The Secret Language of Custom MAG

By Unknown, Unknown, Unknown

   I am a foreigner in my grandparents' house. I roam,mapless, through a land whose cabbage smells and babushka dolls amazeand terrify me. Even the light shines differently there, with thenot-quite-rightness of light on unfamiliar territory: it's at adifferent angle and one shade shy of normal. Without a compass, Inavigate the choppy seas of an unknown language, drowning with eachsing-songy wave. Just as I'm about to go under a life preserver,English, is thrown at my head.

"Ev-lon," my grandmapleads. "Come on, have some more to eat. You don't even have anymashed potatoes! Shame on you!" She slaps a spoonful of snow-white,too-salty potatoes on my plate - her idea of love, my idea ofpunishment.

My family spends every major holiday with myUkrainian grandparents, and with each gravy-laden meal, I've felt moreand more like a tourist in a foreign land. There was a time when mygrandparents did not confuse me nearly as much. When I was young, Ithought everyone's grandparents were "Baba" and"Didi" and thought nothing of eating Ukrainian food onChristmas Eve; surely every family ate pyrohy (potato orsauerkraut-filled dumplings), holubtsi (barley-filled cabbage rolls) andmashed potatoes with dill gravy. I never questioned the Easter traditionof waiting with my grandpa at the Ukrainian church for our basket to beblessed. Standing in that stale church, looking up at all the round,wrinkled faces, I felt strangely protected. I liked the predictabilityof custom. Each year, I was delighted anew when the priest came by withhis blessed-water splashing apparatus: a pint-sized, ornate bucket inwhich he dipped an aspergill. I anticipated the moment when he wouldapproach us and, with a flick of his wrist, send a holy shower rainingdown upon our basket of kielbasa, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, salt andpepper, babka bread and a cross carved in butter. "Kristos voscress," my grandpa's voice would boom. "Christ hasrisen." Eye-level with the basket, I would watch, mesmerized, asthe water droplets danced across the melting butter's surface.

It wasn't until later that I cast a suspicious eye on mygrandparents and their customs. I distinctly remember the first time Irefused my grandma's gravy - an eleven-year-old's act of rebellion. Mymother, father, brother, uncle, grandma, grandpa and I were seated at mygrandparents' table, my grandpa at the head, my brother and I oppositehim. My grandma sat nearest the kitchen. After a Thanksgiv-ing prayer,said first in English by my father and echoed in Ukrainian by mygrandpa, the food was passed. I reluctantly plopped a bit of everythingon my plate, but when the warm gravy boat landed in my hands, I passedit to my brother. I knew exactly what I was doing. When I was five, I'ddelighted my grandma by exclaiming, "I want too much gravy!"At eleven, I was done being her Too-Much-Gravy Girl.

My fathernoticed what I'd done first. "Have some gravy!" he mouthed. Ipretended not to understand. "Evelyn, have some gravy!" heunintentionally said aloud. My mother and grandparents halted theiranimated Ukrainian conversation. Uncle Mark threw me a glance that said,"You don't realize what you've done." I sat there, pretendingto be confused. "What?" I questioned theirincredulity.

"Ev-lon," my grandma began. "Imade that gravy just for you," she lied. I could see I'd hurt herfeelings. "You have to eat some." Everyone stared.

"Evelyn, just eat some gravy," my mother said,exasperated.

"Ev-lon, what is wrong with you? You alwaysloved my gravy!" My grandma got up and walked away from the table.

"Fine, okay, I'll have some," I said. I'd had no ideagravy meant so much to my grandma.

I am just now beginning tolearn the secret language of my grandparents' customs. We have to eatbabka bread on Easter because my great-grandpa, a baker, baked it fordays before Easter. My grandma misses the smell that filled the bakery;she misses helping him stir the raisins into the dough and the way thebakery would slowly fill to capacity with dome-shaped breads. To her,Easter is babka bread. I've also learned that we have to eat ourChristmas Eve dinner at night because in Ukraine, the festivities canbegin only after the first star is seen.

I've made headway inthis land of sauerkraut. The proof came last Christmas when the infamousgravy boat again landed in my hands. I looked at its contents; thenoxious dill odor steaming back at me. I looked at my grandma; she waswatchng me. Uh oh, I thought. Do I take the gravy and assimilate, orstand my ground? My grandma answered for me. "You don't have to eatit if you don't want to. You're still my Too-Much-Gravy Girl,though."

With that, my visa was extended for another year.

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