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I Saved the Best Lily for Grammie

A YOUNG lady still long shy of her algebra wanted to know why everybody studies foreign languages, and I gave her perplexity considerable thought. I made her sit down on my pile of boards and I told her about Grammie Sheloski. Away back before the World War was called World War I, Grammie Sheloski came as a child bride from some place in ancient Hungary to learn weaving in our woolen mill.

In the years before her homeland was shaping up into Czechoslovakia, she had become the matriarch of a considerable family; the girls were all pretty and the boys were all strong, able, and good baseball players. Grammie reigned.

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She was the sweetest little old lady in town, and held court as regally as any Victoria from a rocking chair in her kitchen - she could sit and look down the street to see who might be coming.

I came once a year, on Good Friday mornings.

A greenhouse and florist business went with our farming, and it was my job to start out early every Good Friday and deliver the Easter lilies. An Easter lily is a lovesome thing in the singular, but by the hundreds they lose their charm.

By the time we'd grown them and it was time to deliver, I'd lost a good part of my admiration for the things, and getting rid of them at long last was a chore made glad only by the profit therein. When I got the van loaded, I'd set out.

Every year somebody from Grammie Sheloski's ever widening clan would come in and select the annual Easter lily for Grammie.

By that time I already knew which it would be - the biggest, tallest, most budded, and at the same time the one with the most buds in bloom. I'd have that one off by itself, colored wrapping around the pot and a ribbon made into a bow like a sideshow fly.

Grammie's lily was such an annual sure thing that I would even have the card attached - ``Grammie from us all with love!''

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Just what Grammie's native tongue would be in the catalog of languages I never knew, but to us Yankees the folks in Grammie's ethnic community spoke ``Slovak.'' Whatever it was, they liked to keep it to themselves, and took pride in mastering English.

I noticed that if I came upon two Slovaks conversing in their language on the sidewalk they would shift to English as long as I was within hearing. Sometimes, mostly with the older men, the English was hard, but it was English all the same, and there certainly was no foolish contention among the Slovaks that we Yankees should learn their tongue. Thus it was that as Grammie Sheloski's family descended into the younger generations the Slovak diminished, until some of the great-grandchildren didn't know any.

This didn't offend Grammie Sheloski because she was proudly proficient in what English she had, and she was forever telling how well her young folks were doing in school and college. But Slovak was her heritage, and I used to go in every Good Friday morning and talk Slovak with Grammie Sheloski, and as this young lady sat on my board pile I explained to her the unbounded joy that comes to a linguist when he can deal with strange tongues like a native.

True, I don't have any idea which of the Slavic variations Grammie Sheloski spoke, or what alphabet prevailed. I just know that somewhere and somehow in our town I had heard somebody say something that sounded to me like ``Dobray Canotz!'' and I had surmised it meant ``Happy Easter.'' I learned I was close enough when I stepped into Grammie Sheloski's kitchen that next Good Friday, and said ``Dobray Canotz!'' as I put her magnificent lily on the stand by her elbow.

``Dobray Canotz'' is the only Slovak I ever knew.

When I said it, Grammie Sheloski launched into a flood tide of Slovak and submerged me in what I presumed was all the news of all the family - what Mike was doing at Harvard, and how Joe liked his new job with Kodak, and the name of Mary's new baby, and I held her hand and listened while she ran on. I had nothing more to say, and I didn't need more.

After a suitable time I kissed her hand and she bade me the joys of the holiday and a Slovakian farewell as I left to go and deliver 300-odd Easter lilies where, for each one, not very much happened.

Grammie Sheloski was unpersuadable about that lily. I brought it to her - that nice young man who speaks Slovak so well, and the members of the family who paid the florist bill used to chide me with the suggestion that I should donate it, at least at cost. ``It's from all of us,'' they'd tell her.

But Grammie Sheloski knew better. I was the one depended upon; 'twas I that brought the beautiful lily and wished her a happy Easter.

I think the little girl on the board pile missed the point. I think she doesn't understand how proficiency in a foreign tongue - somebody else's language - can bring much joy and satisfaction not only to the speaker, but to all the Grammie Sheloskis you run into.

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