Archive for June, 2007

A village “swimming pool”…

June 28, 2007

As a young girl, Summer was the season I anticipated with great eagerness. This was the time when we visited our paternal grandmother in Oros, a small village near Nyiregyhaza in northeastern Hungary.  The trip was always by train, with our bicycles shipped along with us. What seemed to me a yearly epic journey, this voyage took us through modern industrial landscapes, villages which appeared to have been fixed in amber from a far-in-time past, and cities that were spread out much farther than our home town of Gyor and bustled with activity I found daunting and confusing.

It was exciting to linger in the train car’s hallway with Ildiko, with our heads leaning out of the open window our hair whipped by the wind of our passage, pointing out the sights to each other and calling out the names of the stations we passed in the countdown toward our destination, the station in Nyiregyhaza. Once we arrived, Apu hired a truck to take us, our suitcases and bikes to the village. Ildiko and I sat in the bed of the truck with our gear; Anyu and Apu drove along in the cab with the driver.  Anyu really didn’t approve of this arrangement because it meant that her careful attention to our appearance would be nullified by our hair becoming windblown and our clean faces and exposed skin taking on a patina of dust thrown up by the truck’s passage along a dirt road.  We didn’t care how dirty or messy we became; we were so thrilled with this novel mode of travel!

Arrival, as usual, was a noisy business. Apu jumped out of the truck cab and hurried over to the closed gate in the fence surrounding Nagyanyu’s house.  Here he raised his bass voice and sang out “Anyukam, I am home! We are here!” After Ildiko and I jumped out of the truck-bed, Anyu set to tidying us up. She rearranged our dresses and messy hair and made disgusted noises under her breath about our appearance. She, herself, was  a picture perfect young city matron and always looked like a glamorous young Movie Star. (Once she had confided to us that she looked like the American actress, Barbara Stanwick, and modelled her hair-dos after hers.  Neither Ildiko, nor I had ever seen Barbara Stanwick, so this didn’t mean anything to us!) Then she presented us formally to Nagyanyu after Apu had made his loving, effusive greetings.  Nagyanyu gave the best hugs in the world, far better ones than those given by our bony, fashionable and stand-offish maternal grandmother.

The evening of our arrival Apu and Anyu caught up with news about his mother, sisters, and happenings in the village.  So, Ildiko and I  re-discovered the gardens, the chicken coop and the barn where Nagyanyu kept the goats, pigs and cows. We busied ourselves until darkness and planned our escapades for the next day.  At bedtime, after a sponge bath to remove road grime, we fell, exhausted, into the alcove bed we shared in the clay-floored kitchen and listened to the protracted conversation, among the adults, muffled by the kitchen wall.

Nagyanyu’s black rooster broke into loud crowing at first light, awaking us. To get an early start to our day, we dressed and sneaked out the kitchen door. We decided to let the chickens out of their shed. Ildiko found the barrel with the feed, scooped canfuls into the skirt of her pinafore and stood under the chickens preferred roost, the old dead apple tree  beside the house, waiting for the chickens to arrive. I opened the shed and rudely chased them out.  They escaped from my noisy chatter and ran out to Ildiko, who did a wonderful impersonation of a farm-wife, scattering handfuls of grain about her. I ran to the well and brought up a bucket of water for us and the chickens.  We were getting a bit hungry by this time, and as the adults didn’t show any signs of stirring, went to the front fence near which were Nagyanyu’s strawberry rows. As we ate we discussed what we might do in the morning, and decided we would ride or bikes and get a good look at all the houses in the settlement.

Once the adults woke and began to prepare for the day, breakfast was readied, and eating fast, we bolted from the kitchen after announcing we were going to explore the village, by riding around. “Don’t get dirty, and don’t bother people!” cautioned Anyu.  We escaped!

Nagyanyu’s house was at the edge of a square at the end of which was the stucco covered church.  The square was tamped clayey earth, as was the area beside the church, which was painted white, and had a wooden spire.  We rode over there to see where the village cemetery might be, and what the parsonage might look like, and leaned our bikes agains the church wall. Nearby, we spotted a rectangular excavation in the ground that looked like a small swimming pool, filled with a milky substance. We wandered over and sat down near its edge and debated what kind of swimming pool it might be.  We didn’t associate swimmming pools with churches, so thought this was a strange village version of one. “What do you think the white stuff is?” I put to Ildiko. ” It looks like some sort of paint,” she replied.  “No, no,” came a voice from behind us, ” That is a pool filled with milk!” we turned around.  The speaker was a boy about Ildiko’s age, ten.

We just sat, there, silent, thinking hard. I knew that milk we drank came from villages, and that in the city sometimes milk was scarce. Nagyanyu had milk cows and she always had more milk after milking time than I had ever seen at one time. It made sense to me that a village such as Oros, with numerous houses and a whole lot of cows, had lots of milk to spare. But was it possible they had so much that they could swim in it? (I thought that food in general was more plentiful in the village than in the city, and that villagers lived amidst plenty.) “Well, I am going for a swim” I announced, and jumped in fully clothed, wearing my new, hand-made leather Summer sandals.

Ildiko hesitated at the edge, horrified.  “Come out, right now!” she demanded. I splashed around, up to my waist in the milk.  “This feels so warm and smooth” I told her, ” jump in, you will find it good!” Undecided, she lingered at the edge and walked up and down. “Go on, jump in” urged the village boy, “you city girls should find out how it is to swim in milk!”  That did it!  She carefully took of her sandals and socks, placed them in a careful pile and gingerly let herself down into the white liquid.  The boy got a really odd look on his face, said a swift goodbye and took off at a hurried pace.  I shrugged and proceeded to splash the milk all over Ildiko.  She retaliated, and both of us were thoroughly covered in the stuff.  Some got into my mouth.  It didn’t taste at all like milk and I said so.  She agreed.

I liked the feel of it on my skin but it was difficult to swim in; it was thick, like buttermilk. After a while my skin started to tingle and I asked Ildiko if hers did also.  “Yes”, she agreed,  “and  my skin is starting to get itchy!  Let’s get out!”  We climbed out, covered in white, thoroughly, from head to toe.  Ildiko retrieved her socks and sandals. I squelched along in my soggy sandals, my pinafore plastered to my body.  We got on our bikes and rode, dripping white splatters in our wake. I complained about my skin feeling hot and irritated.  Ildiko said “Hurry, let’s get home and wash off”.

