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Grandma’s Secret Potion of Faith
Grandma Jenny slipped while shoveling snow off the front steps of our house in the middle of a freak snowstorm at the age of ninety-six and broke her hip. She was a stout little woman who weighed only ninety-five pounds and was four feet nine inches tall. The shovel was bigger than the grandmother. You might wonder why she was out shoveling snow early in the morning at her advanced age, but that was part of her stubborn and quirky nature. And that was part of her tradition. She didn’t want my dad to go to work and get his feet wet in the snow. It was a matter of respect for the man of the house. It was a matter of faith in her traditions. It was her way.
Grandma was from the old country – Russia to be specific. She came to the United States as a fourteen-year-old girl traveling for fifteen days on a tramp steamer and surviving on bread and water. She lost her food, money and clothes on the journey to thieves who preyed on naive and unsuspecting young women like her as a normal part of refugee journeys in those days. Most people though it was the work of greedy crew members. She arrived in this country with no money and literally only the clothes on her back. But nothing could stop the grandmother from making a new life in the land of her dreams, or bringing with her the rituals and traditions that were an innate part of her heritage, faith and very being.
Until she slipped and broke her hip, Grandma Jenny had always been healthy. None of us in the family could remember her ever having a cold. She attributed her good health to a secret potion of Elderberry Brandy that she distilled in the attic of our Georgian Colonial House. I have no idea where he got the Elderberries or how he made the drink. We were never allowed to go up to her special place in the attic to see what she was doing. Everything Grandma did was a secret.
Grandma had a special extract when she woke up in the morning and when she went to bed at night, that’s what she told us. As far as I knew it was the only drug she had ever taken. On rare occasions, like holidays and birthdays, we were all invited to join her for a sip of her Elderberry brandy. I was allowed to participate from the time I was a teenager. Boy did those things pack. No wonder grandma was never sick. The brandy must have killed the germs. My dad really didn’t like it. He was a Scotsman. My mother tried to swallow it. She didn’t drink. We all participated in the ritual. No one in the family was ready to insult Grandma Jenny. She was a very difficult cookie to use.
On one of the rare occasions when Grandma Jenny tried to talk to me, communication was a problem as she only spoke Russian; I asked him what was so special about the secret medicine? She sort of half-smiled at me, indicating that when I was more mature I would understand, pointing at my head. Grandma was great at the universal language of hand signals. I understand a little Russian, but I don’t speak the language. Fortunately for me, Grandma understood English, except when she chose to pretend she didn’t. Even the dog understood Russian that his grandmother fed him and he did not speak at all. When she called him to come get her in Russian, he came running. No one obeyed the grandmother. The dog was a large boxer named Slugger. It was amazing to see him crouch before my grandmother and wait for her command to let him eat. He certainly didn’t do that to my father or me. One time he jumped on my dad and pushed him so hard that he fell and dislocated his shoulder. Slugger wouldn’t dare jump on my grandma. The dog knew better.
After Grandma died, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was so special about her secret medicine and how to make it. Grandma wasn’t big on measurements or recipes. She insisted that you add a little of this and a little of that. It was the way she spoke when someone wanted to know how to make her coffee cake with yeast or ginger-carrot candy laced with saffron. Unfortunately the secrets died with him.
I think I finally have the answer when it comes to her secret medicine. It wasn’t the herbs she added. It wasn’t how high the alcohol content was. It was the love with which she made it and shared it with the whole family. It represented for him a fusion of old traditions and new rituals. It symbolized her faith in God and the respect she had for her family and our country. It was a way for her to celebrate her freedom. It was her way of communicating with us in a language of kindness and care that we could all understand.
Sometimes, when I drink some brandy late at night to calm me from the stress of the day and the threat of terrorism or natural disasters, I wonder if we couldn’t all use a little of grandma’s secret medicine to help us get through these problems? times? The commercial stuff doesn’t seem to be doing the trick anymore. It lacks the tradition of care, kindness and love needed to make a drink special. She lacks that confident personal touch of Grandma Jenny. She doesn’t have her tenacity or her will to survive. He lacks respect.
There are some things you can’t just put in a bottle, put a label on, and expect miracles to happen. Sometimes you have to find the right ingredients in your heart. Sometimes you have to distill them yourself. Sometimes the secret medicine of faith is within you.
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