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Sense of Place

07/03/02 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(Host) Anticipating the Fourth of July, commentator Vern Grubinger has been thinking of his grandmother and her deep appreciation of this country.

(Grubinger) She was just 18, and she was a smuggler. There was a war going on in Europe and she was bringing farm-fresh butter from the countryside into the big city. You weren't supposed to do that, but she needed the money for her family to survive. So she combined entrepreneurship and bravery. My grandmother. I remember her telling me this story with humility, and with a sane acceptance of an insane world. You do what you gotta do.

Twenty years later, there was another war. Armies were on the move. Economies were collapsing. Neighbors disappeared in the night. It was time to pull up roots and go to America. Once again, that took bravery, foresight and faith. A little luck and a letter from an American sponsor helped, too.

She had a funny habit of pinching the skin on the back of her hand as she talked, examining its lost resilience, watching it testify to her nine decades of life. "I don't know what happened" she said. "Just the other day I was a teenager, now I'm an old lady."

She spoke in what the grandkids called 'Germlish,' a peculiar mix of German and English. She only had an elementary school education, but she was sharp as a tack, a graduate of the school of hard knocks. She did her post-graduate work on American language and culture by watching the soap operas. Every day.

And when she wasn't assimilating, she was cooking. People who have lived with food shortages enjoy cooking in a way that most of us will never know. That woman revered food, and the way she prepared meals involved a fondling of ingredients that verged on the pornographic. I mean, we've all squeezed a cantaloupe and kneaded bread dough now and again, but my grandmother poked and pulled and flattened and rolled food the way a cat scratches fleas: with vigor and abandon. Then, she watched as you ate. A smile on her face, sharing your pleasure in every bite. But she wasn't easily satisfied. ' What's the matter, you don't eat!?" she'd exclaim, just when you thought you'd burst.

She loved this country, and she loved it in a special way. Her homeland was torn apart, the communities of her youth destroyed. But in America there was stability, opportunity and liberty. She had a powerful sense of place. It wasn't the comfortable kind that comes when generations reside in the same location and people connect to the land like it was the back of their hand. Her sense of place came from losing that connection, crossing an ocean, and discovering a country where her family could start all over again.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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