The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 1

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IT was long, long ago, when last I gazed on that dear face, kissed those pale, wrinkled cheeks, and tried to fathom the depths of those blue eyes, in which were hidden so much goodness and love. Long ago it was when, for the last time, those aged hands blessed me. Our Grandmother is no more; for many a year she has slept beneath the cold sod.

But to me she is not dead. Her image, with its lights and shadows, is imprinted upon my soul, and as long as I live, I shall live in her. Were I master of an artist's brush, how differently, dear Grandmother, would I glorify you! but this sketch—I know not, I know not how it will please. But you used to say, "Upon this earthy ball, not a soul that pleases all." If, then, a few readers shall find as much pleasure in reading about you as I do in writing, I shall be content.



Grandmother had three children, a son and two daughters. For many years the older daughter lived with relatives in Vienna; when she married, the younger took her place. The son, a mechanic, worked at his trade in a small town in Bohemia, while Grandmother dwelt in a village upon the borders of Silesia. Her family consisted of herself and Betsey, an old servant who had been in the family ever since Grandmother could remember.

Grandmother did not live the life of a recluse; all the people of the village were to her brothers and sisters; she was to them a mother, a counsellor, and a friend. No christening, wedding, or funeral could go on without her. The course of her life was so even, her days were so busy and happy, that she desired no change—she would have been content to live thus forever.

This even course of life was disturbed by a letter. Grandmother often received letters from her children, but none ever came before, fraught with such momentous questions for her to solve. It was from her daughter in Vienna, who told her mother that her husband had obtained service in the household of a certain princess, whose estates were but a few miles distant from the village where Grandmother lived, and that he was to be at home with his family during the summer only, while the princess lived in the country, and therefore it was their earnest desire that Grandmother should come to live with them. Indeed, no excuse would be accepted, as both she and the children had set their hearts upon it and were eagerly looking for her arrival.

Upon reading this letter Grandmother burst into tears. She did not know what to do. She loved her daughter, and her heart yearned towards her grandchildren whom she had not seen; on the other hand, the good people of the village were very dear to her, and it was hard to break away from all the old associations. But blood is thicker than water. After much tossing up of the matter, her maternal instincts came to the aid of her convictions, and she decided to go. The old cottage, with all it contained, was given over into the care of Betsey with these words: "I don't know how I shall like it there; and perhaps, after all, I shall die here among you."

A few days after this a wagon stood at the door of the cottage. Wenzel, the driver, placed upon it Grandmother's large flowered chest; her feather-beds tied in a sheet; the spinning wheel, to her an indispensable piece of furniture; a basket, containing four top-knotted chickens; and a bag with a pair of party-colored kittens. Last, but not least, came Grandmother herself, her eyes red from weeping. It was no wonder that she wept; for around her stood the villagers, who had come to bid her farewell, and followed by their blessing she rode slowly to her new home.

What bright anticipations, what rejoicing at The Old Bleachery,—for thus the people called the isolated house that had been assigned to Grandmother's daughter, Mrs. Proshek, as her home on the estates of the princess. Every few moments the children ran out to the road to see if Wenzel was coming; and every passer by heard the wondrous news that Grandma was coming. The children kept asking each other, "How do you suppose Grandma will look?"

They knew several grandmas, whose images were curiously confounded in their little heads, and they could not decide to which of them their own could be compared.

At last the long expected team arrived. "Grandma's come!" shouted the children in a chorus. Mr. and Mrs. Proshek rushed out to meet her; Betty, the maid, followed carrying the youngest child, and behind her came the three children accompanied by the two dogs, Sultan and Tyrol.

The wagon stopped at the gate, and Wenzel helped a little old woman to alight. She was dressed in the garb of a peasant, having her head wrapped up in a large white kerchief. This was something the children had never seen before, and they stood still, their eyes fixed upon their grandmother. Mr. Proshek welcomed her cordially, her daughter embraced and kissed her, and Betty presented the dimpled cheeks of Adelka to be kissed. Grandmother smiled, called the child "her own sweet fledgling," and signed her with the cross. Then she turned to the other children and said: "O my darlings, my little ones, how I have longed to see you!" But the children, with downcast eyes, stood as if frozen to the spot, and uttered never a word; and not until they were ordered by their mother would they step forward to be kissed, and even then they could not recover from their amazement. They had known many grandmothers in their life, but never one like this; they could not turn their eyes from her; they walked round and round and examined her from head to foot.

They wondered at the curious little coat, with its full pleating, like organ pipes, behind; the green linsey-wolsey petticoat, bordered with a wide ribbon was an object of great admiration; they were pleased with the flowered kerchief that was tied beneath the large, white head shawl. They sat down upon the ground that they might examine better the red wedge-shaped insertion in her white stockings, and also her black slippers. Willie touched the pretty patchwork on her handbag, and the fouryearold Johnny, the older of the two, slyly raised her white apron; he had felt something hard beneath it, something hidden away in her large outside pocket, and he wanted to know what it was. Barunka, the oldest of the children, pushed him away, whispering: "Wait, I'll tell on you! you want to feel in Grandma's pocket!"

