Judith Gayle Smith
Step on a crack, break your Mother's back. Impatient weeds pushing up the hop-skotch chalked sidewalk leading to Gram's house.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio - where Lake Erie caught on fire at least twice a year. 1950, walking unthreatening city streets, courageous with big pigtailed sister giggling beside me. Our not very patient Mom walked protectively behind, shepherding us insistently with annoying bumps on our bottoms with her brick-laden purse. She hurried us on with the promise of Gram's golden Chicken Paprikash.
I was never known for my lively step - I lived for the "dawdle". Refusing to walk until I reached 22 extremely poundable months, to my Mother's acute dismay, distress and aching back! Tomboyishly draping over beckoning fences, I'd watch frogging polywogs, scoop up squirmingly reluctant kittens, hug too-willing sloppily kissing puppies - this was the dawdle.
Gram, the former Mary Struhar (wife of Joseph Vitous and later married to Andrew Hruska) had a wonderful, big red-brick house. Imposing pillars which should have been dignified with stone lions were unfulfilled with fat pots of domesticated red geraniums. Clay pots, painted brightly. The pride of the conservative Slovakian/Germanic neighborhood, but not the fierce pride of noble lions.
Gram was all thumbs - all green! Flowers bloomed their love for her. Showy, snapdragons with lips that pouted! Gram could transform flowers into ballerinas! Stately tulips regally marched alongside the house, demanding our eyes and steps to the beckoning magic of the grandeur known too simply as the back garden.
A profusion of colorful flowers with pick-me vegetables, faithful marigolds protectively bordering plump beefsteak tomatoes, bright daisies guarding frilly lettuce, quiet petunias awed by stoic heads of cabbage, fragrant roses and yellow wax beans, hollyhocks and fancy french carrots. Pungent mint I'd gleefully crush, chew, and rub, perfuming myself!
"Bugs don't like marigolds", she wisely informed us: fat tomato worms and bumbling jeweled junebugs defiantly belying her words. Gram, always engulfed in oversized cobbler's apron, shiny mason jar clutched firmly - grimly waged war upon those equally determined fauna daring to invade her precious flora. She was experienced and quick, the bugs were heat sluggish. She battled well, the unwilling bugs soon ensnared in her jar. Triumphant, she carried the now filled capped jar to THE MALEVOLENTLY ANTICIPATING SHED.
THE SHED. Fearsome mouldy mystery - dark abode of hungry hairy jumping spiders, damp awful musty smells, decaying yellowed newspapers, mildewed fright-filled dankness and horror! My big sister and I were never permitted in that place of rotting death and decay for aggressive garden ravagers. I was eager to explore THE SHED'S dreaded mysteries, appeasing my curiousity with too freckled nose splayed to squashed fly speckled broken windowpanes. Shuddering in delicious horror, I truly regretted that I had to be an obedient little girl - not free to be a wild little boy braving all danger, fighting all dragons!
That ugly SHED may have originally served as an ordinary garage. A grassly overgrown double track of something unhealthy led to the huge weathered grey front doors. Even rusting wrecks would never be caught dying in that disgusting dungeon of doom. I felt so sorry for the unfortunate, condemned, petrifying bugs.
Staying over at Gram's! My big sister and I slept in her sunlit sewing room. Her big ornate "White" sewing machine was an antique when I first set my little foot on its enormous lacy black treadle. Squatting under the sunlit open window, partially muffled by billowing lace curtains, it splendidly established itself as the focal point of the room.
Perching on the serviceable wooden straight-backed sewing chair, peering over the black hump of the old "White", I could clearly view the expanse of unruly green lawn to the fragrant exciting garden beyond. Unfortunately, I could also see that ominously lurking shed -waiting for me.
Snugly wrapped in my Gram-quilted goose down comforter, I would swiftly fall asleep to the monotone of the misplaced mantel clock. This faithful dear old friend - this big odd clock, alternating ticks, groans and tocks. So reassuring a sound, that without it - sleep oftimes eludes me still.
My Sister and I often shared that warm super soft feather bed with its cozy flannel sheets. Gram permitted us to stay up later than Mom would - Mom said that Gram spoiled us rotten! We two, with scraps of bright material or tangled yarn salvaged from Gram's old wicker piecing basket, would clumsily attempt surprise gift-making for Mom and Gram. They appeared quite thrilled at our mis-crocheted potholders, hot pads and uniquely embroidered dishtowels.
