Happy Birthday Babička Marie – I Miss You. Tomorrow would be my grandmother’s 93rd Birthday if she were still alive. She’d surely be just as beautiful as she always was. Today I’m sharing valuable life lessons from my Czech grandmother. My grandmother, Marie (born Šrámková) was born on December 5, 1923, in Prague, Czech Republic.
Her father was born Josef Šrámek (1900-1929) in Veselé, a small village and municipality in Děčín District in the Ústí nad Labem Region of the Czech Republic. (The municipality covers an area of 7.37 square kilometres, and has a population of 298 people.) As a young man, he moved the Prague. He died at only 29 years old.
Her mother was born Marie Hola (Holé) in Vienna, Austria. In 1968, she was hit by a motorcycle in Prague and died from her injuries.
I have one small memory of her mother, my great-grandmother in Prague. She sat me up on the counter and was cracking nuts with a big hammer. I remember the walnuts rolling here and there and her dainty hands trying to keep them in one place.
I cherish the memory.
Babička Marie had two sons with my grandfather, Vlastimil Hilmar, between 1940 and 1941 (my father Milan, and Vlasta).
Throughout her life, both sons were actively involved in her life and she lived near my father until her death. She passed away on November 12, 2005, in Prague at the age of 81.
I miss her each and every day.
I had a unique relationship with my paternal grandmother because she was the only grandparent I knew in my family. Her husband, my grandfather, died early at the age of fifty, so I never had an opportunity to know him. My maternal grandmother died when my mother was pregnant with me, so I never knew her. Coming to America in 1968, when I was only four stopped me from ever knowing my maternal grandfather. He died in the early 1970s, before we ever returned to Prague.
Babička Marie had a brother named Alfons (Alon). He was an accomplished musician and composer and an excellent accordionist.
She also had five sisters, Růžena, Květoslava (who I am named after), Alexandra, Slávka and Zdenka.
All of them are gone now and because of our living in the United States, I never really had an opportunity to know any of them very closely. I was able to spend some time with Květa, only because she was living in the United States and also with Lexa, who also lived in the United States. But I never knew the three that remained behind in then called Czechoslovakia. Such is life when you escape your homeland to find freedom in America as a result of exile.
My Babička Marie was a beautiful woman and one of the most important people in my life. In addition, she carried much of life’s wisdom and taught me many life lessons.
Not only that, she was beautiful – inside and out.
Babička Marie came with us when we emigrated to the United States. As you may have read on our arrival at Mount Airy Lodge, she was right there with us from the very beginning.
Babička Marie, this one grandmother who had the energy of four grandparents combined, was the only one I ever knew and was able to hug and squeeze and love.
My grandmother was eccentric, passionate, tenacious and stubborn. She always had a mind of her own and was fiercely independent. For numerous reasons, she learned early on to rely upon herself and was never stopped by anything or anyone when she set her mind to something.
There are a few key life lessons she taught me which I’ll share with you today.
Always Look Like a Movie Star
She grew up looking at the American Hollywood classic starlets including Jeanette MacDonald, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Jane Russell, Gene Tierney, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner. Later her favorites became Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Elizabeth Taylor. I’m sure she identified with these dark-haired Goddesses and she emulated them every chance she got.
My grandmother was comfortable in her own skin, and she often acted as if she were one of the most beautiful and important people in the world – which to me, she was. Being “super modern” was important to her and she was always aware of the latest trends. I loved the way she flirted and posed for the camera and how she endlessly reminded me to be conscious of my own moves and gestures. “You mustn’t reach for it like that, be graceful, extend your fingers elegantly, like a ballerina…”
Laugh Loud and Often
I wasn’t the only one who loved it when my grandmother laughed. Her laughter captivated anyone who heard its joyous sound. When she laughed, it was hearty and genuine, from the soul and from years of struggle and pain. A release of sorts which was purely infectious.