We parked the bikes by the fence and went into the garden enclosure.  Anyu was lying back in a kitchen chair, taking the sun.  Nagyanyu was sweeping the dooryard, and Apu sat reading and smoking.  He saw us first and started laughing.  “What did you two get into now?” he asked. “We had a swim in milk”, I announced, “but my skin is itchy so can you please wash me off?”  Anyu looked at us, dazed, and and got a horrified look on her face. “Where did you find this milk pool?’ she shrieked. “Right next to the church” I said, “and a local boy told us it was milk!”  Nagyanyu started chuckling, excused herself and hurried into the house. “You stupid, stupid girls!” yelled Anyu, “go right over and stand next to the well!  Come on, Bela!  You bring up the water, and I’ll wash down these two!”

We stood, chastened and uncomfortable beside the well.  Apu brought up bucketsful of icy water, Anyu dumped them unceremoniously over each of us.  Then we had to take off out sopping clothes, and recieve more dumpings of water.  Nagyanyu came out of the house with a jug of vinegar, poured it into the last buckets of water to give us a final vinagery rinse.  Our teeth chattered and we hopped around shivering, cold, on such a lovely sunny day. 

 As Nagyanyu came out and smothered us in flannel sheets, Apu explained – ” You two will never find a milk pool in the whole world.  That boy tricked you! It was whitewash you swam in. The reason it was in the pool is because the church and the whole village are due their annual whitewashing.  It takes an awful lot of whitewash to cover all the walls in Oros.”

What is hidden, what is revealed…

June 26, 2007

 The crucifix, Anyu (Mother) had brought out of Hungary in 1956 by hiding it inside the folds of a Turkish prayer rug, now hangs in a little shrine in my hallway. It is a well-crafted marquetry cross, with a detailed bronze sculpture of crucified Jesus attached by little nails through the hands and crossed feet. Festooned with two rosaries, it had hung from a very visible wall in the dining rooms of all the homes our family had lived.  Today, I took it down.  It needed polishing, and while applying wax to the fine woods my thoughts turned toward how it came to be in my possession and why I value it, not only for the belief it represents, but also as an aide memoire to prompt remembrances of Anyu.

Margaret, our younger sister born and raised in Canada, who had cared for Anyu during her last five years, had invited Ildiko and me to come and claim items left behind when Anyu died.  Ildiko declined to come to this occasion for dispersing Anyu’s earthly possessions; she held to a policy of non-attachment to worldly goods.

 By the time my husband, our son and I arrived at Margaret’s house, she had already made a claim on items of her own choosing – a Limoges dinner set, some antique pottery of historic and collectible value, art work of certain valuation and books which she wanted in her own collection. She had begun  dismantling  Anyu’s room and had removed the objects which she claimed for herself.  The room was in complete disarray, some bureau drawers open and spilling out contents, the bed loaded with piled books, linens, correspondence in tied bundles and boxes of photographs from her hiking adventures.  Margaret suggested to me to select and take home whatever items I wanted for memories of Anyu; she directed my husband and son to the half-empty bookshelves to take any books they desired.

 The bed with piles of stuff seemed the appropriate place for me to begin, and I looked through  a stack of crocheted doilies.  Many of these Anyu had created out of balls of fine ecru thread during the long evenings after our arrival in Canada. To me, these represented  a concrete trace of her creativity at a time when she might have been lonely for old friends, her family of origin and for familiar well-loved places. These lacy roundels contained her energy, hopes, regrets and trepidations. Their delicate interlocked meshings of thread were her private script, in her undecipherable journal of a life disrupted.

I laid them out in rows on the rug, and while doing this it occurred to me that some of these might find an extended life through the works of two woman artist friends who both worked in found fabrics. One friend, young Anna, was working on a project which involved making a huge dome of other, anonymous, women’s round doilies through which, in final installation, would project a tracery of light and shadow on observers inside. For her, I set aside a collection of the most beautiful and intricate ecru crochetings – these would find continued existence as an integral part of an artwork that would be experienced by many people – it seemed to me that Anyu might have approved this use of her handywork. For my older artist friend Paula, I gathered all the white doilies.  These she would make into lined purses which she would embellish with crystal beads, or with handmade shell scrap buttons. For myself, I selected a small rectangular ecru confection which seemed so fine that a sudden puff of breath could rearrange it.  This perfectly represented Anyu’s delicacy, complexity, fraility and love of beauty to me. This piece of memorabilia started my pile at the side of the room.

The bundles of correspondence, lying casually tossed on the bed, invited closer inspection.  They revealed Anyu’s close friendships maintained over nearly fifty years, long distance. Blue air-mail flimsies containing messages from friends in fine, individual and foreign script were neatly stacked, but too private to probe meaning from.  To take and keep, I chose two with the most dense writing in Hungarian, but which was difficult to read and make sense of, no matter how I struggled to unlock the design of the words, phrases and sentences. I came upon a letter I had written to Anyu from Brittanny nearly forty years previously; in it was a description of the fishing port of Concarneau, of men in indigo work-clothes mending nets, of the fishing dories, of the arms of the breakwater embracing the little sheltered cove. Inside the envelope was a fading black and white snapshot, deckle-edged, of a pile of floats and nets under a stunted, windswept pine tree. Other letters, from Barcelona, Arenys del Mar, Perpignan, Nimes, Genoa, Rome, Pompeii, Venice, Vienna, Gyor, Belgrade and Rijeka had traced my youthful wanderings and shared them with her.  Had this series of hasty scribblings prompted her later desire for peripatetic travels? I left these behind.

The box containing the photographs held a record of Anyu’s wanderings on foot in the mountains and on the islands of the Canadian West Coast. She appeared in most of the shots, smiling, looking contented, standing at the base of waterfalls, lounging on boulders beside mountain streams, sitting on fallen trees with her hiking cohorts and strolling through flower-strewn mountain meadows. The many pictures were her memories and held little interest for me; they remained on the bed, their eventual destination unknown to me.

