Mary Jo Bellner Swartzberg
I can still see my little mother, stooping over the oven door and pulling out the Chleban loaves she had baked. And I remember the aroma from the bread that wafted throughout our home. Baking Chleban was her ritual every December at Christmas time.
And so, it’s that time of the year again. Christmas (or Chanukah for some or the holidays for others); whichever celebration one calls it, it is a time for traditions. I have adopted my mother’s annual tradition of baking the Chleban which is fruited yeast bread.
Making Chleban was really my mother’s only tradition. My mother and her six siblings were orphaned in 1918 during the great flu pandemic in the U.S. Within one year, my mother’s parents died from the flu. That left my mother and her five sibling’s orphans. To make matters worse, the neighborhood undertaker took their home.
My mother and her three brothers were then sent to an orphanage, while her older sister was adopted and her younger sister, at age one, was taken in by an aunt.
My three uncles, who were older than my mother, had left the orphanage as soon as they were able, leaving my mother behind. Later, two of my uncles enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in WWII. One of my uncles died in action and is buried in France.
When my mother was age 12 her older sister wrote to her and said that she would make my mother a dress, sew some money into the hem and mail the dress to her for her to buy a one-way ticket to Toledo.
All of this did transpire and my mother eventually married her first husband. She soon became pregnant but fell down some steps and had a stillborn child. A short time later she had a son. When her son was about three months old my mother’s husband was killed in a tragic car accident.
My mother learned to make the Chleban from her first mother-in-law. And I think my mother felt that making Chleban every Christmas was the only family tradition she ever knew or had.
Noted writer and T.V. host Dick Cavett once said, regarding his own childhood during the Christmas season, “Nobody, when you are that age, could ever convince you that there will come a day when all those chatty friends, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents in that cozy circle, slowly digesting dinner around the Christmas tree, would be gone. That someday, you would be the sole surviving link in that warm family circle—unthinkable at the time.”
As a child, seeing my mother baking the Chleban every Christmas, I never knew that someday I would be the sole surviving link to my mother’s past and would carry on her tradition by baking her beloved Chleban.
Sometimes we take traditions for granted and, therefore, become too complacent to carry them on. But in reality, a tradition truly is a link to our past. This I have learned.