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'Perhaps you need help on the farm?" asked a voice on the other end of the line. The caller was my husband's 80-something second cousin. The time: several hours after the third Iraqi missile attack in late January 1991. We told the spirited old lady, who had arrived in Palestine from Latvia the day before the 1929 Arab riots broke out, that in the dead of winter we were plum out of work and the peach harvest would only begin in May. "But," I assured her, "we'd be glad to have you."
Rina packed her gas mask and a transistor radio, grabbed her electric sheet and a taxi "special" and headed south. I met her at the door, gave her a towel and tour of the house and ran back to my computer, yelling, "Make yourself at home. I'm on deadline!"
I cannot only concoct fair copy but am also a quite accomplished, albeit frenzied, cook. Careening back and forth between three children, a chicken farm and a career, in four to five hectic hours I would fill the fridge with home-cooked delectables that could last a week - but only on Fridays, and only after filing my last article. During the week anyone who wanted lasagna, Swedish meatballs or barbecued chicken had to see to him or herself, or head for the nearest McDonald's.
Rina brought major changes on the home front. By mid-morning on her day of arrival, what was left of my three-day-old Middle Eastern majadara vanished overnight, banished to the freezer as the house filled with the aroma of fresh saut ed onions. It was Sunday and Rina had the run of the kitchen until Friday.
FOR A WEEK, armed with an apron and hours to kill, Rina simmered and sauteed, baked and broiled, cooking up an astounding array of three- and four-course meals; from hearty soups with kreplach to Chinese chicken wings, meat-filled mousaka and fish fillets smothered in mushrooms with half-a-dozen side dishes, capped by cake and coffee. My family's appetites soared, along with the grocery bill.
Home-bound, my 4th-grader - today a 25-year-old mechanical engineering student at Ben-Gurion University - suddenly showed a distinct preference for the kitchen over Kippy and other TV capers. As Rina's gofer, Nadav crawled into cabinets to find the flour and dig up the dough hook, mounted stools to assemble grinders and food processors and bent over backwards to load the dishwasher, a chore he had to be nagged to do under normal circumstances. Fueled by a steady stream of warm superlatives and mouth-watering samples, he carried the fringe benefit of being Rina's inhouse bowl-licker. My confirmed vegetarian by choice began wolfing down schnitzel.
The two older children began to turn up their noses, figuratively and literally. Instead of asking me what was new, "sandwich sibling" Asaf - today a 30-year-old engineer - asked Rina: "What's cooking?"
And I didn't know whether I should bless her heart or wither up and die when my 17-year-old daughter, Efrat, now an attorney and mother herself, arrived home from school and confided, "You know Ima, every day I can smell all the different dishes in each house when I walk home from school. Now our house smells like everyone else's."
Alas, it couldn't last forever. After a week Rina folded up her apron, packed her bags and announced she was going back to Tel Aviv, missiles or no missiles. While she didn't leave before filling the fridge and freezer with food for the coming week, the family remained down in the mouth for the duration of the war.
For many months that followed - and to this very day - my family fails to fathom why mom can't cook up a good story and a gourmet dish all at the same time.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
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