Gifts from My Mother and Father
Right now, undoubtedly, some people are smacking their heads realizing today is Father’s Day and they still haven’t gotten a gift. Last month many surely did the same, ordering flowers for their mothers at the last minute. “Did you get something for your mother/father/brother/sister/cousin’s nephew’s wife’s yet?” These days, like most every holiday, have become about shopping. I believe, though, that the best way to show people you love them is not by rushing out to spend your money on store-bought gifts that risk a slow, lonely death in the back of a closet, or will eventually be dropped off at Goodwill. There are two gifts that I peruse regularly, that I would never let go, gifts that mean more to me than I could express in a quick blog post. If these were ever lost or damaged, my heart would be broken.
It was Christmas, maybe ten years ago. My brothers and I headed for the tree when one of us noticed that three presents underneath it were exactly the same size and shape – one for each of us, all from both my father and mother. This brought out the little kids we used to be – an analysis of the possible contents was launched immediately. We may have some similar tastes, but none of us could figure out what we would each appreciate equally. If I remember correctly we were speechless when we finally did open them. Our parents hadn’t run out to get us the latest trendy gadgets. They didn’t get us anything. They had, however, worked long and hard on our gifts.
They were three-inch three-ring binders, titled on the cover: Roots: A Gnarled History of Our Family. Our parents had been writing for months in order to give us the most complete history possible of our family. There were handwritten letters, passports, newspaper articles. They’d sorted through pictures and created collages to accompany the stories. This was before scanners made it quick and easy – my mother spent hours arranging these on paper to make an original copy (who doesn’t love a good oxymoron?) from which she made three copies for our books. Because they had to be copied the collages are in black and white; I’ve since suggested that we gather and scan all those pictures and redo the collages in color, but having them in black and white adds a touch more history. We can always look back and talk about how it was much harder in those days, lacking the technology…
My mother once said that she had so many questions for my great grandmother, and now there was only the regret for having lost the opportunity to ask. The chance to know. My parents didn’t want us to not know, or to lose the stories to memories that fade with age.
When my father was in the hospital and told he had a couple of months to live, I went home and cried buckets. Then I pulled Roots off the bookcase, spent a couple hours going through it, cried some more. I imagined looking at the photos without him there. The next day I took Roots to the hospital with me, when I knew all his other visitors would have come and gone so I could have time alone with him. He smiled when he saw the binder, then made a comment about being glad to see we were reading the books.
I sat on the bed next to him, and we spent the next couple hours going through part one – his family history. We looked through the pictures one by one, and he told story after story. I wanted to know everything. He would be gone, and there would be no one left who knew these stories. I knew I’d forget some of the stories, but the memory of that evening, looking through old photos together, and watching his face with each page we turned will be with me always.
The other gift is also an enormous binder, also with many family photos, similar, yet different. Pojesti (pronounced “pie-est”) is Slovenian for “Let’s eat,” (in French, “A table.” Or Italian, “A tavola.” But don’t get me started.). My great grandmother left Ljubljana and came over on the boat in 1937 with her two young girls. And you know what that means: there was always a lot of mouth-watering-to-die-for Slovenian food in our house.
Each of our cookbooks begins with a page about the book, followed by personalized letter. My mother included all the recipes of our favorites, Potica (Puh-teets-ah), a traditional holiday nutbread, žganci, (“gahn-tzee”) a simple but delicious potato dish, and more. (Each region prepares these differently, and I haven’t found Grandma’s way – for us, the only way – online. The pictures often look different from ours. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll put the recipes up.) Mom included many vignettes with the recipes, noting which dish was who’s favorite, and included pictures of various steps in the preparation of the difficult ones, like the potica which, if not done just right, will not rise, will leave us utterly disappointed, and Mom will cry in frustration.
We all use Pojesti. We could have just gotten the recipes online or in a book, but often the recipes are different and none of them have the stories, the memories, or the emotion behind them. Roots has a note at the end of it which made clear our duties: we are to take over, continue the story and pass it on. My mother updates Pojesti regularly, and we will continue adding to it. My parents gave us the recipes, pictures, and memories, and the stories of our ancestors in a way that ensures we will not forget. If a disaster forced me to grab a few things and leave the rest behind, Roots and Pojesti would be the first things in my hand.
So thank you, Mom –
and Dad –
(And for my brothers, I have to mention the two things we’ve been after her make again…for years now. But alas, she has been deaf to our pleas, and leaves me no choice but to use this opportunity to guilt her into the dinner we’ve all been waiting for…)