Petites madeleines

The Last Time I Saw My Grandmother[Record]

  • Anna Rumin

I’m not sure how many chickens my grandmother had to slaughter to stuff the pillows I currently sleep on, but I’m guessing there were many. My mother tells me that every chicken was a sort of pet before it hit the kitchen table—and certainly before it was slaughtered, my grandmother calmed it by whispering old stories of the motherland. The chickens were bought at Montreal’s Jean-Talon market, brought back to my grandmother’s home in Park Extension (or “Parking Station” as my dedushka used to call it) and allowed to run around in her basement for a week, eating at will before their inevitable fate in her white double oven. Babushka would get to know the chicken, talk to her, and on her day of judgment, sit the chicken in her lap and stroke it before slitting its throat. The feathers were collected and eventually stripped for their down. The last time I saw my grandmother she was sitting at the end of my bed a couple of hours after my daughter was born. Babushka was wearing her one green suit that she had made for herself years ago for special occasions, and the black heeled oxfords deformed by the bulging bunions on both her feet. She smiled at me and disappeared. My daughter who is now 14 refers to this incident as post-natal hallucination. For me it is a memory I cannot forget and one that has become a story in our small family, however far-fetched it might seem. When my babushka died it took under an hour to gather up her belongings. Years before, my mother had successfully retrieved the two gold chains that my grandmother had hidden in a profusion of plastic Provigo bags. Aside from those chains, her suit, and her deformed oxfords, babushka owned very little. She was of the generation that understood need over want and her carbon footprint was a small one indeed. Today I have one of those gold chains, a few photographs, and a collection of stories that make up part of the tapestry of her life. Oh, and the pillows. Perhaps my babushka’s reverence for food began when both of her brothers were struck and killed by lightning while attempting to steal potatoes in what was then Poland and is now Russia. While my babushka was not a religious woman her respect for nourishment was paramount in her approach to food. There was little waste. Marrow was sucked from the bones after it had been smeared onto rye bread and sprinkled with salt. Leftover bread, when there was any, was made into breadcrumbs and the pot of soup that stood bubbling at the back of her stove was a receptacle for flavour and local ingredients. Her cabbage rolls were stuffed to overflowing, her apple pies bursting with fruit, hrustiki were flaky and bathed in icing sugar, pickles were crisp and squeaky, and the steaks she fried for us sang in butter and garlic, the chunks of fat fried extra crispy. For very special occasions my dedushka would go all out and buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In those days, it was a Sunday treat only bettered by dessert at Dairy Queen. This past summer I thought I caught a glimpse of my babushka standing at the end of the dock with my 10-year-old son who was desperately trying, yet again in what seemed like the driest summer ever for fish, to catch something with a tail and gills. “I caught one!” Edward was swaggering at the end of the dock and luckily my mother ran over and helped him …