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Interviewing My Grandmother

Anita (Morkovsky) Kallus, about 1917.
Things never go the way you think they’ll go. As I was driving down to where my grandmother (D.) lives to interview her with my mother, I was thinking about food cooked by Texas-Czechs and how D’s memories and experience might contribute to what I know about it (and hope everyone knows eventually by writing a book.) And I was thinking, of course, that D is 94 years old (see photo left) and how I should have made this first trip years ago, wondering how much she’d remember; how much she’d be willing to share.

I met my mother at D’s house which is less than a mile away from the nursing home she now lives in. We were both excited about the prospect of interviewing D, but I think not wanting to get our hopes up too high for fear that she wouldn’t really be engaged or just not interested in talking about the past. Our fears were not unfounded as she’s not been that willing to talk about herself in the past (though did reluctantly.) We discussed the things we most wanted to know from D, deciding to attempt a timeline of sorts of major life events. My mother and I had each written down notes in the past after conversations with my grandmother and thought that putting the notes together with a timeline would help us decide for the next interview what topics to focus on. We decided to bring some old photos along with us almost as an afterthought.

My mom offers information to her mother delicately and is protective of her. She told my grandmother that we’d brought one envelope of photos for her to look at (it was more like 3), and repeated “one” several times in the opening conversation, I suppose so as not to overwhelm her. But, my grandmother loved going through the photos in a way that surprised us. I don’t know if she loved looking at them AND talking about them, or just talked because she knew it was expected. But she told wonderful stories.

D’s memory is amazing… people’s names, places in the town she’s lived in since 8th grade, details of events. Seeing her in a photo, she remembered the name of a woman, a teacher, who boarded with her family to teach at the local public school when my grandmother was in 4th grade. And the names of girls at a birthday party she attended when she was five in 1920. To not capture her memories of such a very different life in Texas would be terrible.

My mother and I asked D several food–related questions during the 3 hours we were with her and she did have some interesting things to tell. But as she looked at each photograph and satisfied us with some little detail or another, food became less and less important. A vague, sepia-toned picture started to emerge for me of D's early life.

She was a tomboy, more interested in being outside than inside. As the baby in a family of 11, I’m sure there were plenty of hands above her to take care of housework and kitchen work, leaving her more time to play. Her two sisters were years older, so she played with the brothers closest to her in age. We looked at a photograph of five boys sitting on a donkey. She remarked that the donkey would buck her off if he didn’t feel like being ridden. “YOU rode him?” we asked and got “Oh, yes!” as the answer. We saw another photo of her with a white dog. Looking at the photo she confessed “I loved that dog,” whose name was Poodle. She even remembered how he died – a heart attack just walking up some steps. We got stories of her hiding in the attic of her family’s house in Komensky to read the funnies; having a drinking contest with her brother Alphonse from the artesian well that fed a fountain in their front yard in Praha until they were both sick; sneaking into a neighbor’s house to run their player piano.

Partially as a result of not being responsible in the kitchen all the time, she says she didn’t know howwasn’t available for housewife-ish consultations. My mother and I wondered then, of course, how she did learn to cook. “Did your mother-in-law teach you how to make PawPaw’s (my grandfather’s) favorite things?” I asked. “Noooo,” she said, shaking her bent head as if to say “You’ve got to be kidding me!” (Apparently she’d always felt an unspoken criticism from my great-grandmother.) When pressed, she just couldn’t say how she learned to cook. My guess is that she simply figured it out as she went along, and maybe had a natural aptitude, so didn’t have terrible disasters to remember and relay to us. When asked about how she’s felt about cooking over her lifetime, she just replied that it was something she had to do.
to boil water when she married my grandfather in 1937 (wedding photo above.) To make matters worse, her mother died in a car accident 4 months after she got married, so she

She told us several times during the interview how much she was enjoying what we were doing and I could see it in her face. As we started to wind it up, I felt guilty that we hadn’t brought more photos and that I wasn’t staying longer. I realized that talking about food is only a way to brooch other topics with my grandmother. That she’s not the wealth of information about Czech food in Texas that I thought she’d be by virtue of her age and background. But that doesn’t matter. What I did realize is that I barely know about this amazing woman’s rich life. That I don’t know her as a person in the slightest… only as a grandmother. That she might have had as great a sense of humor as my own mom. And that she deserves to tell her story as much as she’s willing – life from in front of the stove, at the table, or doing the thousand other things she did in the last 94 years.


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