As I continue to teach my creative writing class through the lens of family stories, I’ve come to realize a certain characteristic about these types of tales: they often exist in a vacuum, completely separate from historical context.
This is the case with the stories my students are telling me from their families and, I realize, it was the same case with my family stories. When I was a kid and my grandparents regaled me with tales about growing up in Austria-Hungary, they never fit those stories into a larger historical perspective. Their tales weren’t connected to a timeline—they were singular, personal events.
Case in point: One story my grandmother liked to tell was about the time she and her brother both had the “bad sickness”. It was just after the War and, as she told it, everyone was sick. Of course, this was part of the great influenza pandemic that swept across the globe post World War I, but I didn’t realize that was what my grandmother was talking about until many years later when I was able to connect her personal narrative with historical fact. That pandemic killed more people than the War itself—and my grandmother could have been one of them.
Here’s my retelling of her story . . .
* * *
Franzeika trudged across the yard, navigating her way around the humble flock of geese, as she made her way back into the house from the chicken coop. The gander hissed at her as she passed—he was an ornery fellow and liked to make sure that everyone—including Franzeika—knew who was boss.
And maybe you are the boss, Franzeika thought begrudgingly.
Her world had been turned upside down. The Great War had come—and been lost. Her beloved Georg had been lost, too, his lungs poisoned in the trenches. Now, it was just her and the children, Petr and Maria, left to eke out a living on their scrap of land.
“And lorded over by a goose,” Franzeika grumbled as she set her basket of eggs down on the kitchen table.
There was her other son, John, of course—but he had left for Canada before the War. He kept writing, pressing her to leave behind war-torn Europe and start a new life in a new land. But it was the last thing Franzeika could consider now. Petr and Maria were at Death’s door. They couldn’t get out of bed, let alone cross an ocean.
As if to underscore this, a cough, sharp as a knife, came from the other room.
Franzeika hurried to attend to her. People were dying all through Valla from this sickness. The neighbors had lost their infant son just this past week.
“Not my children,” Franzeika promised herself. “I have to do something.”
“Mama,” Maria gasped. Her face was as pale as the walls, and her sheets soaked through with sweat.
Franzeika held her hand to the girl’s forehead, and felt her fever. “I’ll make your favorite for dinner tonight,” Franzeika promised her daughter. “Cabbage rolls.” The truth was that pork was scarce, and she’d have to go heavy on the cabbage.
Maria looked blankly at her mother for a moment, like she didn’t even recognize her. Then she promptly threw up.
The doctor from Vienna was a tall and imposing man, with a thick beard that hid most of his face. Add to that his round pair of glasses and you had a man that was more than just a little mysterious. When he sat down alongside Maria’s bed, she couldn’t be sure if it was an entirely real situation, or if she had finally succumbed to delusion and it was all some sort of strange dream.
Her mother roused her to reality. “Maria,” she said, “the doctor is talking to you.”
Maria tried to sit up, but erupted in another round of coughing.
“It’s fine, child,” the doctor soothed. “Relax, relax. Maria isn’t it?”
Maria sat still as stone as the doctor examined her. He touched her forehead, held her palms, and produced strange and unfamiliar instruments from a small leather bag to use in his examination. When he was done he moved on to Petr, and did the same.
“Well?” Franzeika asked, hovering about like a mother goose. “Is there something to be done, doctor?”
“You keep chickens, yes?” the doctor asked. “I can hear them in the yard.”
“Follow my instructions, and I shall pull your children through the sickness,” the doctor assured her. “The most important thing is nutrition to help your children ride out the infection. Butcher one of your hens and boil it to make a broth. Save the bones, and have your children suck on them, for the marrow is rich in protein and nutrients. When the bones are done, then butcher another hen. This is the best thing you can do for them. Do you understand?”
“Yes, doctor,” Franzeika replied. “I’ll do as you say.”