The partially empty bookshelf beckoned with promises of shared memories. There were a series of plainly bound books, written in Hungarian by various writers. One in particular struck me as a perfect, apt keepsake. A red cloth-covered book, titled “Tanar ur, kerem” (Teacher, sir, please) by the Hungarian satirist Frigyes Karinthy leaned against a row of others.  Obviously brought back to Canada from one of Anyu’s numerous visits to her Mother in Hungary, it was one which she had read from to Ildiko and me when we were children. It was a book she was very fond of, by an author she revered; it reflected her innate pleasure in satire and her mordant sense of humour. “This is a book I want to keep.  Anyu read these short vignettes to us with such relish!” I called out to Margaret. She readily assented as she grew up not speaking, reading nor writing Hungarian.  Ah, how much had she missed out on by happenstance of being born in Canada!  She never had the opportunity to appreciate, truly, Anyu’s wonderful, witty command of her language of origin, her musical sense of the sounds of word combinations and permutations.  Most pleased, I placed this book with the rest of my gleanings.

Face down on a small table next to the bookshelf was a haphazard stack of small framed photographs of members of our family. One, in an oval rosewood frame, an obvious modern reprint from an earlier portrait, showed Anyu as a young child of four years of age. In this photo, she has a tender, innocent and wondering expression much the same as she projected the day before she died and which I realized, now, was a profound yet seldom glimpsed aspect of her essence.  Margaret has a copy of this picture, and thus consented to me taking it.

Above this table hung the crucifix, layered with rosaries, and pendant necklaces of varying provenance. While not overtly religious, Anyu had held onto this cross, those rosaries for almost sixty years.  She had been given it by Dedike (Great-Grandmother) on the occasion of her marriage to Apu.  Anyu had suddenly stopped attending church services when Ildiko was ten years old and I was eight. She refused to ever set foot inside a church afterward, and it was a great matter of conjecture and discussion between Ildiko and me as to what had prompted this decision. Over the years, Anyu had evaded our questions about her sudden lapse of overt faith, and yet here was a symbol of belief which she had kept near her, so obviously valued, for the greater part of her long life. I felt a strong connection  between this crucifix and her; for me it represents the mystery of forever hidden aspects of human individuality.  How much of the relationship of a mother with her child hinges on faith, because so much is revealed and so much is obscured  during a shared lifetime of observation, telling and listening. I had to take this with me.

So, now, this crucifix, which I look at so often during my days, has again jostled memories.  It is now polished, the wood and bronze gleaming; my fingers have tenderly explored the beautifully defined contours of the crucified Christ. And,  during the carrying out of this small maintenance routine, the embers of my memories of Anyu have been rekindled.

Leaving Stalin Utca…

June 23, 2007

Our building door closed behind us. There was little motion on the street. Few people were walking to work, the soldiers patrolling the tanks in front of the buildings walked up and down, stamping their feet in the cold skiff of snow. Apu took out his cigarette case, extricated a cigarette and lit it. He waved at the soldier directly in front of our building and said “Good Morning” in Russian.  “Cold today” greeted the soldier.  Apu offered him a cigarette and lit it for him.  They conversed briefly.  Ildiko  and I stood by Anyu, shuffling our feet, looking around at the familiar landmarks which we would never again see.  Apu ended his conversation, came over, kissed us all goodbye and waving, walked off in the direction of the ambulance station where our car was parked.  Anyu shepherded us in the opposite direction, her ususal route to go to the shops.

We went around the block, rejoined Apu at the ambulance station. On the brief walk there, I took in the grey sameness of the various buildings we passed, the warmly lit windows which signalled daily routines were taking place inside, the familiar skeletal trees lining the street. There was to be no more strolling, running or playing with friends on these streets for Ildiko, me and our friends. Anyu and Ildiko walked at a business-like pace, not saying anything, holding their private musings to themselves.  We rejoined Apu to find him tinkering under the hood of the DKW (Deutsche Kinder Wagon). The ambulance station attendant, smoking a cigarette, leaned on the car and conversed quietly with him. In between fiddling with bits of machinery, Apu told him that he was taking us to  line up at a shop near the clinic he was to visit first.  We piled into the car and drove off toward downtown.

After some time of driving roundabout to get back on the main road leading out of town, Apu drove west.  The pollarded trees lining the edges of the road were brushy sentinels, dark grey against the tarnished silver sky. The car took us through villages huddled close to the earth, past stubble fields, past stripped-bare orchards and lacy copses of woods. We were silent in the car, each of us immersed in our own thoughts. There were no other vehicles on the road except for ours. The engine sounds sputtered a rhythm that established a tempo for an internal symphony and I hummed quietly, elaborating the melody under my breath, all the while looking, looking, hungry, at the passing familiar world.

“Where are we going? asked Ildiko.  “To a village near Ferto To” replied Anyu, “north of Sopron”.  “Who are we staying with? For how long?” I queried.  “Only for five days” answered Apu.  I quietly chewed this over in my mind.  What was there for the two of us to do for five long days, in a village we had never been in before and with people who we didn’t know at all?

Soon Apu turned the DKW off the tar-mac main road onto a rutted dirt path.  The landscape had changed. There were no settlements, nor scattered villages to be seen, just lacy masses of woods interspersed with fallow fields.  Shortly, in the distance appeared a whitewashed mass of low buildings, huddled on the ground and punctuated in the middle by the spire of a church.  This place was where we were headed toward, an isolated country outpost.

Apu slowly drove into this village and stopped outside a small house from which extended a high whitewashed wall with a gate large enough to allow passage inside of a farm-wagon.  He left the car, casually sauntered up to the house’s front door and rapped on it. A grey-haired older man cracked open the door, poked his head outside, waved at Apu, then ducked back inside and closed the door. Apu stomped around on the stoop and waited. The man came out, all bundled up against the cold and motioned toward the gate in the wall.  Apu got back in the car and drove slowly toward the gate, which the man hastened to open, drove inside and announced, “Well, we have arrived.  You girls hurry out and into the house.  No one in the village must see you!” Anyu stepped out of the car and hurried us out.  The man had closed the gate behind the DKW, and we found ourselves in an enclosure containing a barn, a small yard and the side of the house where the door opened and an older woman waved us inside.

Ildiko walked ahead, quite grown-up and proper, and said a polite hello. I came up in next, clutching “War and Peace” to my side, under my coat.  Anyu bustled in and embraced the woman in greeting. We found ourselves in a kitchen similar to the one in grandmother’s village home, with a large, scarred table surrounded by simple wooden chairs and a big kandallo warming up the room. Anyu helped us out of our coats which then were hung on pegs on the wall.  The woman invited us to sit down at the table, and this we did, and then waited quietly for whatever was to happen next.

