All these years I bake my apple strudel and bring to Senior Center and you say, “Sonja, this strudel, how you make it?” and you do not believe when I say it is easy. So easy. Now you will see.
You must let dough sit hour or more before you make strudel. This dough I make before I come today. It is easy – just flour, water, and a little salt. Let it sit an hour and then it is ready to stretch. Watch. See how I press the dough, push with bottom of my hands. How you say? Palms? Yes, palms. Use palms like this to push, push. Gentle though.
It is good for me to make strudel today, good to come here, get out of the house. With Francek in hospital, I am alone inside my head too much, and now I have this big decision. It is our house in Yugoslavia – I do not know what to do about it.
But that is my problem, not your problem. You are here for strudel.
You must make the strudel dough flat. See how I use my knuckles?
Oh, I forgot. I brought these soup cans to put under the back legs of my table. There. Now you see better?
Good. Now watch me press with my knuckles – press and press and press. This little lump will soon be big, big as this table.
I have wanted many times to teach my children how to make strudel but they do not care. They are so American. They will bring pumpkin pie and whipped cream for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and Nada will see my strudel set out on the table and she will say, “Mom, I told you we were bringing dessert. Why do you trouble yourself so?”
But of course she will mean, “Strudel is not what Americans eat at Thanksgiving.”
Forty-six years old and she is still wishing me to be a Betty Crocker mother.
Ach. They are all grown now. But it was not so easy growing them up. I remember when it was my turn to take a snack to Nada’s first-grade class, we had only cinnamon and flour in the house and no money to buy more, so I made patitsa. I sliced it thin and it looked so pretty with cinnamon swirling in the middle like a spinning top. I set it on my nicest plate (the one Marta painted with the little pink roses) and I carried it all the way to her school, but when Nada saw it, she started crying.
“What is wrong?” I asked her. “What is it about patitsa, it makes you cry?”
“The other mothers bring cupcakes,” she said.
“Cupcakes? What is cupcakes?” and she gave me the kind of look a mule gives its master when he sets one kilo too many on its back.
It is a look I have seen many times …
We are a burden, parents from the old country. The children grow up ashamed and they should not be. There is so much in their Slovene blood to make them proud.
I remember once Milan telling his friend on the phone, “Don’t pick me up at home. I’ll meet you at the beach.” And I said to him, “Milan, you should invite your friend to meet your parents.” He made some excuse. Oh, he was polite. He did not want to hurt my feelings, but I knew he did not want his friend to hear our accents or smell our smells or eat our food, see how poor we are.
None of my children – there are five. Once we had six, but Lija, the baby … such a cold, cold winter and there was fever in the displaced persons camp and she … she is with God.
My children do not like me to cross myself in front of people. Ach! There are so many things we do they dislike.
Five grown children, and not one of them knows how to make strudel.
You see how I have been so so gently pulling the dough as I talk. That little mound we started with? If I was making a whole strudel at home, it would stretch across my whole big table. Here, it will be smaller, but still thin, thinner than this cotton cloth.
You must ease it out. See? You cannot be impatient with strudel dough or you will make holes. Too many holes and the pastry will not hold. Your fingers must be sensitive. They must know when the next small pull will be one too many.
It is very much like raising children, I think. You help them grow by feeling for their strong parts and stretching them over their thin ones. You pull too hard on a weakness and you make a hole.
I sometimes worry that is what happened to Tomas. He is such a smart boy. So good. But he wasn’t like the others. He had fears and I didn’t listen enough. He was afraid of the water. And I made him go to the beach with us. He was afraid of the nuns at school too. Especially the one they called Sister Mary Gestapo. He grew very quiet when she was his teacher. But I was so busy working at the library and washing their clothes and cooking their meals, I could not spend time worrying about a quiet boy. The noisy ones were hard enough. Still, I wish now I sat by his bedside and asked him his fears. Tomas – he is forty-three and he still lives alone.
Holes … Look what I did!
A hole in the dough, that is easy to fix. See? You just touch the edges together and press.
It is not always so easy with children. Even when you try your hardest to do everything right, you make mistakes.
Francek and me, we have so may holes we could make music if we stood outside and let the wind blow through us.
