It was February 2th, 2021 when my cousin called me while I was working in the office and she delivered the sad news. Our grandmother had died from Covid. Nobody from the family would have even imagined that few weeks ago, but there we were, dumbfounded facing the tragic reality. She had been grappling with the disease for a few days and as she didn’t have any pulmonary complications, we had already started hoping she might even recover. But as she was older, it seems her body just gave up. We consoled ourselves knowing she died in sleep, hoping she left the world peacefully. Shortly before dying, she scribbled a note on a piece of paper with a sharp and hardly-decipherable handwriting that said:

God, I thank you for the gift of huge love that I was able to convert into my life. I loved everything and everyone, but I loved you the most, my dearest ones. And now, I am coming closer to You, my God.

Her gift of love is something I just keep reminiscing about the most.


The childhood of my grandmother was fairly characteristic of the times. She was born in a mountainous region of northwestern Slovakia called Orava and her parents were farmers owning modest plots of land. As was normal back then, the family was more extended and she had 4 siblings. Her father died fairly soon after she was born, so her mother and some of her brothers took charge of the family. She was born in 1931 when the Czechoslovakian state was undergoing major challenges - first the economic crisis of the thirties and then the danger of Nazi Germany that resulted in its dissolution and the establishment of an independent Slovak state. This political constellation survived only during the war and after the peace treaties got signed, Czechoslovakia was re-established. However, the decades of the 1930s and early 1940s were hardly non-complicated for central European nations - huge parts of the population were suffering from unemployment, and malnutrition, and then, of course, the war brought its own toll.

It’s not surprising that general economic hardships coupled with the untenable financial situation of my grandma’s family had serious ramifications on their lives. Most of the women of the family had to stop attending school and they had to find jobs (or husbands) to ease the burden on the family. These were just the times of the post-war re/building of Czechoslovakia’s industrial capacities and factories had to solve the issue of major worker shortages. The solution was simple - send recruiters all over the country to hire folks, men or women, to work for industrial facilities across the nation. Under prevailing economic circumstances, there were not many people that turned these offers down - the companies paid for the education of the workers, and provided good accommodation facilities and good salaries. My grandma understood this might be the best option she can get - she packed her bags, said goodbye to her mother and siblings, and headed east to Svit.


The girl is approaching the gates of the factory, then she stops and looks up at the sign on the gate: “Tatrasvit. National factory.” She rummages for the factory invitation in her dress, takes it out, and enters the gate. She traveled for the first time that far away from her home in her entire life, she doesn’t know anyone in that part of the country, and all her belongings are wrapped in a blanket and are tucked under her shoulder.

This scene is from a Slovak movie called Katka shot in 1949. The girl is starting her first day in a textile fabric Tatrasvit in a Slovak town Svit. The movie was shot already at the dawn of the communist regime and we can feel that its purpose seems to be to glorify (and maybe motivate?) the agrarian women that were enrolled in production facilities the regime needed to rebuild the country after the war.

Nonetheless, the story of the movie is reminiscent of the lives of many girls that lived in that era, and it was exactly the story of my grandmother. Unable to find other means of support, many people from the countryside flocked to these factories to support themselves. The state tried to provide all the necessary facilities for the workers to live a decent life (just to be clear, these facilities were often nationalized from private owners): they were housed in common dormitories, and the younger folks attended school in the morning and worked in the afternoon. Movie screenings, sports, dancing ‘parties’ were all part of the life there. It seems to me it might have resembled something like a college campus nowadays, but quite stricter in its daily schedule and routine.

Not only does the movie plot almost impeccably track that period of my grandma’s life, she actually played a small part in it! She told me she was one of the extras that sat near a sawing machine in the background in some scenes of the movie. Actually, after the movie got produced, the factory’s cultural department organized public screenings for everyone. For my grandma, this was the first movie she had seen in her life. And she was already playing a part.


I think my grandma was very fond of that period altogether and she used to mention her time at Svit a lot during our conversations. I understand it. She was in her best years and her time at Svit laid the foundation for her future - professionally and personally. She continued working for textile factories for the rest of her life, slowly moving up the “corporate” (although in a communist regime) ladder, even ending up a manager at some point. In addition, she found her husband in Svit. They met on a dance (aka dating apps of the past) and from how she told me the story, it was love at first sight (I never corroborated this story against my grandfather’s version though). Not long after they danced together for the first time, they got married.

Even though grandma cherished her memories of Svit dearly, she also used to speak about her later working years. Soon after the marriage, the newlyweds moved to a town called Kosice. This was a rapidly industrializing hub in the eastern part of the country. The city was bustling thanks to the booming steel industry and a network of newly founded technical education institutions. This expansion required a huge number of workers that needed to be relocated to the city. Grandma was offered a managerial role there, and she accepted.

Grandma used to reference a couple of stories from her time after moving to Kosice, but they were never as detailed as stories from her earlier years. There was maybe one more story of her life from that period she used to remember exceedingly fondly. As the communist countries across the world had signed mutual contracts of help, it was common for representatives of the more advanced industrialized nations to provide the technical know-how needed to kickstart the industrial processes in the less advanced ones. In the 80s, Castro’s regime in Cuba wanted to modernize the textile industry in the country, so he invited experts from several states (including Czechoslovakia) to improve their processes. My grandma was selected as one of the representatives. I imagine that upon arriving in Havana, she must have felt the same way as she had on her first day at Svit - she was in a completely new and foreign environment far away from her home. She stayed in Cuba for something around half a year, and then returned back.