You’re a Woman, Use Your Femininity
My grandmother loved the starlets of old Hollywood. She admired that everything in the movies was clean, romantic, elegant, graceful, beautiful and her entire life, she longed to have it appear like a movie. Perhaps a silly notion, but she lived like she was manifesting that each day.
Make Yourself Up Every Day
I remember showing up to drive her somewhere in sweatpants and my hair all pulled up in a messy bun. She refused to get in the car and go with me even though she needed the ride. “Go with you? Looking like that?” She was conscious of people watching and always wanted to make sure that what they saw was a grand impression. I don’t think she ever left the house without her lipstick and eyelashes. Later, when I was married, she advised me that my husband would lose interest if I let myself get too comfortable around the house. When I joked that I should vacuum in high heels and elegant lingerie, she simply answered, “that is the way it’s done in Hollywood…”
A youthful attitude is the secret to beauty. When you have a sense of playfulness and adventure, you stay young. She avoided talk about stressful things like paying bills and politics and instead searched for the pretty and beautiful things in life. She always had a song to sing or flowers to arrange. In her clothing style, she’d always tell me to “stay modern”. While she did not adapt to many of the classics, she did take on all sorts of trends throughout the years. She often dressed like people in their 20s even when she was in her 70s and as she got older, it was difficult to pull that off, but she never let that stop her.
Exercise Each Day
Her routine always began the same way. She’d wake up, make bread and then do her morning exercise. As kids, we loved to watch this because she would give it all of her gusto. Her movements resembled something that a karate fighter would do, followed by a gymnast, a ballerina and a cherry picker. She would do somersaults, cross the room giving firm punches, stretch her legs like a ballet dancer and make picking movements as she jogged in place. After several minutes of this jogging, she’d stop the cherry picking and simply hold up her breasts. We always laughed when she did this as only little children do when they see the grownups around them do something silly. Then she’d lay on the floor and swing her legs up over her head. She’d tell me, “You are young now but it will not always be that way. You have to make time to exercise or your body will get old and then your mind will follow.” Of course, even without her morning routine, she got so much movement from all the walking she did.
It’s okay to be extravagant every once in awhile. My grandmother would constantly be on the lookout for a good sale or a bargain, but it was this way because she was always looking for a few select and special pieces. I remember being at the mall with her and seeing these gorgeous boots that were a couple hundred dollars more than what I normally would have spent. She knew I wanted them but we left the store. As we walked around, I noticed that she kept studying me. “Why didn’t you get the boots?” she finally asked. “They are way too expensive, like three weeks worth of work!” I answered. “But do you love them? Do they make you feel like you are a gorgeous Goddess who can accomplish anything, like a movie star?” “Yes.” I answered. Her answer came quickly, “Then you have to get them. Splurge on yourself. Don’t you think you deserve them? You do… You deserve the world!” We then spent the next 25 minutes walking back to the boutique and all the while she was justifying the high price tag, for which I was so grateful. Splurging on yourself makes you feel special, happy, young and I learned that from her.
Be A Flirt
One way to remain youthful is to flirt, with people and with life. Not in a way that teases people or romantically leads them on, but in a way that shows you enjoy all that life has to offer. This is one of the main things that made my grandmother feel so young and hop out of bed every day. As I mentioned before, everyone (men, women, young and old) was referred to as “darling” or “sweetheart” and she smiled warmly and leaned into people as she spoke to them. She’d also touch people, like a gentle touch on the sleeve of their jacket or sweater. In this way, she disarmed people and instantly made them feel comfortable with her.
Surround Yourself with Wonderful People
My grandmother loved artists, musicians, actors, poets, writers – and anyone else who was creative and interesting. She found these people to be passionate and lively and she adored the energy they put off. She also loved to sing. Here she is at one of our famous Fort DeSoto picnics in the 80s singing with Czech superstar Waldemar Matuska on the left, and my father, Milan Hilmar on the right.