Apu and the man came inside, hung their coats up and sat with us at the table.  The woman brought us cups of warm milk in pottery mugs.  Apu began to give us our instructions on how we were to behave and spend our days. “You are not allowed to go outside at all, and when you are indoors must be behind curtains.  No one must know you are here. And you must listen and do as Mr and Mrs Ferenci tell you to do.” Mrs Ferenci took us into a small room where we were to stay most of the day, where we were to sleep. Then she showed us the outhouse, outside in the compound, near the kitchen door. If we needed to use this we had to do it quickly, with no lingering outside.  Our meals, we would take with the two of them in the kitchen.  Anyu reminded us that we had to be quiet and not cause problems for the Ferencis.

Anyu and Apu took their leave of us soon afterward.  The hug and kiss from them and reminders we would see them soon temporarily had to satisfy us both.  Anyu and Apu always kept their word; whenever they left us anywhere, we were certain to see them again as they promised.  This time would be the same as ever, they would come for us, I reasoned.  However, I was somewhat afraid that this time might be different, circumstances were more difficult and less predictable.  I grasped Ildiko’s hand and asked:

“Would you read to me from “War and Peace”? When you get tired of reading, I’ll take my turn.”

Toys…

June 20, 2007

Mousey is nearly eleven months old now. She has never stepped on grass, nor has seen birds fly, nor insects crawl, hop, hide or fly. She has not sat outside for any length of time, to watch the shift and play of light, the effect of the breeze or wind on the lawn, the leaves on a tree or the moving clouds overhead.  Whenever she goes outside she rides backward in her carseat and sees a fast moving world as she is driven about from home to run shopping errands with her mother.

She has piles of stuffed animals, toys appropriate for her age, but they are all plush and plastic.  What she is most curious about is Snowy, the family cat, and she is forever on the lookout for opportunity to be near this ghostly white creature, to touch it and watch it. She has learned that the cat has a will of its own and will not tolerate her awkward ministrations.

She now has a toy cell phone. It has a musical ring tone and flashes lights much like a real cell phone when it is activated by a call.  Does a nearly eleven month old baby need a toy cell phone? I think she needs to go outside frequently and feel the grass under her feet and hands, experience the moving air flowing over her skin and through her hair, listen to the complex soundscape surrounding her, and see the interplay between the natural and built environment in which she will grow.

I know I am getting old and am expressing my wonder and, yes, my dismay with the fact that she has been born into a much more complex world, in which opportunity abounds, and yet in which so have limitations increased.  Many of the toys available to her, while providing an illusion of richness of experience, in fact prevent full engagement and don’t provide the occasions for developing discernment.

You can’t take it with you…

June 16, 2007

“Time to get up, girls!” called Anyu in a fake-cheery voice. I burrowed deeper under my blankets, hiding, wanting to remain warm. She was at the foot of our beds, chattering away like the little bird she was nick-named after – “Pintyoke”.  “We are going on a trip this morning!  You will find it an enjoyable change.  Come on, get dressed!” I could just make out Ildiko complaining, “But, it’s still dark out.” I hunkered down and pulled the edges of my blankets tight around me as Anyu struggled to extricate me from within. When she finally succeeded, I lay exposed and shivering in our darkened room.  Ildiko was sitting up, yawning and stretching in a showy, exaggerated, fashion. “Brrr, it’s freezing in here,” she whined. Anyu, businesslike, gathered our grey sweat-clothes, fresh socks from the bureau and extra sweaters. She began to dress Ildiko, who, compliant as ever, tolerated this babyish treatment. I just huddled in the middle of my mattress and watched, in disbelief.  Anyu approached me with a sweater and reached to undo the buttons on my pajama top. “Don’t do that!” I growled and scrambled back on the mattress so she couldn’t reach me, “I am ten years old, not a baby to be dressed up!” “Well, then, get going” came the order from Anyu, short and snappish. I sulked off to sit on the piano bench and got myself dressed. Anyu continued to “help” Ildiko continue dressing, and when finished,  left us.

Ildiko was still sleepy and uncommunicative, and I liked to pepper her with questions when she was like this. “What do you think is going on? Where do you think we are going today so early? Aren’t you at all a bit curious?” Not a morning person, she groaned, “Leave me alone. You’re such a pest. You will find out soon enough!” She shuffled out into the half-light of the salon, and reluctant, I followed in her wake.

Apu, bundled up in layers of sweaters and what he called his hunting pants, sat in front of the salon kandallo sipping ersatz coffee. He had on his long legs the shiny knee boots that he had taken from a dead German officer while serving as a field doctor on the Eastern Front during the last war. He looked quite jaunty, as if about to undertake one of our family excursions in the woods. I took this as a promising sign. Maybe we might visit some friends in a nearby village, which was always so much more exciting than hanging about the apartment or our neighbourhood.

Anyu had made cream of wheat for breakfast; as she served it up she mentioned that much-dreaded accompanyment to breakfast – “Take your spoonful of cod-liver oil before you start to eat.” Blech! What a torture, especially on a dark winter morning, I mused. Ildiko dutifully gulped down her spoonful and cast me a triumphant smile. Anyu was watching me, expectant. I stirred my cream of wheat, added a lot of sugar to it, moved it about some more, made patterns with my spoon on the top of the mush – anything to avoid that first slimy taste and fishy smell. “For heaven’s sake, just toss back the oil”, urged Anyu. I complied, and then hurried to spoon the sweetened mush into my mouth. Apu offered me a sip of his coffee.  It did not make for a better combination of flavours but the offer molllified me momentarily – coffee was only for adults in our home, and I finally got a sip!

Anyu was busying herself putting her winter trousers on top of her indoor pants, several sweaters and her walking shoes. She looked like a badly stuffed doll. She came to the table and sat, finishing her coffee.  Apu launched into an explanation for our early start to the day. “An AVO man, whose children I helped deliver, came very late last night to warn me that several of my friends were going to be arrested within the week, and then charged with treason.  He thinks I may be among that group and that I should make plans to leave the country. We cannot just pick up and go on a moments notice; there are things we must arrange.  So, Anyu and I are taking you girls to a village near Sopron for the week, while we organize things here for our final leaving.”

