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(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail/Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)
(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail/Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)

The Essay

Rediscovering my love for my grandmother Add to ...

My grandmother's name was Josefa - not Josephine as I had mistakenly assumed for 22 years. I didn't realize this until after reading her obituary, and by then it was too late to find out what else I was wrong about.

I knew her as Grandma, but her friends called her Josephine, which explains my mistake. Since her death in 1996 of breast cancer at the age of 64, I've had fleeting moments where I think of her and remember the way she would "tsk" my brother and me when she disapproved of us talking smart, or the glint of her gold tooth when she smiled.

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She had faded curtains hanging in her bathroom window that were white at first glance. It was only after you stared at them that you realized they had pink and blue polka dots covering them. Sometimes I really miss those curtains.

I recently came across an old snapshot of her and remembered the floral print dress she was wearing with such vividness that I lay awake later that night wondering what happened to it. At Christmas, I used her old black-and-silver Mixmaster for my cookie dough and was suddenly bombarded with the memory of her lemony shortbread and hand-rolled kiffle, a Hungarian pastry with a sweet walnut filling.

It's with bitter sweetness that I watch my own three kids, 6, 5 and 1, glow in the presence of their grandparents. They can't wait to call them with news of their latest achievement and they look forward to evenings when Grandma will tuck them in and Grandpa will tell them stories.

One day soon, this glow will be reserved for things other than grandparents - friends, driving, going out. Grandparents will become the people whom they obligingly kiss on the cheek and hug goodbye, whom they censor their tales around and who always ask them about school.

It won't be until years later that they look back at their grandparents and remember those feelings they once had. Maybe it won't be until they have children of their own and come face to face with their own mortality. Only then will they realize the short window available for grandparents.

I gave my oldest daughter Josefa as a middle name. Partly because it's a beautiful name that deserves to be handed down and also to make up for my erroneous assumption during all those years. She is curious about this woman whom she is named after and asks my mother and me to tell her stories about her great-grandmother. She is truly interested in hearing about the bits and pieces of past events that once seemed so trivial to me.

I describe the birthday cakes that Josefa painstakingly made for every member of our family on their special day. They were chocolate on the outside and yellow on the inside with generous layers of whipped cream and canned cherries oozing in the middle. They were iced in ridges and adorned with squirts of pink and green. Her birthday message was always written in the same shaky scrawl in beige icing across the top.

I never liked these cakes. I deemed them old-fashioned compared to the store-bought cakes with brilliant white frosting and fluorescent pink rosettes. I found them dry (the yellow part), bitter (the cherry part) and too sweet (the icing) all at the same time. I mentioned this to Josefa and she seamlessly switched to making me a special strawberry shortcake on my birthday, which I loved.

The more I reminisce about my grandmother, the more I find myself remembering. Details buried deep in my mind are suddenly released like flood waters. Details like the intricacies of the interior of her home.

This house is only available to me in my memory when I decide to visit once in a while as I wait for sleep. I walk through its rooms again and take inventory of all the knickknacks: the glass cigarette lighter with the rose inside; the clock shaped like a sun; the ceramic coffee mug with an iguana wrapped around it that now sits in my own bathroom.

There was an earthy smell in her basement that I haven't encountered since but in my memory, this is the scent of comfort and peace.

I tell my kids about the big rust-veined rock on the edge of Josefa's back patio that my father would sometimes overturn so my brother and I could see the city of ants and worms living underneath. And about the rope hanging from her ash tree that my brother and I would shimmy up wearing work gloves. And about the endless raspberries, gooseberries and currants that she grew alongside her fence and we took for granted would always be available to us. I don't think I've tasted a currant since her death.

I tell them that I wish they could have known Josefa and loved her. I also tell them that I wish I could eat a piece of cake covered in too-sweet chocolate icing with bitter cherries in the middle, just one more time.



Tanya Kuzmanovic lives in Oakville, Ont.

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