Our kitchen filled with the rich aroma of chicken soup simmering atop the stove, steam rising from the pot of sliced carrots and celery, whole onions, and stewing chicken. I inhaled the scent of love that chicken soup represents. 

Although it had long been a staple of our Jewish family life, no chicken soup had been made in our kitchen for the previous six years. We’d enjoyed this soup at the homes of family, ordered it in restaurants, eaten take-out versions at our table. But until today, my husband Bob insisted that chicken soup could not be made in our kitchen. 

Iconic Jewish soul food for generations, this simple soup goes back to shtetls and towns in the “old countries” of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, where its humble ingredients could be found in communities afflicted by poverty and persecution. Chicken soup is said to have healing properties; many a Jewish mother has boiled up a batch of this elixir to soothe a sick child or mend a broken heart.

Throughout our 30-year marriage, Bob had always made the chicken soup. Starting with a family recipe, he’d experimented with variations that included celery root, rutabaga, parsnips, and turnips, seeking the blend that created the flavorful broth he would strain through cheesecloth to achieve the golden clarity of the perfect soup. Making chicken soup connected Bob to his Russian grandmother, and to all the Jewish people. His perfected recipe resided only in his head: Bob’s soup, beloved by all who attended our Passover Seders. 

New Year’s Day 2012 marked the last time Bob made chicken soup. A pediatrician, he’d been working at the hospital 12 straight days, and celebrated his time off by making soup. While the soup simmered on our stove that frigid day, we found our 23-year-old son, Benjamin, lifeless in his bed upstairs. Trauma burned every sensory detail of that moment into our brains, creating powerful triggers for unwanted memories. For Bob, the smell of boiling chicken soup became indelibly linked to the loss of our precious son; he could never make his soup again.

We stopped hosting Passover Seders and started our grief journeys, often parallel but rarely converging, as we each mourned Benjamin in our own ways. I longed to reminisce about our son together, but he found that intolerable. Creating symbols to comfort myself and honor Benjamin’s memory, I made quilts, planted trees, painted stones to leave at his grave, treasured objects he’d left behind. This was not Bob’s way; seeing Benjamin’s photos or possessions set off unbearable pain and avoidance. I hoped that someday Bob could find healing symbols of his own.

As Passover 2018 approached, I planned meals and made sure we had plenty of matzah. Chicken soup was not on the menu. We sat in our kitchen, discussing what I’d make.

“Did you buy farfel?” Bob asked. Farfel is like crumbled matzah, often eaten in chicken soup.

“No . . .” I said. “But we don’t have any soup to put it in. Would you like me to make chicken soup?”  This was an offer I’d made many times, always rejected.

“Well . . .” he said, “I don’t know.” 

I held my breath; were we turning a momentous corner?

“Could you?” he asked, his green eyes looking into mine.

I chose my words carefully. “I’d be happy to make it, as long as it’s OK with you.”

“OK,” he said, exhaling. “Maybe you could look online at different Jewish chicken soup recipes, kind of make it your own. It doesn’t have to be my soup.”

“But if I am going to make it, we need to buy the ingredients today. The store will be closed for Easter tomorrow. Shall I go?”

“No, I’ll go,” he said, surprising me again.

When Bob returned with the soup ingredients, we reviewed his recipe and decided I’d make the soup while he was at the gym Sunday morning. 

As he left, Bob turned the vent fan above the stove on “high”. I’d wondered whether an emotional dam might break when he came home to the smell, but it was more like a slow thaw. I’d made the soup and simmered it for two hours, just as he’d instructed; now it was time to remove the cooked vegetables and boil fresh ones in the broth. Bob lifted the lid off the pot and gave it a stir. Hoping to minimize his pain, I hesitated to ask questions, but I had to know, “Do you think it’s done?”

“It looks like there’s not enough broth,” he said, frowning. “I forgot, sometimes stewing chickens take longer to get done. Add more water, cook it for another hour.” 

Bob sat reading in the next room while I finished the soup. That night, we shared a dinner of chicken soup with matzah balls, farfel, and parsley. Neither of us mentioned the progress this represented; we both knew what this soup meant. We didn’t reminisce about Benjamin, but for now, this meal was miracle enough. Another door had opened in our long process of mutual healing, in the separation of memory from the darkness of grief. And my soup wasn’t bad.

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This is Grief

Learning to Live With the Scars of Grief

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Lucinda Cummings

Lucinda Cummings is a writer, mother, and clinical psychologist who lives in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared previously in mamazine and is forthcoming in the anthology, She's Got This. She is seeking a publisher for her book length memoir on finding home.