My grandmother, an immigrant from Belgium, gave me a thick, crocheted afghan in my senior year of high school. I’m fifty years old now. I still have it. This black, white and gray acrylic afghan—one among hundreds she gifted family members—holds in its hooked stitches the last breaths of the life that she wove into mine. I don’t keep it on my bed today, but my kids will have to figure out what to do with it when I die; I won’t let it go during my lifetime.
Families are big and complex. They can gift us things we don’t understand until many years after they are given. I had the great fortune of living in Omaha, Nebraska, with my grandmother during my junior and senior years. She was in her seventies, alone, and no longer able to drive because of deteriorating vision. I was a grandson who desperately needed refuge from an abusive dad. I’d lived with an aunt and uncle for the second half of my sophomore year. They had already raised three children from another aunt (a story for another time) and had three of their own kids at home. They both worked—he was a cop, she was a secretary. Even then, in the early 1980s these were not high-paying jobs.
So, the extended family made the wonderful (for me) decision that I should move in with grandma so I could drive and be company for her. She took good care of me. I drove her to Saturday hair appointments and Thursday night bingo. She taught me how to make spaghetti and meatballs. On Fridays during Lent she fed me raisin dumplings—she said the Belgian term for them was nepples—I have no idea if that’s a real Flemish word. She gave me access to her console stereo cabinet full of records collected in the fifties and sixties—did she even know Herb Alpert was in there? She taught me how to dance to old swing records—most of which I’ve forgotten for lack of practice.
I treasure those couple of years of daily living and learning from grandma. I have wonderful memories of her humor; she told jokes that had punchlines—many of which I suspect were dirty—in Flemish, which she spoke still, despite having left the Old Country when she was ten years old in 1920. She remembered being a little girl in Belgium during WWI—she clearly recalled German soldiers being billeted with her family. When she told me about her uncle in the Old Country who was “so large he could stand with a dun-key between his legs,” I got a glimpse of the tall man I have become. He was killed in a munitions factory explosion.
I loved that when I’d ask her what we were having for supper, grandma would say something that sounded to me like, “Utsut noon and a hutscut!” which she said was a Flemish phrase. She said it meant, in general, “You’ll eat what I put in front of you!” but that in direct translation meant, “Shit on a shingle!” I still use this phrase myself to relish the voice that I hear in my head when I utter these delightful sounds that are the nonsense syllables of me approximating her fluent mother language.
It was (and is) incredible to feel connected to the amazing and terrible history of the twentieth century through conversations with this woman who’d lived through it all. WWI, immigration to “America,” the Depression, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, the New Deal, WWII, the Red Scare decade of the 1950s which also included the birth of rock-n-roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, the Sixties—these were events I knew about from asking about her life with my grandfather. He was also an immigrant (from Germany) who came to Omaha in his teens to work in the bakery of a family friend who had immigrated earlier. I have a fragmented notebook of his from the old village with recipes recorded in ornate German script that I cannot read. Grandpa worked his way up to head baker and eventually opened his own bakery, named for him—”Emminger’s.” That business was a foundation of an ethnic neighborhood in South Omaha full of central European immigrants. It was next to Eddy’s Bar, which served as the other neighborhood anchor.
When grandpa sold the business in the 1970s, he also sold his name and had to sign a contract promising not to open another bakery within 50 miles of the original, because the new owner didn’t want to compete with grandpa on his original turf. The building was still there when I visited for my aunt’s funeral a few years ago. It continues to bear the Emminger name, in 1960s bent neon lights, though it now serves as a second-hand store for the Hispanic immigrants who fill the neighborhoods where my grandmother and her immigrant sisters had their first jobs cutting up cattle in the packing plants surrounding the old stockyards. I graduated in sight of those stockyards. Our high school mascot, the Packers, now represents further generations of immigrants.
I feel a strength in who I am in no small measure because I spent those two years living with my tough old Belgian grandma who chainsmoked Raleighs into her 90s while listening to Harry Caray narrate as the Cubs lost and lost and lost.
My grandma, in her immigrant existence, including that dense, acrylic afghan she created for me, made my life possible. What I write can’t contain everything about how she did that. If she hadn’t lived her life, I wouldn’t be here, weaving together these threads of words, to share her presence with you.
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