singing today.
I boil Manischewitz noodles, only adding them
to the bowl when I ladle out Nana’s love.
Golden and gleaming with fat,
as bejeweled as the star-filled sky must have looked
when, shipboard, she tipped her kerchiefed head back
and filled her eyes
with all the dazzling possibilities,
and all the dangers, of a new place,
a new language, a new land. Her favorite brother
waiting for her with his Romanian wife.
The brother-in-law she’d marry.
Twenty-seven years following the end
of Nana’s life, her love fills me up
and restores me.
© by Barbara Quick.
Used here with the author’s permission.
Photo credit: David Kim
Barbara Quick is a novelist, journalist, and poet. Her work has appeared in many magazines and journals, including the New York Times, Newsweek, People and Ms. Her 2007 novel, Vivaldi's Virgins (HarperCollins), has been translated into 14 languages and is still in print. Barbara lives on a small farm in Sonoma County, California with her husband, Wayne Roden, a violist for the San Francisco Symphony and owner of a boutique wine business. An avid dancer, hiker and nature lover, Barbara divides her time between writing and tending to her edible gardens. Learn more about her at www.barbaraquick.com.
Warm and beautiful tribute to your nana.
Posted 11/01/2018 11:22 PM
Such a loving tribute to your nana. Making soup together, now making it alone, Nana seems very present.
Posted 11/01/2018 01:52 PM
I live in a part of Canada where there are many Doukhobor babas who make soups. Babas, Nanas, Grandmas...always they remind me of cooking! Lovely poem.
Posted 11/01/2018 01:22 PM
I could imagine your images, love your flair with descriptions of your Nana, feel the warmth of your poem, and I'm inspired to make that chicken soup!
Posted 11/01/2018 12:59 PM
A little this, a little that. Sounds for all the world like my Grandma! Thank you, Barbara.
Posted 11/01/2018 12:42 PM
Yes, I go with Larry. I never had the comfort and love of any grandmothers. Both my mother and father were orphans.
I am a bit jealous yet try to be the caring grandmother and great-grandmother to my brood. Lovely poem.
Posted 11/01/2018 11:21 AM
I had a Russian Nana who called me "dahlink" too. She taught me how to enjoy life. I now wear hear cloud-white hair.
Posted 11/01/2018 10:20 AM
I love "palimpsest" to illustrate the old and the new. I wanted to see "babushka."
Posted 11/01/2018 08:30 AM
p.s. Just got home from Calistoga; too bad we didn't somehow miraculously meet.
Again, I enjoyed this so much. I see the love.
Posted 11/01/2018 07:42 AM
This poem makes me jealous. Both my grandmothers died before I was born. You have done a fine job of poetically honoring your "Nana". I can picture her.
Posted 11/01/2018 07:40 AM