My paternal grandmother’s idea of a good song was a Strauss waltz. That’s SHTRRRRAUSS pronounced the proper German way, with a nice thick “s” at the beginning and a throaty rolled “r.”
Hearing a Strauss waltz made my grandmother feel connected to her native Germany, like eating Limburger cheese and Braunschweiger after her Sunday evening bridge games. She had arrived at Ellis Island on December 23, 1929 and married my grandfather later that same day. She was 21. He was 27 and had left Germany four years earlier. She was not his first choice for a bride (a story for another time) and I assume that he was also not her first choice for a husband. They settled in Sylvan Lake, Michigan, and were married for more than 50 years—and I rarely heard a congenial word pass between the two of them. She wanted to run her own life; he demanded a wife who was there to serve him “Kaffee und Kuchen” when he got home mid-afternoon from his car factory job. Things with my grandma were always interesting, and sometimes a little embarrassing. A stereotypical, staid German she was not. We never knew what she would say or do next.
My grandmother’s beloved Johann Strauss wrote more than 500 pieces of dance music, including his famous “Blue Danube Waltz.” When I was called upon as a child to play the piano for company, her request never changed: “How ’bout you play a nice Strauss waltz for Gramma?” And when I did, she grabbed the nearest person (other than my grandfather) and danced.
So when she turned 80 and we had a family party, I decided that my gift to her would be Strauss. I showed up with my sheet music for “Tales from the Vienna Woods” and other Strauss favorites, and played the best I could on an old upright piano in the community room where we gathered. True to form, my grandmother found a partner and hit the dance floor. That afternoon, my dad had the honor:
Now when I play a Strauss waltz, it’s my way of paying tribute to my German grandma. She was a character. I miss her.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.