Jewish Penicillin

by Jessica Grene


Laura eyed the bowl of soup dubiously. It was a yellowish clear broth, and there were bits of carrots and white balls floating in it − presumably these were the matzo balls. Particles of fat on the surface gleamed in the light as the soup rippled gently. Schmalz, that was the word for the chicken fat.

She felt reluctant to offer Elsa the soup. The child hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, was drinking sugary, fizzy drinks in sips. Laura felt resentment towards her mother-in-law (ex-mother-in-law, mother-out-law?) for this sudden apparition with the soup, and her insistence that her granddaughter needed it. Laura felt obliged to try to get Elsa to eat the soup, but the visit and the proffered soup compounded her annoyance, the anger at coping by herself all this time, the worry of these last days.

Elsa looked so small, so deflated somehow, in her bed, as if illness had shrunk her sturdy five-year-old frame.

‘Granny Naomi brought you some soup, darling.’

‘Granny Naomi?’ Elsa’s voice held a plaintive note, but the rarely seen figure of her grandmother roused her interest.

‘Yes. It’s chicken soup with matzo balls. It’s called Jewish penicillin.’

‘What’s penicillin?’

‘It’s medicine, darling.’

‘Is there medicine in the soup?’

‘Not exactly medicine, but your grandmother seems to think it’s magic.’

The inner eye-roll came through in her voice.

‘Granny’s soup is magic?’

The note of hope in her voice made Laura feel ashamed of her pettiness.

‘Yes, darling. It will make you better.’

A waft of steam from the soup reached Laura. It smelled good, of chicken and warmth. She could imagine the smell resonating through childhood, steaming vats of it served out at table in cold winters.

Elsa struggled to prop her head up against her pillow. She looked expectantly at her mother, and opened her mouth.

‘You want me to feed you like a baby bird?’

Laura was touched and worried. From when she was tiny, Elsa had wanted to do things for herself, all too quickly learning the skills that deprived Laura of proxies for extra caresses, struggling out of babyhood early.

‘Nyuh-huh.’ Elsa assented without closing her mouth.

Laura took a spoonful of the broth, and blew on it. The soup glinted.

Two spoonfuls, and Elsa wriggled to sit up in bed. Her eyes looked brighter.

Laura dug at a matzo ball with the spoon, and detached a chunk from the doughy sphere. Curious, she popped it into her own mouth. The stodgy breadiness melted in her mouth. There was the flavour of the chicken and herbs, and comfort and home. She felt the hard bubble of tension that had been sitting in her chest begin to melt in an echo.

‘Mamma! I want the balls too.’

Elsa reached out to take over feeding herself.

Laura went to fetch another spoon.

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