We called her Imma, Hebrew for Mommy. And ever since we were children, we all knew a wonderful story about her.
It happened in Poland on a Friday night back in 1929, when Imma was six years old. The adored youngest of ten children, she sat at the dinner table, probably singing the wonderful Sabbath songs that fill her children's homes today. Everything was fine until her mother brought in the chicken soup. Somehow, by accident, Imma didn't get her portion.
Quietly, she started to cry and a bowl was immediately brought to her. But Imma was inconsolable. When she continued to weep, her sister, our Aunt Lilly, said, "Listen, little one, have your soup while it's hot; you can always cry later."
Have your soup now. Cry later. Our Imma lived her life by these two principles. The first, she told to everyone around her. The second, she told only to herself.
When Imma was 11, her family immigrated to New York. Eleven years later, she married my father. That's when her chicken soup became famous. If she heard that somebody was under the weather or seriously ill, Imma would arrive with her chicken soup, ready if necessary to spoon-feed its recipient.
Hospitalized for much of my childhood after a bout with polio, I was a primary recipient of that chicken soup.
I was a primary recipient of that chicken soup. Hospitalized for much of my childhood after a bout with polio, I would wait for Imma to appear with her chicken soup: golden, hot and savory in a big thermos bottle with a bright red cap. As the years passed, plenty of others received her regularly scheduled special deliveries: Imma's daughters-in-law who, she'd say, "shouldn't have to work so hard preparing for the Sabbath," new neighbors and, of course, precious friends: some widowed, some ailing, some both.
But she didn't just bring chicken soup; Imma's compassion took many, many forms. One Tuesday evening in November 1965, I was busy tackling my math homework when our lights dimmed, then faded completely, and we learned that the entire Northeast had been struck by a blackout. Imma immediately put on her coat. "I'm bringing candles to Henrietta," she told me, referring to our wonderful widowed neighbor. "She doesn't light candles on Friday evenings, so she and the kids might need some tonight."
When Imma returned, her dear friend Thea and her 10-year-old daughter were in tow. Imma explained that she had seen Thea walking up our block in a panic, wondering why her myopia was suddenly deteriorating. And since Thea's husband was away on business, Imma promptly invited mother and daughter to stay the night. Minutes after they consented, Henrietta arrived with her two children; one brought his oboe, the other played our piano. Imma transformed a scary situation into a slumber party.
Her hospitality was legendary. When aunts and uncles visited from out of state or abroad, they all came to our modest, four-bedroom house and were welcomed with open arms. Sometimes, as many as four couples were hosted simultaneously for weeks at a time.
On weekends, our living room became Grand Central Station. There were always lunch guests, and later in the afternoon, scores of teenagers would visit our home, attracted to Imma's open-door -- and open-refrigerator -- policy.
One autumn soon after my junior year abroad in the Holy Land, an air-mail letter arrived from one of my professors. He wrote that a friend of his, who is blind, had asked him to be his escort to the United States, where he was to get a guide dog. Could I recommend a reasonable hotel in New York City for the sight-seeing part of their stay? Ignorant on such matters, I put the question to Imma. "Yes," she promptly replied, a deadpan expression on her face, "I can recommend a very reasonable place: the Hotel Willig."
Ten days later, these two bright, charming, eligible men moved into our basement. They stayed for two weeks. I was enthralled. They too were enthralled -- with "Imma Willig." They had clearly become members of the family.
They mourned with us when Imma passed away in 1991 -- just a few weeks after Mothers Day. Ever since, memories of Imma's generosity keep bubbling up within me. But most of all, I relive an incident that in fact I never witnessed. I relive the chicken soup legend of 1929 that has become my mother's legacy.
Her shoulder was always available for another's tears, but I don't think I ever saw Imma cry.
Have your soup now. Cry later. Her shoulder was always available for another's tears, but I don't think I ever saw Imma cry. During my hospital days, she always had a smile and a reassuring hand, a hand that never clutched a Kleenex. Now that I am a mother -- the kind whose eyes well up every time my children endure a black-and-blue mark -- I marvel at how she stayed dry-eyed.
The truth is that in many ways Imma and I are not alike. I am definitely not the "Cry later" type. But guests are commonplace in the home my husband and I share. The Sabbath songs of Imma's youth are being taught lovingly to her grandchildren. And every Friday, the aroma of chicken soup fills my kitchen. In these and so many other ways, Imma is still with us.
Have your soup now. Cry later. I'm not a Torah scholar; I don't know much about Olam Haba (the world to come). But I'm sure that Imma's sisters and brothers greeted her at heaven's gate with a bowl of her mother's chicken soup. Have your soup now. And, little one, there's no need to cry up here.
When I was a little one, my parents taught me the Talmudic principle that every angel has a singular mission to fulfill. I imagine that Imma, as ever an angel of mercy, wasted no time choosing her assignment on high: welcoming weary souls to their new home with her glorious chicken soup which is, as it always was, simply heavenly.
IMMA'S CHICKEN SOUP RECIPE
3-4 quarters of chicken
1 leek (cut lengthwise so sand is thoroughly removed)
1-2 zucchinis, unpeeled, uncut
3 carrots, peeled
2 celery ribs
1-2 large parsnips, peeled, cut in quarters
1 turnip, peeled, cut in half
1 medium-large onion, peeled, cut in quarters
1-2 large sweet potatoes, peeled, cut in quarters
3-4 garlic cloves, sliced
fresh or jarred basil to taste (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch of dill
1 bunch of parsley
Place all ingredients except the dill and parsley in a 8-quart pot. Add filtered water until the pot is about two inches away from full. Cover the pot. Bring to a boil, then put at medium-low flame and let the soup cook for 90 minutes. Then add the dill and parsley and let the soup boil rapidly for 3-5 minutes. Serve with extra-fine noodles as well as chunks of the soup chicken and vegetables.
Imma used to leave the chicken skin on, but up-to-date medical news has prompted me to remove the skin. I think Imma would have approved.