Finding a common language with my Czech mother-in-law.
Like many American mothers, I had to return to work just twelve weeks after Anna Lee’s birth. Although we made the adjustment smoothly enough (heartbreak notwithstanding), when my mother-in-law Naďa offered to come over for four-weeks and help care for Anna Lee, I thought the idea sounded grand.
Upon emerging from the plane at the crowded JFK International airport, Naďa welcomed her new granddaughter with a huge grin, then immediately started fussing about the baby’s exposed head, bare arms and legs. It was a hot summer day and we were sweating; I immediately felt my nerves tense up and I pushed Anna quickly toward the car. As we drove off toward our New Jersey apartment, Anna started to fret and before I knew it, Naďa was fiddling with the baby’s car seat straps and asking Radek how to get her out. He explained that we couldn’t take the baby out of her car seat while driving. She accepted his explanation, but maintained that that it didn’t make much sense not to soothe a crying baby. She, herself, had declined to wear a seatbelt.
When we arrived home, Naďa opened her two suitcases to reveal only enough clothes to last a long weekend. The rest of the space was filled with traditional Czech gifts for the baby and ingredients to make Czech food. Naďa had brought boxes of chlupaté knedliky (hairy dumpling mix), a cloth sack filled with dried mushrooms, and enough spices to season a vast repertoire of Czech recipes. At the time of Naďa’s visit, Radek’s work schedule kept him away most evenings, so I initially took on the role of hostess. I cooked all the dishes I knew that might meet Naďa’s standard of being warm and hearty. After I ran through my short list of pastas, casseroles, salads and a quiche, Naďa offered to cook. It took me a few days to get over the idea of having someone else in the kitchen, but I soon welcomed the shift in roles and the novel experience of tasting traditional Czech dishes in an American setting.
Life with Naďa went smoothly for the next few days. Although she was frustrated not to find polohrubá mouka (semi-coarsely ground flour) to use in her homemade knedliky (bread dumplings), since the supermarket only carried the finely ground American all-purpose flour. Having often stood in a stupor in front of the multitude of Czech flour choices, I could sympathize. I also knew how confusing the whole supermarket experience was for her. Either Radek or I would always accompany her, since she still hadn’t picked up any English beyond “Thank you.”
Then one day I came home and found Naďa in the kitchen stirring a vat of pureed carrot. My surprise became annoyance when Naďa announced that she’d given Anna Lee her first taste of carrot and reported that she hadn’t liked it very much. Although I’d been talking about feeding Anna Lee her first taste of food since she hit the six-month milestone, I’d never dreamed that Naďa would have taken the initiative herself. I couldn’t express my frustration in Czech well enough, and Radek didn’t really understand why I was upset. So, I bit my tongue and tried to remember how grateful I was that Anna was getting to spend time with her Czech grandmother and was hearing her first words of Czech.
For the most part, my appreciation outweighed the inconveniences. I was truly thankful that Naďa was able to come to the US for an extended visit. She took great delight in American culture and people. When we went for a weekend trip to Atlantic City, NJ, Naďa loved the vibrant colors and the sensory experience. She willingly tried ethnic foods she hadn’t experienced at home, and she always cleaned her plate. We had a few cultural moments, like the time she started to strip off her clothes in the grass at the local pool in order to put on her bathing suit, instead of looking for the changing stalls.
However, by and large, I think that the four-weeks of hosting Naďa in the US did far more beneficial good than the accumulated years of visiting her for a meal or an afternoon when we lived in Prague. In the US, Naďa and I were forced to communicate on a deeper level than we’d done during our shorter visits with her in the Czech Republic, and we actually needed each other in a more tangible way than we had before. Although we had our share of disagreements, usually pertaining to child care philosophy, we always cleared the air afterward. Now, over four years later, Anna Lee and Oliver both adore their grandmother, and Naďa and I have maintained open channels of good communication.