Portraits of Gifted: Nagymama’s Face

When I was a child we would visit my grandmother’s home in Montreal every year. She was a small and delicate woman with sad eyes and an angry pointer finger. She covered everything in plastic, and I do mean everything, and she limited our exploration to a small space while she stirred chicken soup.

She was as strict as she was passionate and when she became angry she’d curse and yell at the cabin-fevered grandchildren in a multitude of languages. She knew every answer, had read every book, and she had the right for every wrong. She was as brilliant to me as she was distant and hard to love.

As the youngest girl in a large family, and relegated as I was to the ‘strange and peculiar’ area of her mind because I couldn’t speak at five years old, I was afforded an invisible vantage point from which to consider which traits I had inherited from her. I was neither petite nor well-spoken; after all, she could speak twelve languages perfectly and I was struggling with one. She was polished and prepared at every moment and I was all unruly curls, chapped lips, and bruises on my shins.

I tried to imagine this woman, polished and poised, preparing her children for the worst and hoping for the best when Nazis invaded her country, her town, and her home. She was given the job of de-threading clothing to make thread for Nazi uniforms. Hours upon hours she would sit and pull at the strings, unravelling other people’s stories, not sure of how her own would end. This was not at all like me- I could barely sit still long enough to tie my shoes.

Sometime between her work detail at a concentration camp and her plastic-covered home she had learned twelve languages, lost countless family members but saved five, escaped across borders amidst gunfire, drugged babies to keep them quiet, changed her name, moved to a new country across the ocean, and raised industrious and successful children. She did not just survive- she had thrived.

It was lost on me as a small child, but it was evident very quickly that if she wanted to protect her home and keep the grandchildren away from her upholstery she had a good reason. She protected her couches the way she protected everything else. She covered the numbers on her arm with her silk blouse for a very good reason. She was smart. She had a sense of self-perseverance and even if I couldn’t appreciate it as a young child, I was in awe of that determination, quick thinking, and passion for her family.

When dementia took over, she spent her final days holding an old dish towel while trying desperately to separate threads. She talked to herself in twelve languages and nobody could make sense of any of them. Her back hunched, her pointer finger was bent, and her eyes were unfocused. I felt sorry for her: how disappointing it would be after so much survival, after being part of such an amazing story, for her to be reliving the worst moment of her life, methodically and robotically, during her final days.

I sat near her but could not get too close. I was no longer hiding under the mahogany foyer table but I was still as unable to speak as when I was five years old. I speak five languages and still couldn’t find one with which I could connect with her.

I can’t imagine speaking twelve languages fluently. I am never polished; in fact, I am quite pleased with myself when I get a shower in the morning before school drop off. I have never been able to sit at one task for hours upon hours, but I’ve never really had to, have I? Not in the way she had to, certainly, and not towards any life’s goal which was so selfless.

Despite all of this, I am the face of my grandmother. I knew I wanted to take this blog in a new direction. I wanted to explore the many different faces of gifted. I don’t think I can do that without being completely candid and exposing everything I have seen, everything I am, and everything I know, even if that means I expose that which I don’t know.

I’d like to think my grandmother sat at her post, pulling at strands, her body frightened but her mind ever moving because she was a face of gifted. She was absorbing languages at a rate of survival and allowing the stories she pulled apart to travel from her fingertips to her future.

The first thing we do as parents of gifted kids and as gifted adults is wonder what apple tree we fell from and then we try to figure out how far. My youngest daughter has a tiny frame and has the same knack for protecting her treasured items. My middle daughter is a perfectionist and would stir her soup for eternity just to be sure she gets it right. My son can learn a language instantly, like oatmeal, and has been known to speak, sing, and yes, fight, in many languages all at once.

As for me, I am a second-hand storyteller and my gift to my grandmother is to make her face, the mirror of my family’s, my first portrait of Gifted.

One thought on “Portraits of Gifted: Nagymama’s Face

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