I just wrote this last week to share at for the Literary Luncheon we have during the Summer Institute at our local Writing Project site. It has not been workshopped at all, and I’m too emotionally connected to it to do so objectively. That said, I had to get it out there. It brought about many memories and was therapeutic to write. Feedback welcome.
There’s a sleepy little town in Illinois by the name of St. David. Labeling it little is generous and to research it is in vain. The few facts you find are quite dismal. Population: 587. Streets: 15. Banks: 1. Stoplights: 0. But as numbers tend to go, these don’t tell the whole story. Amongst those 15 streets sits a home on West Burlington Avenue constructed by the calloused hands and faulty heart of a man I never knew, my grandfather. A heart that would leave him as cold as the winter’s day on which he passed. On that day my grandmother rounded the kitchen corner, delivering warm coffee to his side. As she looked upon him teardrops and broken glass shattered against the floor simultaneously. The scalding coffee spewed forth, but the burns were never felt. At least not externally. Shoveling snow had stopped the old man’s heart, and in the time it took him to walk through the door, ask for a fresh cup of joe, and lie down on the couch he was gone. My grandma, filling his cup only feet away, as he took his last breaths. This memory, this kitchen would torture my grandma for the rest of her life. But, leave the home? No way. He had built this house for her, for them. She would care for it as he intended, keeping her promise to the man she would always love.
But this version of grandma’s kitchen was not the one that I knew. The grandma’s kitchen I knew was a long, skinny one where rumps and elbows bumped with haphazard turns. One that left the back door slamming on hot summer days between potty breaks and popsicle pilfering. One that used a wooden spoon to hold up a window pane or swat a misbehaving child on their backside. One that had a flyswatter on that same window sill where my grandma took no mercy on these buzzing passers-by. She considered swatting flies an Olympic sport, one in which she always took the gold. Legend has it those silver-winged insects didn’t even have to land. As soon as they were in her line of sight, the flick of her wrist sent the swatter wasping through the air and they were as good as gone. She never needed a second shot; her aim was impeccable.
The times were simpler then, or at least I think they were. The more I learn the more I wonder if anything has ever really been simple. But those moments in the kitchen seemed to be. Milk, eggs, flour, water, and salt were the only food staples grandma needed to satisfy the grumbling tummies of her grandchildren. When flour clouded the air above the counters we’d quickly scamper in knowing that kerpicas were on the menu. These Croatian egg noodles came to our dinner table through my great-grandparents, Antonia and Joseph, who traveled to America in the early 1900’s from Yugoslavia. Their travels landed them in Painesdale, Michigan, a copper mining town that began as a tent town in 1899. While there they would grow their family by 8 children, one being my Grandma Josie–the only grandparent I ever knew. She was a hard broad, a Croatian curser who had no time for pishitca (bullshit). After living through the Great Depression and the rations of World War II, my grandmother was also crafty and thrifty all at once. She refused to let anything go to waste and knew how to make something from nothing. A satisfying meal made from basic goods–well, that was all she really knew. By the time the flour settled we were there to help break the eggs, add the milk, whisk, knead, and cut the noodles to make a plentiful pot. Sprinkle in a little salt, melt some butter on top, and feast. We gathered around this simple fare time after time, enjoying it all the more because we were a part in making it.
The kitchen I knew was one where the wooden, round table we sat to eat was also where we played card games, read newspaper comics, and on occasion, would find my grandmother sitting alone, staring off in a distant gaze. I imagine now she was recalling back that fateful day and wishing in so many ways it could have been different, that he didn’t have to miss so much. I hope in some way our girlish giggles and silly shenanigans eased the pain, paving the way for happier memories. She always said we were full of pee and vinegar, and that we were. In return, I hope she knows how many happy memories she created for us. She now rests beside my grandfather once again, and would be beyond proud that her noodles have stood the test of time, still satisfying appetites of those gathered together today.