You remember Francek? My husband?
He is unconscious most of the time now. When he talks, it is usually about the war. He is stuck there, in the past.
You know, my children, they laugh about the Nazis. All they know of war is American movies where the good win, but that is not how war is. That is not the truth. Some countries win. Some don’t. But families always lose.
My husband’s father, he was a Yugoslav Senator. When the Nazis came to Maribor, they sent him to Dachau. They use him to test the typhoid. He died three days before the Liberation, may he rest in peace.
Oh, look at that. Flour on my best dress. I should know by now to wear apron, but I was so busy with the turkey and all the glasses to clean and cutting apples for the strudel…
Granny Smith apples are the best here in America. In Ljubljana, we had apple trees all around our house and they gave enough to last the year. Those were the best. So tart. I can still smell them, like perfume.
Of course, the Nazis came and they took the house and the trees. And then the Communists came, and THEY took the house and the trees from the Nazis.
It is strange. All those men taking the house where I was born, where my father was born and his father before him.
Now there is a democratic government in Slovenia and they want to give the house back to my family. Imagine! After all these years, they write and tell me I can go home. Not just to my country, but home to the house of my childhood. And it makes me wonder, where is my home?
Boris – that is my brother – he writes from Ljubljana and asks me if I will give my part of the house to his children. His children, he says, want to live there.
I do not know how to answer him. It is so sudden. Such a surprise. One moment I am told I have something I lost. The next, I am asked to give it away.
It is a fine house, a house built of stone with wide windows and shiny oak floors. There is a wooden post by the hearth where Mama measured Boris and Zora and me. She would draw a line just above our heads and carve our initials. Zora was always taller. And prettier.
Zora. When she came back from the Nazi prison camp, her eyes were empty. She screamed in her sleep and trembled like a frightened animal.
She will be seventy-five next Friday and still, she hides in the dark corner of that room where we lived out the war. My brother tends her.
“It is past, all past and gone,” Francek says. “Don’t talk about it.”
But sometimes, I must. The older I get, the more real the past is. More real than yesterday or last week. I can taste it. Smell it. Sometimes I swear my mother is standing beside me. Francek will say, “Who are you talking to?” and I’ll look for her and she is gone.
It worries Francek but her visits are a comfort.
Mama’s strudel dough was always so thin. I loved when she made strudel – always for birthdays and holidays. I would try to sneak a little dough to play with when she wasn’t looking and that would make her eyes laugh even when she scolded me.
Ruly was the one of mine who was naughty. I would see his hand coming up from under the table, reaching for anything to eat and I would slap his fingers lightly. Then out would pop his blue eyes and I would give him a walnut and send him off.
Did I tell you you need nuts for the strudel? Walnuts or pecans. Chopped, not whole. About two cups. Before you put them on, you brush the dough with eggs like this. For a big strudel, you need two eggs and a yolk. You beat them together just a little. Then brush.
It is best to have more eggs at the beginning, here, where you start to roll the dough. Then, after you brush on the egg, you take the butter and do the same. It must be melted. Two sticks for a big strudel. Sweet butter is best. Then you spread the breadcrumbs.
Marija, my youngest, loved this part. She would toss the bread crumbs and laugh – like a bridesmaid throwing rice at a wedding. It always seemed like she was blessing the strudel.
My mother always said, “If you have enough children, there will be one who can take your heart and break it like a twig.”
Marija, the dropout. Marija, the motorcycle rider. Marija with her short skirts and leather boots. Marija, the American girl.
When she was finally grown, my heart looked like an old Chinese vase, all covered with cracks.
The funny thing is, she turned out so good – Teacher of the Year, her picture on the front page of the Orange County Register. My Marija.
I always thought Milan would be the most famous. He is good at his art, but he likes to travel more than to paint. He works for a year then takes his money and flies to Peru or Tibet or Sri Lanka. I don’t know where all he’s been. He says that is what’s best about America. You are free.
He will come home for Thanksgiving. All the family will be home, all but Francek. He is … It is hard …
This is the first year in many I do not need to use a sugar substitute for the strudel. Instead, I can use real sugar again.
