This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor
Let me lick your finger,” my Grandma demands as she reaches for my right hand. My fingers are sticky with a mixture of raw meat, eggs, rice, and spices. We are making stuffed peppers.
“Grandma!” I yell, even before I realize what she is about to do. “It’s raw meat!” Her tongue touches my index finger and, not being sure of the result, she licks it again. “How else am I going to tell whether it’s salty enough?” she scolds. Then, softly clicking her tongue, she adds, “It does need more salt.”
I spent several afternoons in the kitchen with Grandma after my wedding last winter in Budapest. She came to my parents’ apartment in the afternoons so that dinner would be ready by the time they got home from work.
It was my idea that Grandma should give me cooking lessons while I waited patiently for my green card. I have already mastered the three most important dishes of Hungarian cuisine: gulyas soup, chicken paprika, and the beef stew called pörkölt. I imagined my husband surviving on these three alternating dishes…. I needed help.
It was the first time in a while that I had Grandma all to myself. Sure, I was the first grandchild and Grandma spent hours with me while I giggled in my crib as she pointed to the figures on my favorite blanket. During longer road trips, Grandma would recite a nursery rhyme about a bear that drifts away from his family on a block of ice and finds new friends in the city.
When I was a little older, she indulged my love of figure skating by sewing skating outfits for my Barbie dolls. And she was my most understanding ally when my parents didn’t let me go to a rock concert.
When I left for college in the United States, Grandma handed me three embroidered handkerchiefs at the airport. “Sometimes one just has to have a good cry,” she said.
My brother stayed at home, and during Grandma’s weekly visits he was the one who spent hours in the kitchen while she baked cookies. During my summer and Christmas visits, I could never seem to find the old connection with Grandma.
Now that I was married and in charge of a household, Grandma and I found a whole new connection.
The best part about cooking with Grandma is listening to her stories. She had a difficult life, but her anecdotes are always cheerful.
Her stories always start with “You know, the way it used to be …” Members of her family weren’t very imaginative with names. The men are named Sandor (Alexander) and its variations (Sanyi, Sanyika, etc.). The women are Terez (Theresa) and its variations: Terka, Terike, etc. Thus, Grandma’s stories are always confusing. But it doesn’t matter. The tales of her small village, her many siblings, and the hot summer days she spent working on the fields are fascinating.
Like the story about how much she loved school and how sad her teacher was when my grandmother dropped out in sixth grade. “I was my teacher’s favorite,” she says. But after her mother’s death she had to stay at home and help with her seven brothers and sisters. “I had the most beautiful handwriting,” she goes on, “and the teacher asked me to correct older students’ tests.” The teacher recognized her 20 years later as she sat on a park bench, her son (my father) in a baby carriage.
She graduated from eighth grade the day I was born in 1976.
Grandma has a large library of knowledge, but not because she went to school or has degrees. She solves at least five crossword puzzles a day and seems to know everything about history, geography, politics, and biology. She knows how to cook, how to bake.
She is also an avid sports fan, even though she doesn’t know how to swim or ride a bike. Her favorites are winter sports. She can name the members of the 1986 Swedish giant slalom team. I think she secretly learned English as well, because she seems to understand every word on EuroSport and knows when to tune in to see the women’s biathlon.
While we are waiting for the water to boil, we watch television together and root for the Finns, Grandma’s favorites.
During commercials we check on the food and Grandma dispenses marriage advice. “You are not going to get mad at me, are you?” she asks before passing to me this secret to marital bliss: “Discuss everything with your husband and make him feel like he is the master of his house, even though quietly you are doing things your own way.
“That is all I am going to tell you,” she assures me as she measures salt into her palm.
Later we move on to making desserts. My first attempt at rolling dough fails and Grandma grabs the rolling pin out of my hands.
“The problem,” she says, “is that you are trying too hard; you want it to be too good.” I wipe away a few tears. I can’t even roll dough. What kind of a wife am I going be?
“Don’t worry, you will learn when you are a grandma,” she encourages, and I feel strangely comforted.