The Power of a Pause – stories from Zsolt’s grandmother

This past Saturday we piled into the car and drove across town to visit with Zsolt’s grandmother, Anna for a chat and to pick some fruit. She’s his grandmother on his mother’s side. I met her about 9.5 years ago, when, while visiting Hungary, the ‘grandmothers’ would come by for a meal. By grandmothers, I’m referring to Zsolt’s grandmothers and aunt Zsuzsi – who I may write about one of these days, because she’s quite the character.

Anyhow, back then and for much of the time since, I didn’t really get to chat with Anna. Fact is, we speak different languages, and Zsolt’s dad’s side off the family are very much gregarious show stealers. Hilarious people! His gran, Gyongyi, was always fretting about being old and Zsuzsi was always telling her latest story from wandering around town and having no sense of personal space.

Anna was far more quiet. She would sit across the table from me, on the very far side and only occasionally – and calmly – ask a question that Zsolt might translate.


Then a few years ago she moved to a new home, and we suddenly began to pay her visits there. Her house once belong to her grandson, who has quite the green thumb. The yard is a literal orchard of white peaches, sour cherries, apples, berries and more. It’s not even that big – it’s just incredibly well designed. So we go and sit in the garden, and she makes lovely food that I don’t eat – but think looks really, really delicious.

Inside of Anna’s house, where we migrate whenever it begins to rain, is a real treasure of stories. Her walls are covered with carefully preserved photographs from her days as a school girl, and her wedding, and her children (including Zsolt’s mom), and more. And, her sofas are covered with finely embroidered pillow cases – with or without the pillows inside. That was her profession, she grew up doing embroidery and had an incredible talent with the needle.

Everyone sits around the large table in the center of the room – the old family table – and politely chit chats about the weather, the amount of snow in Canada, their sore joints, some family gossip . . . and then, if we stay there long enough, someone like Zsolt’s uncle or aunt may show up, and the chit chat happens again – until eventually, it doesn’t. People go out to pick fruit, or turn to one another for more quiet chatting.

Zsolt and I are left there sitting beside his grandmother, Anna. And now, the real conversation can begin.

Anna has a very special talent beyond caring for her home, sewing and the garden. She’s an excellent multilingual conversationalist. Nope, she doesn’t speak a bit of English. But what she’s very good at is knowing when to pause.

Zsolt will look at me, then ask in english: What should I ask her? So I say, ask her about her garden. And then he does. Anna will reply, and then she will pause so that Zsolt can translate to me. Then, the stories somehow unfurl from there, and as she tells each piece of the story, she’ll pause and Zsolt can translate.

Normally folks go on for 5 minutes, and then I get the 5 word translation because big Z can’t remember what they were saying. With Anna it is so wonderfully different.

During our last visit, I asked Anna whether she makes palinka (a kind of very strong fruit alcohol) from the abundance of fruit in her garden. She explained that her children gather the fruit to make palinka, but she personally has no use for it.

Oh really? I ask – as Zsolt translates everything – Why is that?

She really just has no use for drinking alcohol. She’s never cared.

Oh, I reply. Me neither! I just don’t care about it. I’ve always thought this was a genetic thing I got from my mother.

Now Zsolt explains his stance on alcohol, that he doesn’t ever drink it at home because I never do, but when out with friend he’ll definitely have some drinks.

Then, Anna explains that her father loved his drink. They had so many grapes and wine all around them, there was an abundance of it. Her family always had alcohol on the family dining table, and when folks visited, they were always sent away with a bottle of wine from the vineyard. It was as plentiful as the bottled water we have today.

And Anna, when she was little, used to go to that dining table and pour herself little sips of the palinka and the wine – just quick tastes. She’d do it whenever it pleased her, and no one ever noticed, because there was so much of it!

And as she tells this, we can picture her as a little girl sneaking into the room and pouring herself a quick shot of drink. And suddenly we know her a little bit deeper. We know her beyond her age and status as a grandmother, beyond the eye surgery she just had, or how she becomes tired very easily these day. We know her story, just a little bit more.

All of this because she pauses, and in turn, I can ask questions.

It’s a lovely think to chat with Anna. In those moment, I don’t feel the language divide. I just feel like family.



For Zsolt’s Grandmother

Zsolt will be flying home to Hungary early next week for the funeral of his Grandmother, Gyöngyi Angyal, meaning something like Pearl Angel, a.k.a. Gyöngyi Néni (Old Lady Pearl), who passed away yesterday evening. I’m telling you this because she was an opinionated, cheeky and hugely emotional woman who deserves at least one small story written about her. Really, I think she and her daughter (Zsolt’s aunt) combined could fill an entire novel with their antics (goodness knows I’ve been tempted), but I guess for this moment a blog post will have to do.

When he was a little boy, Gyöngyi babysat Zsolt and his sister. Looking back on this, as he and I lay in bed yesterday – twenty some years later – with our late-night wonderings, Zsolt remembers three things in particular about his grandmother. First, were the doughnuts; she’d bake puffed-up, golden doughnuts with jam-filled centres. Apparently they were like heaven on earth. Second was the dinner table; no one was allowed to leave until they’d finished their meal, as served by Gyöngyi. But as soon as his grandmother turned her back,  the pot suddenly became a little more full with discarded soup or cabbage, or whatever they were eating that day and didn’t want to finish. (Presto! An empty plate.)  Thirdly, probably shortly after the ‘magical empty plate’ trick, he remembers being chased with a wooden spoon – though she was never able to catch him. As they ran around the furniture and tables (something Zsolt still does), Gyöngyi would wave her spoon and say, “No, megállj csak!” meaning, “Wait till I get you!”

The first time I went to Hungary, after Zsolt and I had know one another for about two months, I met his grandmother (and his aunt, a whole other story, but one that always goes alongside Zsolt’s grandmother – they were a mother/daughter power team). From the first meeting onward, she’d ask when we were getting married. Then, later, she’d cry because her grandson was going away (to England) . . . and made me promise to take care of him. And as Zsolt graduated from university with a doctorate degree, there was even more crying – but this time with tears of happiness.  “A doctor in our family!” she kept declaring. Tears upon tears upon tears. “A doctor!”

She was a woman who didn’t just give one kiss on the cheek. She’d get you in close and kiss-kiss-kiss-kiss-kiss you on the cheek, because she loved you, and she wanted you to be happy, and because she couldn’t stand the idea of saying goodbye.

She messed up her hair when her daughter tried to fix it. She’d burp at the table. She’d speak her mind. She’d give generously to her family. She was a property manager of various apartments (her tenants called her granny – and they were of the rougher crowd, yet somehow she charmed them all). She tended her garden meticulously. She made delicious wine with the grapes from her yard. And she loved her family, very, very much.

Ever since meeting the Sámsons, they’ve taken me in and held no grudge or prejudice toward me as an outsider (i.e. someone who couldn’t even speak their language!). In a country where people are weary of strangers, I was instantly considered family, and Zsolt’s grandmother was in every way a part of that acceptance.

I guess the very best thing I can say about Gyöngyi, is that she was funny. Really, really funny. To her, there were no formalities, only pure emotion – nothing ever hidden. There would be tears, but alongside that there would be laughter. Lots of laughter, and even at the age of eighty-nine years old, she could giggle with the best of them. I hope she’s laughing now, free from the pains of old age, and looking down like an angel from heaven. That would be a fitting end (or beginning) for Zsolt’s grandmother, Pearl Angel Sámson, who loved and laughed with all her heart.