…and another at my uncle’s motel, the Grey Gull in Madeira Beach, Florida.
Give To Others
I remember the mountains of packages she mailed back home. I think deep down she hurt for those who were left behind. Every day that she moved about in freedom and had the opportunities of living in America was another day she was reminded that her sisters and other family members did not have the same freedom. As life went on and they had weddings, christenings, birthdays and holidays, she would shop for them all and send huge boxes with money hidden in pockets. When she visited Prague, she also carried extra suitcases and gave everything away, coming back with only her handbag each time.
Make Time for Being Beautiful
When I look back, I don’t remember my grandmother ever being depressed. She didn’t wallow or worry about much of anything, though she also had hard times and challenges like we all do. Instead she chose to feel and look fabulous, regardless of what was going on. Always doing her hair and makeup, always dressing up. She manifested happiness for herself and didn’t wait on anyone else to deliver it to her.
Travel As Often As You Can
My grandmother looked forward to returning to Prague each year. She would save all year to be able to make the trip and she loved to revisit the Czech Republic as an American. She’d go with extra suitcases and give everything away when she was there, usually only coming home with her handbag. She also loved to see America’s beauty and had no problem to get up on a moment’s notice to hop on a plane to visit any of her family, no matter where they lived.
A Photo Is Forever
Having her photo taken was most likely her greatest pastime. It put her onto film in a way, like the starlets she so admired. I recall how she would edit her photos by using colored pens to add a few eyelashes, fill in an eyebrow or cover up a imperfect flaw on her skin. When she was much older and I had a computer, I improved photographs of her in Photoshop and she was just taken away with the results. She couldn’t believe that I could put her into a photo with Nelson Eddy or Richard Burton, and that I could wipe away wrinkles with a push of a button. In looking at old photos of her, I can see how conscious she was of the camera and how much she wanted to look like a movie star.
Jede Se Dál (The Show Must Go On)
No matter what ever happened, she’d always say, jede se dál, which means we go on. We always carry on. These were some of the first words I remember from her and they were the three last words she shouted to me the last time I saw her. Life throws us all sorts of challenges and problems we must overcome and tough times come around to even the luckiest people. Her attitude was to never let anything that happens get you down and break your spirit. The show, life… must go on so pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep at it.
All of Life is a Show – Wardrobe and Makeup
Never look like a unkempt frump or sit around all day in your pajamas. When you awake, immediately get dressed, brush your hair, make yourself up and be ready. Ready for what? For the glamorous life that you deserve. Who knows who may show up at your door and you should always look your best. It tells people you care about yourself and it teaches them to care about you too.
Stay Away From Old People
By this she meant to avoid people who complained about being old, getting old or how the world was better back then (not the elderly)… She would sit on the bus and listen to the conversations and hear the complaints around her. She’d look at me and motion to them and scrunch up her nose and shake her head ‘no’. Instead she wanted to be around people who felt and acted young, both inside and out. She told me that you become the people you surround yourself with.
Seek the Sun and the Ocean
For over twenty-five years, my grandmother lived in Florida, and many of those years were spent managing my Uncle Vlasta’s motel right on the beach. Though she was very conscious of her beauty and had all sorts of regimes in place, she never avoided the sun. In fact, she adored the sun and would wash herself in the ocean telling me that there are so many important vitamins and minerals at the beach, both in the water and on the sand. She would exercise out there, too, mimicking the movements she saw Jack LaLanne doing on his program.
Each day when you wake up, tell yourself how special, wonderful and beautiful you are. Smile at yourself and fix yourself up to be the best version of you. My grandmother’s best friend was the mirror and she was conscious of it all of the time. She’d pass and check herself and smile, as if to show approval. She’d sing to herself all of the time too, and this always made her so happy. She was also a very short woman. She stood 4′ 6″ and so most of her life she was on the heaver side – but that never stopped her. She said she was a hunk of woman and voluptuous and never worried about her weight. She told me, “Sexiness is all in your attitude and in how confident you are.”
