Memory was stirred last week in a post by Larissa Hoffman. Stirred like sweet tea in a chipped china cup, tarnished spoon at rest on a mismatched saucer. Stirred by a singular image.
A sugar cube.
There is a certain delicacy to our memories. Fragile as they are, our oldest memories, forged longest, are often the sharpest and most easily triggered.
My great-grandmother, my mother’s mother’s mother, died long ago. We didn’t visit often, the hour-long drive from Winnipeg to Ste. Anne seemed an arduous journey back then. And Great-grandma seemed impossibly old.
To my 5-year-old self, she was older than history, older than dirt, perhaps older than God himself.
There are things I know about my great-grandmother as an adult that I didn’t know when she was alive. Didn’t know, or didn’t understand the weight of.
She’d fled Russia in the years following the revolution.
She’d known hunger and fear and heartbreak; she’d lived faith.
She’d buried brothers and sisters, a husband, and suffered the loss of more children than any mother should have to bear.
Before leaving Russia, her 2-year-old son died of dehydration. A daughter, my grandma’s sister, also died in childhood. In the middle of a bitter Russian winter, with barely enough money for food, my great grandmother kept her daughter’s frozen body in a home-made coffin on the front porch.
Though she seemed to understand a great deal, Great-grandma never spoke English. Perhaps it was an issue of confidence, perhaps pride. Perhaps a stubborn determination to hang on to something that was still hers and never let go: her mother-tongue.
The language barrier went largely unnoticed. Her love was evident in her eyes, her touch, her hug. In the dry sweep of her lips on my cheek.
When aunts gathered around the square table in her small kitchen, I’d squeeze in beside her. She would wrap an arm around my waist and pull me close and smack her lips because she had no teeth. I remember the curve of her white-whiskered chin, reaching upward as if to touch the tip of her nose, and I remember the loose flow of her dress.
Mostly, I recall the sparkling white cubes inside her glass sugar bowl.
We had granulated sugar at home. Grains melted too quickly, didn’t leave enough of a lump at the bottom of my cup of lukewarm tea. But a sugar cube? Now that was a delicacy.
Great-grandma would nudge the bowl in my direction. I’d slyly reach out and gobble a cube while my mother looked the other way, engrossed in an aunt’s story. Great-grandma would watch the conversation, poke her fingers into my ribs when it was safe to pop another. Each cube dissolved into sweet syrup in my mouth. I’d smile, she’d smile–a bond that transcended age and language.
A certain delicacy, indeed.