90 years young

That dream I had about tiny delicious sandwiches at my grandmother’s birthday party did not come true, though I did get many compliments on my kugelis. 

Kugelis is a dish that involves peeling and grating five pounds of potatoes with the nubbiest, most painful side of the grater. As such, each batch contains a little bit of human flesh as well as a pound of bacon with the fat undrained, a stick of butter, and several other, less horrifying ingredients. Once it bakes for about an hour, you serve it warm with a dollop of sour cream and are fortified to work the fields for many hours. That’s what my ancestors did anyway, so years ago I had my grandmother show me how to make kugelis, and even though I wrote each step down on a sheet of yellow lined paper and managed not to lose it, something got lost in translation and I had to go to the internet for my current recipe.

Throughout my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, she kept speaking to me in Lithuanian, a language I do not understand. She does this more and more lately, especially when she’s flustered, and it reminds me of her own mother, who lived to 94 and reverted to her native language steadily so that by the very end she never spoke English. When my great-grandmother used to speak to me in Lithuanian, I would smile and nod and usually this worked, although if my grandmother caught us she admonished with a “Mama, speak English!” Now that my grandmother speaks to me in a language I don’t understand, the smiles and nods don’t work as well and I have to say, as gently as possible, “In English?” I can see the corrections embarrass her.

My grandmother hit her party stride around the Happy Birthday Song, which the mixed crowd sang in English and Lithuanian. The Lithuanian version had a lot more verses, with long gaps in between, and at one point I made eye contact with my sister and felt laughter start to bubble up and decided it best not to look at her anymore. You may remember how I fussed over a music playlist last week, and that worked out fine and all, but the surprise hit was a guest who showed up with an accordion and tambourine. I dreamt about tiny delicious sandwiches that don’t even exist and then a living dream walked through the front door!

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The accordion player led the birthday songs and played some more while my grandmother sat and sang alongside him. The song was not in English, but it sounded sad or maybe just sincere. My grandmother sang beautifully in a high, confident voice and I remembered how much I love listening to her.

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There was plenty of music and too much food and as the last guests left, I said goodbye to my husband and felt loneliness like an itch I never seem to be able to scratch. But just like ten years ago and her 80th birthday party, the after-party was maybe the best part. My grandmother changed into pajamas and rejoined us while my daughters played some Lord of the Flies game with balloons and we listened to more music. My husband had put away most of the food and washed dishes and other relatives helped too, so cleanup was not too bad. 

The next morning, we reconvened and I put records on her old stereo console that still works, though I’ll admit reservations shoving the bent two-pronged plug in the wall and again when the speakers whimpered and crackled like a dying man’s cough.

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My grandmother handed me the official album for the 1984 Summer Olympics and told me to play it and my youngest rocked out to Loverboy because she is still in pajamas and buzzed on room temperature ginger ale. My grandmother said “How come you didn’t play music like this yesterday?” and I don’t know if she means music kids go nuts to or Loverboy or if she just wishes the party was still happening. She instructed us to leave the streamers up and the balloons get corralled in a corner, though they will shrink by the day.

My grandmother tells my girls that the next time we have a party at her house, she will not be there and my youngest asks where she’ll be. She tells them when my great-grandmother was very old, they had a party and she came downstairs and danced awhile and then retired to her room. My little sister went upstairs to find her and my great-grandmother told her the same thing about not being at the next party, and sure enough she died within the year. I remind my grandmother that she’s been planning her own funeral for the last 10 years and she laughs.

Before my girls and I leave, my grandmother pulls flowers from various bouquets and fastens them with a piece of ribbon and tells me to stop at the cemetery and leave them on my mother’s grave. I can hardly refuse this request, though before we pull out of her driveway she also tells me “Please do not vote for that Hillary.” So you don’t always get what you wish for, even at 90. Maybe we get very few wishes over a lifetime and foolishly use them up when we’re young. I know I love watching my youngest daughter’s face before she blows out candles or flips a coin in a fountain, her face earnest with concentration and belief. I can’t remember the last time I’ve blown out candles or thrown a coin in a fountain.

After we back out of my grandmother’s driveway and pull away, I honk and watch as she gets smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror. Once we round a corner, I look back and my daughters turn around even though we know she won’t be there.

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26 thoughts on “90 years young

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    1. I did take video and that’s where I got that photo of her. My daughter taught me the trick where you scroll through a video on pause and screenshot the frames you want. I imagine one day those videos will be very precious to us.

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  1. Beautiful. I love the way you acknowledge some of the painful aspects of a loved one getting old, but positively rather than negatively. I need to learn that skill.

    As for kugelis … my Swiss grandmother made cookies called Leckerlis. They are a spiced cookie with icing on top. She made them so wonderfully and my mom now makes them every year at the holidays because I insist on them. I have the recipe and have made them a number of times over the years. I don’t know what it is, but mine never come out as good as my grandmother’s or my mother’s. I wish I knew the secret, but those are the types of secrets that don’t come through in a recipe.

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    1. My dad’s side has a shrimp dip recipe that some of us never seem to be able to make as good as others in the family. There were theories of sabotage, you know intentionally leaving out a key ingredient or messing with measurements, but that’s just nuts, right? Those Swiss cookies sound pretty amazing.

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  2. Happy 90 years young to your grandmother. What beautiful photos. My grandmother resorted to speaking Welsh in her latter years, a language she’d not spoken regularly since childhood. In her Australian care home where she spent her last days, the nurses quietly took my aunt to one side one morning and said, “Your mother is making very little sense now, sorry.” My aunt laughed and said Welsh made perfect sense to her mum – just not to the Australian nurses!

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  3. Wow! Lithuanian! My mother was born in Lithuania, and I do understand it and speak, but not well. It’s not an ethnic background you bump into very often, so your post was a nice surprise. Sounds like the party was a success. My mom used to make kugelis sometimes, but it’s not a dish for anyone but folks who do heavy physical labour, most days.

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    1. I swear I’ve met more random Lithuanians than any other nationality. Now I’ve met another. Labas! Probably didn’t spell that right but sadly that’s all I know. Yeah, kugelis is an acquired taste, though my youngest already likes it…and sauerkraut. It makes me proud.

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  4. Last line is killer, truly. How about the mash-up of patterns in that photo with your kids? Tell me that doesn’t look like the 1950s or something? That’s great! Kugelis….sounds like a French dish I make with a lot of potatoes and bacon and body parts, for added protein. Great piece. — Bill

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  5. I love how culturally rich your family gatherings are. I also love hearing from that grandma. It’s so great she is still a part of your life. I’ve lost all mine. Never knew two from this disease. Never knew another who died young.

    I had a great relationship with my mothers mother while she was here.

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  6. I’ve been savoring and anticipating the opening of this post. Your writing brings tears to my eyes – what a gift. I wish I could have heard Grandma sing with the accordion – the version in my head is gorgeous.
    Absolutely beautiful. Now I wanna peel potatoes….

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  7. Very nice post 🙂 I am pure Lithuanian and I wish my husband would learn Lithuanian, would be great to have little chats with him in my native language 🙂 Still workin on that. Although, Lithuanian language is one of the three most difficult languages in a whole world, so don’t blame anybody who struggles to learn it 😀

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