“Can we say good-bye to our friends before we leave? Can I see Tibi and Marta before we go?”  I asked. (Long time before, I had decided that I was going to marry Tibi when I grew up. It saddened me I would never see his expressive black eyes nor smooth his dark cow-lick down while teasing him. And where would I find a friend like Marta with whom to look at the maps and stamps and make up elaborate tales of what life in distant places might be like?) “Let’s take Karolyka with us” suggested Ildiko, “he is an only child and will be so lonely without us.”

“No,” said Apu, “we have decided to tell everyone that you two are quarantined here in the apartment with an infectious disease, are very ill and cannot be seen.  Anyu will carry on her daily duties and occupations, as if busy looking after you two.  I will carry on in surgery, clinics and hospitals as if life was normal, and make arrangements for our leaving during the evenings.” Anyu stood up, her face pale and fearful, and cleared the half empty breakfast dishes, her hands trembling.  “Go put on more sweaters and socks, and then get your coats on” she ordered in a tense, reedy voice, and hurried out to the kitchen.

Ildiko wandered back into our room, sat at her piano bench, opened up the piano and silently, absently, fondled its keys. I dug out my paper napkin collection and laid all the beautiful, ornate blocks of folded flimsy paper on my unmade mattress. Then I brought over the lovely Japonaiserie antique toiletry case that Grandmother had given me for my tenth birthday a mere three weeks ago, opened its doors, caught my reflection in the polished metal mirror, slid out one mother-of-pearl inlaid drawer and brought out the little wooden comb inside. “Come here” I called to Ildiko ” let me comb your hair and make you pretty for our trip”. Tears running down her face, she walked over and sat on the floor.  I slowly combed her blonde hair, pinned it back from her face. She stood up, retrieved her hairless teddy bear, and dandled it in her arms. She looked abandoned.

Anyu came into the room with our winter coats. ” Hurry, get these on! We have to leave right away!” she urged. I closed up the Japanese toilette box, collected the paper napkins and wrapped them in their newspaper package.  Holding the small bundle out to Anyu I begged, “Can I take these with me?” “No”, she said, “you can’t take it with you. Everything has to remain as if you girls were still here, in case anyone comes and inspects unexpectedly.” Ildiko placed her teddy bear on her mattress, put on her coat and walked out of the room to join Apu.  I started crying, but put my treasures back in their place and put on my coat.

In the salon, Apu held Anyu’s coat, Ildiko huddled against him.  I walked to the bookshelf and took out “War and Peace”.  “I want to take this to read, because wherever we are going Ildiko and I can take turns reading to each other to keep busy “. “You are too young to read this book” said Anyu, “put it back!” “But Anyu, I have read nearly a quarter of it already, and understand some of what is written in it, and Ildiko will like for me to start reading back at the beginning so she can enjoy it also,” I persisted. “Let her bring the book along, Rozsa” rumbled Apu, clearing his throat.  Anyu shrugged and put on her winter coat.

Bundled up, we walked out the apartment door.  Apu shut it with a firm click and locked it. Silent, we descended the several flights of stairs. On the level where Tibi and Marta lived I touched their doors as we passed.  On the first floor, Ildiko paused by the door to Karolyka’s apartment and cried quietly.  Apu put his arm around her and led her to the main door. Anyu grasped my elbow and escorted me after them. We walked out into a snowy, cinder-grey November morning.

The door closed behind us; it closed on friendships, familiarity, a certain security.  Ildiko and I never saw our friends and home again.

You are not at the Suez canal… Our river is the Raba…

June 14, 2007

I opened my eyes to a silvery light and burrowed down into the blankets with just the tip of my nose and my eyes exposed. Ildiko slept soundly on the part of the trundle bed under which fit my rolling mattress. My eyes slowly adjusted to the details of the room and I craned my neck to better see the shiny tiles on the kandallo, the ceramic clad fireplace, in the corner of our room. The white glazed tiles looked as cold as the room felt and I was reluctant to emerge from my warm cocoon.

What was going to happen today, I wondered? We didn’t have to go to school, it was temporarily suspended. Anyu might have to go to line up for buying meat, milk, rice or flour. Maybe she would take Ildiko and me along to wait at the shops, and we could help bring home provisions in the string bags she carried bunched up in her purse. Or, perhaps, she would let us go outside to play the stone-tossing game against the apartment walls, with Marta, Tibi  and Karolyka. I knew Laci, my violin tutor, was arriving in the early afternoon to monitor my practice session, and that Herr Kropatschek would make his appearance in the early evening for our German lesson. Life was certainly topsy-turvy, but Anyu made sure that not all of our routines were interrupted. Apu was keeping appointments in the surgery in our apartment, and would afterward go off to the hospital and the clinics around the city to do his doctoring.

As I lay pondering these possibilities it occurred to me that maybe today the Russian army might arrive.  I crept out of bed, wrapped in the top-most blanket,  shuffled to the window and looked down upon Stalin Utca. Skiffs of snow drifted about on the road and on the soccer/handball court across the street. And parked on the empty street were tanks, lined up end to end as far as I could see. These were a mossy gray colour, patrolled by one soldier per tank dressed in long khaki overcoats and fur-lined khaki shapkas. The soldiers carried strange-looking guns and walked back and forth along the length of each tank.

I shuffled back to the beds and shook Ildiko awake.  “Come and see all the Russian tanks outside!  They really did come!” She blinked, sleepy, stretched and muttered “Go away, leave me alone… you are making this all up!” I poked at her and insisted, ” Really, I have seen them from the window… come and see for yourself”.  Ildiko crawled out of bed, rubbed her eyes and slowly made her way to the window. When she saw the tanks she groaned, “Oh, no!…now what will we do?

I was excited and suggested that after breakfast we gather all of our friends and go visit the soldiers. ” We just have to find out where they came from, and see if they really are dangerous to us,” I announced, “and besides which none of us have seen tanks before. We need to take a good look at them.”

We washed up in the cold bathroom and dressed in our matching grey sweatsuits, our regular at-home winter wear.  Anyu had our usual breakfast of cream-of-wheat, sugar and milk ready for us in the dining room. As we ate, she told us that today she would go and line up to buy lentils and rice; she had heard a shipment had come in and she had to make sure to be able to get some for us to eat. “I want you girls to stay inside. The Russian tanks have arrived outside and it may not be safe for you to go out.” Ildiko said she would practice on the piano while Anyu went shopping. I mentioned that Marta wanted me to come downstairs and exchange stamps from our collections, but carefully left out any hint that I wanted to talk with the soldiers.

