“I need a drink with baking soda … my throat is burning and I can hardly swallow.” This was my grandmother’s signature phrase. Her custom was to deliver it with urgency and pathos at the entrance to my parents’ living space in our family house in Plovdiv. She would lean forward through the half-opened door. Her hand timidly rested on the door handle. My grandmother’s craving for the unassuming white powder hovered over the table in our dining area.
As I grew older, I learned to recognize the slight variations in tone and wording depending on the person who my grandmother addressed. I sensed that my grandmother’s need for baking soda revealed something crucial about her personality. It also had to do with her position in our family.
Baking soda was one of the goods that were available on the semi-empty shelves of Bulgaria’s communist economy. However, my grandmother didn’t keep baking soda in the shabby cupboard of her attic kitchen. In a way, it was odd that the powder she daily craved was not within her reach. It was the jar of baking soda in my mother’s kitchen on the floor below that held captive my grandmother’s interest. She believed that jar to be the key to her dilemmas, beyond easing the discomfort of her acid reflux. In a figurative sense, it opened the door to her daughter’s domain.
My grandmother and mother occupied two different realms underneath one and the same leaky roof. The improvised bookshelves in our dining area held together my mother’s world. They reached all the way up to the ceiling and completely covered the glass wall, thus blocking the light and leaving the room dimly lit. It seemed as if my mother used her books at the entrance to her living space to protect herself from a threat only visible to her.
The books on these shelves spelled out the geography of my mother’s mind. Most of them were European classics with a strong bias for German literature — Heinrich Böll, Hermann Hesse, Max Frish, Günter Grass and Thomas Mann. There were also Russians and Soviets– Lev Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov and Mikhail Sholokhov. Latin American authors were more sporadic — Jorges Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. There were some US ones — John Steinbeck and Ken Kesey. The end of the bookshelves were spilling piles of LIK, a Bulgarian magazine on literature, art and culture, of which my mother unfailingly kept on top.
My mother had strong ideas about the countries from which these authors came. Germany was the place of my grandfather’s graduate education. It was a destination to which my mother would have gladly traveled, if Communist Bulgaria had allowed its citizens to freely go abroad. She aspired to be like my grandfather. She considered him to be a savant who had followed his intellectual pursuits despite losing his university job. (This was the price he paid for not chiming in with communist propaganda.) West Germany was also the country to which my uncle had defected in order to pursue his Ph.D. degree. My mother would have gladly followed his example. However, she believed that as a woman she lacked the necessary courage and determination. Supposedly, even as a ferocious reader, she could never match the intellectual prowess of a man.
My mother was shrewdly aware that the books she was reading were censored. In the Bulgarian translation of Böll’s Billiards at Half Past Nine all passages in which its author criticized totalitarian states were missing. The communist elite was afraid that such reading could instill critical thought in common folks and they might recognize that Bulgaria was also a totalitarian country. Who knows what would have happened then …
Even though the publication of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was posthumously allowed in the Soviet Union, the parts critical of the regime were also left out. Bulgakov’s complete manuscript was only printed behind the Iron Curtain, in France and West Germany. For my mother West Germany was a place of intellectual freedom, while the Soviet Union stood for censorship and repression. After all, this is where the Bulgarian ruling class got its ideas for abusing the civil rights of its citizens.
I suspected that my mother considered the geography of her mother’s mind to be limited. Its center was my grandmother’s attic kitchen. Its outermost location was Koprivshtitsa, where my grandmother was born. In between lay the farmers markets and grocery stores that my grandmother frequented in her daily effort to tend to our family. My grandmother read mostly French novels but my mother hardly ever asked about them. She addressed my grandmother only to inquire about the daily menu. The casual way in which she used my grandmother’s first name, thus breaking cultural conventions, suggested slight derision. It implied that she didn’t think much of her mother’s daily efforts to feed the family.
For my mother, it was vital that her books hovered over the food my grandmother cooked for us. When she sat at the table in our dining area, she looked up to them and not down at the mundane stuff that my grandmother had served on her plate. Food for thought was far more important than common sustenance. My mother believed she could numb her sense of taste by staring at her books and going through their titles in her head.
The superficial ignorance of youth was certainly behind my mother’s disparaging attitude towards her mother as our household cook. However, way deeper than this lay a subconscious fear that, in spite of all her efforts, my mother could not really get ahead of her mother because, like her, she was a woman. An awareness that even with a university degree and an impressive array of knowledge a woman could not accomplish much in Bulgaria’s patriarchal society made my mother angry and bitter. It was culturally unsuited for a woman to make big decisions that influenced the world. This was a man’s job. Even the German political theorist Hannah Arendt had supposedly said so. Arendt’s misconstrued views on gender provided my mother with some meager consolation. And so did her inconspicuous efforts to put my grandmother down.
On the surface, my grandmother accepted her daily humiliation with humility. She was soft spoken and met my mother’s slight derision with an obliging faint smile. Most of the time, while setting the table and serving our food, her gestures were timid and she kept her gaze low. On all counts, it seemed that my grandmother had agreed to her role as a cook and housekeeper so that my mother could tend to her intellectual pursuits. Upon my mother’s marriage, my grandmother had quietly retreated to the attic in her father’s house, thus leaving the spacious second floor to her daughter’s family. She came downstairs to bring our food and serve it. When we were finished eating, she re-appeared to tidy things up and do the dishes. Then she was once again quickly gone until she appeared to request a drink of baking soda.
