Grandmother’s Language of Love

Grandmother’s Language of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

Grandmother’s Language of Love

A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.

Henrik Ibsen

I didn’t speak Polish and she didn’t speak English, but we both spoke love. That’s how I remember my grandmother, especially during one holiday a long time ago. On a very cold Christmas Eve in a Polish neighborhood in Detroit, I opened the door to my grandmother’s house and ran right into her arms.

“Busha,” I called, smiling with my whole body, delighted to see her.

She hugged me, then placed her soft hands on both sides of my face. Cupping my cheeks gently, she spoke lovingly to me with her eyes. Grandmother’s face was inches from mine, and I loved looking into her beautiful eighty-year-old eyes—those eyes that said so much.

Bending over, she kissed my forehead. I stretched my six-year-old arms around her aproned front and inhaled her Christmas-cookie-dough smell. She motioned for me to hurry to the dining room. I fumbled around, trying to unbutton my scratchy wool coat with the silky lining. Grandmother came and helped me, then watched me stuff my earmuffs into a pocket and my hand muff inside the sleeve in the “don’t want to lose it” spot. I remember feeling so happy to have earmuffs and not to have to wear a babushka, that old-fashioned scarf. My grandmother pointed me to the bedroom, where I put my coat on the bed, already piled high with the coats of my cousins, aunts and uncles. She caressed my new dress, took my hand and smiled. She twirled me around to get a good look, then we snugly walked to the dining room to join my cousins. I hoped they too would notice my new dress and shoes. They, being mostly boys, didn’t notice. They were all sitting on the floor, impatiently waiting for my grandmother’s clocks to chime. I gave up my ladylike pose, shrugged, sat down and wiggled in next to the only cousin who had red hair just like mine. Grandmother left me and went to the kitchen to be with my aunts.

I tucked my black, shiny, patent-leather shoes with the pokey buckle underneath me and joined the wait. Grandmother collected all kinds of clocks. I never knew all the types, but there were a lot of them and I believed they were magical. The chiming would start with the deep sound of the tall grandfather clock with the gold pendulum, then the small sound of the table clock on the buffet, then the bong-bong-bong sound of the skinny grandfather clock. Sound from the other clocks moved all around the room. The chimes didn’t sound the same, but they all spoke “clock.” Each of them was very special and had come from Poland, just like my grandmother.

The last clocks finished chiming, signaling us to follow my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins to the kitchen, where they sat chattering and laughing in Polish. I looked around at some of the special things my grandmother did to create Christmas magic. She knew the language of love. There was the embroidered tablecloth draped across the table, the green smells-like-the-forest branches carefully placed all around the rooms, and the sound of the china clinking and the silverware clanging. My mom said, “All Grandmother’s china and silverware came from Poland, too.”

When the adults were ready, we began the oplatek ceremony. Grandmother motioned for me to stand up from the little bench I was sitting on and she gave me an oplatek, a wafer like the ones used in Communion in the Catholic Church. They had pictures of Baby Jesus, Blessed Mary and angels on them. My dad said that oplateks are known as the bread of love.

Grandmother started. Being the oldest, she held her oplatek out to me and I, the youngest, held mine out to her. She wished wonderful things for me. I know because my mother translated what she said. As Grandmother wished, she broke off my wafer—a small amount broken off for each wish. Then I wished my grandmother wonderful things. Again my mother translated, but this time in Polish. We put the broken wafers in our mouths and kissed. The ceremony continued throughout the family until my wafer was reduced to a crumb.

I loved all the kind things people wished. Sometimes it was all in Polish, sometimes in English and other times it was some kind of mixture of Polish and English. My aunt would wish, “Get good grades in school, stay healthy, and maybe you’ll get that bike.”

My mother would say, “Be good and we can talk about that puppy.”

So many wonderful wishes—except for my brother’s goofy wish, like, “I wish Trudy would get lots of toys for Christmas so she’ll leave mine alone.”

After the ceremony, my grandmother stacked my plate with dumplings filled with sauerkraut, cheese and potatoes called pierògies, cheese-filled crepes called nalesnikies, chruscikies—pastries sprinkled with powdered sugar—and apple strudel.

There were many other foods. Borscht, horseradish and sauerkraut were tasty, but I didn’t eat everything—the pickled herring and mushrooms were yucky.

My grandmother sat at the head of the table on the other side of the room. She smiled at me with her eyes, and I smiled back with mine. She knew how to hug across a room. I felt loved all over, in Polish and in English.

Later, I fell asleep on a little bench off in the corner of the warm kitchen. Grandmother reached down and gently touched my face. As I woke and stood up she looked at me lovingly, reached over and hugged me. As we were getting ready to leave for church, she helped me with my coat and earmuffs. I left my hand muff on the bed. I didn’t need it. She would keep me warm. I held her hand. She held my heart.

Trudy Reeder

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