Bams Turns 95
*Updated September 2, 2017
Bams passed away a few days before I left to travel. In a way I'm thankful of the timing. I was able to attend her funeral, and be with all my loved ones before embarking on my journey, and carrying on her legacy. To honor her, and her cooking, scroll to the bottom, and you will find Grandma Kresta's Czech Roll recipe. It's a crowd pleaser.
Bams, my grandma, is 95 today. She's blunt, snappy, and her wit is seasoned. She always gets away with sly comments with this adorable shoulder shrug and giggle as if she were saying, what? Did I say something wrong?
Her honesty is prevalent, and even pervades my memories of her. For instance, I know she likes koláče, black coffee before bed, and dominoes. And I know that she doesn't like kolaches, or pigs in a blanket, black coffee in the morning, or most other games...
She sprinkles "bad" Czech words in conversation, is a fabulous baker who managed to keep her figure despite the fact, and technically she's first generation American (my great-grandparents are from the then Czechoslovakia).
Yet her colorful candor helped conjure an image of this feisty Czech lady. So much so that my brothers and I felt her sass level and heritage merited a more fitting name. So we dubbed her Dáma v šachu, which means queen in Czech. It has recently dawned on me that although calling her queen was meant to be endearing, for years we’ve openly labeled my grandma a diva. I think her biting charm might be hereditary. Whatever the case, somewhere along the way the name has been shortened and mispronounced giving way to Bams, and she's reigned under the title since.
To celebrate her, I'm driving to San Antonio with 4 dozen koláče, and with a mindset ready to lose at dominoes. Yet when my mom initially reminded me of Bams’s birthday, I faintly remembered my 7-year-self controlled-yelling in the phone for a school assignment; I was to interview someone over 60. And, no offense to Bams, but she was the oldest lady I knew, so she had to be at least that age.
The interview was exactly what you'd expect. That singsong, staccato cadence where I can almost hear a young Kait reading aloud out of obligation.
She is my...maternal grandmother.
I was a little sad after I read over my interview. I mean, I wish in 3rd grade I'd had the wherewithal to dive into details. This is a woman who grew up in Moulton, a South Texas town with a population of 1,000. She was a farm girl, the first person in her family to be born in a hospital, and she didn't care to get her driver's license until she was 60.
Now, those tidbits would keep me enthralled in conversation for what I imagine could be hours. Yet instead of ruing missed opportunities, I just have to chuckle at what I found to be interesting at the time. Not only that, I did her interview in third person. So for your sake, I’ve taken pieces of the interview for you to have a glimpse into South Texas life in the 1920s and 1930s.
What was life like?
Bams lived in a farmhouse, and from the way she described it I don't think I would have lasted in rural Texas at her time. It was a three bedroom home, one room for the parents, and then the 2 boys and 4 girls were split between the remaining rooms (how that math adds up is beyond me). Also, they didn't quite have a kitchen. There was a room for meal preparation, and then a simple cooktop and a wood heater. So the fact that Bams is such a good baker is only a testament to her patience. Additionally, the Michalec house didn't have indoor plumbing (yes, that means they had an outhouse), and they only had a water pump outside.
My great-grandparents were mainly cotton farmers. And when cotton season began around August 15th (Bams was very specific on this date), they would devote the majority of their attention to their cash crop. The work sounded absolutely backbreaking. They would pick cotton by hand, load it into a wagon, where they'd take it to the gin to get baled. I was unaware until reading back on this, however it takes 1500 pounds to make one bale, and at 5 cents per pound, they'd only make $75.
However, Bams' family raised and grew most of what they ate, with the exceptions of coffee, tea, sugar, flour, and spices. Otherwise, I can't say that I would mind eating on the Michalec farm. They had corn, ribbon cane (which makes molasses, that at the time held a larger market share than sugar), watermelon (my favorite fruit), and cantaloupe. They had a garden that yielded cabbage, radishes, carrots, and potatoes, oh and some grapes. If that weren't enough, additionally they raised cattle, horses, and chickens.
When Bams turned 7, and when cotton picking season was over, like most children in Moulton she began attending the Komensky School. She and her siblings would walk to school, Bams being adorned in her pigtail braids, long dresses, and lace-up boots. And using only her paper and regular pencil (note that she was not using mechanical pencils, which unfortunately hadn't yet to be invented), she copied her lessons that covered reading, writing, and arithmetic, off of what I can only imagine to be a huge, screechy chalkboard.
Bams seemed to get the short end of the stick on this one. She'd chop wood, but I'm not sure what it was used for because one of her other duties was to collect corncobs and use those for the wood stove. But she was also tasked with sweeping the house. To be quite honest, when I first interviewed my Bams I remember this silly image of her house being perpetually filled with popcorn, which meant she had to gather all the kernels after it was finished. One can dream...
Farm life was quite calm, y'all. On Wednesday evenings, Bams, Granny Michalec, and her sisters would "listen to soap opera on the radio, called Stella Dallas." According to Wikipedia, it's about a character named Stella who is the beautiful daughter of an impoverished farmhand who had married above her station in life.
Yet the weekends were for socializing. When Bams turned 13, she was allowed to attend the Moulton dances every Saturday night. They were held in the community dance hall. And I can only imagine Saturday after Saturday of awkward teenagers staring at each other from across the way, holding their breath to see which side would crack first. However, they couldn't gawk at each other for too long, because Sunday mornings were reserved for Catholic mass, followed by afternoons calling on friends to catch up on the week.
Changes In Her Lifetime
This last part is just quintessential Bams. Along with the usual changes to electricity, highways, cars, indoor plumbing, telephone, television, and computer, her first airplane trip was in 1993, to visit me!
But according to Bams, the most distressing change is that people don't seem to work as hard and their diets are poor and they don't exercise.
She's not wrong, but like I said, her honesty is always astounding.
Grandma Kresta's Czech Roll
Yields 2 Rolls | Serves 24 | Total Time 6 Hours*
Dough For Both Rolls
- 1 package active dry yeast