My Eulogy for Grandma Yank

What can I say about her that you don’t already know?
How can I describe her if you haven’t felt her presence yourself?
But you do all know her. And you have all felt her presence. That’s why you’re here.
For me, she’s Grandma Yank. For you, perhaps Aunt Katy. Mom. Catherine Yank. Catherine Koenig.
How shall we remember her?
As a child, it was her cookies and desserts. Apple “frizzing” and potato pancakes. A slice of meat snuck into my hand before dinner at a holiday meal. In fact, all kinds of things kept appearing in my hands – candy, a chicklet, money.
How I looked forward to her visits. It wasn’t just the toys she’d bring, or all that sugar she’d put on my Frosted Flakes and in my tea. It was that look she’d give me, the way she’d raise her eyebrows and point at me with her chin, the way she’d squeeze my shoulder as she walked by. All the ways she told me she loved me. All the ways she showed me I was precious in her eyes.
As a teen, she often seemed old-fashioned and irrelevant. But even then, when I was in the midst of painful conflict, there was something in her look that told me I was still okay. More than okay. Even in the pain and confusion of adolescence, she showed me I was still lovable.
As a young adult, I really started to appreciate that food that I’d almost taken for granted.

Grandma’s cooking. Onions. Sour cream. Chicken noodle soup. Palascinta. Roasting chicken. Stuffed peppers. Stuffed cabbage. Chicken paprikas.
Sitting in her kitchen, drinking a cup of tea, and a “Sveet mit da tea”, “makos” or “dios”, kifli or butter cookies, listening to Grandma’s stories, I became fascinated with her life and the different worlds she’d inhabited – the world of her family in Erdort, the world of Hungarian immigrants in New York. Her eleven brothers and sisters. Coming to America almost on a whim as a girl of 16 who’d “never been away from her mother’s skirt”. Her work as a housekeeper, as a garment worker, as a super, as a hotel worker. Making wine in the bathtub during prohibition. Returning to Hungary during the Depression, her last and only visit there.
All delivered in Grandma’s own language, with her many unique expressions – “That’s the life.” “That’s the main thing.” “Vot ve can do?” “Micsinalunk?”
A language I encountered in letters she wrote me in college in Maine, and in the Peace Corps in Africa. The spelling and vocabulary were unique to her, and I had to listen to myself reading them aloud and imagining her voice in order to make sense of them. But once I did so, she came through loud and clear.
After college, I had the chance to live with Grandma for five months before I saved enough money for my own apartment. That was a very special time for me, to get to know Grandma on a day-to-day basis. We ate dinner together, fighting over how much food I should eat. My “half” was always three times larger than her “half”. I’d call her during the day, and sometimes come home late at night. I remember my dad coming to help me move out. I was very sad, knowing that I’d never have that kind of time with Grandma again.
When I returned from Peace Corps in Africa a few years later, I had a very difficult time because neither friends nor family could understand or relate to the experience I’d had. But Grandma could. Somehow, her life in rural Hungary and my time in Africa were connected. She knew what life was like without electricity and running water, she understood my experience in ways that no one else could.
As an adult, there were many visits, many meals, and many stories. I learned that my Grandma was not only sweet and loving, but that she also was a very determined person. As the tenth of twelve children, there wasn’t much left for her as an inheritance, so America was attractive.
When she told her parents that she wanted to come to America with her sisters-in-law, they could hardly take her seriously. There wasn’t even enough time to get a visa before the boat was to sail. But somehow my 16-year-old Grandma knew someone who knew someone in the city of Szatmar, and she got her visa in record time.
She told me how immigrants played a trick on the newly arrived “greenhorns”, by offering them a banana and watching them eat the skin, since they’d never seen one before. Shortly after Grandma arrived her, one of her “lansman” offered her a banana, and as a group of immigrants watched, she proudly peeled it before eating it.
One of her relatives got Grandma her first job, looking after a German immigrant who was coming out of the hospital. She had promised that Grandma spoke some German. Grandma understood a little German, but could hardly speak it. But as she’d say, “Ve manage it.” And she got and kept the job.
I remember Grandma here at St. Stephen’s, coming to Mass with her, sitting in her pew over there. I remember visiting her in the White Hall, seeing her cooking with her lady friends. And I remember her coming to meetings of the Mother’s Club, and how important that was to her. Grandma was a woman of faith, and she passed that faith on to her family.
As Grandma got older and lost some of her abilities, her daughter Mary was there to help her. At first, Mary had to help with only a few things. But towards the end, Mary was helping Grandma with just about everything. We all owe Mary a debt of enormous gratitude.
Grandma is someone who lost a lot.

She lost her dream of returning to her family in Europe, and lost the houses she’d saved for and the “winegarden” she inherited after WWII and the rise of Communism.

She lost her husband when she was only 46.

She lost her son when he was 61.

She lost the ability to cook for herself and others.

And she lost her mental faculties over the last few years
Yet she never became bitter.

She felt and expressed the pain of each of these losses.

And in the end, she accepted each of them.

And kept on living. And loving.
Grandma is no longer with us, not in the way we are used to.

And in some ways she’d already left us these past few years.

So now it’s time for us to experience a loss.
But it’s also time for us to rejoice for our time with her

To remember the many, many family gatherings we’ve shared with her over the years

To thank God for the blessing she’s been to us all

And to let her spirit continue to guide us
Kezet csokolom anyuka. Kezet czokolom nagyanyam.


One Response to “Steven’s Eulogy for Grandma Yank”

  1. Polly Says:

    I am sorry about the loss of your grama. I was wondering if you might be able to tell me how you spell and/or say grama in Hungarian.

    Thank you for your time.



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