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Tim Durnin: Reflections on the Life and Times of My Bubba

Money was tight, but my grandmother's love was a source of lasting richness

Every summer in my youth until my Bubba passed away, we traveled to rural Pennsylvania coal country to a small wood-framed house that sat on an acre of lush, green and futile soil. Regardless of the time of day,the smell of fresh-baked bread permeated every crevice. To this day that smell transports me back to the home of my mother’s childhood.

Our visits were always christened with the staple of my Bubba’s kitchen. A large pot of “golubtzi” (stuffed cabbage) was on the boil as soon as we arrived. My grandmother’s kitchen was the culinary equivalent of The French Laundry of peasant food. She used only fresh ingredients, homegrown vegetables, chicken and eggs from the pen outside, and bread baked daily.

My mother’s family emigrated from Russia, sturdy stock who identified themselves as Carpathian Mountain people with no real nationalistic ties. Their world stretched across parts of Austria, Hungary and Russia. They were sturdy stock with broad shoulders and thick jaws.

My mom was raised a “hunky” in Roscoe, Penn. Her modest house, on the wrong side of the tracks, was just a block from the Monongahela River. The Monongahela served as a food source, an economic base for distribution of the precious coal and an amusement park for the kids who would ride the “busters” behind the ever-present paddle boats.

My Bubba and Pap-Pap raised 12 children in a house with three bedrooms, a kitchen and a sitting room. It had no air conditioning. After the kids had gone out into the world, running water and indoor plumbing arrived. Even on our visits, the outhouse still stood in the back corner of the expansive lot.

My mother was a Depression-era baby. By the time she could comprehend, the worst of the Depression had passed and she was just poor, although she claims she didn’t know it. But those values instilled by years of austerity permeated every aspect of my upbringing. It is why I can’t bring myself to throw anything away that might be of some nominal value, it’s why I clean my plate at every meal and why am plagued by guilt when food goes bad and must be thrown away.

There were times when my mother and her family went hungry. Dinners in the summer often consisted of an ear of sweet corn dipped in homemade butter made with cream delivered by the family cow. But in all of the telling of the stories by my many aunts and uncles, there was never any regret or feeling of being deprived. They were content.

I always felt safe and loved there. My grandmother was the caricature of what a grandmother should look like. She was short and wide with long gray hair that she would braid and stack on top of her head each morning. Think Aunt Bea from Mayberry R.F.D. with a thick Slavic accent. I would suffocate in her chest as her arms wrapped around me in her particular and loving embrace.

By today’s standards, my Bubba would still be considered poor. But the richness of the time I spent there cannot be overstated. Hours were spent around the kitchen table reminiscing and hearing stories from the Depression back to their emigration to this country. A constant flow of neighbors traveled in and out of that kitchen, always leaving fed and satisfied.

We spent many evenings on the front porch swing, where my father proposed to my mother. The balmy, humid Pennsylvania nights almost demanded that we stay outside until it was time to go to bed. I still have that swing. It waits for me to return it to its former glory.

I went back to the old house several years ago. A recent flood had rendered it inhabitable. Vegetation had grown tall around and in it, so thick that I could not make my way any closer than 50 yards. It stood sad and ready to surrender. It has since been razed — as have all of the surrounding homes, effectively erasing the only tangible connection I had to those memories. I would have liked to have taken my kids there.

So much has changed that it is hard for me to instill these lessons in my children. As we have become more prosperous as a culture, we have also become more distant, more self-reliant and less dependent on a community for support, connection and entertainment. Sometimes I wonder if our throwaway culture is really progress.

The words that echo the loudest from my grandmother are these: “Takže Vaše meno hore.” Translated this means, “So your name goes up.” In reality I’m not sure that is possible for me or for most people. I can’t begin to compare my life of ease and comfort to the daily, hard work of survival embodied in my Bubba and her brood.

My hope is that in some small moment in my life, I have been able to demonstrate her kind of strength and courage. And I hope I can, in some small measure, pass on the heroic work of my grandmother to my own daughters that they might strive for that moment as well.

— Tim Durnin is a father and husband. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for comments, discussion, criticism, suggestions and story ideas.

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