Noise. Confusion. Chaos.
My mother and her sisters are jammed into the kitchen of Grandmom Goldberg's tiny house in Northeast Philadelphia, arguing, laughing, carrying strange foods to a groaning table set with grandmom's fraying, lace tablecloth. My sister and I furtively pull at the unraveling threads of that cloth as the grown-ups say prayers we don't understand and let us take tiny sips of the sweet, sweet wine.
And always, the fuzzy memory of being carried out to the car by my father during those early years because I am simply too exhausted to walk.
Primping. Fussing over hair. Arguing about what constitutes "proper attire" by my mother's definition.
I am in those turbulent pre-teen/teen years, and the family seder has been moved to the home of an aunt in West Oak Lane.
By now, I am struck by the rituals, and the sense that this early spring celebration is so much more than just religious.
Grandmom Goldberg and her sweet, silent husband -- my Grandpop -- soon disappear from the table. So, too, do my paternal grandparents. In their absence, my grandparents are more present than ever.
Years rush by, and suddenly, there is a new face at the seder table. My bridegroom now sits by my side. My mother fusses over him, and my father delights in having a lawyer like himself available for spirited arguments. Theirs is a Passover match made in heaven.
Two years later, a baby with blonde curls and her grandfather's steely blue eyes is at a high chair at the table. There is a new star attraction this Passover, and she milks it for all its worth. Her sisters, who come along in two-year intervals, eventually do the same.
And then, although we don't yet know it, along comes the year that is our last seder with my father at the table. His death stuns us, diminishes us, and reminds us that every seder is uniquely precious.
Soon, the table at my mother's house is nearly stretched to its absolute limits. During those years, each of our daughters gets to do "The Four Questions" for the first time. Although I can barely remember the name of the book I read last week, I will forever hear the sound of those little voices reaching for those first elusive notes and the jumble of words: "Maneesh-tana-ha-li-la-hazeh ... "
The inevitable shifts come.
Now, I'm the one dashing about to collect the wildly diverse ingredients for a Passover menu. For more than two decades, I became the seder hostess -- the one wondering how a single table, even with all its leaves added, can possibly accommodate our small army of family and occasional friends.
The seder service is now conducted by the family's elder -- my own husband.
And surrounding us are three considerably younger men -- our daughters' husbands -- and occasionally, their parents and siblings. We are ever-expanding over these years, adding but also never forgetting those who are so achingly missing.
For two Passovers past, the absence of our matriarch -- my late mother -- has caused the deepest pain.
My mother, who left us at the age of 97, was the Passover sidewalk superintendent, the drill sergeant, the unofficial boss of the seder. No world leader was ever more empowered than Mom about how long was too long to roast the chicken or bake the little "muffins" of the holiday.
She was indeed our kitchen empress -- and she knew it.
It will never, ever, be the same without her.
Now it's the children of our children who offer "The Four Questions." Once again, the mantle has been passed.
Last year, that mantle was handed over in a different way. With great ambivalence and even some sorrow, I passed on the seder -- and all its responsibilities -- over to our daughter Nancy, whose quirky old house in North Jersey became "Seder Central."
I wondered where several decades had gone. But it was time. And time waits for no mother.
Still, there are constants in the flux.
My sister, the family photographer, will snap endless photos of the clan, and we'll beg her to stop -- until, of course, we see the vivid and precious histories those images reveal.
Somebody will insist that the apple-matzah kugel needs more sugar.
And Danny, the red-headed little mischief-maker, my 5-year-old grandson, will wreak havoc in finding the afikomen. Damage control will become a priority.
Yes, things stay the same even as they change, the oxymoron of family life. The circle grows. The dance of the generations whirls on.
But at Passover, the past lives in the present and embraces the future.
Just as it should.
Sally Friedman is a freelance writer living in Moorestown, N.J.