Family Circle

At twenty-four years old, I don’t fully understand the cycle of life.  Still in college, without children of my own, my only family role has been that of the youngest generation —child, sibling, cousin.  That’s why when my grandmother (Joan Harley) anxiously told me that she probably won’t live to see her great-grandchildren —hint, hint, Liam— I just dismissed it as another one of her pressures to hurry me into marriage and premature fatherhood.  My grandmother is 75 years old, and although she has been smoking about a half pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes a day since she was twelve, I have never seen her sick or even injured.  My grandma is one of those tough older women who does all of her housework, tends to her garden, shovels the snow out of her driveway in the wintertime, and do it all proud of her independence.  My grandma is a healthy, vivacious 75 with some time left.  I thought that her comment had more to do with me than with her and where she is in her lifetime.  I was wrong.  

Rewind about a week.  When I approached my grandma for my project, she surprised me immediately.  Instead of choosing to commemorate her late husband (my grandfather who passed away before he met any of his grandchildren), my grandmother chose her great-grandmother.  It was not a surprise just because she passed up my grandfather, but I had also never heard my grandma talk about her great-grandmother.  

My grandma quickly explained that she spent a lot of time with her great-grandmother until she passed away at age eighty when my grandma was only six.  Nobody else knows her great-grandma: obviously not any of my grandma’s children, but not even my grandma’s brother or cousins, who were all too young to have any significant memory of their great-grandmother.  My great-great-great-grandmother was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in her twenties.  She eventually learned to speak English but always with a heavy German accent, one that my six-year-old grandma spoke with having spent so much time listening to her great-grandmother’s nursery rhymes.  Beyond this, my grandma remembers very little about her great-grandmother.  

In this particular dinner, food was not an altogether important part of the commemoration.  To commemorate her great-grandmother, my grandma chose to cook in a beer, brown sugar, and onion gravy with a side of potato pancakes while my Aunt Patti contributed with sauerkraut and apples.  My grandma chose these dishes not because her great-grandmother liked these meals in particular (my grandma actually could not remember what kinds of food her great-grandmother enjoyed to eat) but because she viewed these dishes to be typical German fare.  These were dishes that were passed through her family: my grandma found the recipes in an for the home kitchen and my aunt found her recipe in a magazine earlier in the month.  Nonetheless, my grandma found it important that we went to the local German butcher, Karl Ehmer in Seaford, to get the kielbasa.  My grandma has always gone to this butcher shop for her German food so the choice was not out of the ordinary, just in keeping with the German dinner.

What seemed to matter most was that the whole family took part in the meal, not in the cooking, just being there and eating with everyone at the table.  Everyone who was on Long Island at the time was able to make it.  Besides my grandma and I, my Aunt Patti came with her daughters Anna and Rosie; my Uncle Dan and Aunt Penny brought my cousins Meaghan, Ceara, and Bryn; rounding out the dinner was my dad Mickey and my girlfriend Sarina.  As is typical of family dinners at my grandma’s house, two or three people (mostly my Uncle Dan and Aunt Patti) while she cooked, and everybody else (especially those who are useless in the kitchen) filed into the den.  

To entertain ourselves at my grandma’s house, and I typically dig through my grandma’s office closet and grab boxes of photographs.  Each of us has our own personal box with photos of us as we grew up (a lot more photos of us as children than there are now).  What was unusual is that my grandma took a couple of the boxes out for us and brought them into the den.  The ones that she put out were of her and her family: photos of her parents, brother Howie, and herself when she was a kid; photos of her and my grandfather when they were in high school with their friends; photos of my grandparents with my parents as children; and of my grandma as an infant in her great-grandmother’s arms outside of their old house in Valley Stream, NY.  I sat with my grandma and Sarina sifting through the hundreds of old photographs, watching my grandma age from the baby in that photograph, to a teen at her prom, a bride at her wedding, a mother with my Aunt Linda, and a grandmother sitting beside me.  

As we sat down for dinner, it occurred to me that I still hadn’t learned my great-great-great-grandmother’s name.  My grandma said, “It was Margaret, but I just called her (Happ being my grandma’s maiden name).  My uncle Dan went to check on a framed family tree in the living room, and after a bit of confusion, we learned that her my grandma’s great-grandma was named Margaretha Katarina Unbehauen.  But what I learned most was that her name was not as important to my grandma as was Margaretha’s role in the family and in raising my grandma: Margaretha the individual was less important than Margaretha the great-grandmother.  Again, family matters most.

The dinner itself was not different than any of our other dinners.  Besides the paid to kielbasa that my grandmother cooked, we spoke almost entirely about what was going on in our personal lives.  We spoke about work and school and who could not make it to the dinner.  However, I back onto Margaretha.  It didn’t seem relevant.  My grandma had already exhausted the little memory that she had of her great-grandmother and the rest of us never knew her.  While we ate, all that mattered was the family at the table.

Regardless of my grandma’s intentions, it seems that the dinner was most effective in  bridging generations that date from 1860’s Germany into present-day Long Island (maybe even a generation ahead).  Although growing up, my grandma rarely if ever ate the that she served us that evening, the dinner served as a nexus of our family’s past, present, and future.  The dinner gave my grandma the opportunity to both reflect on her past familial relationships through four generations until her great-grandmother Margaretha and imagine her future role as a great-grandmother to mine and my cousins future children.  The further back my grandma reached into her past, remembering Margaretha’s accented voice reciting nursery rhymes and fairytales, the more my grandma imagined herself doing the same for her own great-grandchildren.

As much as I could say that this dinner was about the or Margaretha, I ultimately believe that my grandmother herself was the focal point, and that’s not to say that she selfishly made the dinner about herself.  My grandma was the only connection between Margaretha and everyone else at the table.  Every story about Margaretha came from my grandma.  My grandma did the cooking and hosted the entire family. But ultimately, my grandma is herself transitioning.  Margaretha was commemorated, however the commemoration gave my grandma the opportunity to anticipate becoming a great-grandmother and grapple openly with the morbid anxieties of never completing the cycle, never stepping into Margaretha’s shoes, and becoming a great-grandmother.  

A week later my grandma vetted these anxieties to me on her couch when I randomly stopped by to check in.  But now I know that she wasn’t pressuring me into getting married and having children ASAP.  The dinner just made her think about , life, and what it will all look like in the near future.  

Everything’s in the overstuffed pan of kielbasa.

Aunt Patti with her sauerkraut and apple salad.

My grandma talks about the food she ate as a child.

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Margaretha was German (not Polish as it says in the recipe) but my grandmother says that this dish reminds her of growing up

My grandma and I in the kitchen

My Aunt Penny and cousins Anna, Ceara, and Bryn rummage through family photos on my grandmother’s couch.

My grandmother with her great-grandmother Margaretha Katharina Unbehauen. Photo taken September 1940 (my grandma was four months old).

My uncle Dan looks at the family tree to find my grandma’s great grandmother’s real name.

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My dad reacts to my grandma’s dinner.

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From left to right: my cousins Meaghan, Anna, and Bryn

From left to right: My dad Mickey, Aunt Penny, and Meaghan

Potato pancakes, Kielbasa in beer and onions, apple sauce, and chicken cutlets for the picky eaters

Everyone’s trying to act candid

From left to right: Uncle Dan, Ceara, Bryn, Anna, Meaghan,Aunt Penny, Mickey (my dad), Aunt Patti, me, and my grandma Joan.