From Bratislava to Windsor, four thousand and five hundred miles made up the distance between the life she knew and the life she made.
She learned to live on nothing during the war. She emigrated to Canada with her husband. He built her a tiny grey house. She gave him a daughter. They named her Jennie. He worked at a foundry and died of lung cancer before I was born, but I carry him with me. His first name is the second half of my first name, with only a hyphen to separate it from the first four letters that make me who I am. Everyone outside of my family has always assumed it's my middle name. It isn't. It's part of my given name.
After her husband died, she lived on a four hundred dollar a month pension. She always paid her bills on time. No one gave her any money. She wouldn't have taken it if they tried. She paid for her own funeral.
Four hundred dollars a month and she did that.
She was a miraculous cook. No one who ate her food ever forgot how it made them feel like a better version of who they thought they were. She never swore. The closest she came was saying, "Piece of snot!" when she was frustrated. She couldn't watch "Murder, She Wrote". Angela Lansbury gave her the creeps.
She cleaned her ears with a bobby pin wrapped in a Kleenex tissue. She washed her birdbath every day and filled it with fresh water for the sparrows. She used a steel bucket.
"We wouldn't take a bath in dirty water," she said. "They shouldn't have to either."
I used to count the grey cement patio stones in her backyard.
"Sploosh!" she would say when a bird landed in the water.
Not splash. Sploosh. I loved that.
She didn't like feral cats. She called them dryáda. Wood nymphs. Always having careless sex. Never settling down. She never remarried. She didn't even date. When her husband died, that was it for her. She would visit his grave at the cemetery and the old men who were there to visit their wives would hit on her.
"Shame on you," she would say. "Your wife's right over there. You think she doesn't see you?"
The one extravagance she allowed herself was sugar. She could never get any in Czechoslovakia. In her little house, she would make herself a huge mug of instant coffee, load it up with sweetness, and sit in her rocking chair, breaking soda crackers into the hot brown nectar and eating it like a bowl of soup.
That was happiness.
People always came to her for advice. Her instincts were never wrong. She saw everything. At Christmas she would work in shifts with Jennie, cooking and baking and feeding whoever came through, always giving them a plate of food to take home.
Her house was the place everyone gathered. It was where they went when everything fell apart. Family was more than just a word there.
I have a tiny brass elephant figurine that belonged to her. I have a blanket she made. When I was small enough, I used to wear her pyjamas. Years after she was gone, they still smelled like her.
When Jennie died, a part of her died too. She made it another six years. She decided that was enough. Her health wasn't going to break down unless she broke it herself, so she stopped eating. She stopped speaking. She shut down.
I remember seeing her close to the end. I was eight. She was staying with my Uncle Victor and his wife. They got her to eat some soup, for all the good it was going to do. She was a skeleton with skin. She was already gone. I don't think she even knew who I was.
I can't taste her food anymore. I was too young to burn that memory into my mind. But I can still see the little spikes hanging from the white plaster ceiling in her living room, stalactites in the safest cave I could ever hope to find. And I can see her watching the birds wash themselves in the water she gave them, laughing and saying, "Sploosh."