Conversing with the dead

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I wanted to call that ornery old woman so bad I thought I would cry – except she was dead. She was impossible yet awesome, a force of nature. Grandmothers are bigger than life when you’re just a kid. Only in retrospect they become human, fallible. It is difficult to converse with one’s deceased ancestors.

 

She told me I could never be a writer. She had her reasons back then, but when she was 98 she told me over our tenuous trans-Atlantic connection: “Keep writing.”

 

If I could talk to her now she’d want to know it all. Did the book earn out, how are the royalties? Will I go “indie,” and if so, why, and how? How are the reviews? Will I ever translate my work into Czech? And I’d just answer and feel the words span time zones and oceans and continents, splashing, soaring, whispering. I’d imagine her against the gleam of her sunroom windows, her hair as white as the walls, the smell of cooked cauliflower and coffee cake in the air. The taste of nutmeg and coffee and stinky cheese, and a faint echo of grandpa’s long-gone tobacco.

I’ll let her rest in peace. Hopefully, she knows. The piece below is a memory we shared so long ago.

 

            Strudel

            Kate Pavelle, © 2014            

 

The kitchen chair dug into my knees as I leaned the chin in my hands, elbows on the table. I was within snatching distance of a bowl of cut apples. They were the summer kind with thin, luminous skin and their tart, sweet scent made me swallow again.

“Leave those apples alone, they’re the last ones and I need them for the strudel,” my grandmother said as she slammed the pastry dough into the worktable again. She stood with her hips away from its floured surface as to spare her skirt damage. She always looked the same: her platinum blonde hair that almost matched her pearls and her too-dressy clothes. She gleamed in the crystalline light that poured into her kitchen through the huge casement window. I snatched a slice.

She whirled as the apple crunched in my mouth, sweet and aromatic. Her stern look melted into a fond smile. “Your great-grandfather planted those trees during the First Republic. As though he knew everything else was going to be taken by the Communists.” She reached for the rolling pin and floured it, like she always did, and began to roll out the dough. “So tell me what you did in school today.”

“Well,” I began, deciding whether to come up with an outrageous tall tale or whether I should just capitulate and do the daily report. “We were given new gas masks in Civil Defense, and they are the new kind, without the elephant trunk.”

She sighed and flipped the dough, sprinkled it with flour, and began rolling it in the other direction. “What else?” she asked.

“There is a geometry test on Friday.”

“And do you understand it?” The table creaked as she leaned into the dough some more. It was thinner than a pencil now, and there was flour on her skirt. She made the skirt herself, like she made most other things, but nobody could tell it wasn’t store-bought.

“It’s easy.” I paused. “Mrs. Lebedova wants me to recite a poem at the Festival of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship in two weeks.” I didn’t mind being asked. Grandma always selected pieces that cut as a political double-edged sword, and the applause of the audience was accompanied by a rare, startled look of a captive party member who got it, who understood that railing against the oppressor was really a school kid poking fun at him and his apparatchik superiors. And, sometimes, an adult would lock his gaze with my twelve-year old eyes and it was like a silent thank-you and a benediction, and a plea not to push too hard, nor too fast. That sort of audience appreciation was always the best.

I fetched Grandma a clean pillowcase, and she sprinkled it with flour and transferred the dough onto it. It was huge now, and as thin as a straw. The oven was filling the kitchen with acrid fumes and heat. “You have to roll it out so thin it’s transparent. It won’t break as you manipulate it.” She rolled the dough some more, and lifted the edge of the fabric to demonstrate. The clear and bright Prague sun filtered through it until the dough looked like a piece of vellum. The light brought everything into sharper focus, which is what probably made me drop my guard and tell the truth. “I told my teacher I want to be a writer when I grow up.”

 

*****

 

Her wrinkled hands stilled as her rolling pin clanked onto the wooden work surface. She looked at me aghast. “You cannot be a writer.”

“Why not? I write well!”

She didn’t say anything for a while as she took a stale dinner roll and grated a pile of breadcrumbs. She made a long rectangle of those on top of the dough, put the remnant of the dinner roll back in the cupboard, and faced me straight on. Never have I seen her look so serious. “There is no way you can be a writer under this regime. They will either make you write what they want, or you’ll end up in jail.”

“I won’t end up in jail,” I protested, but a small tangle of dread began to coalesce in the pit of my stomach.

“Your uncle Slavek escaped in ’68 because of a political cartoon.”

“I won’t write anything political, I promise!” And I didn’t have to – everything I wrote could be fashioned to comply with the Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Like the poems, my writing could be a subtle, double-edged sword.

“Hand me the apples,” she said. I did. She arranged the slices on top of the breadcrumb rectangle, then sprinkled the layer with sugar. “You don’t have to add too much sugar,” she said. “Some people add cinnamon, but I am saving what’s left for Christmas.” She arranged another layer of apples in movements that were slow and deliberate, as though there was nothing else in the world. No me, no school, no politics. No double-edged swords.

“There are Soviet writers whose work I like,” I said. “The Russians have it worse than we do, and if they can write, I could, too.”

“Russians!” She scoffed. “Who do you like? Chekhov?”

“Arkadij Gajdar,” I said. “He writes adventures. About kids. Like, during the war between the Whites and the Reds.”

“He writes propaganda,” she corrected me. “Besides, there is no point becoming a writer in Czech. It’s hardly a world language.”

“But I want to write like Karel Capek.”

“Capek’s good,” she conceded as she draped the thin sheet of dough over the apples. She dipped a feather into a bowl of water and brushed the edges to make the dough stick together. “Here, help me transfer the strudel.”

I held one end of the pillowcase while my grandmother rolled it onto the baking sheet.

“If you were going to become a writer, you’d have to write in English. English is like French used to be.”

English. But… that was impossible.

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My grandmother and I, and my mother.

 

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3 Responses to Conversing with the dead

  1. vibeke weber says:

    Kate, I love this piece. I’m right there with you in the kitchen, listening to the conversation. Keep up the great work, Vibeke

  2. PD Singer says:

    That’s so vivid and real. Thank you.

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