My Nana’s eyes were filling with tears, but she was still smiling.

“He agreed to fix all of the shoes for the women in the shop, and in exchange, they gave him silk stockings for all of his girls.  All three of us and my mother. Even though we didn’t have much money, I always had silk stockings. It felt so good. You can’t even find silk stockings anymore.”

Her eyes let me know that she was no longer sitting in the kitchen with me, in 2012. She was walking past seemingly endless rows of tract houses on Chicago’s south side, in a close knit, poor immigrant community. She was helping her mother butcher whole pigs and bake kolackys, but not in the traditional, wrapped way that her mother had learned growing up in Czechoslovakia. No. “We are in America now. We do things the American way. The easy way.” Instead of wrapping the sweet apricots or sesame seeds up in the flaky cream cheese dough until they looked like snug babushkas, my Nana watched her mother roll the dough out flat, and cut it into circles using one of her husband’s whiskey glasses. She pressed three fingers into the middle of the circle, making “puppy dog feet” in the center, and filled the indentation with apricots, baking the cookies flat.

“I never knew very much Czechoslovakian, because my mother refused to speak it once she got to America. ‘We are American now!’ Steve was the one who was fluent. He taught me so much.” She ran her hands along her dented and scratched kitchen table. “He used to say that he would have to work forever just to keep me in silk stockings! He and my father would laugh about it. My father would tell him, ‘Keep her in silk stockings,’” finally, she smiled up at me. A small jolt ran through her as she looked at me, saw me, her grown granddaughter, breastfeeding a newborn great-granddaughter to sleep. She paused.

“I can’t believe it’s been ten years.”

I nodded. “I miss Dedo.”

A familiar look crossed her face. I never knew if it was sadness, or worry, or some combination of both, but we all recognized it when we saw it. Her brows wrinkled together, and she placed her fingertips up against her lips, lightly patting them, almost trembling. Soon, she’ll start picking her nails. She’s always so anxious. Dedo was the only one who knew how to calm her down.

“Is there anything you wish you could still say to him? Or do for him?”

The second I asked the question, I was sorry for it. Why am I trying to make this 87-year-old woman remember her loss?  Her loneliness? Am I trying to make her feel the guilt of her regrets? I wanted to get closer to my memory of Dedo, but did I have to do it by torturing her? I looked down, and forced a chuckle, “I mean, Dedo was the first adult to swear at me. He called me a little shit. Do you remember that? He was such a hard ass . . .”

“Eggs.”

“Huh?”

“I never made him over easy eggs.” The worried look was gone. There was a calmness, a solidity to her expression that I rarely saw. “After his heart attack—you know, that was back in 1968—all of the doctors told you to stay away from eggs. He loved breakfast. He’d eat it for every meal if he could. Every morning, I’d wake up, pour us some juice, get the paper, and we’d have our breakfast together. Drink coffee. Read the paper. And he loved runny eggs. He would beg me, ‘Helen, please. Just one egg.’ He loved to dip his toast in it.” Rye toast. Another nod to the old country. Nana has only ever had rye bread in her house. White bread just doesn’t have enough flavor for her. “But I never made him an egg. I made him eat these awful, powdered eggs. You had to add water to them, and then cook them. They only came scrambled.  They were like rubber.” She stared down at the well-worn kitchen table, running her fingertips along the deep scratches and roughness. She whispered, “I could have made him an egg. Just one egg.” She looked up at me. Solid once again. “It would have made him so happy. And I could have done it. But I never did. I never did. Just that little thing. It would have made him happy all day. And what would it have mattered? Just one egg. You know, now they say that you can have eggs, even with a bad heart. I kept arguing with him and arguing with him. ‘Steve,’ I’d say, ‘You have to follow doctor’s orders!’”

She smiled a little. My grandparents were almost always engaged in loud, lengthy power struggles. Both were too stubborn to admit defeat.  Too proud to apologize.  Dedo was an adventurous spirit. A tinkerer who never read the directions. Nana was a dutiful daughter, close to her family. Dedo made sure she left the house every now and then, and Nana made sure he didn’t electrocute himself. They both were determined to do it on their own, and they both could never admit that they were lost without each other.

“Just one egg. It would have made him so happy. I could have made him so happy. And I didn’t.”

My mind flickered back to a conversation I once had with an Iraq veteran. We were splitting a six pack while crashing at a friend’s house, and I once again couldn’t stop myself from asking the wrong question, “So, what was it like over there?”

His beer stopped halfway to his mouth. Our friend’s orange kitten jumped on the couch next to him, and he scratched her small head for awhile before answering.

“You couldn’t get good eggs over there.”

“Huh?”

“None of the eggs are pasteurized over there, so you have to cook them all the way through. The scrambled eggs would be brown on one side. They’d just cook the shit outta the eggs. You couldn’t get good eggs.”

Then, we watched Jeopardy.

That was all he would say.

 

Love, and family, and home. Those all sound like really big things. Things that need big gestures, or big structures, or big people, or big moments.  As I spoke with my grandmother, holding my new daughter, I kept waiting for, looking for, anticipating, something big.

But maybe all of those things are actually very small.

Maybe home is that scratch on the counter where your husband sliced the rye bread without a cutting board.

Maybe family is baking kolackys the “easy” way.

Maybe love is pair of silk stockings.

Maybe love is bickering for hours, then splitting a glass of orange juice over the morning paper.

Maybe love is watching every single Cubs game together for fifty years.

Maybe love is a single, runny egg.

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