Sunday, May 9, 2010

Grandmother's Day

My paternal grandparents, one of the last photos we have of them together in March 1975. We were celebrating my grandfather's 83rd birthday, & added candles for my grandmother's 68th, even though her birthday was months earlier.

Besides being Mother's Day, today marks 35 years since my paternal grandmother -- my Baba (the Ukrainian term) -- died at the far-too-young age of 68. Her name was Katy, & yes, our Katie was named (in part) after her.

I was just 14 when my grandmother died. I'm still not entirely sure whether she was killed by a heart attack or a stroke, but she had high blood pressure & struggled to control it. The last time we saw her, a few weeks earlier, she caught a ride with us from the farm into the city to for a dr's appointment.

Very early on the morning on May 9, 1975, the phone rang. I could hear my mother answer it as I lay in bed, just down the hallway from the telephone (I think we only had one in those days, attached to the kitchen wall). She gasped my aunt's name as she recognized the voice on the other end of the line -- & then paused & told my father the news that no one ever wants to hear, much less get rudely awakened by.

My dad called my uncle, choked out the words, hung up & then I heard a strange sound. It took me a horrified, frozen moment to realize that it was my father. Crying. I had never witnessed my father crying before & it was awful. Awful.

It was the first time that death & loss had touched my life so closely.

Baba married my much-older grandfather (Dido) in the 1920s, when he was a widower with three small children to raise. She raised them, as well as six of her own, and helped him run a farm that, in my childhood, included cows to milk, chickens to collect eggs from each day, hogs to feed, fields of sugar beets to hoe, and an absolutely enormous garden to tend. The shelves of the basement cold cellar were lined with jars of fruits & vegetables she'd raised & then canned or made into jams or pickles, & we rarely left the house without a couple of jars ourselves.

She had seven children, actually. My uncle had a twin sister who died as an infant -- scarlet fever, I think? My uncle also became sick, & the illness rendered him deaf & mute. Doctors recommended they institutionalize him, but she wouldn't hear of it, & kept him at home on the farm with the family. Her last child, my aunt, is 8 years younger than my father, born when Baba was 40.

I can never think of my Baba without some measure of guilt. I was always closer to my maternal grandparents, who lived just 20 miles away, & preferred to stay with them whenever we visited the area. I was one of more than 30 (!) grandchildren on my dad's side, & on most of our visits, the house was bursting with people, including hordes of noisy, chaotic cousins. On my mother's side, I was one of just four grandchildren, & it was a much calmer atmosphere where each of us got more individual attention.

There was also a language barrier that made communicating with my paternal grandparents difficult -- & they lived on a farm. It was a great place to explore & run around all day -- but staying there overnight without my parents -- as I did only a very few times -- was kind of scary. It was dark & eerily silent. Who knew what was lurking out there? -- or who? There was a native reservation nearby, & my cousins fed me (gullible me) tales of "wild Indians." Supplemented by Hollywood movies & TV shows, it was easy to let my imagination run wild. (I know, I know -- in my defense, it was the 1960s/early 1970s -- far less politically correct times -- & we were just kids.) The food she cooked -- borscht, perogies, holubtsi (cabbage rolls) -- smelled funny & I wouldn't eat it (and believe me, I could kick myself now, having come at last to appreciate all these dishes as an adult). (My dad now makes a mean borscht himself, using vegetables & dill that he grows in his own garden.)

But she was my grandmother, & I loved her. Even though she had many grandchildren -- & the house was rarely empty whenever we came to visit -- she had a knack of making me feel special. When I think of Baba, I see her first in the kitchen, cooking & washing dishes, the windows of the tiny little house running with steam. She gave us kids Tang to drink, Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, another kind of cookie called "ice cream wafers," and Neapolitan ice cream.

I see her watering her many houseplants. I remember helping her do it on one of the few nights I stayed there by myself with her & Dido, & counting almost 60 (!). And I see her tending to her garden. Whenever I actually manage to keep a plant alive or coax roses from the bush in my backyard, I find myself saying, "I guess I inherited some of Baba's genes after all."

There aren't a lot of photos of Baba, & this is the only one that I have here with me. I've always been told, & thought, that I looked like my mother's brother. But the older I get, the more I think I look like my Dad's older sister -- & a little like Baba too. I only have two things that were hers (& both are back at my parents' house) -- one being a statue of the Virgin Mary that I found on a shelf in the cold cellar & asked her if I could have it; the other being a brooch from her pink jewelry box. After her death, my aunts went through her pink jewelry box & picked out a piece for each of the girl cousins as a keepsake. Costume jewelry, all of it, but precious because it was hers. My youngest aunt has the actual box -- I recognized it in an instant when I stayed at her house one time as a teenager.

I had never been to a funeral before. I didn't want to go to this one. It was held at a little country Ukrainian church and it was packed to overflowing. My other grandparents agreed to stay outside with my sister & me. As the pallbearers carried my grandmother's casket from the church, my other grandmother wrapped her arms around me & held me tight, and we both sobbed together. "She was such a nice lady," I remember Grandma saying.

At 83, my grandfather had never expected to outlive my grandmother. For the second time in his long life, he buried his wife. And for at least two years afterward, every time we visited the curiously empty & silent house, he would be sitting in his easy chair, crying, his eyes red & puffy. It was a lesson in grief for me. My aunts tried to get him to buy a new suit for a cousin's wedding. "I'll be buried in this suit," he said.

Gradually, he started to perk up & even to smile again. As he got older, he didn't get around as well as he once did, but he got up & cooked himself porridge for breakfast every morning. He rolled his own cigarettes & always had a glass of rye whiskey with his dinner. He loved watching "General Hospital."

In his 90s, my aunts arranged for him to be brought to the local retirement home for activities (sort of a daycare program for seniors), thinking he might be persuaded to move there. "They're all OLD people there," he grumbled.

Eventually, he did get a new suit. He needed it, because he had lots of grandchildren's weddings to attend (including mine). He lived another 13 years, & died shortly after his 96th birthday.

I've written about my maternal grandparents before. Last week would have been Grandpa's 98th birthday; this week, Grandma would have been 96.

I miss them all.


  1. Beautiful tribute, Loribeth. How lucky you were to have four loving grandparents.

  2. Ms G took my words.. what a beautiful tribute. Loved reading about your big family, something I don't have. I miss my grandparents too even if I didn't get to see them as often when they were still alive... Glad you have those lovely memories.

  3. What a way you have of putting me right there with you as you tell the memories of your childhood. How sad that she left so early. She sounds remarkable.

  4. What a beautiful tribute to your grandparents. I love the way you told their story. It makes me think of my own relationship with my grandparents.

  5. Your stories always touch my heart.