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.”