Sweet Homage

I EAT this Turkish concoction of ground sesame seeds, honey, and nuts to honor my Russian grandmother and aunt.

Babushka's sweet tooth went unsatisfied in the famine years after the revolution, where she shared the family's apartment in St. Petersburg and whatever rations with dozens of relatives. In time, some found a way out of the Soviet Union; some could not.

Thin as the wind, she at last got a rare passport to come to the United States and live with her younger son, to help raise me. But she stunned his American friends not only with her fear that every phone was surely bugged, that some guest at dinner must be an informer, and that any cop on the block in Chicago could put her in jail again, but also because she put three spoons of sugar into her cup, piled raspberry jam high on her bread, put honey on cottage cheese, and oh, those cherries in chocolate!

My father found a Greek market on the far side of town, bought chunks of halvah such as they had in old Russia....

I grew up, a happy American child, sharing her tastes. She learned not to be afraid and to smile.

Only slowly did I comprehend her sadness: one son lost on the battlefield, her daughter left in Leningrad. Maria was meant to follow her mother out, but was stopped by the KGB, World War II, and the siege during which she lived on a crust a day.

Years later in a village beyond Leningrad, I discovered the aunt I'd never known. I brought her Swiss chocolates, Belgian cakes, American cookies, and, of course, supplies of more sensible food, but could find no halvah.

So today in a deli in a part of Toronto where immigrants shop, I bought a slice of halvah. And with each crumb, I pay an odd homage to my babushka, to my Aunt Maria, and to all those everywhere in the world who know what it is to live without anything sweet.

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