After Anyu left the apartment, Ildiko opened up the piano and set out her sheet music. She wound up her metronome. Before she began practice she turned to me and warned me, “You better not go outside. You will get into trouble if the soldiers don’t shoot you first.” I just shrugged, and ran off to the kitchen to prepare some slices of  lard bread with sugar sprinklings for the soldiers. Then I went to collect Tibi, Marta, and Karolyka and we trooped outside bearing the pile of lard bread.

We stood outside the apartment building door and fooled around kicking up snow. Slowly we approached the nearest tank, and studied it carefully.  It looked somewhat like a mechanical sow-bug, but one with a long gun protruding from its humped back, and was a dusty moss green. The soldier patrolling, holding his gun, watched us, curious. “Good morning, Comarade”, greeted Tibi in his best Hungarian/Russian. The soldier approached us and motioned us to back away from the tank. This we did. I held out the pile of lard bread toward him and asked if he would like a slice. He shook his head, “No.”

He appeared very young, about the same age as Laci, my violin tutor. Like a skinny teen-ager, he seemed. From under his sheep-skin lined shapka strands of pale blond hair escaped, his skin was very white and his long green eyes gazed at us. I sensed he was friendly and was not about to shoot at us, so I offered him the bread again.  He took a slice and ate it down in very few bites.  “Good!” he said, in Russian.

Marta asked him, ” Where is your family?” “Novosibirsk”, he replied.  “You are very far from home” I said. “Yes, The Suez Canal is a long distance from Novosibirsk. I am surprised you African children can speak Russian”, he responded.  This took us aback and we exchanged glances and began to confer in Hungarian. Karolyka decided that the fellow confused our river with the Suez Canal. Karolyka’s Russian was better that the rest of ours, mainly because he was in a higher grade and had longer time to learn it. He clarified for this soldier, “You are in Hungary, not near the Suez Canal and our river is the Raba.  We are not African kids, we are white skinned like you.”  “No, no,” insisted the soldier “This is Africa.  We were told that we were to be stationed at the Suez Canal”.

We didn’t feel like arguing with him, after all he had a gun and a tank. So we politely said our goodbyes and went back into our building. I could not figure out how a soldier might not know where exactly he was.  Karolyka said that the soldier was just stupid. Tibi, Marta and I climbed the stairs to our apartments, and on the way to our homes determined that adults lied, not only to children but to each other.  I found this difficult to grasp.

“It has nothing to do with me…”

June 13, 2007

The anticipated bombing had not happened, though we waited, fearful. Our only information came from the capital in daily radio announcements. Russian tanks had moved in on Budapest and the citzenry there were engaged in an unequal battle for control; the brief freedom, illusory, had not been bolstered by outsider Western powers. Once the balance of power shifted back to the communists and the Russians, it was only a matter of few days for the armies to complete the mopping up of pockets of resistance in the smaller towns and cities. Our town would fall the day after the capital was recaptured, so Apu (Father) explained to us girls.  We were to be well prepared for the restrictions imposed on our movements by martial law, and Apu detailed what form those restrictions would take.

So we listened to the radio as though to an augur which  would predict our immediate fate. On a dark November evening we gathered around the radio and listened to a report that Budapest had been recaptured by the Russian Army. Apu’s face darkened, he clamped his large hands together as if they were two halves of a vise. Anyu (Mother) sat, tense, rigid in the large green armchair; her knitting fingers, nervous and stiff, made staccatto movements. Ildiko, curled around Anyu’s side, leaned her sad face against Anyu’s sleeve and stroked her upper arm. I went to the window overlooking Stalin Utca and gazed at the delicate sprinkling of snow falling slowly in the halo of the streetlamp.

Apu fiddled with the radio settings to find the local station. An announcement, terse, repeated several times, stated that a rally would take place at 8 pm at the town hall.  Here decisions would be made as to how best respond, united, to the anticipated arrival of Russian troops the following morning.  All concerned citizens were to attend this important meeting.

Apu stood up and ordered, “We must all get ready and go!  Get your coats, boots, watchcaps and gloves on.  It will be a long, cold meeting.” Anyu placed her knitting down on her lap.  “Why do you have to go so early?  The rally doesn’t start until 8 o’clock.” she said. “Well, there are a lot of hot-headed people here who will agitate the crowd to violent resistance, which is useless and will get a lot of people killed.  Then the repercussions will be increased brutal treatment of town people. I need to talk with the more rational folks to prevent such thoughtless reactions on our part.” insisted Apu.

Ildiko and I scooted out to the foyer and began to put on our winter gear.  Apu came and put on his shapka, overcoat and gloves. We stood around warming up and waited for Anyu to arrive.  She did not come, and we waited for a longish time. Apu opened the door to the salon and called out, “Rozsa, we are dressed and ready.  Hurry up! The girls are getting hot in their outdoor clothes.” No reply, silence. “Rozsa, let’s get going, we are waiting! What are you up to?” he asked.

Anyu slowly walked into the foyer to join us. She made no motions to get her winter coat on, and just stood wringing her hands. “I am not coming!” she announced, emphatic, “you take the girls and go.” Apu’s face turned an angry dark red under the edge of his shapka. “Whatever decision is made tonight by the crowd will influence what happens to all of us tomorrow. There has to be a balance of reasonable opinion there, to ensure a safe outcome for our town” Apu calmly reasoned. “It has nothing to do with me, and I am not coming!” retorted Anyu in a panicky voice.  “You girls, don’t let your Father make any speeches to the crowd.  If he does that tonight, the Russians will hang him as a traitor!” She walked back into the salon, slamming the door behind her. Ildiko looked confused, I know I was confused and Apu appeared frustrated.  We left the apartment, silent, trudged down the four flights of stairs and went out into the crisp, lightly dusting snow of the evening.