Gram crocheted exquisitely. I wish I still had the dolls she gave me, fully outfitted with caps and dresses, slips, undies and booties - painstakingly and lovingly ruffled. It fascinated me to watch as she took a mere piece of thread and created delicate masterpieces for handkerchief borders. She called it "tatting".
Gram had one shiny gold tooth, right in the heart of her infrequent smile - giving her worn face an almost piratical cast. She came to America from Budapest, Hungary. Mom said she spoke seven languages fluently. I never found out if she was from the Aristocracy, or if she was a gypsy! Methinks she was a gypsy indeed!
Towering over us at four foot - ten inches, she was indeed quite formidable. But she was safer to me than my mother who stood five eight. It astounded me, when at age fifteen - visiting Gram for the last time - she came only to my chin!
Feisty little Gram became reknown through my retelling (to the point of most folk's boredom) - of her savory Chicken Paprikash. The national dish of Austria. Chicken and chewy "finger dumplings" smothered in real fresh sour crean and sweet Hungarian paprika. Took me years to discover that paprika!
I can still see her - with a heavy breadboard firmly balanced on her narrow shoulder, scraping not too sticky dumpling dough into furiously boiling chicken broth. She used a sharp knife dipped into that bubbling liquid, rapidly knifing that batter in strips the size of her index finger.
Gram's house had character to match hers. It wasn't an oversized house, just very very special. Dreaming about it still, after fifty years, I am always discovering buried treasures in her attic. Odd, I don't remember there being an attic in reality, just an interesting upstairs converted to two or three bedrooms.
My always-in-trouble step-uncle lived upstairs. He had his own icebox in his room, FILLED WITH BEER! Gram referred to him as THE DISGRACE. We all tsk-tsk'd him - he was a bad man. Gram, sneering, said that alcohol kept him well preserved. She would become so angry with him that they would swear at each other in Slavic so we wouldn't know they were using bad language.
We KNEW. It wasn't the words we understood as much as the hate-spitting tone, the ominous black thunderclouds and purple lightnings flashing between them! We didn't often see our uncle, as he kept to his room, and when we did see him, we didn't stay near him for long because he smelled of stale beer and spoiled food.
Gram's living room, the parlor - would never be photographed for decorating magazines. Monopolizing the room, the royal blue overstuffed and prickly horsehair sofa offered seating discomfort.
I did love it when Gram and I would sit together, watching "The Lone Ranger", drinking Vernor's Ginger Ale straight from the bottle!
The matching armchair cradled my fragile Grandpa, who spoke only in old fogey grunts, and I loved him madly! Gram, darkly humorous, would mimic his grunts most unkindly when we were out of his earshot. He was a somewhat bemused sweet old man, grunting pleasure when we arrived, grunting displeasure at our leaving. Gram said he never loved her, but I recall that he died of a broken heart, very soon after she died.
Not caring overmuch for that prickly couch, I would quickly hie to a favored spot - Gram's old player piano. Its bench was stuffed with stiff, brittle and crumbling old songbooks. There were wonderful piano rolls, extraordinary because they could make the piano play without my touching its keys! No difficulty learning to play that piano - just stick a roll in and bask in the applause.
Behind Grandpa's chair were the lawyer's bookcases - glass fronted - no finger smudges or we'd have to groaningly polish all the litte panes of glass. They contained old leather-bound books, boxes filled with sloppy sentimental greeting cards and old photographs and tintypes. Also wonderful dolls of all nations. "Don't touch them!" I loved best an Indian princess with cunningly beaded moccasins, all the way from Arizona. There were two parka-clad dolls from Alaska - Gram's "mukluks" she called them.
We were permitted to remove the old smelly cigar boxes overflowing with cards and pictures, being commisioned to sort them all for her. Grandmas have lots of these as they love to save happy memories.
She had a real long necklace of crocheted jet beads - I was allowed to play with it if I was very very careful. I would play with that necklace for hours - a glorious rope of precious jewels. Sitting Indian style on Gram's rough old carpet, watching for people's careless feet - I would pull its serpentine length into giggly squiggles of faces, animals, letters. Gram eventually gave it to me, and after carefully nurturing it through my teen years, it finally did exhaustedly break. So did my heart.
