This past week Alzheimer’s stole that last part of my Grandma it had yet to take, her life. Over the last 5 years my Grandma has disappeared and that has been hard. I have had to let go of different parts of her that whole time while Alzheimer’s slowly stole her away. Now it is time to forget the Alzheimer’s and those 5 years remember her in full force and hopefully give you a picture of this amazing lady as well.
From my Grandmother I learned all about my Russian-Mennonite heritage. I learned that her family had been wealthy farmers in the Russian/Ukrainian border area. However life there became too difficult and in 1929 the family moved to Grunthal Manitoba where she was the first child in the family born in Canada in 1932. Their Canadian life was much different from the one in Russia. They were poor farmers and many of my favourite mennonite dishes come from this time when the things they had access to the most were flour, water, milk, and sometime butter.
My Grandmother told me all these stories and more while she taught my sister and I how to make her traditional recipes. I LOVED the time I spent with her baking. They are my most fond memories of her. Sometimes it was just her and I in the kitchen and sometimes as my sister got older she was there too.
On multiple occasions she showed us how to make her signature Grandma Bun, a dinner roll with a secret ingredient that will only be known by the people in our family. I loved them most fresh from the oven with a bit of butter on them and a sprinkle of white sugar. Although, topped with her raspberry jam was a very close second!
One time about 30 years ago when my Grandma visited us at the lake for a week we asked her to make ALL her recipes so we could attempt to record them for posterity. When she bought a 20 pound bag of flour we thought she was crazy, but it was gone by the end of the week!
We of course started with Grandma Buns! When we asked how much flour to add to the milk to make the buns she just said. Well enough to make the dough! Over the years we did our best recording how much flour, milk, salt needs to go in them, but she is right, of course, that the dough has to feel right at the end to know if you are done.
We also made varenyky, or in our anglicized version, veranics. This is a fruit or cheese perogie made by Russian-Menonnite and Ukrainian people. It is most commonly made with cottage cheese or any near by summer fruit. In our family it was ALWAYS made with rhubarb. Sometimes Grandma would do some Saskatoon berry ones, but I only had eyes for the rhubarb kind. This is my favourite food of all time! Nothing tops it for me. They were made every summer I grew up.
My mom, sister and I have kept the tradition alive and we are now teaching our kids how to make them. Funnily enough only people born into the family like them. Those that have married in, never quite seem to appreciate them. In fact, my Dad is banned from eating them with us as he once put peanut butter on them! So we often do it when it is only the ladies in the cottage and the guys have gone fishing.
While my strongest memories of Grandma were of baking with her I also have many fond memories of playing cards and just hanging out with her. We were always able to chat and just spend quality time together.
I will also never forget on every single phone call I made to her from child to adulthood even during the early stages of her Alzheimer's she would tell me she wished that we (my mom, my sister, and I and later her great grandkids) lived closer to her.
My strongest memory of my Grandma is from on one of my hardest days. In 2001 my Opa got very sick, was hospitalized and passed away within days. It was shocking and awful. In the midst of it I was extremely upset and my mom suggested we call Grandma from the hospital. We found a payphone (days before cellphones) and called her. I will never forget the sound of her voice that day. It calmed me in seconds. I cannot remember what she said, all I know is that her voice was strong and her words centred me and made me feel safe.
That is what she did. Took care of everyone around her and made them feel safe. Grandma, just like my Opa you now have a special place in my heart where I carry you with me always reminding me of your strength and all the good things you have taught me.