I’m half Dominican and half Czech. That’s a weird mixture, right? My mom and dad divorced when I was a baby and I never knew how they met. So I asked around.
Rumor has it my Czechoslovakian mother was a beautiful, green-eyed blonde. They say she was a mail order bride. My father is from the Dominican Republic. I’m told he liked to go through other people’s mail.
Long story short, I ended up living with my maternal grandparents, which must have been torture for them, because I was a “DominiCzech” handful as a kid.
My grandmother Elizabeth was a saint (think Edith Bunker with a heavy Czech accent). She was a little ditzy, but she was also very wise. She was born in Austria, but moved to Czechoslovakia at the age of 14 to live with an uncle after her parents died.
My grandfather George was a nervous man with a short fuse…probably because he spent most of his teenage years in a concentration camp; a 5-year punishment he had to endure for getting caught trying to escape from occupied Czechoslovakia into free Slovakia during World War II.
Together with their children — my mother and uncle — they moved to New York City in 1964, after winning green cards in their country’s lottery.
My grandmother nearly lost her vision to glaucoma and had to wear thick glasses. Her eyesight was very poor and I used to tease her about it. One day I forgot my keys, so I knocked on our door and when she answered I said “hello, is Mayo home?” Looking straight at me, my grandma said “no, Mayo is not home.” When I told her it was me, she laughed and said “Mayo, vy do you do these tings?”
My grandmother couldn’t see two ft in front of her, but she had some set of lungs. Whenever I would be gone for hours, playing with my friends, she’d stand in front of the house and start yelling out my name, “M-A-Y-O! M-A-Y-O!” I always hated my first name and the sound of her bellowing out through the whole neighborhood really infuriated me. So I’d quit whatever I was doing, and start running home as fast as I could just to make her stop. When I’d arrive huffing and puffing, I’d yell at her, “What do you want grandma?” Her response would usually be something like, “do you vant a banana?” Then I’d yell, “NO, I don’t want a banana, grandma. Leave me alone. I’m playing with my friends!”
My grandmother spoiled me rotten. She would serve me dinner in my room and when I needed more soda, rather than get my teenage ass up and get it for myself, I’d call out to her, “Grandma I need more soda.” If it pissed her off, you’d never know it.
My grandfather was an avid baseball fan, and passed his love of America’s past time down to me. When the Yankees won the pennant in 1976, I burst into his room to give him the great news and he yelled, “Get the hell out of here!” In the darkness, I could see that he was listening to the game on his alarm clock radio, instead of watching it on TV, because he had to get up really early every morning for the two-hour commute to his bookkeeping job in Jersey.
The proudest moment of my life was the day I brought my newborn son, Demitri, home and introduced him to my grandparents. It was my way of saying, “thank you for putting up with me.”
Back in the day, I was a spoiled kid who didn’t understand the enormity of what my grandparents committed to when they took me in. As a teenager, my grandmother would ask, “ver are you going Mayo?” And like a wise ass I’d answer, “I’m going out.” “Ver, out?” she’d ask. Then annoyed, I’d yell, “I’m going out with my friends. Leave me alone!”
Recently, I read a Facebook post that asked, “If you could bring someone back from the dead and talk to them for an hour, who would it be?” To my surprise, everyone who commented said they would bring back a deceased relative. I get that. I guess it’s because we all felt that we didn’t have enough time with the people that meant the most to us.
I would do anything to speak with my grandparents, George and Elizabeth, one last time. If I had an hour with them, I’d say “Thank You” to them over and over again for one solid minute, and then I would just sit back and listen to them yell at me for 59 minutes, just to hear their heavy Czech accents again.