My grandmother played an important role in my life, as she lived with us from the time I was two until she died when I was in college. The only time I was separated from her was during the period when she and my mom had to stay behind in Hungary following my Dad’s and my escape in 1956. Born in a small town of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (in what is now the Czech Republic) shortly before the start of the twentieth century, she always retained the manners and modes of the Old World and the Victorian era. She believed in the role of the woman as it was defined for her at the time, and her life revolved around her family.
She was a fantastic cook, capable of preparing and serving everything from a grand feast to the ordinary meals of the day, though nothing she prepared was ordinary. In addition to cooking, when we still lived in Hungary, she made her own jams, vegetable preserves, canned fruits, baked her own bread, and made some of the most incredible cakes and baked goods I ever tasted.
When my grandfather left her (or she asked him to leave – it was never clear to me what really happened, as neither my mother nor she ever talked about it) her world shrunk down to her two daughters and me. His departure from her life left a void she never attempted to fill with anyone besides us. She never had friends of her own, but was content in spending time with my mother’s social circle, with whom she felt very comfortable. She rarely talked of her own family, most of who were killed during World War II. She had an aunt, who lived in Switzerland, but the aunt died just prior to my leaving Hungary, and I never met her. All I have is an envelope of sepia and black and white photographs of people gathered in gardens and in front of small houses, wearing serious expressions and clothing from the 1920s. None of the photos have descriptions of who the people are, or when or where the pictures were taken. (Do your children or grandchildren a favor – label your family photos on the back.)
Besides always having something in the house for an unexpected visitor, my grandmother prided herself on keeping a home suitable for royal inspection, should the Queen or some high personage come by unannounced. The silver was always polished, towels neatly arranged, linens folded in just the right way, and the floors clean enough for a hospital OR. She loved flowers, as did my mom, and there was always at least one fresh bouquet of the season on the living room table or hall dresser. She would be the first person up in the morning so that by the time my parents had to go to work, and I to school (once I was of school age), fresh breakfast was ready on the table, coffee poured, and the newspaper folded by his plate for my dad to read. Sometimes I think we took her more for granted than we should have (at least I did), for no one ever had to ask her to do any of these things. She just did them because she loved us. I don’t ever remember her complaining. She was almost always smiling and in a good mood, even during times when there was little good news in our world. Her only vice was her smoking. No one else in our family smoked (my dad took up a pipe after we moved to the States, but my mom made him smoke outside) and we often badgered her to quit. Unfortunately, it was an addiction she could never break, and she died too early (in her early seventies) of lung cancer.
She was a short woman, no more than 4’8” tall, though she claimed to be 4’10”. She never learned to drive a car, and had no desire to learn. She never colored her hair as she grew older, but always had a permanent. She wore little make up, and only simple jewelry (though she had some beautiful pieces given to her by my grandfather as tokens of atonement for his frequent trespasses.) She dressed in very conservative dresses, even as a younger woman, in styles from bygone eras. When I think about her, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that she was only in her fifties when she and my mom came to the States. In my mind, I always taught of her as being older, though she was by no means frail, and always mentally sharp.
She was in all respects a lady. The only time she behaved out of character occurred if she happened to see someone who was shorter than she. She would stop in her tracks, point with her finger, and excitedly say, “Look, look at that woman! Look how short she is!” Then she would catalog all the other short people she had seen in the past year. It was a performance you had to witness to appreciate.
Unlike my mom, who loved to travel, she was a homebody, and refused to travel with my mother on her European trips after we were sufficiently established in the States to allow such luxuries. The thought of flying petrified her. It took a tremendous effort on my mother’s part to get her on a plane when they came to the US, and she never flew after that. She also had a terrible sense of direction. I would cruelly tease her sometimes, telling her she could get lost on our own street, even if I painted directional arrows for her to follow. She had the kindest of hearts, but most of her love was consumed and directed at her two daughters and me. My mother shared everything with her, which in a marriage, is not always good. She never spoke out at my father, but her loyalties were never in question, and he was outside of her inner circle. He was in a situation he couldn’t rectify, and accepted it as a fact of life.
When she came to the States, she spoke fluent German, Czech, and obviously, Hungarian. However, she was no linguist, and try as she might, she never mastered English. She took the library’s ESL Introductory course five times, dutifully wrote out lessons in her notebook, but progressed very little. She had this theory that it didn’t matter what language you spoke, as long as you said the words slowly and distinctly, people would understand. To prove her point, one time we were in the grocery store together. As the checker was taking the items off the conveyor belt, my grandmother told her slowly and clearly in Hungarian, “I want you to put the canned goods on the bottom of the bag. I want the flour on top. Put the bread and eggs in a separate bag.” As the checker amazingly followed all her instructions, she turned to me triumphantly and said, “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say people would understand what I was saying?” At which point the checker turned, smiled at her, and replied in Hungarian, “Yes, but it also helps if you speak the language.”
She desperately wanted to be a US citizen, and constantly studied the civics book she was given to pass the citizenship exam. On the day of the test, my aunt went with her, and before the test, took the examiner aside, “Look” she said, “my mother speaks very little English, but she’s been studying for this test for five years, and very much wants to be a US citizen. Please be kind to her.”
Practically shaking, my grandmother went into the exam room. The questioner asked her, “Who is the American president?” My grandmother answered, “Kennedy.” The man smiled and said, “Congratulations! Welcome to America!” and passed her. I never saw anyone so proud, as she and the other new citizens were sworn in. We all cried!
Though she never learned English, she became addicted to TV soap operas. No matter where we were, we had to be home in the afternoon so that she could watch “Days of Our Lives” and “As the World Turns.” I would have to sit and watch them with her, and translate for her. I confess, this was not my favorite way to pass the time, especially when I became a teenager. But since both my parents were working, until my aunt moved to America, translating became my afternoon job. In retrospect, it was a very small price to pay for all she was doing for us.
She’s been gone a long time, but continues to live in my heart. I hope that I told her often enough during her lifetime how much I loved her, and that she understood the self-absorption of youth enough to know how much I cared.
More to follow…