The formal dining room. On the bulky sideboard reigned bright temptation. Waxed bananas, apples, grapes - so mouth-watering that I almost broke my front tooth trying to bite through the reddest of those bright shiny apples.
Sundays and holidays were occasions for Gram's best silver and her hand-crocheted ivory lace tablecloth graced with tall thin candles, her prettiest flowers, the for-company-only dishes. And the FOOD! No ordinary fare, but clove, cherry and pineapple studded hams or crisp-skinned turkeys - sometimes a succulent leg of roasted lamb with Gram's own real garden mint jelly.
A favorite place for me was the sagging front porch, comfy with old fragile wicker rockers, carelessly strewn mismatched carpet pieces. We would sit quietly - Mom, Sis and me - while Gram prepared a bowl of walnuts and searched for the hammer. She'd open the screen door, walnuts at the ready, and at the squeak of the door the faithful early morning visitors would scamper up the porch steps, begging alms. A grey mother squirrel and her fuzzy babies, adorable in their tameness, but untouchable with their razor-sharp teeth. They, like us, preferred having their walnuts hammered open. Being quite sociable, we'd all munch together.
The basement, just made for kids! Closing my eyes I can still envision and smell Gram's private retreat. It had interesting odors: fried fish, stale oils, musty papers. Gram did most of her cooking there on an old black stove.
This stove was not even distantly related to the patiently polished newfangled gas stove upstairs - swirlingly offering fascinating blue flames to tempt us to touch. That stove was reserved only for impressing "company" or for hungrily scorching toasted marshmallows.
I recall one time when my Sis used it to make scrambled eggs with lots of garlic - yechhhh!
The basement stove was a hard-working monstrosity that consumed firewood, looming impressively, humbling little girls who were much too curious. No sissy, this cooker. Never without its crusted black iron kettle. This kettle was never washed, but it was thoroughly wiped clean after every emptying. You couldn't use soap or you would have to re-season it. This used-for-everything pot always held something aromatically cooking inside. Never really scrubbed, it accumulated seasonings contributing to Gram's culinary masterpieces that Schilling would have envied!
Perched loftily at the halfway point on the basement steps, I would sing to Gram and survey her hideaway. To my left were the great metal double sinks, used for squeak-cleaning dishes, scrub-boarding extremely soiled laundry, bathing mud-encrusted squirming grandkids.
A brand new Easy wringer washer proudly, awaited Gram's instructions. I believe it existed to eat buttons. An old iron mangle sulked nearby, depressed, wanting something, any old thing to mangle. Not ME! Horror stories of crushed arms kept me respectfully wary.
A rope clothesline stretched from overhead beams, for the not so sunny days Cleveland experienced. I loved best the outside clotheslines. Fresh air and sunshine! How wonderful it was to unplug the clothes, stretching on tiptoes, singing or squawking with the scolding Blue Jays! Unfortunately, when the clothes hung in Gram's basement, the cooking odors, the fishy smells, the mildewy unpleasantness would permeate our clothes.
There was even a partitioned off bathroom area. No tub, no sink, just one vital necessity. I recall two gargantuan concrete posts, supports for the house. My childish chubby arms were never able to reach around them. One was for the stove, but the other was free-standing. This post was my chiefest joy. I would run mindlessly and breathlessly around and around it, whirling insanely until I would plop to the foor in happy, dizzy confusion.
Soon, fully recovered from my twirling exhertions, my raging curiousity asserted itself and I would embark on a grand tour. Nearing the too cold pantry, I would pause at a lovely piece of sadly ignored furniture. Antique collectors today would covet it. A wonderful mirrored hall tree with a lift up storage seat and hooks for hanging hats and umbrellas and "whatevers". It would be dreadfully expensive today, but then it was just "an old piece of junk" to ever-practical Gram. She kept it in the corner of the basement for storage.
Atop that seat were old yellowed smelly newspapers, stacked halfway up that lovely dusty beveled mirror. If I was brave enough to confront busily spinning spiders who crankily objected to my disturbing their important labors, I would grudgingly stack those horrid newspapers on that cold stone floor.I would have my reward: buried treasures under that lid. Fragile wisps of lace blouses, worn quite fashionably when Gram was a happy, pretty lady in Budapest.