Make It Your Own
She loved the wonderful little extras for women, like scarves, bows, pins, baubles. She’d use them to spruce up her clothing and make each piece unique and stand out. Each article of clothing she ever wore had somehow been altered by her to make it a one-of-a-kind because she was a one-of-a-kind. She’d add a little sparkle here, a little glimmer there and the effect was great. I cannot tell you how many times I saw her purchase a gorgeous (and expensive ) item, only to get home, cut off the sleeves or expand the neckline and start to re-shape it before my eyes! She’d alter her shoes and handbags too. Note the matching hat that matches the little stars on her shoes. Those shoes were plain when she bought them!
Gather with Friends
Having a small network of close friends and family is healthy for your mind and soul. It keeps you connected to something bigger than yourself. My grandmother liked to be alone, to do the things she wanted to do most, but when she did go out, she appeared like a star and brought sunshine, joy and laughter to the room.
Comfortable Shoes for the Long Haul
When you walk over 5 miles each day, you need good traction. My grandmother walked everywhere, every day. There were no good bus lines in the area and she never learned to drive, so she had no other choice. I remember walking with her once, before I was old enough to drive and she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks and announced “Look! That’s a super find!” She reached into the street and pulled up a large black piece of rubber in which you could see some kind of metal threading. “This is going to be perfect for my sandals,” she said. Later, when we got to her house, she cut the rubber with large scissors and proceeded to glue bits and pieces to the bottom of her sandals. She literally wore steel-belted radial shoes. But the moment she arrived wherever she was going, her big bag would open and out would come the beautiful high heels. SHe’d put them on and the steel-belted radial sandals would quickly disappear into her bag. She wore high heels all the way into her 70s. This is the only photograph of her I found in which she’s wearing her walking sandals and not some fancier shoes!
Practice Random Acts of Kindness
I joined a group on Facebook from the South Bay area (Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, CA) where I spend many of my years growing up. One day, someone posted if anyone knew a delicatessen across from the Redondo Beach pier. I knew it! It was called The Deli and my Uncle Vlasta owned it and my grandmother worked there.
I shared that with the group and then received a very intimate letter from a woman who shared how many years ago, she had a fight with her parents and had run away from home the night before. She had slept on the beach and was now afraid to go home. My grandmother invited her into the store before they opened and made her hot tea and gave her something to eat. Then she sat down with her and told her that life is hard enough without distancing the ones who love you most, family. The woman wrote to me that she remembers my grandmothers kind words, spoken with an accent and her beautiful laugh. She remembers that my grandmother called her “darling” and “sweetheart”, gave her many compliments, and made her feel safe. She said that if her act of kindness and the honest talk that came with it had not happened that day, her life may have turned out differently.
Bake and Break Bread with Friends
I don’t remember a day when she was not up before 5 am making bread. She would carry these heavy loaves of bread to our house, friends houses – wherever she felt the need for her bread. She made traditional Czech rye bread, two loaves at a time and during the holidays, she baked dozens of Vánočka (a traditional Czech sweet bread for Christmas). She was constantly lugging huge bags of flour and always had a large pitcher of kvas (like a sourdough starter) in her fridge. No matter who arrived at her house, they were always welcomed with fresh bread. This photograph was taken is just a couple of years before she died and she was still making loaves for friends and family.
Spend Time Out of Your Comfort Zone
I’m not sure if my grandmother ever was out of her comfort zone. She always made the best of everything, so she usually fit in. I remember when our friend Walda first came to the United States, he and his family did all of the typical Florida things, like fishing. Fishing was probably the least favorite thing my grandmother did because it’s not glamorous in any way, shape or form. (I know, fisherman may argue.) But if that is what was on the menu for the day, she’d make the best of it. She also hated it when people said they were “too old” to do anything. She understood that this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy so she’d push herself. She understood and taught me that you are only as old as you make up your mind to be and a young mind is always ready to step out of its comfort zone.
