Grandma Jenny slipped shoveling snow off the front steps of our home in the midst of a fearsome snow storm at the age of ninety-six and broke her hip. She was a feisty little woman who weighed only ninety-five pounds and stood four feet-nine inches tall. The shovel was bigger than Grandma. You might wonder why she was out shoveling snow early in the morning at her advanced age, but it was part of her stubborn and cantankerous nature. And it was a part of her tradition. She didn’t want my father going to work and getting his feet wet in the snow. It was a matter of respect for the man of the house. It was her way.
Grandma was from the old country – Russia to be specific. She came to the United States as a girl of fourteen traveling for fifteen days on a tramp steamer and surviving on bread and water. She lost her provisions, her money, and her clothes on the trip over to thieves that hounded naïve, unsuspecting young girls such as her as a normal part of refugee voyages in those days. Most people though it was the work of greedy members of the crew. She arrived in this country penniless and literally with only the clothes on her back. But nothing could stop Grandma from making a new life in the land of her dreams, or bringing with her the rituals and traditions that were an innate part of her heritage, her faith, and of her very being.
Until she slipped and broke her hip, Grandma Jenny had always been healthy. None of us in the family could remember her having a cold. She attributed her good health to a secret potion of Elderberry Brandy that she distilled in the attic of our Georgian Colonial House. I have no idea where she got the Elderberries from or how she prepared the brew. We were never allowed up to her special place in the attic to see what she was doing. Everything that Grandma did was a secret.
Grandma had a shot of the special potion when she woke up in the morning and when she went to bed at night, that much she told us. To the best of my knowledge it was the only medicine she ever took. On rare occasions such as holidays and birthdays, we were all invited to join her for a sip of her Elderberry Brandy. I was allowed to participate from the time I was a teenager. Boy did that stuff pack a wallop. It is no wonder that Grandma was never sick. The brandy must have killed the germs. My dad didn’t really like it. He was a scotch man. My mother struggled to swallow it. She didn’t drink. We all participated in the Ritual. No one in the family was about to insult Grandma Jenny. She was too tough a cookie to be trifled with.
On one of the rare occasions when Grandma Jenny bothered to talk to me, communication was a problem since she spoke only Russian; I asked her what was so special about the secret potion? She sort of half smiled at me indicating that when I was more mature I would understand, pointing at my head. Grandma was great at the universal language of hand signals. I do understand a little Russian, but I don’t speak the language. Fortunately for me Grandma did understand English except when she chose to pretend that she didn’t. Even the dog understood Russian because Grandma fed him and he didn’t speak at all. When she called him to come and get it in Russian, he came running. No one disobeyed Grandma. The dog was a huge Boxer named Slugger. It was amazing to see him cower in front of my Grandmother, and wait for her command allowing him to eat. He sure didn’t act like that with my father or me. He once jumped up on my Dad and pushed him so hard that he fell down and dislocated his shoulder. Slugger wouldn’t dare jump up on my Grandma. The dog knew better.
After Grandma passed away, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was so special about her secret potion and how to make it. Grandma wasn’t big on measurements or recipes. She insisted that you just add a little bit of this and a little bit of that. This was the way she talked when someone wanted to know how to make her yeast coffee cake or her saffron laced ginger-carrot candy. Unfortunately the secrets died with her.
I think I finally have the answer when it comes to the secret potion. It wasn’t the herbs that she added. It wasn’t how high the alcohol content was. It was the love with which she made it and dispensed it to the whole family. It represented to her a melding of old traditions and new rituals. It symbolized her faith in God, and the respect she had for our family and our Country. It was a way for her to celebrate her freedom. It was her way of communicating to us in a language of kindness and caring that we could all understand.
Sometimes when I sip a little brandy late at night to help calm me from the stress of the day and the threat of terrorism, I wonder, couldn’t we all use a little of Grandma’s secret potion to help us through these troubled times? The commercial stuff doesn’t seem to be doing the trick anymore. It lacks the tradition of caring, kindness, and love necessary to make it a special brew. It lacks that personal faith-filled touch of Grandma Jenny. It doesn’t have her tenacious character or her will to survive. It lacks respect.
There are some things that you can’t put in a bottle, smack a label on, and expect to work miracles. Sometimes you have to find the right ingredients in your own heart. Sometimes you have to distill them yourself. Sometimes the secret potion of faith is within you.