I am a picture maker just as my grandmother was. She made stacks and stacks of embroideries with brightly colored thread. I will draw pictures with words to remember her…
A yellow kitchen on new morning, light soaking through Swiss-lace curtains. Steaming coffee poured from a boiled pot on the stove. Hot bran muffins with raisins. Butter and apricot-pineapple spread. Sun streaks in happy gold across the floor.
Grandmother in her flowered housecoat carrying a little pot of coffee grounds and kitchen scraps to bury in another hole besides the heady smells and colors of carefully loved roses.
A bed of parsley under its funny plastic door frame to keep out the cold. A pink bathroom, all pink – tiles, walls, Dove soap, even counter-tops, set just a bit lower and perfect for her five-foot frame. A pink bedroom with its meadow of carpeted flowers. Her tree of life overhanging a step-stool tall bed.
Creeping stealthily over just the right floorboards late at night so Grandmother won’t pop out to see who’s still up. Sneaking downstairs to the basement, armed with bags of Fritos, French onion dip and cold apple juice to watch a favorite TV show with Mom. Two teenagers…one just past forty.
The food moves now to that of a slightly higher quality. Pink “mile-high pie“* and Neapolitan ice cream. Spare ribs and red rice hot out of the oven. Home-made applesauce blushing with red hots. Fresh apricot bundt cakes, dusted with powdered sugar. Sprigs of parsley, decorative and good for the health…and still hated by my mother.
I remember her yellow kitchen and then move into the dusky green sitting room with its knubby cloth sofa bed. Embroidered forest scenes and geranium pots hung framed on all walls without windows. I see boxes and boxes of book manuscripts, stacked in the closet of the working bedroom, translated from Czech to English and forever waiting for a publisher. “The Heiress” was her success story: almost 600 pages typewriter translated, re-published in English and read aloud on Moody radio.
We kids – sent from the table to entertain ourselves as the adults talked – loved to escape to the basement, rummaging for trinkets in old boxes, disappearing into her specially built coat closet, sawwing away at a quirky old accordion.
On weekend visits in college, I grilled her on stories of her girlhood in Bohemia, in a house where she and her grandparents lived above and the cows who gave fresh milk below. Her mother came back for Grandmother when she was 11. She would now live with her parents and little sister in America. They traveled by ship to Ellis Island. She left beloved grandparents for this new family – hers- she didn’t remember. At 11, she went back to 1st grade because she didn’t speak English. She told me of pleading with her mother to continue on after 8th grade; she wanted to be a doctor. Her mother told her she had to go to work instead and bought a piano for Martha’s little sister.
Grandmother learned to cook American from cookbooks and newspaper clippings and from a kind Jewish woman for whom she cleaned house. She spoke of a man – my future grandfather – whom she met at the Bohemian church in Chicago, who courted her patiently for 10 years before buying her a spry new wedding suit and bringing her home. She remembered their tiny first apartment – a studio with a fold-up bed – close to the University of Chicago and a charming bronze of Tomas Masaryk, proud warrior and first president of Czechoslovakia. She and my grandfather made a comic and mad dash to the University’s hospital one afternoon with my little blond mother who had just stuck her foot in a cooling, but still bubbling, peach pie. Comic only in retrospect.
We have many such pictures – some beautiful and quite whimsical, others perhaps scrawled with angry strokes. Grandmother, Mother, Martha in small and big ways influenced all her people to come. From this woman each one of us has continued our lives in different and varied directions. What strikes me though, as I think about my Grandmother’s influence is her creativity and the gift of faith, both so strong in her, that have been passed down to her children and subsequently her grandchildren. Artists and picture makers, lovers of music and learning, men and women of deep faith. I carry her gifts within me and smile to think of my fiesty 85 year old with a penchant for “just one more chocolate milkshake.”
from the funeral of Martha Tenjack, 93
June 10, 2006
* “mile high pie” recipe is similar to Grandmother’s pie