It’s funny how you can’t wait for your kids to say “Mama.” You coax them constantly to produce those two syllables, and then when they finally do and you eventually get to the point where you wish that every once in a while they’d say something else.
I have two little ones who seem to call out “Mama!” (or something similar like “Mom!” or “Mommy” or “I need YOOOOOUUUU!!”) all day long, and often into the night, and right back into the early morning hours.
When I was their age, I was probably just as likely to call out “Teta” as “Mama.” That’s the Egyptian word for “Grandma,” which may seem like an unusual thing to call the Polish nanny who lived with us when I was a child, but she was anything but usual. She was the widow of an Egyptian man, the mother of 5 (including a very close Egyptian family friend, which is how she came to be with us), real-life “teta” to 21 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. An amazing woman we were blessed to have in our home for several years and in our lives until her passing just a few months ago.
Teta was a marvel, to put it mildly. She spoke more languages than a diplomat and was as devout as any religious figure. Well into her 7th decade she sewed dresses for me and my brigade of dolls with fingers flying at lightning speed. She introduced me to the delicious crunch of steaming hot homemade potato pancakes topped with cool sour cream and applesauce. She taught me the simple power of praying the rosary. I didn’t find out until after she died, but as a young girl she survived being held prisoner of war when the Germans invaded Austria, never to speak of the experience again.
One day circa 1978-ish, she decided to take me and my brother to the zoo, and nothing- not the lack of a driver’s license or the scarcity of public transportation in the Motor City was going stop her from making it happen. We walked 2 miles before we found a bus stop, rode for over an hour, and on the way back she stopped to pick grapeleaves off a vine on the side of the road for dinner. It was classic Teta.
But there’s one thing I remember most of all about our beloved Teta. Every year, around this time of year, she would pull her chair up close to the TV, closer each time as her eyesight faded. “Mon Mon!” she would call out in her deep, heavily accented voice, “Come see! The Zonc of Moosic!”
And there we’d sit watching what became my favorite movie- The Sound of Music. Together we’d see the hills come alive, laugh at the exploits of the Von Trapp children, hum “Edelweiss” along with the gang. In the scene where Maria and the Captain finally wed, Teta would turn to me and say “Mon Mon! One day you will have a bootiful wedding like this!” It took almost 30 years but I’m happy to say she was right, and she was there to see it happen (I’m also happy no one was singing “How do you solve a problem like Mona?” as I walked down the aisle.)
Around the time I started school full-time, Teta left us and went back to her own home. Though she still visited often, I missed her dearly and found little comfort in the string of college and high school babysitters who took her place. To curb the sadness I came up with a fantasy that stuck around for many years: I imagined that every time the doorbell rang, it was Maria Von Trapp from the Sound of Music (or perhaps a slightly more modern version) showing up to be our Governess. No, I didn’t want her to fall in love with my dad or take my mom’s place, I just wanted her around on a part-time basis to fill the lonely hours after school, someone to keep me company on the weekends when everyone in our house seemed so busy with their own pursuits.
Whenever the loneliness really started to take over, I’d slip into my little Austrian musical fantasy world to sing and dance the pain away. Sometimes I was Gretl, the baby of the family, too young to stay up for the fancy dinner party. Sometimes I was 16 going on 17, with a schoolgirl crush on a boy named Rolf (of course in my fantasy he didn’t turn out to be a Nazi). If I could have, I would have crossed the Alps on foot to somehow make it come true. “The Zonc of Moosic” was always calling out to me, always with a heavy Polish accent. I watched the movie whenever it was on, but it just wasn’t the same without Teta.
I spent my junior year in college living in Paris and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get that close to the Promised Land. Yes, I shelled out for the deluxe Sound of Music Tour in Austria.
We danced around the famous gazebo, and ran around the fountain singing “Doe a deer” (you can stop laughing at my giant, triangular hair now, thank you very much). I wanted to stay forever, except that Maria was still nowhere to be found. It was a bittersweet delight.
This year The Sound of Music celebrates its 45th anniversary. I watched the cast reunite on Oprah with great anticipation. I admit to getting a bit misty eyed seeing the Von Trapp children all grown up, amazed that they dared to deviate from the fantasy frozen in my head. But as they showed clip after clip from the movie, I realized it no longer made me sad, no longer left me longing to escape my current life.
I’ll always cherish that movie and will no doubt torture my kids into watching it with me. And I’ll always hear a loving but firm Polish voice calling me towards it. But now, I’ve got a new “Sound of Music” in my life, a different song in my heart.
It calls out “Mama” all day long.
Mona Shand is a radio and TV news reporter. You can read more on her blog.