That whisper was a little too loud, it would have been heard behind the ninth wall; Grandmother noticed it, and turning from her daughter she put her hand in her pocket and said: "Well, look at what I have here!" She placed upon her lap a rosary, a jack-knife, several bits of crust, a piece of twine, two horses and two dolls made of gingerbread; these were for the children. As she distributed them she said: "Grandma brought you something more." Thus speaking she took from her handbag some apples and Easter eggs, and set the kittens and chickens at liberty. The children shouted with delight. Grandma was the best of all grandmas! "These kittens were born in May, are four colored, and will make excellent mousers. These chickens are so tame that if Barunka teaches them, they will follow her about like puppies."

The children then began to inquire about this and that, and soon were on the best of terms with Grandmother. Their mother rebuked their endless questioning; but Grandmother said: "Never mind, Theresa, we are happy in each other's love," and so they had it their own way. One sat in her lap, another stood upon a bench behind her, and Barunka stood before her, intently gazing into her face. One wondered at her snow-white hair, another at her wrinkled forehead, and the third cried: "Why Grandma, you have but four teeth!" She smiled, smoothed down Barunka's dark brown hair, and said: "My child, I am old; when you grow old, you, too, will look different." But they could not comprehend how their smooth, soft hands could ever become wrinkled like her's. The hearts of the grandchildren were won the first hour, for Grandmother surrendered herself to them entirely. Mr. Proshek won her love by his frankness and the goodness of heart that beamed from his handsome face. One thing, however, she did not like, and that was that he could speak no Bohemian. What little German she had ever known she had forgotten, and yet she so longed to have a talk with John. He comforted her some by telling her that although he could not speak the language, he understood it quite well. She soon perceived that two languages were used in the family: the children and the maid spoke to Mr. Proshek in Bohemian, while he replied in German, which they understood. Grandmother hoped that in time she, too, would be able to understand it; and in the meantime she would get along as well as she could.

Another thing that did not quite suit her was the appearance of her daughter. She had expected to find her as she was when she left home, a bright, cheerful peasant girl; and now she saw before her a stately lady, in city garments, of stiff manners and few words. This was not her Theresa! She observed, too, that their domestic life was quite different from that to which she had been accustomed; and although, for the first few days, she was surprised and delighted, she soon grew tired of the new ways, and had it not been for the grandchildren, she would have packed up and returned to her own little cottage.

Mrs. Proshek, it is true, had some city notions; but she was not to be disliked for this, for on the whole she was avery estimable woman. She loved her mother dearly, and the departure of the latter would have grieved her much. She was not a little disturbed when she perceived that her mother was becoming homesick; and guessing the cause, she said to her: "Mother, I know that you are used to labor, and that you would not be content here, if you had nothing else to do than to go about with the children. Should you desire to spin, I have some flax up in the garret, and if the crop is good I shall soon have much more; still I should prefer to have you see to the housekeeping. My duties at the castle, together with my sewing and cooking, occupy all my time, so that the rest must be left entirely to the servants. Now, if you will be helpful to me in this, you may manage everything your own way." "That I will gladly!" replied Grandmother, overcome with joy. That very day she climbed up the ladder into the garret to see about the flax, and the next day the children watched the process of making thread upon the spinning wheel.

The first thing of which Grandmother assumed full charge was the baking of bread. She did not like to see the servants handling "the gift of God" without any reverence or ceremony. They never signed it with the cross, either before or after taking it out of the oven; they handled it as if the loaves were so many bricks. When Grandmother set the sponge, she blessed it, and this she repeated each time she handled it until the bread was placed upon the table. While it was rising no gaping fellow dared come near it lest he should "overlook" it and make it fall; and even little Willie, when he came into the kitchen during baking time, never forgot to say: "May God bless it!"

Whenever Grandmother baked bread, the children had a feast. For each one she baked a little loaf filled with plum or apple sauce; this had never been done before. They, however, had to learn to take care of the crumbs."The crumbs belong to the fire," she used to say as she brushed them up and threw them into the stove. If one of the children dropped a bit of bread, she made him pick it up, saying: "Don't you know that if one steps upon a crumb, the souls in purgatory weep?" She did not like to see bread cut uneven, for she used to say: "Whoever does not come out even with his bread will not come out even with people." One day Johnny begged her to cut his slice from the side of the loaf, as he wanted the crust, but she said: "When one cuts into the side of the loaf, he cuts off God's heels! But whether it be so or not, you must not get into the habit of being dainty about your food." So Master Johnny could not indulge his appetite for crusts.

Whenever there was a piece of bread that the children had not eaten, it always found its way into Grandmother's pocket; and when they happened to go to the water, she threw it to the fishes, or crumbled it up for the birds and ants. In short, she did not waste a crumb, and ever counseled the children: "Be thankful for God's gift; without it there are hard times, and God punishes him who does not value it." Whenever one of the children dropped his bread, upon picking it up he was obliged to kiss it. This was a kind of penance; and whenever Grandmother found a pea, she picked it up, found upon it the chalice, and kissed it with reverence. All this she taught the children to do.

