(by Rita Slanina)
I’m the product of four cultures: Italian, Sicilian, Austrian, and Slovak (more precisely, a
little-known farming valley in between Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia now known as
Slovenia). Honoring these different backgrounds can prove difficult. One thing they all
have in common was the hard work ethic they brought to the Americas.
My Austrian maternal grandmother was part of the German army in the Second World
War—whether voluntarily or by force was never clear—and a volunteer firefighter. During the war, stepping outside could mean being bombed at any time, and walking over dead bodies in the street was commonplace. I don’t know exactly how she met my soon-to-be grandfather, a soldier in the U.S. Army, and can only imagine how a forbidden romance would materialize under those circumstances, but at the end of the war, they married and had a son. They were determined to head for America, but were not allowed to take their child, who was ill. It turned out that he would not join them until he was 16. My grandmother believed her mother refused to send her son to her, while the boy believed he was abandoned by his own mother.
My grandparents went on to have four more sons and, lastly, a daughter: my mother. First settling in West Virginia, they eventually built a house on a farm in Newton Falls, Ohio. But when my mother was eight years old, her father died of a heart attack, leaving my grandmother to support the large family by herself, living off minimal veteran’s benefits and jobs that included making motorcycle seats, working in a factory that made balloons, and cleaning office buildings. She spoke five languages and was resourceful, but money was extremely tight, and there was no family nearby to help (my great-grandmother would never leave Austria, and there were no relatives to mention on my grandfather’s side). So there was a lot of pressure on my mom to act as a second mother in the household.
As the only girl, my mother was spoiled, as much as the family finances would permit, but my gran was overbearing and overprotective of her. She was softer and funnier with me and her other grandchildren, and she enjoyed spoiling all the girls in the family, that I can assure you.
Just as my grandmother and mother did not communicate well, that dynamic played out
between my mother and me. I always yearned for a relationship that included doing arts and crafts together, getting our hair and nails done—the fluffy stuff that can be so pleasurable between mothers and daughters. But that wasn’t who my mother was. She liked working as a secretary, rather than thinking of herself as a housewife, but ensured that dinner was on the table every night. I was expected to clean up and do the dishes, and there wasn’t much time for hanging out and chatting together. She didn’t bake goodies for my school classmates, or have time to volunteer for the field trips. It was a more focused, utilitarian-style and obligations-rooted routine.
One day, I found drawings hidden in her sewing room. I had no idea she could draw, and I wanted to see more, but I was shut out. Maybe she was embarrassed, or maybe it was painful. She also made an attempt at professional modeling, but once she had a family, there wasn’t time for her own dreams, and they were pushed aside.
At around eight years old, I found and fell in love with gymnastics, which would change our family dynamic from typical suburban America to more of a family business. My parents purchased several gyms, which offset the extreme expenses that go with the sport—my mom working in the office and home-schooling me. While she checked my work, homeschooling was a pretty solitary activity, and it was my responsibility to remain on task daily before gymnastics practice. Competitive gymnastics required at least 40 to 50 hours a week in training, with my dad helping to coach me, and we were constantly on the road for competitions. It was my understanding that this was my job, and my contribution to the family.
But after ten years of intense work, I was close to burnout. I had been training for the
Olympics and was two qualifying meets away from it, but I’d had enough. I wanted to be a normal kid again, and I quit. My father shut down and put the facilities up for sale the very next day. And it was all over.
But so was my parents’ marriage. Soon after the end of my gymnastics career, they divorced. I thought that it was my fault, that I was “too much to handle,” and felt abandoned. With a big chip on my shoulder, I placed the blame on my mother and decided to live with my father—a decision that would change the course of my relationship with my mother for some time. My father encouraged me to talk to her when she called, but I just wouldn’t do it. In my mind, I was done, and a decade would pass before we spoke again.
Between the generations of women in my family, there has always been a sternness, stubbornness, and outspokenness. So it took maturity to reach out to my mother again. But one day, when I was in my 20s, I picked up the phone. It was time to accept what had transpired between my parents, and to forgive. It was forgiveness that ended the silence, but it took time to appreciate each other as women. I came to recognize my mother’s patience in letting me figure things out.
When visiting my mother or grandmother as an adult, I was able to engage in new ways
with these two amazing women and learn things about our family’s lineage that I’d never
known. We’d talk about these things in the kitchen and in the garden. My grandmother’s
Depression-era cooking meant that you ate what you came across and/or grew. She
made a Cucumber Potato Salad that I remember eating just about every time I visited,
and she showed me how to make it over and over. I’ve adapted it with American
My mother and I have become friends over food too (and cleaning up your kitchen as
you go is an imperative of hers that I’ve adopted to this day). She sends recipes she finds and loves, while I send her pics of my horrible attempts at baking. I take after my grandmother when it comes to lack of baking skills—she was limited to popping a frozen supermarket pie in the oven. I keep trying to achieve the greatness of my mother’s No-Bake Oatmeal Drop Cookies. As a child, I couldn’t even wait for them to cool on the parchment-lined pan—I’d get a slap on the wrist with a wooden spoon.
But after many jokes made at my expense (remember: we lack tact but implore
honesty), one thing I have been able to master that Mom hasn’t? A loaf of homemade bread.
Rita Slanina is an actress and author who lives in the mountain ranges of Southern
Arizona with her husband and their dog, Bruno. She can be found writing her next
novel, and still working in film/television, at www.ritaslanina.com or
No-Bake Oatmeal Cookies
2 c. sugar
1/2 c. milk
1/3 c. cocoa
1/3 c. butter
2 T. peanut butter
1 t. vanilla extract
3 c. oatmeal
Place sugar, milk, cocoa powder, and butter in medium-sized saucepan.
Bring to a full boil, and boil for 2 minutes.
Off the heat, stir in peanut butter and vanilla extract.
Stir in oatmeal.
Use a teaspoon to scoop and drop balls of dough onto wax paper, and allow to cool.
2 – 3 cucumbers
5 - 6 russet potatoes, unpeeled
1 medium onion, chopped
salt, to taste
bottled Italian dressing
Slice cucumbers, salt, cover, and set aside until cucumbers are wilted.
In a large pot of boiling water, cook potatoes until a knife can pierce them.
Drain and cool.
When potatoes have cooled, peel and cut into pieces in a large bowl.
Squeeze cucumbers of as much liquid as possible, and add to bowl.
Add dressing, toss, and refrigerate until serving.