A subtle smile, controlled by heartstrings, graces my face with memories of my Czech heritage and Anna, my great grandmother. I called her grandma-grandma. She called me her little Bohemian “hezká holka” which means pretty girl. She gathered me to her ample lap while enveloping me in warmth. We basked in the moment while our hearts grew fuller. She reached for my chubby hand and drew little circles with her finger on my palm. “Vařila! Vařila!” she began as anticipation grew.
“Vařila” is a Czech nursery rhyme about a momma mouse cooking porridge. “Tomu dala” she continued as the momma dished breakfast to each of her babies, otherwise known as my fingers. Oh no! There was no porridge for the last baby so she ran to the pantry. “Zoobie, Zoobie, Zoo.” Grandma-Grandma’s fingers scurried up my arm to tickle my neck as giggles burst forth.
I’ve carried this Czech heritage tradition on with my own kids, children at the ball field, friends’ little ones and now, my own grandchildren. My soul soars as their faces light up while extending their opened palms towards me. But first, I gather them to my lap for a hug. It’s been thirty-five years since that sweet woman wrapped her arms around me but in times like these, her love cocoons me once again.
The Secret Ingredient is Love
Grandma-Grandma was the undisputed best baker in the world, according to me. A stoneware bowl, dough brush, thermometer, aluminum measuring spoons, red-handled tools, and a silver Presto timer cluttered the counters of her cramped space.
The white stove with a double oven warmed the small kitchen. The aroma of cinnamon and apple swirled as the timer announced streusel ready for a dollop of vanilla ice cream. This scented memory explains my own sweet tooth and ample lap.
The painstaking labor of beating one egg at a time, into the heavy dough, formed the fluffiest cream puffs that ever melted in my mouth. We beamed as the pudding-like whipped cream squished out the sides and the dusting of powdered sugar tickled our noses.
A walk down memory lane requires kolaches. One for each hand, please. The pungent aroma of yeast mixed with the sweet fragrance of cherry, apricot and even prune filling could tempt any pallet. While she removed the dark brown, seasoned baking sheets from the oven, I waited at the table with my mouth salivating. Always with a green bottle of lemon-lime soda only available to me in grandma-grandma’s kitchen.
Braided rolls, sprinkled with poppy seeds, donned holiday dinner tables. They still do, in my home, with the help of the baking tools she passed on to me. I haven’t mastered her light-as-air pastry quality but I’m proud to serve them anyway. They are a sight to behold as the golden crust highlights the entwined dough. And my kitchen smells just like hers on this holiday.
A Cherished Tradition
Her labor-intensive “houska” remains my family’s most cherished Czech heritage Christmas tradition. This braided pyramid of spiced sweet bread, fragrant with lemon zest, is chock-full of almonds and golden raisins. We race to be the first to grab thick slices as they spring from the toaster. Slathered with butter, the delicacy melts in our mouths as memories and taste collide.
The twenty-second of December is deemed “houska” baking day. It is a time-honored tradition bestowed on me for the last fifteen years. This day also marks the anniversary of my Great Grandmother Anna’s birth. There is no greater way to honor this remarkable matriarch.
Czech-ing on my Heritage
When a friend pleaded with me to host a foreign exchange student – and wouldn’t take no for an answer – I caved by saying, “A girl from the Czech Republic.” With our application submitted, background checks completed, and a frantic decluttering of the spare bedroom, she arrived the following week.
At the airport, we waved a patriotic banner heralding “Vítáme Vás – Welcome to America.” And a jet-lagged, sleepy-eyed girl, found her host family. Before heading home to Heritage Lane, I held her hand, opened her palm, and performed my best rendition of “Vařila.” Confusion clouded her eyes until, quite to my excitement, her face lit up. She knew what I was saying!
She brought a book, written in English, to teach us about her country and customs. Exquisite chocolate sweetened the deal. She shared “koruna” for our coin collection. Her own grandmother sewed an adorable angel as a thank you gift. Relief swept over me as I received her thumbs-up approval when serving dumplings for the first time. We anxiously await the holiday season to share our “houska” tradition.
Each night at dinner, she teaches me new words. “Jedna, dvě, tři,” I can count to three! I pick up “banán” and “ananas” at the store and other fruit. I’m having an incredible time learning about my Czech heritage and look forward to seeing this foreign land with my own eyes.
Did I mention? Her name is also Anna. Life came full circle, here on Heritage Lane.