If at any time a feather lay in the path, she pointed to it saying: "Stoop down, Barunka!" Sometimes Barunka was lazy and said: "O Grandma, what is one feather!" But Grandmother at once reproved her. "You must remember, child, that one added to another makes more, and a good housewife will jump over the fence for a feather."

The larger of the two front rooms was used by Mrs. Proshek as her bed-room. Here on occasions of domestic festivals the family used to dine or take their lunch. In this room they had modern furniture; but Grandmother did not like it here. It seemed to her impossible to sit comfortably in those stuffed chairs with their carved elbows, when one had to be constantly on one's guard lest they should tip over or break in pieces. Once, only, had she made the experiment. When she sat down and the springs gave way, she was so frightened that she almost screamed. The children laughed at her and told her to come and sit down again, assuring ner that the chair would not break; but she would not try it again. "O go away with your rocker, who wants to sit in it? it may do well enough for you, but not for me." She was afraid to place anything upon the polished stands, lest they should be rubbed or scratched; and as for the large glass case that held all sorts of bric-a-brac, she declared that it was a nuisance; for the children were sure to knock into it and break something, and then get a whipping from their mother. Whenever Grandmother held Adelka, she sat by the piano, and when the little girl cried, she always quieted her by striking some of the keys; for Barunka had taught her to play with one hand the tune to the words, "Those are horses, those are horses mine."[1] While she played she kept time with her head. Sometimes she remarked: "What things people do invent! one would think a bird were shut up in there; it sounds like the voices of living creatures."

Grandmother never sat in the parlor unless she was obliged to do so. She liked best her own little room, which was next to the kitchen and the servants' apartments. Her room was furnished according to her own taste. By the side of the large stove that stood in the corner was a long bench. Next to the wall stood her bed, at whose foot was the large flowered chest. On the other side was a small bed, where Barunka slept; she had obtained this privilege as a special favor from her mother. In the middle of the room stood the large bass-wood table, the legs of which were bound together by braces thatserved as foot-rests. Above the table hung a dove made of an egg-shell and pleated paper;—this was to remind one of the Holy Ghost. In the corner stood the spinning wheel and distaff. The walls were decorated with several pictures of saints, and above Grandmother's bed was a crucifix adorned with garlands. Inside of the double window were some flower pots with sweet balsams and musk, and on the sides there hung little linen bags of medicinal herbs, such as linden blossoms, elder blossoms, and the like.

The table drawer contained Grandmother's sewing, a bundle of sacred hymns, the prayers of the Holy Passion, some spinning-wheel cords, and a blessed candle which was always lighted when a thunder storm was coming up.

What the children liked the best in her room was the large flowered chest. They loved to examine the blue and green roses with brown leaves upon the red background, and the blue lilies with red birds among them; but they were the most delighted when she opened the chest. The inside of the cover was lined with pictures and prayers,—all brought from the various shrines to which people made pilgrimages. On one side of the chest was a small drawer, and what treasures were in that! Family documents and letters from her daughters in Vienna, a small linen bag full of silver dollars sent by her children for her betterment, but which out of joy and gratitude Grandmother never spent. In a small wooden box, there were five strings of garnets, with a silver coin on which was engraved the picture of Emperor Josephand Maria Theresa. When she opened that box,—and she always did so whenever the children asked her,—she would say: “See, my children, these garnets were given me by your grandfather for my wedding, and this dollar the Emperor Joseph himself gave me. That was a good man, may the Lord grant him eternal glory! Well, when I die all this will be yours," she added, as she closed the box.

"But, Grandma, how was it that the Emperor gave you that dollar? Tell us about it," said Barunka.

"Remind me of it some day, and I will tell you," she replied.

Besides these things Grandmother had in that side drawer two rosaries that had been "touched" (by sacred relics), streamers for her caps, and usually some delicacy for the children.

At the bottom of the chest were her clothing and linen. All those linen petticoats, aprons, coats, corsets, and kerchiefs lay there in the best of order, and on the top of all were two stiffly starched caps, with large bows behind, that were called "doves." These things the children were not allowed to touch. Still, when Grandmother was so disposed, she raised one article after another saying: "See, children, this petticoat I have had for fifty years; this coat was worn by your grandmother; this apron is as old as your mother;—and all as good as new; and you spoil your clothes in no time. That all comes because you do not know the value of money. Do you see this silk coat? it cost a hundred Rhine dollars; but in those days they paid with bank-notes." Thus she went on, and the children listened as though they understood it all.

Mrs. Proshek wished her mother to wear city garments, because she thought they would be more suitable; but to this Grandmother would not listen. She said: "The Lord would surely punish me, if I, an old woman, should begin to grow worldly. Such changes of fashion are not for me; they would not suit my old age." Thus she remained faithful to the "good old ways;" and soon every thing in the house went according to her will, and no one thought of disputing her word.

  1. A popular peasant song.