Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The granny chronicles

I have a granny.

Technically, she's not my granny. No biological link--she is my father's father's second wife, whom he married in Hungary after the war. She isn't Jewish. She doesn't speak English. We live in totally separate worlds these days; most of the people I know can conceive of her world as little as most of the people she knows can conceive of mine. But every so often, I go and visit her, and step into a completely different reality.

Every summer, until I was thirty, I went to a house with orange nylon Communist Modern furniture, a two-hundred-year-old coffee grinder still in use, a Stalinist commendation (third class) on the wall next to a moth-eaten needlepoint of a cat over a Soviet-built refrigerator that had to be moved out of sunlight in the summer because it couldn't keep up with the additional warmth. When I arrived, my bed was made up with sheets that had been washed by hand, bleached and starched. If I arrived at a time when I needed sheets that weren't so nice, she would bring out the old sheets--linen sheets woven by hand, of handspun thread, made from flax seed to sheet by her own grandmother.

After my grandfather died, she crocheted. For two years. She crocheted a bedspread and drapes--a bedspread that reached the floor on every side of a king-sized bed four feet high, and drapes at least twice the width of a window that went the whole width of her living room. She crocheted them with pearl cotton, on a hook so small you can hardly see it. When I asked her how long it had taken her to make them, and she'd told me two years, she paused for a moment and then added, "I wasn't just doing that. I was also doing other things." When she had gas heat installed, a few years ago--until then she'd been heating with a wood stove--the curtains couldn't reach to the floor anymore because it would have been dangerous with the radiator there. She took a pair of scissors and cut off the bottom foot.

Her house was her world--four rooms, plus a small hall and a pantry. A few small outbuildings, where there were chickens and geese and ducks, and where there had once been a cow and a horse and rabbits. Behind that, a garden, a vineyard, the corn she grew to feed the chickens. She also fed them wheat, but she bought that. She made her own wine and sold it. She had an eighth-grade education. When my grandfather died, she went out to work in the laundry of the local bauxite mine--when already in her fifties, an age, she points out, at which other ladies where already retiring.

I can smell that house. It's the smell of dust, coffee, chocolate, old linens. I remember sitting in the living room with a book. I remember feeding the chickens and drinking new wine, and hearing horses clop by my bedroom window in the morning. I remember the blue plastic crates with glass Pepsi and Fanta bottles stacked on the concrete steps of the grocery store. I remember the smell of that store, and the chocolate wrapped in cheap blue newsprint, and the way the light fell on the dusty shelves of pots and postcards and plastic colanders. When I was in college, in the south of the country, I came on the weekend, and I remember saying hello to some ladies on the street as I walked from the train station to my grandmother's house and hearing one say to the other, "That's Auntie T's granddaughter. She studies in Pecs and comes home on the weekend."

In a strange way, a house where I never really lived is the only house where I ever really belonged.

Anyway--I didn't start out to write a post about that. I started out to write about two funny things that happened lately. One was that my friend Cecilia--who feels about her granny, zt"l, the way I feel about mine--made her a lace shawl. It was blue, and exactly the kind of thing my granny would love.

My friend Cecilia is Australian-Chinese. She does not speak Hungarian. When she told me that she'd made the shawl, she was wondering about the best way to mail it--knowing that my granny couldn't read English and might reasonably be confused by the arrival of a mysterious blue lace shawl. I said, don't worry--just tell me in an email what you want to say, and I'll translate it into Hungarian, and write the letter out with all the diacritics, and send it to you as an attachment. You can print it out and sign it, and send it with the shawl. So that's what we did.

The next time I talked to my granny, the first thing she said when she picked up the phone was,

"Your friend sent me a package!"

"I know!" I said. "Do you like it?"

"It's a beautiful lace shawl. It's blue. It came from your friend Cecilia. That's your friend who knits, right? She made that?"

"Yes, she made it."

"Well, it's very nice. And such a letter she wrote with it! In beautiful Hungarian. She said she didn't speak Hungarian and you had translated it but she certainly wrote it nicely!"

"Well, I helped her."

"Yes, but she must have written it herself. You're in America and she's in Australia! That's very far away. You couldn't have written it for her. And she has the same wonderful kind of typewriter you do! With the very big letters that are so easy to read, I could read it all in a moment!"