No Time for Negativity
My grandmother believed that wallowing in self-pity or indulging in depression was a complete waste of time and energy. She always chose to be positive and productive each day instead. She told me that as soon as a negative thought comes into your mind, you must make a habit of replacing it with something positive; be it a song, a funny movie, a silly joke, movement – anything. She never remained sad or angry for long. She also found her greatest joy in the company of family.
Never Feel Sorry For Yourself
On much of the same note as not wallowing in negativity – don’t ever feel sorry for yourself. She believed it was a enormous drain on the spirit as well as a complete waste of time and a waste of your life. She also understood that it makes people step away from you and bores them to tears. No one wants to spend time with you to listen to your problems, most likely because they have problems and challenges of their own. Don’t be a whiner and a victim, it’s not attractive. Instead, remember that you are a star – and act like one. Never once in all of my years did I ever hear my grandmother complain about her life though I do know she had many hard times.
Always Find Time To Say “I Love You”.
My grandmother called everyone darling, sweetheart and milacku. She was very affection with people, both male and female and always wanted them to feel extra special – the way she wanted to feel. Here’s a quick video glimpse of her saying “I love you” to a friend at one of our famous Fort DeSoto picnics in Florida in the 80s.
Write It All Down
I look at old photographs of myself where she styled the photo. She’d dress me in matching clothing, creating outfits on site from bits of ribbon, flowers, scarves. She’d use pins or create quick stitch here or there to make the garment lay just right.
As a little girl, sometimes I’d get miserable from how long it would take, but afterwards the photographs were wonderful. What amazes me today is that she made notes on the back of all photographs in fast scritch-scratch writing. She’d often make these notes as soon as they came from the developer, often in the car or on the bus on the way home. I used to get frustrated because often times the ink would stain the photos as she’d lay them on top of one another but today, I am so grateful. She documented the times, places and even the moods of each moment. And she did this on photos, napkins, scraps of paper, bags, pages of her passport… everywhere!
This is from the back of one of the photographs of me posing from the above set.
“Kytka, when you go through all of these photos, you’ll remember how your grandmother gave you silk scarf roses – how you had to hold your hands like a ballerina, legs like a dancer… Do you remember it all? And afterwards crying!”
It’s as though she knew I would review the photos and relive the moments. In this way, she still lives today, offering her comments and advice.
I miss her.
I wish she was here to see what wonderful things I’ve gone one to accomplish and how wonderful my children are. She would be so proud of them all. She’d also love this site. She’d adore that I am holding on to the Bohemian culture and spirit and that our readership is growing steadily each day. She’d love all of our computer skills, especially with photographs and that we can literally make Hollywood magic with images, old and new.
She was at the same time a young and old soul. Everyone thought she was gorgeous and looked younger than she was and it was because she had such an amazing attitude about life and carried herself in it with energy and gusto.
I’ll never forget how she used to take me along on endless, joyous days when we would visit shops and markets and go to unique places that my parents never went, like the garment district and downtown.
If she were here, I would tell her that I am so grateful for all of her advice and wisdom.
I cherish my memories of her.
This few moments of precious video really captures the essence of her. She’s in her late sixties in this video and my father is just capturing moments of her at the motel.
The song she sings is an original piece of Filipino music that someone Czech must have covered in the 30’s or 40s because she said she’s always remembers and sung the “beautiful melody”. The name of the song is Pintasan and if you ever found who sang it in Czech or the Czech version – I would be most grateful.
I hope some of my grandmothers wisdom I shared will also help you on your journey of life… and if you have family members who are still alive that you may have been too busy to enjoy, please make the time to check in with them, call them and tell them how much they mean to you because time keeps moving and soon enough, they will be gone and very missed.
This post is also dedicated to Jovanka Kunova, who my grandmother adored and who was a dear friend to her to the very end.
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