 On Stalin Utca were groups of people walking in the direction of the town hall. There were no cars on the street (few people in our town owned private vehicles), just bundled-up people  of all ages headed to the same destination.  Ildiko, older than me by a couple of years walked, sedately, on Apu’s right. I skipped beside him on his left, because of the cold, and he grasped me by the nape of the neck, but did not scold me. All the way to town hall, Ildiko begged and pleaded with him to not speak in public. “What will happen to us all if the Russians hang you, Apu?”she questioned him.  Apu reassured her that he had ways of avoiding such an eventuality. Along our walk he explained that it was an individual’s duty to share a considered opinion with others, so that the best possible group decision could be made.  He also told us that he cared not only for us, his family, but also for many other people and if he could convince powerful persons in the town to make the right decision in regards to how best respond to the anticipated arrival of Russian troops, we would all be spared the horror of reprisals.

I skipped along beside Apu, listening to Ildiko’s anxious questions and entreaties and his reasonable and reassuring replies to her.  He said he would not lose us in the crowd, and that if he spoke to them he would be truthful, calm and speak from the heart.  I believed and trusted Apu, thus felt no apprehension in being with him this evening. I sensed and heard Ildiko’s worry and decided that I would hold her hand and not let go, while we were waiting around listening to the many discussions that would take place.

We arrived at the town hall to find a massive crowd gathered and buzzing in the open square in front. Apu led us through the mass of people to the front of the building and guided us up the wide staircase to the front door. Spotlights lit up the square and blanched the many faces to be seen there; they looked like an assembly of ghostly heads gazing, very still, toward the parapet above the town hall’s main doors. Makeshift Hungarian flags, without the communist insignia, hung limp at the parapet’s corners. Snow dusted down, a finely speckled curtain.

Apu guided us upstairs and left us with a group of women and children, none of whom we recognized, and asked that we remain with them during the speechmaking that was to follow. He joined a group of older men, most of whom he seemed to know, on the parapet.  There was a microphone and spotlights directed at the podium where the speakers were to orate from to the crowd below. Suddenly, a man walked up to the microphone and announced the singing of the national anthem “Isten Elti A Magyart”, then began to sing in a wonderful tenor voice.  The crowd followed in song. At the end an eerie silence descended on the square, all movement seemed to cease and it felt like the whole mass was holding their breath all at the same time.

The acting mayor greeted the crowd with the news from a village nearby to the East of us.  The Russian tanks had arrived there and had encamped outside the village.  The Russian troops had travelled with their families in tow and had demanded that the village provide milk for the soldiers’ children.  There was not enough milk in the village and the demand had been made for milk to be brought from our town to give to the Russians.  Would our town accede to this order, or would the citizens resist?

Several younger speakers exhorted the crowd to organize armed resistance to the Russian arrival to take control of our town. Under no circumstance should we provide any aid to our opressors; in fact we should battle to repel them. More reasonable orators argued against armed resistance as being futile; we did not have the resources with which to engage in a pitched battle.  The discussion carried on for a long time, and a clear direction to take seemed elusive. Apu came back to check on Ildiko and me, to make sure we were not too cold. Ildiko hung onto his arm and begged, “Please , Apu, don’t talk to the crowd,  I am so afraid for you if you speak out!” She began to cry, and I hugged her and wiped the tears from her cheeks with my woolen glove. Apu put his arms around us and said quietly “I will talk, but listen carefully to what I will say to the people here. No Russians will hang me for what I am about to tell the crowd. Sometimes one must speak!” He left us and walked to the podium.

“How many of you brought your children to this rally tonight?  I brought my two – they are back there listening to all that we are saying here. I would be very angry if my children needed milk, were hungry, and were prevented from having what they needed. This anger would cause me to do everything in my power to force a resolution for my children’s needs, and even push me toward greater violence in reprisal actions against the group of people who increased my children’s discomfort. The Russian soldiers are men like us, their feelings toward their families is exactly the same as our own. The  families who accompany these soldiers are not doing this voluntarily, the children in their encampment are innocents, hungry like our own children. Send the milk, then maybe the soldiers will be more lenient and kindly toward our own families, once the power has shifted.  We would be foolish to resist such armed might, and would be fools to anger the individuals comprising it.” He walked away from the microphone and stood back with the group who had already spoken.

I was clutching Ildiko’s hand.  She was agitated, weeping and shivering. “I know Apu will be punished for this!”she sobbed, ” I should have done something to prevent him from speaking.  Anyu will be so disappointed with me for not looking out for him.” I threw my arms around her, hugged her and stood there with her until Apu came to lead us homeward.  In my heart I knew Apu was right, I just could not find the words to convince Ildiko of this.

The three of us walked home in the gently falling snow.  Ildiko was weeping, Apu was silent and had his arm about her shoulders.  I skipped along, feeling very safe and convinced of Apu’s wisdom.  The outcome of the rally was to collect milk in our town and take it to the Russian encampment for their children.  There was to be no armed resistance to the takeover.  Sometime tomorrow morning the tanks would rumble and grind into town and hunker down, menacing, on our snowy streets and boulevards.

Waiting… will the river flood?

June 11, 2007

Prissy German Tourist arrived early on Thursday afternoon, bearing his kit and gallery visiting clothes on hangers. He installed these in our spare bedroom while I made a pot of chai tea for our refreshment. He came out into the kitchen muttering about how foolish he felt having left his camera at home.  He and that camera are inseparable!

We sat sipping tea, conversing, while waiting for Barb and Lucky to call and say they were ready to get rolling  and go downtown. We were looking over brochures of the Getty, and other LA gallery bits and pieces when Barb called and announced she could not go with us as her 17 year-old daughter was having an anxiety attack and she felt uncomfortable leaving her.  Then Lucky phoned and said she had run into a snag on her shift in the hospital and she would not be able to be ready before four thirty pm.  PGT and I conferred and decided that we might as well pick up Lucky at her house since she was so keen to go to the gallery opening with us. Lucky returned to her duties and we sipped more tea and looked at some examples of contemporary LA art.

At the appropriate time we drove down to the dike road where Lucky and her family lived, on the river side of the dike. No TV crews and vans today there, no onlookers parked along the dike to get views of the swollen river and in their imaginations project images of the large houses there being deluged by a dangerously rising and voracious waters.  We parked, rang the door-bell and walked to the lawn overlooking the river bank. Lucky joined us there in her stocking feet, and the three of us discussed a possibility of flooding.

Mark, Lucky’s husband, and their son, Brad, had filled many sand bags which were piled high in the only opening where the encroaching river might flow into their basement. The river had risen to the lower lawn of their property, was rushing by there, and their dock and its walkway no longer slanted down to river level.  A family of Canada Geese were relaxing on this lower lawn – mother and father standing sentinel on three fuzzy goslings lolling on the grass.  They seemed to have a sense of the dangerousness of the rushing water – the babies would have been separated from the parents – and they were waiting out this dangerous period!