My grandmother’s attic kitchen was confining for sure. However, it was still over our heads where my docile grandmother scurried along in pursuit of her insignificant daily tasks. Usually the sound of her feet was muffled and soft. However, on occasion, my grandmother stomped on the boards and then a cloud of dust from the overfilled bookshelves would fill the air of our dining space. To me, it looked as if a mass of baking soda had suddenly swept over my mother’s head.
Mid-afternoon, when we were all fed and her services were no longer needed, my grandmother’s head would pop in her daughter’s doorway to request a drink with baking soda. Her gesture of hesitantly placing her hand on the door handle conveyed humility. In itself, her request appeared rather innocent. However, the tone of her voice and the way she stressed each word rather than what she actually said conveyed her real message: my grandmother was seriously unwell. Her throat and chest were burning. For all she knew, her life might be even in danger. Therefore, her daughter should jump to her feet to get her baking soda in the nick of time.
My grandmother’s eyes would stare accusingly at my mother’s face. How could her daughter forget that her mother had her own needs! It seemed as if she almost wished her daughter would falter for a second. This would give my grandmother a chance to fall to the floor, presumably dead. And then, on whose conscience would my grandmother’s demise weigh? On her snooty daughter’s of course!
My grandmother was like Franz Kafka’s Josephine the Singer. A tremor in her voice could make my mother drop her issue of LIK to fetch my grandmother a drink with baking soda. The transformation my grandmother’s personality underwent in moments like this was miraculous. It had nothing to do with her ordinary, docile self in her role as her daughter’s housekeeper. Day in and day out, my grandmother unobtrusively took care of our daily needs and worked magic in my mother’s household. When she brought out the food she had prepared, the whole family came together. My grandmother’s delectable dishes filled even my mother with awe, despite her overt efforts to ignore them. Regardless of the heated fights and disagreements at the core of my parents’ relationship, my mother and father unfailingly sat with us at the table, when my grandmother served the food she had cooked with so much care.
As a child, I was expected to finish everything on my plate. I was a picky eater, and this took a long time, often a couple of hours. My non-cooperation at mealtimes added another task to my grandmother’s list of household obligations. Long after everyone else had finished eating, she had to sit with me at the empty table and make sure I had eaten all my food. To take my attention off my plate, my grandmother read to me. While I was absorbed in a story, she slipped into my mouth spoonfuls of food until eventually all of it was gone.
When reading, my grandmother’s mouth and throat went dry, and she needed a drink with baking soda. If her son-in-law, my father, was around, my grandmother would ask him for it in a polite and quiet tone of voice. He usually fulfilled this request promptly, even though his custom was to ignore my mother, whenever she wanted him to do something for her. Normally, my father was the kind of person who made it clear that it was him who had to be served first. In his opinion, everyone else in the household came second to him. This attitude infuriated my grandfather, who lived under the same roof with us. When I was older, I started wondering why my father didn’t waver from obliging my grandmother, while he was so disrespectful towards her daughter and husband. Was it because he wanted to annoy my grandfather even more? Or was it because he wanted to belittle my mother indirectly by pointing out to her that instead of reading books and literary magazines, she should try to be more like my grandmother, the brilliant cook and housekeeper?
The stories that my grandmother read to me while I was struggling to finish my food, were the standard literary fare which educated Eastern Europeans fed to their children: Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the tales of Alexander Pushkin, the Brothers Grimm, and E. T. A. Hoffmann. One Andersen story in particular used to engage me long after I had swallowed my last bite: The Snow Queen. At the beginning of this fairy tale, the devil makes a mirror which distorts the look of things. The mirror doesn’t show the positive in human beings, only their magnified negative traits. Eventually, it breaks into pieces as small as grains of sand, which enter people’s eyes and transform their hearts into ice. The main characters in the story, the boy Kai and girl Gerda, are neighbors and best playmates. They are good-natured and affectionate until pieces of the devils mirror get into Kai’s eye and heart. He turns cold and cruel not just to Gerda but also to his loving, kind, and caring grandmother.
As a little girl, I saw myself as Kai. Deep inside, I nursed feelings of guilt for being unappreciative, disrespectful and unloving to my grandmother. I was sure that I deserved to be punished for not wanting to eat her dishes and not being affectionate enough to her.
By sitting at the table to eat with us and insisting that we finish the last morsel of food on our plates, our parents undoubtedly wanted to teach us respect. This was a hard lesson to learn. Everyday I witnessed the family’s dismissive treatment towards my grandmother. Even though I sensed the effort and care my grandmother invested into the things she did for us, I still imitated my mother’s negative attitude. As a child I didn’t know how to mend things and turn them around, for I had close to no examples of appreciation and kindness towards women like my grandmother that I could follow. As a result, a contradiction shaped the core of my childhood identity. As a little girl, I was Kai, who had the control and authority to be cruel. This power came at the price of bottomless guilt. I was painfully aware that I was the perpetrator of a wrong doing that deserved serious reprimand and punishment.
In her late seventieth, my grandmother had an accident and broke her hip. Because of this, she was bedridden for the rest of her life. My mother took over her chores in the household, and lovingly took care of my grandmother at home. When my grandmother passed away on the day before her ninetieth birthday, my mother was inconsolable in her grief. We were sitting at dinner, when she once said to me, “You know, your grandmother was a fine, fine woman. We were honored to eat the food she had touched with her hands.”
Her unsurpassed dishes gathered us around the dining table. They filled even my mother with awe, even though she pretended to ignore them. Throughout the day, my grandmother worked magic in my mother’s household and she seemed to modestly accept her role as my mother’s housekeeper. My grandmother’s craving for baking soda completely transformed her. Her imposing request for a drink with the white powder could make my mother jump and drop her issue of LIK. When I was older, it reminded me of the way my grandmother had stared at the hawk in the church on Easter.