You can’t take it with you…

“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.

5 Responses to “You can’t take it with you…”

  1. Michèle Says:

    This is so sad, and unfortunately happens somewhere in the world nearly all the time…

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    How poignant! How difficult for some of us who have only known peace, to understand the devastation that comes with war and with being uprooted. You are a marvel. Your life has become so positively enriched because of it, because you chose to make it so. Thank you for sharing your stories, for your courage and for your “giving back” to the community that has arisen from your adventures in your early years.
    I look forward to the next installment with great interest.

  3. matt Says:

    Great writing suburbanlife!

    I know you like to visit The Coffee House so, I thought I’d let you know that I’ve started another blog called Environment Solutions;

    Hope to see there!


  4. suburbanlife Says:

    Michele, LFB, Matt – thanks for your comments. What I wrote about here is indeed happening all over the world, with families being displaced, voluntarily or involuntarily, and has always happened, with variations of details and circumstance. One might think that the experience humanizes and helps persons enter into an empathetic regard of others, but that does not always happen. There are so many personal stories about the fates of the dispersed, and kinship is fostered by all lof us sharing our stories. So I believe. G

  5. mariacristina Says:

    Yesterday was world refugee day, as they announced on CNN. Your story made the plight of being uprooted very real, especially since it was told from a child’s point of view.

    I enjoyed all the concrete details: the Japonaiserie box, the mush, grey sweat pants, the exotic (to me) names of the characters, War and Peace. I felt like I was right there in the home with this family.

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