FEATURED ON MEDIUM.COM by Carole P. Roman
The Lost Art of Storytelling
My Grandmother Kept the Past Alive
Graduation picture of my grandmother when she received her teaching degree in Europe.
My grandmother lived with us. Personally, I think it was the other way around, and we lived with her. She was the heart and soul of our home.
My mom worked with my dad in their hardware store and Bobbie, as we called her, ran the house. She was up early in the morning making breakfast, preparing our lunches, and helping us get ready for school.
Bobbie was always old, I think. She was proud of the fact she was born in the century before mine, in the year 1898. Her father died when she was three, and she had a gothic upbringing. Her mother, my great-grandmother worked as a cook in a college, probably one of the only respectable professions open to women in Austria-Hungary, pre-World War I. All three children were farmed out to relatives while she worked to support them.
I know her mother, my great-great-grandmother, ran an inn. Seems I am descended from a long line of working women. I like to believe my work ethic is in tattooed in our DNA.
My grandmother became a teacher and traveled to this country when Calvin Coolidge was president, marrying my grandfather, a widower with two kids under five, in an arranged marriage.
Obviously, she couldn’t teach in the states; she didn’t know English well. By the time, I was born, she spoke perfect English. She regularly beat the pants off me at Scrabble and loved to gloat that she only had two weeks of night school.
Long story short, she ended up buying a candy store in Newark, ran numbers for the infamous Dutch Schultz (my mom was almost born in Newark jail- Dutch bailed her out just in time.)
Widowed, the year my mom got married, my parents moved in with my grandmother so my mom would not be alone as my dad traveled the country earning a living. He was a traveling salesman- but that’s another story in itself.
My earliest memories of life are my grandmother singing as she cooked, holding up a dripping wooden spoon and stopping to tell us one of her stories.
Bobbie was filled with stories. She remembered everything from her life in Europe with a crystal clarity. Fascinated, I would hang on her every word as she told the recounting of my great-great-grandfather being forcibly conscripted at the age of twelve by an edict of Tzar Nicolas I, in or about 1825. He would serve a mandatory 30-year enlistment as a cook, marrying my great-great grandmother when he was in his forties, and she was a teen in an arranged marriage. They went on to have fourteen children.
She talked about her father who died of tuberculosis leaving three children and my great-grandmother pregnant with a fourth.
She told horrific stories of the war, that first World War that shook her world. She whispered of how her grandmother hid her from the invading Russians, saving her from being raped. She remembered trench warfare, smoke, and gunfire. While they grew certain foods, had eggs from the chickens they kept, she talked of the deprivations, the utter destruction of her home during the catastrophic war.
Most of my cousins groaned when she said, “Did I ever tell you about the time…”
She did, and often. Her stories, as she called them woke my imagination and I didn’t mind. They never changed, she stayed faithful to her truth, and I knew most of them by heart.
Her stories were not parables to learn lessons. They never seemed to have a beginning or end. She did not boast about her accomplishments, other than learning English. They were recollections of her experiences, her life, and the people she loved.
Most of the time, I think her stories were to keep the memory of those she lost alive, or a way of life that dissolved in her new home. They were poor people, and I can’t imagine what my great-grandmother was thinking when she sent her eldest daughter to America, never to see her again. My eyes sting with the thought.
Herman, her brother, was shot in the head for his horse during the second world war. Malka, her little sister, died from breast cancer. My great-grandmother disappeared behind the iron curtain post-WW II, to die in a nursing home, alone. To her eternal regret, my grandmother could never get her out. Any nieces or nephews that lived in their small town perish the inferno of the second world war.
I think my love of history was born listening to my grandmother. She kept the past vibrant, her detailed observations and anecdotes creating a panoramic view of the past no cinema could replicate. She ignited the fire in me to read as much as I could as if to verify what she told me. When learning in school, the lessons jumped from the pages to my imagination coming together giving the past definition and understanding.
I loved her company, and often, when we sat together toward the end of her life, I’d beg her for another story. She’d say, “What are you going to do when I’m gone?”
“Miss you,” I’d respond. And you know what, I do with all my heart.
My favorite snap of my grandmother in her apron, as she cooked.