Lucky felt sure enough that her home was in little danger this evening.  The water level would fall with the outgoing tide.  We piled into PGT’s little car and began the commute to the downtown gallery fairly confident that no major disaster would greet Lucky on her return later.

It rained on and off all weekend. For June, it has been unseasonably cold. Obsessive/Compulsive Shopaholic arrived at our house on Friday evening and complained how cold our house was.  Rumpole turned on the furnace, in spite of my protestations. PGT and OCS received their extra blankets and repaired to their bedroom. I stayed up late and turned the furnace off.

In the morning OCS prevailed on Rumpole to drive her to the BIG Mall for her shopping spree. PGT and I set up the laptop in the dining room and looked at 300 photos of his trip to LA.  Boy, is that place ever dry looking, and smoggy! A couple of hours later, PGT went back to bed to rest up for his expected foray to the BIG Mall to join OCS and engage in the sparring that always took place whenever they were negotiating what she could and could not purchase.

Martha phoned. “Let’s go down to the little wharf and see the state of the river.” Martha is also concerned about the height of our river, and how it might impact on all living in our neighbourhood. She brought some goodies for us to chow down on while we did our inspection, and off we drove.

There was a Scotch Mist kind of rain falling when we arrived at the wharf.  A few people had also gathered there, curious. We picked our way carefully across the wet-slicked railroad tracks onto the wharf and huddled there in our rainjackets.  The river had swallowed the Provincial campground directly across from where we stood, had flown between the trunks of trees there. It rushed by at amazing speed, carrying logs, branches and dangerous-looking snags.  We watched for a long time as a police vessel struggled upstream against the raging current, the only vessel  to be seen on the water. This boat seemed to make very little headway against the power of the current, sometimes it appeared to be going backwards, and we watched its strained progress upstream in the silty yellow-green river.  We stayed, slightly wet, for some time more and gazed at this powerful unconstrained force.

Once back at my house, we roused PGT and dried ourselves while drinking tea. OCS phoned and demanded PGT’s presence at the Mall, and off he went, grumbling and complaining about having to spend another two or three hours wrestling with his wife’s penchant for buying what he calls “useless stuff”. Martha and I debated further whether or not the river would breach its bank on our side. “Call Mark and get an update from him” she demanded.

So, I phoned Mark. He has made his living on the river for the past 25 years, and seemed pretty calm about its current status. He explained that with the tidal in and outflows on the river it rose in the morning hours, and then its levels fell toward the evening.  “I think we will be all right tonight”, he reported.

The Fraser River is a long river and is fed into upcountry by the Skeena, Bulkley, Nass and Thompson Rivers. The Skeena has flooded out some people, and  it is the added volume from these rivers that threatens communities downstream – Prince George, Quesnel, and the farming areas of the lower Fraser Valley: Hope, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Matsqui, Langley and Pitt Meadows.

Today, it is raining here, and yet the immediate danger of flooding has abated, for now.  However, for the next three weeks the flood watch will be maintained.

Flood warning…

June 5, 2007

The rivers are rising! Last week’s hot weather seems to have resulted in a fast melt of the high ground snow pack. Cows from dairy farms in the eastern valley are being evacuated in large numbers, and are being moved to higher ground. Lucky and her husband and children are sand-bagging their house on the dike, their immediate neighbours are removing and plugging toilets and moving belongings to higher levels in their houses. 40 or so families who live in the flood plain in our community are on evacuation alert.

Rumpole and I drove down to the river, quite some distance from our place.  It is running high and very fast. it has been raining here for the past few days- that kind of intense spring rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. The rain looks as if it is here to stay for a couple more days, and the vegetation does need it.

What if the flood does come and is the expected high?  Will the many blueberry farms, all on low land  surrounded by diking, be inundated? If the worst happens how much damage will be done to the vigorous fields of bushes which provide a living to these farmers?

We have friends who have a farm a fifteen minute walk downhill from our house.  They have a herd of fallow deer, with a number of young this time of year.  How will they manage?

Now the wait is on, with it the hope for respite and reprieve for all of our neighbours threatened by this flooding.

Benevolence…

June 1, 2007

Last night, at Philosopher’s Cafe, about twenty people gathered at a restaurant, and over glasses of water, tea, coffee and wine discussed ideas relating to benevolence, of what may constitute benevolent acts.  Our usual moderator was absent, and in his stead his young 23 year-old daughter established the parameters of the discussion.

Our community is in the throes of trying to deal with an increasing homeless population. The local Salvation Army operates “A Caring Place” where meals and accommodations for short overnight stays are provided, where friendship, care and practical support are extended to people in extremity. A number of homeless people are drug addicted, and it is the fact of their addictions that cause numerous citizens to level criticism against the organization. A main criticism is that such help enables the addicted to continue practising a degenerate manner of living and behaving.

Not many people are willing to give their time to, or suspend judgement and actively perform acts of benevolence toward the indigent.  There are a few, one of whom is my friend Rita. Instead of numbing herself with self-entertainment on a Saturday night, she goes down to “A Caring Place”, shares in the performance of maintenance chores, and spends companionable time with people seeking succour there.  She also goes about in the town core, seeks out the homeless in their alley hangouts, takes them a hot drink, shares a small snack and sits with them in conversation. Sometimes she is accompanied, voluntarily, by her seventeen year-old son. Her fifteen-year old daughter is nervous about spending time with her mother and brother in this activity, so she declines to accompany them. Rita, calmly goes about her involvement, and performs her acts of what could be “agape”, and expects nothing in return.  Her persistent, “dripping water on the rock” method surely, eventually may act to erode resistance on the part of the recipients of her patient ministrations and may result in the small changes that are necessary for persons to be incrementally  empowered to modify their  attitudes and lives.

The discussion last night hung up on what many percieved as self-interest as an unavoidable component of benevolent acts. The young woman moderator lacked the skill to lead to an examination of the range of motivations which influence benevolent behaviors and actions.

I wish my friend Rita had been there to help the discussion move toward  an examination of more provocative ideas. But she declined the invitation to go and take part; she was committed to coursing through the alleys and hangouts to share her generous energy with persons who could most benefit.