Two big spoons sugar. Two small spoons of cinnamon. More sugar if you like it sweet. Francek, he liked it sweet.
It was too late when we found out he was diabetic. We didn’t go to the doctor much.
He always promised that we would go back to Slovenia when the Communists left. At night in my dreams I ask him what to do about the house in Ljubljana, but he does not answer.
With the apples, it is best to line some of them up here, at the beginning of the dough. Then you know each piece will have some apple.
Boris writes me from Lublyana our apple trees are gone. The house is old and broken and needs fixing. I know it is not as it was. Once, when the Communists were in power, Boris drove me in secret over the border to see my mother one last time, and it was very painful.
He took me to the old places – to our church where the Stoper girls were raped, the schoolhouse where Jurij and Bogdan and Josef were killed, the cross in the woods where the Resistors were shot and buried in a single grave, the ones who did not escape as we did.
My friends. Francek’s friends.
He drove me by our house where their murderers lived. Communists. Rich Communists. It was dark, no lights on, no flowers in the garden, quiet. Like a cemetery.
My children do not want the house. They grew up free of ghosts. They have no daily reminders of the pain, the reasons to hate. My boys do not pass that grave on their way to the river. My girls do not learn in classrooms where children were slaughtered.
But they do not know their roots either – the patch of sky that gave them their blue eyes, the deep furrows like lines of Alpine wheat I see time carving down their Slavic faces.
I should tell my brother, “Boris, the house is yours. Your children live with the ghosts. They have earned it.”
Still, it is hard to do this. To wait so many years and now, to have the chance to go home…
Sometimes, I sit by Francek’s bed and talk to him of the times we played Taroque with my brother and Zora or hiked up Triglav or swam in the lake near Mojstranav. And he smiles just as he always smiled when he smelled my strudel baking – as if he was hearing a sad song that made him happy.
The strudel, it is almost finished. All that is left is the rolling. You must lift the cloth and very carefully peel off the edge of the dough. Once you have it loose you can tuck the edge under and use the cloth to roll up the rest. Watch.
See how I lift the cloth and let the dough fall forward. That is how you do it. Then little by little let the dough roll forward. See how it easy it rolls?
This part always seems like magic to me, the way it comes together. It is like a family – many and one.
Tomorrow, the children will be at my house, Nada will make a face at my strudel. Marija won’t eat it because of her figure. Ruly won’t be able to keep his hands off it. Tomas will wrap some in foil to take home to his lonely house. And Milan will ask me about the ingredients to make sure they are all natural. He is almost fifty and worries about death.
When I am gone, they will not have this to bind them to their past. Perhaps that is best – to be free, to leave the past to those who cannot escape it.
That is what I should do. I should give Boris’s children my part of the house. They need it. I do not. I have a fine house here in America. Yes, that is what I will do. I will write the letter as soon as I go home.
But first, I will put the strudel in the oven. 400 degrees for 30 minutes.
It is good I have talked with you. Now I know what I must do. I must let go.
I will let go. The house where I grew up is not there. Not in Ljubljana. It is just a memory here inside me.
I have lived my life between worlds, but my children have not. They are American. My grandchildren are American.
When I am gone, they will have only their own battles, their own memories, not Francek’s and mine. Thanksgiving they will eat only American food. They will be free of ghosts, and that is good.
Still, they will miss my strudel on their birthdays. Like all of us, they do not know how much they love something until it is gone.
But you can make it now. It is easy, is it not? You will remember, won’t you?
Author's CommentI was friends with one of those “boys” and I grew very fond of his mother who was in one of the last cars to escape Yugoslavia when the Communists took over the country. She gave birth to that boy soon after reaching the displaced persons’ camp just across the Austrian border. The daughter of a Yugoslav senator, she and her husband had to learn to survive on their wits to feed themselves and their five children, not easy given the scarcity of food in camp, the lack of wood for shelter and for fires to keep them warm. Devout Catholics, they were lucky enough to be sponsored by a childless woman living in Southern California, which is where, many years later, I came to know the family, most particularly the ‘boy’ who was born in that camp. In writing their story, I wanted to honor their courage and strength and acknowledge their loss.