Every other Sunday for as long as I can remember, my brother and I would go over to Nana and Papaâ€™s for dinner. The food was always the same: chicken and noodles, followed by fruit and, only once we had finished our fruit, a little cup of chocolate chips. Either before or during dinner we would watch T.V., first â€œWheel of Fortune,â€ and once we grew older, â€œ60 Minutes.â€ After dinner we played card games or scrabble. But what I remember most about Sundays at my grandparentsâ€™ house is the stories they told.
My grandma is a natural storyteller, and before dementia clouded my grandpaâ€™s thoughts, he was too. My brother and I would sit attentively on the couch, listening to them tell stories. They talked about their life as children in Poland before the war; their makeshift wedding in the ghetto of Radom, the city where they both grew up; and the difficulties of assimilating into American society as â€œfresh off the boatâ€ immigrants in Minneapolis.
My grandma was 15 when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, so she never finished high school. Though she now has a degree in economics and an honorary Ph.D. she still likes to refer to herself as a â€œhigh school dropout.â€ The road from high school to doctorate was anything but easy.
In 1950, after my grandpa had finished his schooling at the University of Stuttgart, in Germany, they moved to Minneapolis to join my great-uncle and great-grandfather who had moved to the U.S. a few years earlier. My grandma describes her experience in the economics department at the University of Minnesota: the only woman in a class of men, she took essay exams in a language she did not yet fully understand while working full time. She was lucky, she always says, that most of her tests were based around math, because that, at least, is universal. But still, her elementary English skills made school, and life, difficult in those early years.
But my grandma was not going to let language barriers hold her back. She just worked even harder to learn English as quickly as possible. She recalls going to the movies as often as they could, because it was a good way to practice their English. Although Iâ€™m not sure how they could afford it, with my grandpa earning just $1.87 an hour when he first started as an electrical engineer at the local power company.
These days, in perfect, unaccented English, my grandma tells me new storiesâ€”and some that I have heard many times beforeâ€”every time I go to her house for chicken and noodles. And I do my best to absorb every word so I can share Nanaâ€™s stories with my children when she is no longer around to tell them herself.