Saturday, April 3, 2010

More Memories

Perhaps my nostalgia was stirred by a friend or two, perhaps by the season, either way I have found myself remembering things lately that had been tucked deeply into my memory banks.  My Grandma Balkovec, whom I called Gram, has been chief  among my remembrances. 

My Gram lived on the same street as I did, only six house away.  When I was very young, my grandparents lived there with three of their six children.  It was a refuge for me. Although I don't remember much interaction with my Pap-Pap, I remember lots of time spent in the company of Gram, especially in her kitchen.  The fact that three of her adult unmarried kids lived in the house with Gram and Pap-Pap gave me some sense, I think, of what a family really was. I was born when Gram's two youngest daughters, Rose Marie and Mary E, were  sixteen and thirteen respectively.  These were my Daddy's baby sisters. A third sibling, my Uncle Joe E, was an older, unmarried brother, my grandparents second child. 

Their house was small, but it was theirs. It consisted of a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, with three bedrooms on the second floor, along with a bathroom. I'm really not sure where they put six kids when their three boys and three girls were growing up. Two of the bedrooms were average sized, but one was very tiny.  By the time that I remember, in the mid 1950s, my two Aunts shared the front room, my Uncle Joe E had the tiny room and Gram and Pap-Pap had the sunny back bedroom. I loved those times when I got to stay overnight and sleep in my Aunts' room.  I remember the sound of Uncle Joe E's clock radio going off in the morning and hearing the strains of "Yellow Bird" coming from his room. 

Gram was a caretaker, in that she took care of her family. She cooked, she cleaned, she did laundry, she ironed. She cared for others in addition to her family, too. I remember her cooking lunches for the School Sisters of Notre Dame for many years. Their convent was across the street and they taught at the elementary school which was also across the street. I remember Gram spending a lot of time in her compact kitchen.  She always had yummy smells emanating from there. Roast with gravy and mashed potatoes, apple strudel, stuffed cabbage, potica, kielbasa, even liver and onions, all delicious aromas. Except for those times when she was preparing an item my Pap-Pap liked called, rather ominously, blood pudding.  On days when that was cooking, I wrinkled my nose at the smell. 

One of the best scents came only twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter.  These were the times when she made homemade Potica.  This delicious yeast bread was made with an incredible walnut, honey, butter, sugar and milk filling. There may have been a "secret ingredient", as well.  The bread was rolled to the perfect depth (which I have never been able to master) and spread with just the right amount of filling, then rolled and placed into a large snail shape in Gram's largest roasting pan.  The smell was like heaven's own bakery while it cooked. I marvel at her ability to mix and knead and punch the dough for this incredible bread and to spend an entire day making it.  Especially, when I think of how her hands and back must have ached with the effort, considering her arthritis. And I don't think she made just one large loaf, although I can't say for certain, but I remember there always being plenty to share.  And I never remember her complaining.

Grandma was a short woman, as I remember her; perhaps five feet tall.  She was plump, but not really fat.  She had a warm smile.  And although there was often tension between my Mom and folks in my Dad's family, my Grandma never said a harsh word within my hearing about my Mom, or anyone else, for that matter. She was a woman of faith and lived her faith in her day to day life. She prayed. She had an Infant of Prague statue in the living room.  She was kind.  She gave Grandma hugs.  She called my Grandfather, "Joe", in a voice that conveyed love.  When my Aunt sang "The Shrimp Boat Song" and teased me by looking out the window and telling me the shrimp boats were coming, Gram would always tell her, "Mary E, stop scaring the poor child."  I had no idea what a shrimp boat was, but it terrified me that one was coming!  

I remember such random things, but I can't remember the color of her eyes, which makes me sad.

I never knew how she and my Grandfather met. I never knew how they ended up in Lawrenceville, or came to live at 216 57th Street, or how they survived the depression, or  even the correct spelling of her maiden name.  I never asked where her parents came from, or who her Aunts and Uncles were. I never asked her to teach me to speak Slovenian, which was the language she and my Pap-Pap often used to speak to one another.  I wish I had been more interested in her life when I had her here. Some things I've learned about her include that she was born in Ontario, Canada.  According to census records, she came to the United States when she was an infant.  But, Ontario is a huge province and I have no clue where exactly, she was born. I do know that her Dad went to Ontario to work as a logger.  But, that's a story for another time.

I remember such randomness as the fact that Gram ironed sheets and socks.  She grew flowers in the high backyard that looked down into the cement yard outside her kitchen.  To this day, when I see snow-in-summer creeping over a wall, I think of Gram.


I remember there was a prayer book that I really wanted after attending a retreat, and Gram gave me the money for it.  I recall the night she died.  I was standing at the top of the stairs when Joe E came to tell my Dad, "Mom died."  It was December 19, early in the evening and she had been wrapping Christmas presents, when she told my Pap-Pap that she was going to go lie down for a little while. When someone went to check on her after a couple of hours, she was dead. I remember thinking for many years that that was the best way to die.

I remember a few days after her funeral, as I was heading to the neighborhood store, popping my head in the door of her house and yelling, "Gram", before it hit me that she was no longer there.  Old habits are hard to break.  It was always my habit to stop and yell, "Gram, do you need anything from the store?" when I was going for my Mom.  I remember that Gram's house stopped feeling as warm and welcoming after her death.  By then, one of my Aunts was married, but one Aunt, Uncle Joe E and Pap-Pap continued to live together. It wasn't long, I think until my other Aunt also married, leaving just Pap-Pap and Uncle Joe E in the house. Although, my chronology may be off, since my memories don't lend themselves to such details.  I do know that was when their house really stopped being a place where I felt welcomed and loved. And, although my grandfather may have loved me, he was not of a generation that made such pronouncements. So, I drifted away from my Dad's family.  

Grandma, my Gram, was the soul of that family.  When she was gone, I think the family lost it's heart; lost the ability to function from a place of faith and love and nurturing.

I had hoped to post a picture of Gram with this remembrance, but I don't have one.  When I do manage to get one, I will be proud to display my Gram, Rose Balkovec, for all to see.  Until then, know that she had kind eyes and a warm smile and that she loved and was loved.