Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 8:45:30 PM
Raised in Eastern Europe or possibly the Russian Empire, my grandmother could get by in a handful of languages. I don’t know about the other languages, but her English was heavily accented. That fit in just fine when and where I grew up in Upstate New York. Many grandparents and more than a few parents were first generation immigrants.
Our small city bore no resemblance to New York City. There were no neighborhood concentrations of immigrants from any one country or conversant in any one language. Being immersed and dispersed, they generally had no choice but to learn some words of English if they were to communicate beyond the family.
A Proverbial Melting Pot
The fellows who worked in my father’s store at different times were all 2nd generation--Polish, Irish, Italian.
If I were helping out in my father’s store, for lunch, I might cross the side street to enter the back door of a small food market. There, the owner would prepare a sandwich for me and make up a price. He’d speak a mix of English and Italian to me and Italian to himself or a helper.
Or I might walk around the block to a diner, owned and staffed by a school classmate’s family. Whether cooking or handling the counter or few tables, the parents would speak English with patrons, Greek to each other and both languages with their children.
Where we lived, the house on one side was expanded to accommodate a small convenience store. The owners, French Canadian, would switch smoothly between French and English. In the house on the other side lived a young family on the first floor and the wife’s parents, who emigrated from the Ukraine, upstairs. The wife’s husband was Irish, at least 2nd generation. And so forth throughout the neighborhood.
Although I haven’t been back in almost half a century, I suspect the city hasn’t changed much as far as its melting pot goes even if the countries of immigrant origin have changed.
Anyway, I’ve strayed too far from my grandmother and her accent.
What’s in a Name?
It was my birthday. I was old enough that there was no need to go overboard celebrating, but my mother wanted to have a birthday cake. When she found herself too busy in the store to go home and bake, she asked my grandmother to pick out a cake and have it decorated at the bakery.
After dinner that evening, my mother began preparing for a birthday dessert. She found her supply of candles and matches, set out a serving knife and dessert plates, took a scissors from the counter drawer, cut the string on the cake box, opened the lid, looked inside and…laughed.
“Warren,” she called, “come here and look at your birthday cake.” We all crowded around. Filling the square white box was a round cake with white frosting, blue icing and red letters that wished, “Happy Birthday Vaughn!”
Of all the birthday cakes I’ve been honored to receive, the cake my grandmother bought is the only one I’ll never forget. And it was delicious.
Copyright 2012 by Warren R. Philipson. All Rights Reserved.