"Yes, isn't that great?"

"Maybe her grandmother couldn't see so well either."

"Maybe that was it."

"She does write nicely. She must know some Hungarian."

"No, I wrote it for her. She sent me an electronic letter through the electronic postal service to my computer, and I translated it into Hungarian, and then I attached it to another electronic letter which I then sent back through the electronic postal service to her computer."

[dead silence during which I realized how totally futile this was and my grandmother waited politely for me to start saying something comprehensible]

"She's very smart."

"And talented!"

* * *

This just happened today. Background: I had intended while pregnant to go visit my granny with baby Iyyar at the end of my maternity leave. But for the first six months he screamed so much it was completely out of the question; then MHH was working and there would have been no one to take care of Barak while I was gone; now the dollar is in the toilet and airfares are astronomical. I'm hoping to go next year, but she was hoping to see me this year, and I wanted to go. I felt bad, and I wanted to do something, so I sent her a big box full of all the things I would have bought her if I were there--toiletries, antacids, hairpins, cookies, all those things. I decided to send it express mail, which comes with package tracking. This morning, I got an e-mail from the US Postal Service informing me that my package had been signed for. I couldn't resist. I picked up the phone.

"Hi, Grandma!"

"Hello, my little angel!"

"I hear you got a package at 2:47 this afternoon that had cleared customs at 4:12 this morning!"

[Dead silence while my grandmother tries to figure out how I could possibly know this. And fails.]

"Who told you that?"

"The post office. When you send something express they give you a number for the package. Then you can put that number into your computer and find out exactly where your package is that day. When it arrives, it tells you what time."


"You picked such a cute box! With the baby on the side. It's a perfect box. Where did you find such a nice box?"

"It's a diaper box, grandma. I got it at Target. That's the big store I told you about where they sell everything."

"Well, it certainly is a cute baby. But the pictures you sent of Iyyar are even cuter."

My granny? She is the best granny of them all.


Shanna said...

I love your granny, too.

(And I have to confess: when I started reading this post, I got very worried that you were going to, c"v, share some bad news. But, no, whew, just cute stories about your granny.)

Maven said...

that's really interesting - you speak hungarian? where did you grow up?

i like the descriptiveness of this post - the things you saw and smelled. i also like that your non-jewish granny has a soviet-era fridge.

AidelMaidel said...

Delicious. That granny sounds delicious. I would say screw the dollar. Buy the airplane ticket on a credit card and go. Your kids deserve as much exposure to this granny as they possibly can. It's only money, but memories are priceless.

yiddishehmama said...

I too was a bit worried at first.. but such a delightful post! In addition to being an excellent story-teller, you are also kind and generous to share heartwarming tidbits about your life and "family". Thank you for writing this!

Uberimma said...

AM- For all of us to have gone for a real visit when MHH had vacation would have cost about six thousand dollars, not counting shipping kosher food. Pas nisht. I'm hoping to go with just the baby for five days later this month.

Maven- I grew up in New York but yes, I speak Hungarian. I drop a lot of jaws in certain parts of Brooklyn. Nobody who looks at me is expecting THAT to come out of my mouth.

Alisha said...

This is SO sweet. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

This makes me miss my grandmother. Thanks for the stories...mine could never figure out the technology either :)


peninah said...

may i adopt her too? {{hugs}} thank you for a wonderful post, tho like shanna i got worried for a bit.. (spit spit spit)

jasmin said...

I did, too. (spit spit spit for me too! Or as my grandmother would have said, "khodah nakoneh" = "may god not (do that)")

I love your granny stories, too. And what a beautiful shawl the talented and clever Cecilia has made, indeed!

Jacque said...

What a wonderful story!!! My grandma and I share books. We have always joked that when she passes I get ALL of her books. I might need to buy another house. I love my grandma- and I will make time to call her today because of you.

Please blog about this holiday season with your sons

Deborah said...

Fabulous. Just great! I can see becoming like your grandmother--except I don't live in the middle of nowhere. And I do know about computers.

I have new friends who either are (husband) Hungarian or grew up there (wife). They will love this story when they return from their Christmas in Budapest.

Uberimma said...

Deb--my husband read the comment and said, "But doesn't she live in [place you live?]" I think "middle of nowhere" is sort of dependent on your frame of reference.