Nowadays, a work-related stay on another side of the planet would be an insignificant addition to our CV. “How was working in Cuba?” “Great, did a lot of travel around the Caribbean, deep dived in Costa Rica, and gained 10 pounds by constantly eating ropa vieja.” and that would be all. But for that generation, visiting Cuba had utterly different connotations. Remember, my grandma was born to a farmer’s family (like the majority of Slovak people in the early 20th century) and the expectation was she is going to be a farmer’s wife (sic!) one day and the farthest she is going to get is the nearest provincial center to attend the markets on weekends. And that would be it. But no. She ended up working in Cuba for half a year.


When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time with my cousins and sister at my grandma’s place. I don’t have any particular memories from those times, as I think our times there were mostly spent playing and running wild.

I think my more mature memories about my grandma start after I moved away from my home town for a university. I started calling my grandma every couple of days and we always kept talking for hours. Even in an advanced age, she exhibited tremendous intellectual curiosity and interest for the world - she was a voracious book reader and was always requesting from me some book recommendations, or she used to ask me about all the stuff she wasn’t able to understand when reading newspapers. She was always rather inquiring than opinionated.

The thing I probably remember the most about these calls is that very often either she had to stop the call because someone else was just calling her on another phone (yes, she was a tech-savvy person) or she had just finished chatting with someone else before I rang her. These were people either from her hometown staying in touch, her friends from the dormitories at Svit, or people she was managing while she was a manager at the factory in Kosice. She had an extremely rich social life even after she retired - though not in person, but more digital (to be precise, analog). I always inquired about who these folks were and I was surprised that often it was folks with whom she hasn’t spoken for decades, but they somehow remembered her, and looked up her phone (back then, there were publicly available phone books where you could just search a person’s phone - not sure if these would pass GDPR-compliance standards now) and wanted to contact her. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that her social circles at that old age surpassed all the connections I had during my entire college years. I have no doubts these folks just remembered the generosity and the help she was never in lack of giving.

One reason why I am especially sad she died during the pandemic was that there couldn’t be a public funeral. The state regulations only allowed ceremonies attended by the closest social circle, mostly direct relatives. I always imagined her funeral to be an extremely social event. Where people whose lives she enriched would meet and cherish the love she was able to give. The eeriness of the experience was for me even accentuated by the fact that I wasn’t able to attend. I was living outside the country and travel restrictions were quite stringent. I had to watch the funeral online, streamed through Google Meet by my family. It all felt utterly artificial, devoid of all emotions. I feel bad about it, but I didn’t cry. I just watched the stream and went straight back to work.

Angel of God, my guardian dear…

My grandmother was a devout but not bigoted Christian. She understood the religion as a tradition her ancestors, mainly her mother and father, passed on to her. She read Bible and prayed on a daily basis, but she seldom attended masses. I feel she was a very practical believer, she knew what a Christian life looks like. She believed that there is a purpose to life, but that purpose is known only to God. We have to accept the plans the Lord has for us. God gave us life, and we should be grateful for that.

I never understood how much Christianity affected her behavior, but I think I am beginning to see it now. The whole idea of accepting life’s ups and downs as they come is a central notion of the religion. The things we consider disasters and accidents are plans of God that he has for us. Being sad or angry or being dissatisfied with how our lives are going compared to others is useless. There is purpose and meaning in everything that happens and that purpose is known only to the Creator. God gave us the gift of life and we should be able to accept every part of it and love all our fellow (human) beings. That’s how we will make ourselves worthy in his eyes.

I won’t argue for or against this position here. Matter of fact is that my grandmother sincerely identified with this view on life and adhered to it. Her acceptance of the challenges and suffering in life was always grounded in the belief that everything has its purpose. There is no reason for us not to continue giving love even when we are undergoing personal hardships. Whenever I was in pain, she always used to remind me that there is a purpose in it. Whenever I felt jealous of other people’s situations or inadequate, she pointed out that we all have our own paths to happiness.

I feel she must have understood this from a very early age. For me, the proof of that is in all those friends that used to remember her even decades after they met her. It seems they must have felt that there was something truly inspirational and comforting in the joy my grandma was known for.

I try to somehow internalize her ideas that one needs to accept the challenges one faces with love and never be jealous about one’s own predicament compared to one’s peers. As an agnostic, I cannot give you a logically coherent viewpoint that would justify this approach. However, I just feel there must be something fundamentally true about it.

Shape of Life

Recently, I have bumped upon a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut called Shapes of Stories. It describes some of the most common plot patterns human stories take. Vonnegut argues that most of the stories we have been telling each other across times are very similar in one thing - and that they all pretend to understand when characters are undergoing life victories and losses. However, Vonnegut finishes his talk by describing what he thinks is an exception to this pattern, and that is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As he walks us through the play, he shows how the story doesn’t portray any major emotional ups or down of the main protagonist - it just simply depicts the life of Hamlet after the death of his father. There is no victory or fall the main protagonist is conveying to readers. For Vonnegut, even though such a story may not sound that captivating, it tells us something fundamental about the human experience:

We don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

I wish I had seen this lecture before the death of my grandma. I would have loved to ask her what she thought about it. But I feel she would have agreed wholeheartedly.