"A Lonely Kitchen"
In memory of my grandmother.
I woke up again for the third or fourth time in my life to the news that someone close to me has given up on this life. My grandma just stopped breathing. To a certain extent, I do not want to contest her death – she was after all ninety-one but she was the ninety-one year old grandma who wanted to cook and wanted to wash dishes and do things; she went in the hospital with a ‘fractured’ hip therefore, not making it out of the hospital is almost too strange to accept.
I saw her a couple of days ago and she asked me:
“What world are we on?” (Perhaps the direct translation can not portray the moment but in my own language and the way she said it made me crack a smile.)
“What do you mean?” I did not know what to say . . . as of lately I had been talking ‘philosophy’ with her – a lot. She enjoyed talking about life. She watched TV with me almost every day, keeping company to her grandson who is heavily addicted to news. A commercial came on about some new Lexus model that parks itself. I laughed saying that she would be able to drive soon since cars do all the work. She laughed too.
“Everybody went crazy,” she said and continued, “. . . there are no more rules . . . like norms – everybody does what they want. There are prostitutes on TV.”
She was great! The prostitutes were a bunch of dancers in a music video and I began to tell her about mass media and the sheep that dig these ‘music videos’. I explained to her that all you need is some fancy quarter million dollar car, a few ‘prostitutes’ and some platinum chains, iced-out on a couple of guys and you got a music video – ohh ya and some weak beat will cut it. My grandma would sit and listen and exclaim:
“Why would anybody pay a cent for this?”
“This is what kids are ‘brought-up’ with - with music videos like this and with my PlayStation.”
She would shake her head at such unnecessary, non-educative things. She knew the ‘powers’ of my PlayStation. She did not quite understand how that plastic box would project a ‘movie’ on my TV in which I controlled the main character as in the case of Grand Theft Auto but she knew that it was possible. She understood that anything is possible.
She was the ‘make-it-possible’ type all her life, well almost all her life. She survived two World Wars and the latter she literally ‘survived’ it. She told me of a time when she was a young teacher, in the north-western part of the country and the Red Army began pushing the front back. The German and Romanian armies were taking heavy casualties and the Soviets were known to be just hours away from where she lived. She told me how she packed a suitcase and began running down the road to try to make it to the train station to head south to the capital to escape the main front of the war. People were hanging on the stairs of the trains but she made it. Escape she did, I mean we lost the war but she was never caught-up on the battlefield – she survived.
Perhaps even worst than the war stories was when her husband was held captive in Russian jails not knowing if he would be sent to the gulags in Siberia or not, were the stories she told me about the depression right after the war. She was in her thirties, in a war ravaged country; she witnessed the Iron Curtain drop. She lived in darkness many years . . . lamps with oil sitting on the table to illuminate the living-room and no heat. She soldiered on though. It’s crazy! She told me how she sent a student once with three million lei (the Romanian currency) to get two eggs or something – it was a bag full of money she said.
She was like the T-34, the Russian battle tank. There was no stopping in her all her life. There was no ‘no’ in her vocabulary. She worked as hard as a work-horse. Every year in my childhood I would see her at the ‘country house’ running all day. She raised chickens and pigs; she had land to ‘supervise’ and many plum and apple trees to water if the season was dry. She did not even have a hose or nothing – watering trees meant bringing bucket after bucket of water to each and every tree. Same for the potatoes and the small cornfield she had if rain did not come.
Her naps were about ten to fifteen minutes and sometime I would see her just laying on the side of the bed with her legs hanging off the side. She would not put her feet on the bed because her shoes would be still on. That was her nap – fifteen minutes laying down with her shoes on – ready to run at any moment. Wow! It’s like she was living the life of a fugitive only she never committed a crime in her life. She worked, worked and worked some more – tutoring kids for math lessons well in her seventies. She had to be productive at all times.
That is what bothered her the most in the last few years that her productivity level was very low. She knew things needed to be done in general. She was upset that she did not have an income beside her pension; she was upset that she could not help my sister with babysitting her kids and stuff like that. I could see that she would get angry when I would tell her that she had to leave the kitchen as to not get in my way. She helped me with the ‘prep’ before the actual cooking. She would peel all my vegetables and remind me not to put too much salt about ten to twenty times in a few hours then, she would literally linger around the kitchen to make sure nothing burns. Even when I would tell her that ‘the meat needs to boil for an hour or so’ she would still hang around the kitchen. I would leave for a while, go upstairs and return to the kitchen to find her there – standing beside the oven.
“Are you ‘defending’ the soup from some imaginary force that might mess with it? Why are you standing here like a sentinel tiring yourself for no reason?”
She would look at me and say nothing or tell me that she was just double-checking if the vegetables were boiled. She knew what needed to be done and she always wanted to get a move on it – whatever ‘it’ meant at that moment. She would make jam almost every other month. We got jams of all kinds downstairs: peach, sour cherries, plums, orange . . . whatever you want. I would joke around telling her that she does not need to hurry in the making of the jam because we did not open a store yet and our ‘inventory’ is growing too fast.
Her last years were getting tough and I am glad that I spent a lot of that time with her. She taught me so much about life in general in these last few years that I would need to write a book to tell it all. Her way of thinking and viewing the world was different but it also changed with time. From a very tough person scared of nothing, with a sense of selfishness for one’s own good, she became a fragile little lady who feared to walk outside and feared that she might fall as she would get up (which ultimately happened bringing her, her end). She became so compassionate too over the last several years – it shocked me. Her sense of selfishness (and not personal selfishness as much as a selfishness for the family – the family had to persevere!) vanished and she began talking about god and religion something she could not be bothered with in her ‘prime time’ – that would have been a waste of time – not productive, not good!
Her "famous" sentence was: “You have to do what you must not what you want.” We discussed this aspect many, many times. She made me understand that her life had been dictated and shaped by definite objectives such as having kids and a family, supporting that family and being able to encounter and overcome all sorts of obstacles which may have hindered the achievement of those objectives. I on the other hand explained to her that what is ‘good’ for her is not necessarily good for me and vice-versa. We talked about norms and how norms change. I reminded her that when she was in her twenties to be a woman teacher was something outside the norm. Most women in her time were simple housewives. She agreed.
“Things change so fast,” she would say to me as we were watching the bloodshed in Iraq displayed on TV.
She was tired of it. Her eyes would get tired by the TV after ten minutes of watching and look away. Would she look away because her eyes hurt, or did she look away because she saw too much? Seeing too much can be tiresome and she was really tired lately too. She would sleep and sleep and tell me that she was still tired. Then she would laugh and say that this was the ‘sleep of death’. She was waiting . . . almost impatiently.
“What purpose do I still have,” she would exclaim out of nowhere. I would smile and giggle.
“To talk to me and tell me all about the past, to write your memoirs ...” I would respond. She never did write her memoirs – they would have been really interesting if they existed . . . her memories on paper. She fascinated me in these last years. We talked so much about life and she changed so much as a person and in her way of thinking as her time to go came closer. Real wisdom does come with time. Knowledge can be acquired but wisdom only comes with time – my grandma was wise.
It is still very hard to understand how a ‘fractured hip’ results into complications where she has pneumonia and dies but whatever, she was tired. I bet she just did not want to struggle with this world. For some reason she was strong until the last ‘hundred meters’. Before her ‘fall’, two weeks ago I told her how we would soon be making cabbage rolls and baking sweetbread and all kinds of stuff for Christmas. Now I’ll be in the kitchen by myself but ultimately I could never forget her and I think in my mind she will always be ‘helping’ me in the kitchen and . . . in general.
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