Returning the old rotting newpapers to their spider denizens, I would brace myself for the chilly joys of Gram's glory-filled pantry. Ignoring any mysterious scurrying scrabbling sounds - feather duster lifted high to protect against hanging, jumping or otherwise menacing bugs that questioned my intrusion.
The heavily laden wooden shelves were filled with bright jewels: preserves, big mason jars filled - minus junebugs. Filled laboriously and lovingly - "put ups" for the long bitter Ohio winters. Teensy wee little corncobs, yellow waxy beans, snapping beans, cloudy briney pickles, tomatoes, fruit salads, peach and plum preserves, mint jellies. I was fondest of her overly sugared strawberry preserves. Often a cracked jar would be spotted with sticky stuff oozing from it, inciting those little unseen scurrying things.
Hurrying out of the pantry - due more to the chill than from a true desire to stop inspecting those colorful gloriousities - I would make my way along the next side wall. Stacks of old yellowing magazines and dustiest old books would greet me. I loved to look at the pictures, and would have sat absorbed for hours, but I hated the bugs that also liked the books. Spiders. Ugh. I felt that if you killed a spider, its entire creepy crawly family would seek you out for revenge (I still feel that way).
I would then come to the extra "put away" furniture area. This was wonderful. Some people store furniture way too carefully, with white sheets tossed protectively over them. You know the type - furniture too good to just give away, but not quite as fancy or modern as the company set upstairs. I have known people to store odd pieces haphazardly, but not Gram. She created a cozy apartment in close proximity to that huge hot stove.
A big brown saggy-springed couch awaited tired little girls. My beautiful Mom would, at Gram's insistence, park herself contentedly on that welcoming sofa, presenting a most inviting and comfortable lap to a worn out explorer.
My big sister, always more energetic and industrious and helpful than her lazy baby sister - would busy herself joyously and importantly as Gram's big helper girl. I, after my exciting rounds, would head straight for that old sofa and Mommy's cushy tummy. I would lay, head in her lap, listening to the interesting growls emanating from her tummy.
Mom's hungry stomach was very much attuned to the wonderful aromas emanating from that huge old black cast-iron kettle, and, as embarassed as she was by her nether gurglings, I was enthralled! That was my favorite part of Mommy, when I felt the closest to her - as she stroked my hair and spoke softly to me. Even now, at moments when I feel unloved, my heart yearns for Mom, and I just want to put my head back on her tummy and be caressed out of all my self pity.
There was a sturdy oversized table to the right of that blackened old stove, with a great many mismatched colorfully painted wooden chairs. Worn, splintered, never polished - but greatly used and loved. My big responsibility was to gather up a thick stack of not too old newspapers, kept just for this purpose, and place them in a neat pile on the center of the table. I had to precariously balance on a chair to do it, but the chairs were sturdy enough for chicken-hearted wobbly me.
Wrestling that crusted cauldron from that fire-breathing stove, thickly mitted against the incredible heat, Gram would strongarm it over the newspapers I had so proudly stacked. Sticking a soup bowl sized fat white ladle into it, she would call us all to the table and we would feast! You had to move quickly. A house filled with hungry people - her cooking reached upstairs with tantalizing aromas. We were all hungry bears reaching for that ladle, and politeness soon fled. After all, we were family.
Gram was a black market shopper - able to purchase real sweet butter and fine cuts of meat during the war years. Her recipes cannot be duplicated without sweet, freshly churned butter. Or perhaps it was that most interestingly seasoned, fire blackened old pot?
Years pass too swiftly - dreams keep memories alive. I still, in my night visions, seek for that buried treasure in Gram's attic. Gram, the squirrels, Grandpa, the junebugs - all maintained firmily in the corner of my heart that perhaps holds that buried treasure after all.
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An enchanting tale told with a hypnotic poetic force. Outstanding!
Judith, I really don't know what to say after reading this wonderful story. Your reminiscing took me to your Gram's house and I honestly felt as though I was there. Your attention to detail and delightful way of retelling even the most ordinary of things, made the whole family come alive. Then, throughout it all, was what I assume is your naturally effervescent personality bubbling up and over. A truly delightful read. With love, Deb