Friday night meant dinner at my grandparents who lived on Cochran, south of Wilshire, next to a Catholic Church. Our parents Stella and Jack would dump my sister and I off for the weekend so they could go to night clubbing at Slapsie Maxi’s on Beverly Boulevard or go see Nat King Cole play with his trio at a club on 6th Street in Mid-Wilshire near Downtown L.A.

My grandma, Celia Buckwald, was the original Spice Girl. She would tell me spicy stories. She knew there were goings-on between the priests and the nuns because she would see candles going through the hallways late in the night. During the day, it was a school and is still there.

She was the one who started me shaving my legs with a tiny, miniature razor, and once you start, you can never stop (except in the ‘60’s). I took a snapshot of her in her bra and panty girdle posed like a pin-up standing next to the refrigerator. A wild child! When I was eleven, she took me up to San Francisco on the overnight Starlighter train that rocked us to sleep in the bunk beds and we ate in the dining car with real cloth napkins. We stayed at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and went to Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Just my grandma and me.

Joe Buckwald, my grandfather, always wore a suit and a grey felt hat with a brim over his silky silver once blond hair, even to the beach. My grandpa used to take my sister Stephanie and I to the movies on Wilshire Boulevard every Saturday afternoon and we’d walk to the La Brea Tar Pits before there was museum or buildings there except the May Company. There was just a little, nothing fence around the Tar Pits.  He didn’t talk a lot but loved watching Hop-a-Long Cassidy and other westerns on their first in the neighborhood 10 inch TV with a big magnifying mirror that flipped over the top. In the beginning, we got a kick out of watching the test pattern on Channel 5…the only channel. That was our nighttime entertainment. 

Saturday mornings, my sister and I would lie in bed above the church playground, listening to our favorite radio programs like ‘The Shadow’, my favorite. “Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Heh, heh, heh!” was always part of the show. Whatever happened to ‘The Shadow’?

The morning light filtered through the windows as we read the Sunday comics in bed. The Phantom was the one read right away. He was a crime killer who dressed in cover-you -up grey tights from head to toe and looked like a panther.  His signature he left on the bad guys mugs was the impression of a skull. How cool is that?!?

The smell of sweet, rich butter melting in the black cast iron pan awakened our appetites, having meandered all the way to the back bedrooms, announcing breakfast was almost ready.

Sometimes Celia would make Kremsel, matzoh meal pancakes, served with 100 % maple syrup that came in a little red, log cabin tin (which is very collectable now), sour cream and sugar and fresh orange juice.

Celia took up the slack and talked a lot. Sometimes when guests would leave, she’d walk them outside to their car and as they pulled away, she’d still be walking along side the car and they’d have to roll down their window as their horsepower slowly broke into a trot.

Celia and Joe’s upstairs Spanish style duplex has colored my interior design tastes into the present. It was airy with light, always like being in a peaceful Buddhist zendo with wooden floors so shiny and clean that during the ’49 earthquake that rolled both ways, my bed on rollers slid across the bedroom floor. That was fun! Compare and contrast: our mother kept our house like a crypt. I crept around there like a moth seeking light.  I learned to appreciate diffused lighting.

My grandma Celia made the best Chicken Paprikash in the whole, wide world. The chicken would fall off the bone in a stewing broth of fresh tomatoes, potatoes, celery, onions, and perfectly seasoned with paprika that to this day are all etched into my pallet’s memory bank . The piece d’resistance were the ‘kneydlekh’ ‘dumplings that she made from scratch, of course. Succulent! I’m genetically coded for Chicken Paprikash. Even in Budapest, it didn’t come close…but they didn’t have Celia’s recipe that she got from her mother Sarah and her mother’s mother.

Celia didn’t like her mother too much, but then after having three children die in childbirth or soon after that and had a mastectomy circa 1911, she wasn’t in too good a mood. Sarah did have three children, Helen, Sam, and Celia that survived and lived healthy lives. Thank goodness Sarah taught little Celia how to bake the lightest crusts, a special time chocolate fudge Dobosh Torte, buttery rich, sweet and light noodle kugel and blintzes, almost as light as air. No wonder they called me ‘butter ball’. When Celia would have her mah-jong games with the gals like Hilda Tratner, and Lill Bellman, out came the little candy dishes. My nose and eyes could just reach the top of the table, along with my hand. In one of the milk-glass round dishes was a small hill of my all time favorites: cinnamon and nut rugelach. Who knew from cholesterol!

Celia adored her father, Adolph, a tailor, who rode a unicycle down the streets of Colorado Springs where she grew up. She always wanted to go to high school but her mother told her, “Girls don’t go to school! You’re going to your Aunt Esther’s in New York City to be a milliner.” My grandmother was an amazing seamstress, making all her daughters’ clothes. I borrowed her little Singer sewing machine so much, that she finally gave it to me. That’s the one I still use.

She was my first storyteller. We’d sit in her bedroom next to her cedar chest. She’d take out the family picture albums where her wedding dress she made with a size 18 waist, lay wrapped in tissue paper and she’d tell me stories about the photos. Celia left the cedar chest to me and her stories continue.




March 5, 2008

A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. but if you are very lucky, they breath life into you.                                                                           -Caryl Phillips

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