Sometimes when I smell coffee brewing, I’m transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen. I see the steam condensing on the window pane and feel the warmth of the old gas stove.
The coffee is ready for me, and I get the first cup. It’s a family tradition. My grandmother greets me with a hug. She gets smaller with every visit. And frailer. Yet, there is strength and courage that belie the small stature.
Besides giving me coffee, Grandma offers me all the food in the house. Was I hungry? No? Well, how about a cookie? Ice cream? A piece of good chocolate? Well, how about a sandwich? There is chipped ham, baked ham, braunschweiger, swiss and American cheese? No? I didn’t want anything but coffee?
My grandmother almost lived in the kitchen. I remember the ritual of homemade noodles laying in thick, long, doughy strands on the flour-dusted kitchen table, ingredients in a thick and savory chicken soup. Cookies and pies for Christmas. Mincemeat and lemon meringue for Pappap, and a wide variety for the rest of us.
The dining room table was the centerpiece of the room. A lovely wooden piece of furniture, it seemed to hold a position of veneration in the family. We kids liked to play underneath it, but didn’t dare mark it up for all our lives were worth. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, it would be opened and stretched out to its full capacity to hold all family members cordially. (The children were often relegated to card tables simply because there were so many of us.) Grandma would serve turkey with all the works. Food was always a great part of every family get-together.
Grandma had a playful nature that was most evident in her bright blue eyes. Early photographs of her feature a mischievous, lively child with long golden curls decked by a tremendous bow. With a face glowing with merriment, she stood in contrast to her demure older sister Erma and her staid mother Bertha Eiselt Storm. She wanted to be a comedienne, but this provoked violent protests from her reserved and proper older brothers. Instead, she worked for a time at Phoenix Glass and then eloped with my grandfather to Wellsboro, West Virginia where they were married on Valentine’s Day. My grandmother was 17.
The part of Europe where my grandmother’s family came from has been known by many names through history: Austria, Bohemia, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic. Her father was from Tetchen, now known as Děčin, and her mother’s family were in the glass business in Steinschoenau, now known as Kaminecky Senov, a town world-renown for its glass.
August Storm, an artist and glass decorator, was married to Bertha Eiselt, the daughter of the owner of a glass factory in Steinschoenau, and they had two sons – Alfred and Richard. At the urging of his friend, Joseph Zinke, August was convinced to emigrate to America, where the Phoenix Glassworks Company was seeking help.
Two daughters were born to August and Bertha in America: Erma and my grandmother Flora. All four children inherited their father’s artistic nature. Alfred and Richard were musicians active in the community band. August and Bertha returned to Steinschoenau several times to deal with business matters, and Flora, 13 and 16, accompanied them on two visits. In the post-war years, Germany suffered much want and deprivation, and August and Flora met with resentment from kinfolk who believed that German-Americans should not have fought against them in World War I. Nonetheless, Bertha had plans of marrying Flora to a wealthy man over there, but Flora had other ideas.
Only 17 when she married my grandfather, she was only 18 when she had her first child and then lost him to infant cholera at the age of 10 months. Baby Herman, or “Sonny Boy,” as Grandma would henceforth ever call him, was followed by four daughters. In his heart, Pappap wanted a son, and Grandma’s last child, a boy, was born 17 years after Sonny Boy’s death. Despite my grandfather’s longing for a son, he and my grandmother cherished all their children, although I could always sense their grief for their first child, born and lost when they were both so young.
My maternal grandparents were indulgent parents, and not nearly as strict as my paternal grandparents, as my mother’s naturally biased comparisons informed me. The children always came first with my maternal grandparents; in my father’s family, children were subservient to grownups and “knew their place.”
Grandma and Pappap didn’t have much to give each child at Christmas, but they made certain that the day was magical for them. My grandmother gave her daughters’ dolls a cleaning and then dressed them up for presentation under the Christmas tree. She continued to enjoy dolls, and I had fun sharing this passion with her when I was an adult collector. She dressed one of my collectible china dolls, but the doll memory that says the most about her was her last birthday gift to me, given a month early because she couldn’t wait until my birthday.
My Grandma’s artistic streak extended beyond dressing dolls, cooking delicious meals, and keeping an immaculate home. When she had a spare moment, she would sit down beside a grandchild at the kitchen table and share a coloring book. (There were always coloring books, crayons, and toys for us grandkids on the bottom shelves of the dining room closet.) She would then turn the black and white page into a glory of color. Nobody could color like my Grandma!
When my mother went to the hospital to have Jim, we three older children were sent off to stay at Grandma’s, where I, age 9, spent the next five days teasing my kid brothers and throwing a brightly colored rubber ball high up in the sky while playing in my grandfather’s garden. I got under Grandma’s skin once or twice, especially when my 2-year old brother Bob pushed over a planter because I had been pestering him. I had reason to be happy that Grandma didn’t tell my mother about it later.
I was one of “Grandma’s girls,” and I could count on that cup of coffee every visit and a baked chicken dinner after church each Sunday. I never offered to clean up or help with the dishes. I never asked her to tell me more about the distant family in Steinschoenau, although she had pictures and postcards of that “beautiful stone” that had given the town its name. Instead, I kept in the present, certain that I was loved, watching as the years caught up with a woman who was only in her mid-40s when I was born. In 1977, an unusual oral cancer had her in the hospital, where they gave her three more years to live. Instead, she had eight more years, and it was heart and diabetes, not cancer, that killed her in 1985.
As I drove back home from Maryland the day after her death, the man on the radio said it was the 300th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s birth. I found significance in that and solace and unity in the song “We Are the World,” which was a hit at the time. For me, the world had changed.
When I got to my parents’ home that afternoon and took a much needed nap on my parents’ bed, I felt my mother’s hand tenderly touch my shoulder. Now I reflect that she was the same age when her mother died as I was when she died, and I wonder whether another woman in her 50s might be mourning me in another 15 years or so.
Now that I am old, I want to talk with my Grandma about the past. That opportunity was offered, but I was young and lived in the present and future.
Perhaps there is a place somewhere where time is erased and life and death mean nothing. Perhaps that is where we will revisit our loved ones.