Wednesday, June 4, 2008

My apron story:

All families have stories which have been passed on from generation to generation. A family story, while it is usually based on pure fact, can often be a bit of a shapeshifter as the years go by. To begin with, you may see it as a funny anecdote, then it suddenly becomes a metaphorical journey, but then watch it as it slowly changes into a horrifying ghost-story, haunting you for the rest of your life. My grandpa’s story about my great-aunt Eva and the gift she received from my great-grandma takes on all of these shapes, and more.

In the early 1930s, perhaps a decade or so before Eurolush’s beautiful pansy-embroidered apron was sewn, my great-uncle Alec made the journey from America to Germany; he was on his way to study medicine. While studying at the German university he met a young German firecracker of a woman who was also studying to be a doctor. Her name was Eva. She was a young Jewish woman with big dreams for the future. Alec and Eva studied day and night, often alongside each other in the large, cold university library, until the day they married, and then they studied day and night at twin desks set up in their tiny new home.

Alec and Eva were still in the midst of their studies when they heard that a man called Adolf Hitler had come to power. They immediately took advantage of an opportunity to move to Berne, Switzerland where they finished their studies. Alec specialised in matters of the heart, he was a cardiologist. Eva also specialised in matters of the heart, but the metaphorical kind, for she was a psychiatrist. Immediately following their twin graduations, around 1936 or 37 (according to my grandpa’s memory) they both travelled to America, where Alec’s loving mother was waiting impatiently to finally meet her new daughter-in-law.

But we all know how difficult in-law relationships can be.

My great-grandma (my grandpa’s mother-in-law) was a strong and powerful woman who held her family together through thick and thin. Much of her strength and power lay in her ability to comfort and nurture the people around her. She was a balabusta – a housewife of the formidable kind, and as you can well imagine, she ALWAYS wore an apron when working in her kitchen.

As my great-grandma waited to meet her new daughter-in-law, she clutched a beautifully-wrapped gift to her chest. This gift was to be my great-grandma’s small token of love and hope, given to the new young wife of her beloved son Alec - a beautiful apron. So Alec and Eva arrived, the gift was presented, and opened, and much like the opening of Pandora’s box, the horrifying ghouls and ghosts and shrieking masses of horror and gore which immediately spun through my family’s life could never be put back in the box ever, ever again.

Eva, for all of her expertise in the matters of the heart and mind, was very very young. She was so young in fact, and so naive, that when she saw that apron (that apron which was probably as divinely beautiful as eurolush’s prized one) she saw only female servitude. Yes, she did. She saw, in her new mother-in-law’s twinkling eyes and thick-armed embrace, a maternal prison consisting of a stove, a sink, a brand-new refrigerator and a pretty little apron. She saw a life sentence which started with the phrase “What’s for dinner darling?” and finished with the phrase “Here lies a doctor’s wife” written on a cold, dark gravestone.

Eva immediately made her views concerning the apron crystal clear. As clear and pure as was her love for Alec, so was her hatred for her mother-in-law, and by association, all other family members, including Alec’s sister –her sister-in-law – my grandma. And all of this, all of this, based solely on the gift of an apron.

Now, here is where I must admit that I am no impartial bystander to this monumental family event, for I am very much my grandmother’s granddaughter. I knew my grandma very well, and I saw, with my own eyes, the terrible scars which Eva’s words had left on my grandma’s soft flesh. My Grandpa sums it up by saying that Eva’s tongue was sharper than any surgeon’s scalpel. My great-aunt-Eva had many years of psychiatric training, and she would sometimes (and this was most unfortunate for my grandma) use her powers for the dark side.

You see, my grandma was a born academic, excelling at university, double-majoring in French and Physics, Phi Beta Kappa. But she had left all of that behind her. She had left it all behind her so as to become a mother of three little children. This meant that she was a 1940s housewife, and like her own mother she ALWAYS wore her apron when working in the kitchen. According to my grandpa, Eva NEVER forgot the “put-down gift” (as he likes to call it), and she never missed an opportunity to torture my grandma with it. My grandpa, indeed, claims that even in old age, Eva and my grandma could hardly be in the same room for more than a minute before the sparks would begin to fly.

Those sparks are still flying around my head as I write this.

I still feel the fire, and I think that my own daughter, Eva’s great-great-niece, may well carry this torch of a story into the dark, unknown future. But, in the meantime, I look at those divine, delicate, domestic works of art - those aprons - and I wish with all my might that Eva had simply said “Thank you very much” and “How kind”, and then put her apron gift away in the back of a drawer.

Just in case someone in the family might need it some day.


RW said...

wow. that is some story. my heart ached. a cautionary tale. thanks

Anonymous said...

You have a wonderful way with words. Your writing reminds me of Alice Hoffman.

blackbird said...

Some people don't have the grace to accept a gift unconditionally - I hate to be so obvious with this comment - I cannot imagine that Eva was ever a particularly happy person.

bluemountainsmary said...

This was better than an Isabel Allende story because it was true!

eurolush said...

Alice Hoffman...and...Isabel Allende...and...Eleanor.

Yes, I like the sound of that!

Poor Eva, it sounds like she missed out on so much...

Anna said...

Now, this is a GOOD story! In my mind it became a movie, I saw them sitting ther studying, the passage over the Atlantic, the fatal giving of the welcoming gift.. In my version Meryl Streep made the aged Eva.
Alice Hoffamn goes right on my list of authors I got to know through blogland. Allende I know and love.

alice c said...

That is wonderful writing and an important reminder not to be sentimental about items from the past.