On New Year’s Day, 2008, I walked into the upstairs bathroom and found my beloved babcia having a stroke on the floor. It was the worst day of my life and I will never forget holding her body, taken hostage by a blood clot in the brain, while i sang our favorite Polish song. It took the paramedics an eternity to get to the house and while I rode in the ambulance I felt as if the world was closing in on me and life would never be the same again.
It has been almost six months since that terrible day. My dear grandmother is home with us, but there is a large part of her missing. She is a fighter though. She survived WWII in Poland. In her early thirties she became a widow and bravely raised three small children in a poor village, working three jobs to sustain her family. She taught me my multiplication tables, how to make the best Polish soups ever and that hard work can mean you love someone just as much as hugs and kisses.
I love this woman with everything that I have. Below is an excerpt from a book I am writing on growing up Polish-American. I wrote the passage long before her stroke and I am so glad that I did. It is a reminder of the woman that existed before this medical tragedy. And I don’t ever want to forget that woman.
I can smell the food before it reaches the door. I have the best grandmother ever. She taught me my multiplication tables, how to crotchet, and that little old Polish ladies can still catch you if they want to spank you bad enough. She is an amazing cook, and I have long ago stopped trying to recreate her meals. I mean, she can make a birthday cake out of a potato. And it tastes amazing. You don’t even care that you are eating a potato birthday cake, it is that good. Maybe when I am wrinkly and have developed cataracts, maybe that’s when my cooking will taste more like hers. Maybe that’s God’s little way of making up for the fact that getting old stinks; he gives grandmothers special magical cooking powers once they reach 60.
She makes culinary masterpieces for snack time. She brings ten Tupperware dishes to the park so my children will not get faint from hunger. I bring home groceries in paper bags not because I care about the environment, but because I do not want her to see my contraband purchases: mac n cheese, chicken nuggets, canned soup. Every other morning I boil an entire chicken in a pot so that it smells like I am hard at work, slaving over the stove, while really I sit and check email, one ear open for the barely audible sound of her slippers on the carpeted stairs. I love her, but she scares me. I learned long ago not to underestimate her steely, opinionated glares.
But today her cooking serves another purpose. She shows up at my door with mashed potatoes wrapped in gauze. It smells so good and looks really gross and I am at once very curious and disgusted. She brushes past me, looking for monchichi, who has been suffering from a slight cold and cough. I am so glad I just got done smearing the pillows with Vicks. I can see grandma’s approval as she wiffs in the strong smell of menthol, eyes watering either from the overpowering vapors or the joy at the possibility that I may in fact be taking care of her great-grandson properly. She lifts monchichi’s shirt, which is a feat in itself, and slaps that potato gauze right on his back, securing it with more gauze until he looks like he was in a car accident and smells like thanksgiving dinner. I am too stunned to intervene, and I watch as she wipes off the extra mashed potatoes oozing out from underneath his shirt. I don’t know if I should laugh, cry, or eat the leftovers. She will be back in the morning, she informs me, with fresh potatoes and gauze.
I sleep terribly that night, obsessing about my son being eaten alive by a swarm of hungry ants or hobos, and when morning comes I am relieved that he is intact, though the stale smell of potatoes and Vicks coming from his chest makes it hard to embrace him without getting sick. I peel off his clothes and the gauze and stick him in the bath, scrubbing him down, realizing that I haven’t heard him cough yet. There is a knock on my door and grandma is back with mashed potatoes for monchichi and chamomile tea for me.
To drink, of course.
The jar of sauerkraut is for the cramp in my hip.