During the Christmas season, my thoughts can’t help but turn to my maternal grandmother (Baba in Slovak). Here is an essay I wrote for the 2004 Write Your Memoir Contest. The theme was “Someone Who Made a Difference in My Life” and I wrote about Grandma Figlar. I received an “Honorable Mention” for my entry. I thought I would share it here in loving memory of my grandmother.
by Lisa A. Alzo
Some of my fondest memories from childhood are the times spent in my Grandma Figlar’s kitchen. I remember spending many Friday evenings in her two-story house on Hill Street in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, surrounded by my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Dressed in her blue and white cotton housedress, quilted slippers, and a white babushka (scarf) around her head, my Slovak “Baba” stood over her stove for what seemed like hours, preparing chicken soup, mouthwatering golden buns dusted with flour, and lemon pie—all made without reference to a written recipe. Even today, I can recall the delightful aromas of fresh bread baking in the oven, the chicken soup slowly simmering in the large, “bottomless,” white enamel pot on the stove, and browning butter in the old black iron skillet.
I grew up in Duquesne, a steel-producing town near Pittsburgh, where large numbers of Slovaks settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My grandmother came to America from Slovakia in 1922. Although she left behind her own mother and the world most familiar to her to start a new life in America, she brought with her all of those aspects of her Slovak heritage that were an integral part of her identity.
In the Slovak culture, food is richly entwined with tradition and religious teachings, especially for Christmas and Easter, when special dishes are prepared and rituals observed. For example, on Christmas Eve, we celebrated with a meatless Vilia Supper (to honor the Christian practice of fasting) and ate foods like bobalky, perfectly baked little balls of dough browned in butter and mixed with sauerkraut, and pirohi, ravioli-like pillows of dough filled with cabbage, cottage cheese, potato, or prunes. At Easter, we ate paska, a round bread with a golden crust and yellow center made from eggs, butter, and white raisins (indicative of living bread come down from Heaven) and hrudka, a bland, sweet, custard-like “cheese” made from cooked and separated eggs and milk (as a symbol of moderation).
Then there were the home remedies. Some I continue today, like adding a shot of whisky to a cup of hot tea when I have a sore throat; others I try to forget from my childhood, such as wearing cooked sauerkraut wrapped in a cloth around my neck to reduce the swelling from the mumps.
Whatever the occasion, “Baba’s” kitchen functioned as the center of her home. It was where this soft-spoken Slovak woman spent the majority of her days as wife, mother, and grandmother, preserving the traditions of her homeland. There, in her domain, she also assumed other important roles of comforter, teacher, disciplinarian, financial manager, and instiller of religious teachings, morals and values.
The kitchen also became the place where some of life’s most important lessons were taught and learned. Simple principles of generosity and honesty and, above all, a genuine love for her family that Grandma taught by example. Moreover, for me it was in this kitchen where the genealogical seeds were planted, eventually sparking a quest to discover facts about this amazing woman, along with the desire to preserve our family’s history for future generations.
While neither of us realized it at the time, my “Baba” would inspire me in my adult years to write a book, Three Slovak Women. When my grandmother passed away in 1984, my mother took over the roles of “expert cook” and cultural “torch passer.” Our kitchen became the gathering place for Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday celebrations. Mother would don her own babushka, pull out Grandma’s large wooden board and rolling pin and prepare the various Slovak dishes to perfection. Although she opted to keep her “recipes” handy, my mother probably could have prepared all of the dishes without reference. Of course she had a great teacher.
My mother passed away in 2000, leaving my family one more step removed from our heritage. While we try to preserve our Slovak traditions, it becomes increasingly difficult in today’s hectic world, as my family becomes more scattered and time spent with loved ones is limited to holidays and special occasions.
It is often said that you do not truly appreciate a person until he or she is no longer present. I am so grateful to my grandmother for passing down her recipes and her life’s lessons. Yet, in all the time that I spent with my “Baba” before she died, I never thought about her as someone who had her own identity or interesting stories to tell; I saw her only as my grandmother. Until a few years ago, I knew nothing about my grandmother’s life as a young girl back in Slovakia, the story of how and why she came to America, or her experiences as an immigrant trying to survive in a culture that was new and different from her own. Symbolically, my grandmother’s story represents the stories of other Slovak women that were never told.
For her inner strength, integrity, and unfailing devotion to family, my “Baba” is undoubtedly the person who has influenced my life the most. Through my book, I found a way to pay tribute to her and relay her experiences to show, above all else, that she mattered. My grandmother’s story has now touched the lives of numerous individuals throughout the U.S. and the world, serving as an inspiration for other women to recognize the importance of their own female ancestors.