Pass the Pierogis, Please.

Courtesy: R. Anscher

To experience the goodness of childhood through middle-aged eyes, to take a break from adulting and just get to be a kid again is a welcomed and sometimes needed escape.

Feeling drenched in joy during a stroll down Disneyland’s Main Street washed away the stress of cross country travel with young boys.

Watching Wonder Woman climb out of a fox hole and on to the battlefield left me invincible and ready to challenge any injustice.

And sitting nestled between the arms of a captain’s chair at my grandparent’s dining table snapping green beans and sneaking Italian chocolate dipped sprinkle cookies in earshot of my Gram as she masterfully labored over an anticipated holiday meal served in tight quarters to a dozen, boisterous relatives reaffirmed I was in the safest place in the world.

That wooden chair was a constant; as a young professional, newlywed and even a mom, always waiting on the edge of Gram’s small, square kitchen which opened into a dining area and an adjacent living room. Thick carpet, knitted afghans, framed needlepoint, family photographs and my Pop’s collection of electronic gadgets, projects and tools added to the cozy vibe. During the holidays, the air was warmer still thanks to a baking oven, charged discussions over football and war and shifting bodies in search of a seat.

When the meal was ready, generations crammed around the table in folding chairs, high chairs and stools. There was little room for lingering elephants. The trauma, addiction, abuse, divorce and rivalries that ran through my family’s veins were diluted by the pungent smell of eggplant, the sweet glaze of ribs and deep fried golden pierogis, Eastern European dumplings stuffed with potato and served with a side of sour cream. Holiday meals with Gram made each of us forget the rumblings in our world for a few hours. Unfortunately, after the pierogis ran out, the dysfunction remained.

Which is why, after she passed away a few years ago, holiday gatherings grew increasingly disjointed. Relatives branched off to do their own thing. My grandmother had been the glue holding the house together.

The week leading up to this Thanksgiving, I longed for a taste of childhood goodness. Really, I longed for my grandmother. I missed the lady who darted about her kitchen, supervising every boiling pot and baking pan. The butterfly who loved to gather with the women around the table and talk between basting, chops and stirs. The hostess who was happy to set an extra place or cook for a crowd. And the woman who helped me to feel connected and loved anytime I would have preferred to drift away.

This was definitely a drifting year. The heaviness in the world and the infected state of our country outside of my idyllic, suburban bubble compounded by typical life challenges and general parental angst has weighed on me. More than anything this Thanksgiving, I wished for my grandmother to drag me to shore, pull out a chair and hand me a bowl of unsnapped beans.

My husband, Mac suggested I fill the void by hosting a holiday meal for our entire extended family. I told him, “No.” I retired the art of pretend play after my grandmother died and have no desire to assume her role. The elephant figurines perched on my fireplace mantle are plenty enough. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to buy Polish dumplings.

Then he proposed we visit my aunt and uncle’s farm on Black Friday since my grandfather, mom and a few regulars from Thanksgivings past would be spending the weekend there. Of my grandparent’s three daughters, my aunt is most like my grandmother: even, generous and welcoming. Turns out, she and my uncle were happy to have us.

Acres of space but as cozy as a three room apartment, their farm oozed with the goodness of childhood. A place with chickens to feed, barns to explore, orchards to roam and a wood burning stove to warm up with, Bubbe and Skootch dripped with joy as they talked to the animals, circled the pond, played darts with cousins and marveled over the Sgt. Pepper album spinning on a record player. They raced their parents down a gravel road and climbed the barn’s ladders to the highest loft, leaping from bales of hay to the floor below like Spiderman on a mission. And sat with ease amongst relatives nibbling on eggplant parmesan, gravy soaked turkey, beef stew and yes, potato pierogis fresh off the skillet.

For a few hours, rumblings disappeared and hearts filled. On the farm, Gram’s spirit was very much alive.

This holiday season, I’m grateful to my aunt and uncle; for sharing their home with us, for contributing to the goodness of Bubbe and Skootch’s childhood and for throwing me a life preserver by simply pulling out a chair.

Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season!

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One, Lucky Granddaughter

Gram and me as a baby

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Two weeks ago, I lost my grandmother to cancer.  The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

When the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home, gathered my notebook, and made big plans to capture my grandmother’s talkative mood.

My mind raced with possibility; perhaps, as Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll or perhaps, as a member of her church’s quilting guild she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I got back to my grandmother’s bedside, she was already in a final sleep.  Weeks whittled to hours.  Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain free, and at home surrounded by loved ones.  Her last days, passing, and funeral were a fluid waltz.  Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I stretched my accordion memory file in search of tucked away treasures.  Two stepped forward; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.”  Sixteen was her forever age; the age at which she liked to see herself.

Pic of Gram sweet 16

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

More memories began to surface.  My notebook soon filled to form Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.

Definitely…

1.     Listen for understanding.  When conversing with others, don’t uh-huh, right, or yes them.  Take it all in.  Dot was everyone’s ear; mine included.

2.     Visit the sick.  My grandmother was not afraid to go into the fray.  She recognized that one’s comfort was more important than personal or situational anxiety.  The key to helping those failing feel alive, she recently told me, was to talk about old times.  Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3.     Create a warm and inviting home.  Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house.  Even as the family grew, her apartment was the place to be; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table.  A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4.     Keep an open door policy.  Dot always left an empty plate on the table.  Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends traipsed through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parm, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle.  No appointment needed.  Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them.

5.     Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest.  My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting and boy, could she work a room.  From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged.  In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology.  “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said.  It made her sad.

6.     Be a good time Charlie.  Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing.  Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

Gram in curlers

7.     Send cards.  I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark.  My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise.  Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.  Relatives can’t help but smile when they talk about Dot’s cards.

8.     Watch your television stories, but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant.  When my grandmother told Mac she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9.     Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility.  My grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties.  She loved to drive.  With a dashboard pat for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go.  As her housemate until age five, I don’t remember ever being home before supper.  But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10.   Forge ahead.  My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication.  Not once did she complain.

11.   Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever floats your boat.  My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as Homemaker.  More so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.  You name it, she did it because for her, the making of homes took a vested village.

12.    Say “I love you.”  Dot had a hard time doing this; showing love was easier.  The last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13.    Avoid self pity.  Dot was a Depression kid from a broken home who left school in the 10th grade.  These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14.    Communicate.  My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time.  “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised.  “Grudges are worthless.  Life is too short.”

15.    Keep the faith.  Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church; attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement.  She held fast to what spoke to her in this universe and at the end, wasn’t afraid to let go.

16.    Love well.  During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort.  At her funeral, it was no surprise to hear that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”  My grandmother left an imprint on the hearts of many because above all things, she valued love.

Three days before Dot’s death, The Skootch said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospice bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came; all too soon and all too suddenly it seems and I miss her.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine.  My grandmother was an exceptional lady who, during the era of her teenage crush, Frank Sinatra but long before Derek Jeter did things her way.

This way, her spirit, and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one, lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Gram and me wedding picture