On a sunny Easter Sunday, Ildiko and I took the long route home from Easter Mass, along the walkway lining the Raba River. From time to time we climbed off the path and worked our way through the sedges and reeds and peered through at the wet glisten of the slow-moving waters. Our coats caught on the vegetation; our shoes picked up a layer of clayey mud. We were in no hurry, happy to linger in the Spring sunshine. Ildiko was ten years old; I was eight.
At the aparment building door we met up with old Mr. Weiss, our neighbour across the hall on the fourth floor. Dressed in a dark overcoat and formal hat, he was on his way to take his walk in the park across from our building, something he did every day, without fail. “Coming from church, girls?” he asked, holding the heavy door open for us. ” I saw your father going out a few minutes ago. He said he had a surprise to bring home for you!”
“Apu probably had to visit a patient. I know of no surprises for us.” replied Ildiko.
I also knew nothing to get excited about. We were simply going to climb upstairs and have lunch waiting for us. We had eaten nothing since the night before, because if one was to take communion at Mass, one had to have an empty stomach. Mine was growling and I was quite ready for something to eat.
We walked up the four flights to our apartment and discussed how lucky old Mr. Weiss was to be a Jew; he probably had eaten a good breakfast this morning. Perhaps, kifli and jam, some sausage and a good cup of coffee.
We rang the door-bell, once at our apartment. Anyu opened the door and glared at us in dismay. “How did you two get so messy? You’ve only been to church!” she complained.
Ildiko didn’t look at all awful, except the bow in her hair had become undone and was hanging limp alongside her ear, and her shoes were just a little caked with mud. I thought I looked pretty good, considering we had whiled away some time climbing through the rushes by the river and my dress was just a little mussed up. Anyu had us take our shoes off in the entryway and herded us off to our room to get out of our Sunday best.
After changing clothes, Ildiko and I headed to the kitchen to see what we were going to eat for lunch, and maybe snatch a snack or two. “Where has Apu gone? I asked, “will he be eating lunch with us today?”
“He said he’d be back for lunch,” replied Anyu. “he had to run an errand first.”
On her way to set the lunch table Idiko called out, ” I know Apu has a surprise for us!”
Anyu said nothing, she merely continued slicing bread and sausage. I sneaked a sausage end while hanging about watching her.
The door-bell rang. “Go see who it is,” she urged.
I unlocked the door and Apu, looking quite pleased with himself, carrying a large woven basket, hurried inside the vestibule. The basket was making little rustling sounds. “Go get your sister, Gabi” he said, ” I have something here for the two of you.”
Excited, I dashed through the waiting room, into the salon and yelled at Ildiko. “Come on! Apu has a surprise for us!”
She scurried after me and we milled around Apu, and tried to guess what was in the basket. Anyu came out of the kitchen and watched us. With a flourish Apu lifted the lid from the basket and placed the surprise on the ground. Inside were two fuzzy yellowish birds making soft meeping sounds.
“Oh, baby ducks? Can I pick one up?” I cooed. “Which one is mine?”
“Silly! Can’t you tell they are baby geese?” Ildiko corrected. “Because I am older than you, the larger one is mine!”
“Bela? Where are these geese going to live?” demanded Anyu. (This was a really good question, because geese didn’t normally live in apartments.)
“Oh, well, they will live in the waiting room. The girls will feed and water them and clean up after them.” Apu stated, looking very satisfied with the reception with which his surprise had met. He had not factored in Anyu’s disapproval!
Ildiko and I promised that the geese would be no trouble at all. And we were good to our word. I named my goose Lidia; Ildiko called hers Jolanta. We moved furniture around in the waiting room to give the geese a larger place to roam, and put down some papers for them to poop onto. They each had personal dishes to eat and drink from, only they were not very good at knowing which bowl was whose. We found out that geese are hard to train, had strong minds of their own and didn’t quiet down at night. The poor baby geese were most likely exhausted from our attentions.
Daily we would greet the geese in their room. The room began to smell, and Anyu insisted we keep the poop cleaned up. Geese poop a whole lot; all the time, practically. Patients who visited the surgery at home, and had to wait in the waiting room for their turn to see Apu, were not terribly keen to be sharing the room with baby geese.
Whenever we arrived home from school, we had to clean the waiting room floors, and Anyu would insist we take the geese out for walks around the park. (This was to help waiting patients be less irritated by the presence of these fast growing babies!) So we dressed the geese in baby clothes, tied a soft shoelace lightly around their necks for a leash and carried them down four flights of stairs. Outside we tried to walk them across the road to the park. Baby geese don’t walk on a leash too well, so we strolled around in rather disorganized fashion.
Our friends were intensely jealous of our pets. They negotiated to take their turns trying to walk the geese. I decided to charge a filler for friends to walk Lidia. Ildiko was disgusted by this and tattled on me to Anyu, who also seemed to disapprove of my capitalist tendencies.
Ildiko was extremely proud of Jolanta. She was larger, smarter and nicer than my Lidia. She also looked a lot better in baby clothes. In my opinion, she pooped more and smelled worse than Lidia. Jolanta was allowed to ride in our baby buggy. My poor Lidia had to walk everywhere! “Older children are more important!” reminded smug Ildiko.
We did an awful lot of cleaning up after the geese. And they rapidly grew and started to go through an awkward teen-age phase. Anyu was beside herself with how smelly the waiting room became and ordered Apu to find a foster home for them. Lidia and Jolanta were readied to leave the apartment. After tolerating our teary goodbyes, Apu whisked them away, but not before explaining to us that we were to walk to the nearby village every day in the summertime, pick bagsful of thistles for our pets and take them to the fostering farm-wife.
So every day, Ildiko and I would cross the railway tracks, pick thistles to put into large bags and take them to the farm a couple of miles away. There the farmwife would grab Jolanta, sit her between her knees and force feed her thistles by the handful until the bag was empty. Then it would be much smaller Lidia’s turn. I didn’t think this was such a fun way to eat, nor that thistles would be all that comfortable going down her gullet. The farmwife reassured me that it didn’t hurt the geese, and that they would grow very nice, plump livers. Since I loved the taste of goose liver, this was fine by me. Ildiko announced she was not going to eat Jolanta’s liver!
Soon the geese grew out their lovely white plumage. We discovered that large Jolanta was a gander; a particularly bossy one. Lidia became a plump bird who followed Jolanta around the farmyard. Our pets had grown up and didn’t tolerate our attentions any more.
Anyu mentioned, one day in September, that soon we would be eating Jolanta and Lidia. Ildiko wept as she announced she could never eat “her baby”. I felt she was being too sentimental, was acting silly and would soon change her mind when Anyu brought out the goose liver and the delicious goose fat. In fact, I was looking forward to a good feast!