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Babas and Grossmommies

Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Time Magazine, Wikipedia, CBC, The Boston Globe

by Mary Swander

A friend confessed to me that he has been watching the war in Ukraine and has become fascinated with weapons, the tanks and cruise missiles. “It’s a guy thing, I guess,” he said. I confessed that I was fascinated by women firing javelin anti-tank missiles from their shoulders. But what really has me riveted to the computer are pictures of elderly Ukrainian women with babushkas tied around their heads. Some are injured and carried on stretchers. Some are hobbling over bombed bridges on crutches and canes. Others are cooking on fires in the street, stirring pots of soup. These images of babushkas, or babas, have sent me on a meditation about grandmothers around the world, and the grossmommies in the Amish community surrounding me.

One Christmas I attended the Amish one-room school program. A chorus of young voices arose from the basement steps, the notes pure and clear. Thirteen Amish children and their teacher — who couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old — wound through the meeting room. Each child carried a single white candle, the light glowing in their hands. With angels bending toward the earth.

The candles were snuffed, the lanterns re-lit and the children went into a sing-song rhyming recitation of a poem dedicated to “grandma.” Just one grandma? I thought. There have to be others here. The room was packed with older women, their shawls draped over their shoulders, their white hair pulled back into buns. But when the poem was finished, just one grandma, or grossmommie, stood up and bowed. Then it clicked. I realized that she was the ancestor of all the children, these siblings and cousins smiling out at us with the same grin that swept across the old woman’s face.

Baba, oma, nana, memaw, bubbe, abulela, granny, gram, grosssmommie. Whatever we call her, wherever she lives, in Ukraine or in Buggy Land, we know that she has a unique relationship to her grandchildren. The Hallmark card version of grandma is a kind, nurturing older woman who bakes and sews and dotes on her off-spring. The Amish grossmommies that I have known do all of the above with flare and finesse. They may have four pies baking in the oven at the same time they are making clothes at the treadle sewing machine, all the while they are keeping an eye on a grandchild crawling across the floor.

But Amish grossmommies are more than the stereotype. They are the reservoirs of knowledge, of history, and culture. They know how to speak Deutsch, the Amish German dialect, and have passed it down to at least two generations. They know how to sew on a treadle machine, keeping their families clothed. They know the rules: how Amish are supposed to dress, act, observe the Sabbath and holidays. They know how to manage a large family and farm, keep the books, and make an income on the aside selling baked goods, produce, eggs, quilts, rugs, soap, and seedlings. They know the birthdays and favorite foods of their husband and each of their ten children, but they may lose track when it comes to their grandchildren.

“You have 70 grandchildren?” I asked my neighbor Clara one day. “Do you even know all their names?”

“I know the grandchildren who live here,” she replied. “But not the 140 great-great children. No.”

But she can remember who lived where when. How the land has changed. Where the groves and marshes used to be. When the main road was paved. Who has owned which farm for at least 100 years. Who went to which one-room school, and of course, who married whom.

The Amish grossmommies have thousands of recipes in their heads. Whenever I am stumped on a cooking problem, I turn to one of the neighboring grossmommies. When I was younger, I struggled and struggled to make a good sauerkraut. This is supposed to be easy, I told myself, but my batch just rotted. A stinky mess. So it was a short bike ride down the road to ask Clara, the grossmommie, for advice.

“You have to rub the salt into the cabbage,” she advised. “Really massage it in.”

Next batch: perfect! The golden shredded delight smelled fresh and tasted tangy with every bite.

“My sauerkraut was fabulous,” I told Clara. “Really delicious.”

“Yes, we enjoy ours, too,” Clara said. “We like it on pizza.”

Pizza may be nice, but doughnuts are the real Amish delicacy. One day on my daily walk down the road, Sarah, another grossmommie, called to me from her house where she ran a day care.

“We just made glazed doughnuts,” Sarah said. “Would you like one?”

Inside the kitchen, the air warm, the windows steamed, were five small children, their faces smeared with sugar. The children watched Sarah roll out the dough, then cut the doughnuts with the rim of a wide-mouth Mason jar, poking a hole in the center with an object that looked like a large thimble. The children set the cut doughnuts on a baking sheet, Sarah heating the oil.

Once the doughnuts were fried, cooled, and glazed, the children wrapped up one for me in a napkin, then moved on to the next activity, slipping into the living room where they were each embroidering samplers. Most of the children had gone through the whole alphabet with straight tiny stitches in bright decorative colors of thread. One after another, the children approached me, seeking my approval for their needlework. I nodded silently. Sarah spoke Deutsch to the children and easily and comfortably, they fell into the language.

Wow, I thought to myself, back on the road. Not your usual day care. English children learning to speak German. No blaring T.V., no crying or whining. Just the steady presence of a grossmommie passing on her skills, and the wisdom she holds in both her body and her mind. I tucked my doughnut into my pocket and picked up my pace down the snowy gravel road.

Today, on my walk down that same road, I thought of the video I’d seen in the paper this morning of the grandmother in Ukraine, the collar of her coat pulled up around her neck, protecting her from the cold weather and the blast of the missiles crashing into apartment buildings next to her. She looked like she had been driven out of her home, hadn’t eaten for at least a day, and had decided not to head to the train station and flee her country. Instead, she joined a group of others who took to the streets and in an all-out effort of protest, stood in front of an approaching Russian tank. Her body, filled with wisdom, became a blockade, the knot at the end of the thread that says “Stop. No more.”

Grandmothers—babas or grossmommies—are the teachers, the brave souls, the keepers of our cultures. Some are heroic like those in Ukraine. Others assume a quieter role like those in Buggy Land. Both gather threads and show us how to stitch our lives together again. They give us the recipes for bread or dumplings, doughnuts or sauerkraut. They teach patience. We wait for the rising dough. We learn to understand the slow process of fermentation. But they also teach action. We witness a heroic act of non-violent resistance in Ukraine. We honor that act in a Buggy Land community opposed to all war, a community who will never ride in a tank or launch a cruise missile. Angels are bending near the earth. Babas and grossmommies, stand up and take a bow.