“I’ll come back this evening and check on their condition,” the doctor said. Then, just before leaving, he smiled at Maria and Petr and said, “Take heart, children. Get lots of rest and you will be running around again, good as new, soon enough.”
“He’s a Jew, you know,” Petr whispered to Maria after the doctor had departed. “I don’t know how we’re going to afford his bill.”
“That is not for you to worry about,” Franzeika scolded, overhearing his remark. “And I don’t care who he is—as long as he makes you better.”
The truth was that Franzeika was worried about how to pay the doctor. But she tried to put it out of her mind for now. She returned back to the yard, scuttled past the hissing gander, and fetched the plumpest hen she could find.
The doctor came twice a day for two weeks, checking on the progress of the two children. Franzeika was diligent, following the doctor’s instructions. Every meal, Maria and Petr drank their broth and sucked on the chicken bones.
“Is this is what life has come to?” Petr complained wearily from his bed. “I’m down to eating broth and bones. It’s like eating bone soup.”
Maria didn’t like the taste if the bone marrow either—it definitely wasn’t cabbage rolls—but she held her tongue. Partly, it was because she was too exhausted and sick to muster any complaint. But it was also because she could tell her mother was worried. That made her not want to say anything.
Slowly, the children showed signs of improvement. One day, after his evening examination, the doctor announced, “Well, I think it’s safe to say this will be my last visit. Petr and Maria are well on the road to recovery.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Franzeika said as she saw him to the door. “I am forever indebted to you. And I will pay your fee, no matter what it might be—though I may not be able to give it to you all at once.”
“There is no need to fret for the payment,” the doctor assured her. “I will take whatever you can offer. How about a hen?”
Franzeika looked at him blankly for a moment. “But surely, doctor . . . a hen?” The truth was that hens had become a rather scarce commodity in the backyard. And it seemed such a meagre payment. Then something occurred to her. “Doctor, a hen is too humble. But I would like to offer you something else.”
“Oh?” the doctor wondered, putting on his hat. “And what is that?”
“My largest and plumpest gander.”
The doctor tipped his hat and smiled. “Ah. That will be just the thing.”
* * *
Well, that is a fairly accurate retelling of my grandmother’s story. According to her, the only fee the doctor would accept was a goose!
I decided to make this week’s theme for the family stories class to be “food.” And I guess this story applies to that theme. The only thing I asked my students to do was to incorporate a family recipe as part of their story.
We’ll see if they’re all willing to do that—because, as many of us know, a family recipe can be a closely guarded secret.
My own family, like so many, has its share of cultural and family recipes. I spent many a Sunday at my grandmother’s house, and she always cooked a grand feast for our midday meal: cabbage rolls, ham and sauerkraut, or sometimes even a duck. Though, perhaps strangely, never a goose!
My grandmother was not one to share her recipes willingly. Part of this might have had to do with the fact that she wasn’t very literate and she did most things by memory. But here’s the recipe for cabbage rolls that I obtained from my grandma’s daughter-in-law (my mom) . . .
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- ½ to 1 tsp salt (to taste)
- ½ tsp black pepper approximately
- Cayenne pepper to taste
- 1 cup uncooked long grain rice
- 1 large head of cabbage
- Freeze cabbage overnight as when thawed it makes it easy to remove the individual leaves.
- Remove some of the thickness of the rib of each leaf with a sharp knife (for easier rolling).
- Mix first six ingredients together very well.
- Roll a small piece of meat into a sausage shape and place at the thick end of a cabbage leaf. Roll leaf folding in the edges as you go.
- Place in crock pot with folded side down. Continue until all the meat and cabbage leafs have been rolled and placed in pot.
- Add 1 liter of tomato juice and a half liter of sauerkraut to the crock pot.
- Throw in a left over ham bone or some bacon and cook on low all day. They can also be boiled on the stove.
- You may need to add additional tomato juice and sauerkraut as the rice absorbs the liquid.