Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Magyar Connection

It's a snowy, cold day here - one of those days when I feel like just staying in, hunkering down, and feeding my creative soul, or curling up with a good book in front of the fire. Alas, the "real world" requires my presence.

I've been thinking about my little Hungarian Grandmother a lot lately. Grandma Schumtzer was one of the sweetest, toughest women who ever lived. She was born out of wedlock in 1903 to a woman who, by all accounts, was a bit of a loose gal (Grandma spoke of a parade of 'uncles' throughout her childhood). Growing up, she had nothing and they lived the lives of peasants in Hungary. Quitting school at about age 9, she worked hard for the rest of her life.

In her early twenties, all by herself, Grandma came to the USA on a boat and entered the country through Ellis Island. She brought with her everything she owned: a change of clothing, a knife and fork, my Great Grandmother's navy blue, velvet shawl, and an enamel tin cup, and about ten dollars. I have the shawl and the cup in my possession - they're my greatest treasures.

She got to New York, hoping to hook up with some distant relatives, only to find that they'd moved on to Detroit. Having virtually no knowledge of our language, she spent her last money on a train ticket and made her way to Michigan to find them. Through the years, she took jobs cleaning houses and doing laundry - anything that would earn her a wage. She didn't return to Hungary again until the mid 1960's.

While she had little formal education, Grandma was a genius on many levels. Her skills with a needle were exemplary, whether it was mending or embroidery. Her skills in the kitchen, to this day, are unrivaled. I'm a good cook and so is my sis, but we're not even close to the magic Grandma could conjure. All of her recipes were in her head and she went purely by instinct.

Back in the early 90's, I realized that once she was gone, all those recipes would go with her. So, I made her come visit me for a week and teach me how to cook all of those fabulous Hungarian dishes. It was as if I sat at the feet of a deeply wise guru. I still have all of my scribbled notes, but I never use them. I cook the meals the way she did, going by instinct and tossing in an extra pinch of this, a handful of that. Nothing is more satisfying to me than to make my kitchen smell like hers did.

Born Rose Nemes, she married John Schmutzer (not his real name, but more on that another day) in the late 1920's. I never knew him - he died two years before I was born - but from what I've heard, he was a cold and loveless man who treated Grandma as nothing more than a slave. She was there to feed him, keep his house and raise the children (Mom and Aunt Irene). Anything outside of those boundaries was forbidden.

Grandma was a tiny woman, maybe all of 5'2", but she's the only person I ever saw stand up to my Father. One time when she was visiting us in Michigan, Dad was treating me rather poorly, saying things that a father shouldn't say to a daughter. Grandma walked over to him, looked up into his face, shook her finger, and grimly said, "You don't treat my granddaughter dat vey!" That was all she said. Dad turned and left the room. I don't know what the dragon slayers of old looked like when they marched up to their prey, but they couldn't have shown the kind of courage she did that day. She was my hero in so many ways.

When she was 84 years old, she had to have her leg amputated. Rather than give up and sit in a wheelchair the rest of her life, she rehabilitated and learned to walk on a prosthesis, using a walker. That's an amazing accomplishment for someone half that age. I told her as much and from then on, whenever we'd talk, I'd call her My AmaZing Grandma. I'd even address letters to her that way - To: The AmaZing Grandma Schmutzer.

Few things in this life truly amaze me - she was one. She had more love in her heart than anyone else I've known. Loving her family, and showing that love, was the only thing that was ever important to her. She did it well. And she did it with complete humility. Any time she'd be complimented, she'd merely shrug and say, "Velll... vhat you gonna do, huh?" Her version of my own, "Hey, it's just who I am."

Is it any wonder I'm who I am today, coming from stock like that? Is it any wonder that I'm willing to march into the unknown and worry about the consequences later? How can I deny the sweet, feisty spirit of Rose Nemes that carries on in me? One day, perhaps soon, I may just pack it all up and move on - you can be sure that I'll be flying the shawl like a banner, and carrying the tin cup like a trophy.

There's much more to her story, and I swear it's going to be a novel one day. For now, I'll just say, love you, My AmaZing Grandma! Thanks for all of it, for the love, for the homey creative style, for the spirit of adventure, and especially for teaching me what good paprika can do for the soul.

"Vell... vhat you gonna do, huh?"

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