500 words of memory, take 2
April 04, 2005
Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my grandmother Alice's death -- on the Gregorian calendar, anyway. (On the Hebrew calendar her yarzheit is 3 Nisan, which falls on April 12th this year; I'll say kaddish in her memory this upcoming Shabbat.) It seems strange to see her first name on the screen. Of course I always knew her name was Alice, but along with everyone else I called her "Lali," a Czech pet name, because Lali was born and reared in Prague. Though she married a handsome Russian doctor with an American birth certificate, I doubt she ever imagined that they would emigrate. Hitler's inexorable march towards Prague settled that, though, and they sailed for America in 1939.
The decades that followed are like legend to me. They lived in New York, Alexandria, McKinney. Once they lived in an old VA hospital where their children roller-skated in the long hospital corridors. Once, on a road trip to New York, my aunt and uncle were making such a commotion fighting that they distracted my grandfather into forgetting Lali at a gas station! By the time I entered the picture, Lali and Eppie lived in San Antonio, my childhood hometown.
Lali indulged me, as grandmothers so often do. She made chewy oatmeal-raisin cookies, and fudge that sparkled with yellow raisins. (That her fudge recipe was the one on the back of the marshmallow fluff jar didn't detract from its deliciousness one bit.) She let me eat cocoa puffs for breakfast. She applauded when I used up her entire roll of aluminum foil making pretend knight's armor, and let me play dress-up with her many beautiful silk scarves. She played me records on the big cabinet Victrola. In her eyes I was wonderful.
In 1993 we took a family trip to the Czech Republic. It was the last big trip my grandparents would take; already they were beginning to be disoriented by the rigors of travel. Still, I walked the cobbles of Wenceslas Square with them; we peered up at the window of the Prague flat where they lived with my mother so long ago; we ate Czech foods, zely and knedliky cut with string and, one night at a cottage outside Karlovy Vary, cold vodka and wild mushroom soup. I remember the woodsmoke, that night, and the strains of "Cherveny Shottischku," the one Czech folk song I grew up knowing (though today I can only sing the first line.) We returned to the castle in Cesky Krumlov where they had gone on their honeymoon so many years before. I think I knew even then that the trip was an ending, one last chance for them to return.
We hired an oral historian to interview my grandparents, so four hours of Lali's stories have been preserved. I listen to them on my computer now, in my iTunes library (what would have have made of my iPod, I wonder?) and find it hard to believe that she's ten years gone.