Dog Days of Summer…

This morning is cool. The Dog Days of Summer have passed. The early sun does not promise a scorching heat today. It is August 13, 2007. I have been leaning over the kitchen sink, coffee cup in hand, studying the apples that hang, slowly ripening, in the tree outside our kitchen window. My thoughts coasted around many such mornings in the past, mornings that promised adventures would follow.

During my childhood summers in Hungary, the summer months held a certain rhythm of activity.  Within a week of school shutting down for the holidays, our parents immediately shipped Ildiko and me off to Lutheran summer camp in the forests near Sopron. The forest was hot and dry during the day, but as evenings descended so did a comfortable sylvan coolness. 

I didn’t much like the regimentation of daily life in camp, but Ildiko thrived on it. She mostly hung out with agreeable and well-behaved kids; I gravitated toward more unruly and adventurous ones. There was a lot of religious activity during our days here: regular prayer times, hymn singing, meditation periods and thrice weekly hikes over the border to an Austrian village’s Lutheran Church for early evening services.

The meditation periods occurred right after lunch.  We were banished to our bunk-rooms for a period of an hour’s silence.  This was strictly enforced. We lay on our bunks and listened to the breezes stirring through the tree branches, to the soft ticking and hum of insects outside. Ildiko, in a bed across from me, folded her hands in meditative prayer, as, from my bunk, I watched carefully for signs of the mice that would come to raid the basket of dios tekercs and makos bajgli that Anyu had packed for us as treats. Ildiko kept this basket within her reach under her bread and doled out stingy portions to me at bedtimes, but only if she thought I had been well behaved during the day. So, I was always perversely thrilled when she uncovered these goodies at night and found chewed bits of the wrapping paper and crumbs left by the mice after their frequent raids. There she was meditating and praying, unaware of the small beige creature that ran across the floor and took refuge under her bed. There it disappeared, as if by magic, into that woven storehouse full of food.

All I had to do is to hiss dramatically “Mouse… oh look, a mouse!” (This was guaranteed to drive Ildiko into hysterics.) She stopped meditating and praying, looked panicked, and huddled on her hands and knees on her bed. She made a panicked grab for the basket and hauled it up on her bed to save the treats from the mouse’s depredations.  (Little did she suspect that the mouse was inside the basket, chomping away, while she felt sure she was guarding the goodies.) When she came to her senses and calmed down, she opened the basket and rifled through its contents to make sure everything was snug and undisturbed.  Out jumped the frightened mouse, scooted across her bed, dropped to the floor and made its escape. Ildiko began shrieking “Matron! Matron!” and pandemonium ensued in our bunkhouse. (There went the quiet meditation hour!) Little girls in various states of nervous collapse drew their blankets tight around themselves and chattered about the encroachment of wildlife into our serene, if spartan, bedchamber. Matron entered our room and sternly demanded that we return to silent contemplation. We settled down.  I had my head buried in my pillow to muffle and quiet down my fit of giggles. Ildiko, her hands grasped in relieved, thankful prayer, shot me murderous glances from her bed. Her baleful visage set me off on a fresh round of smothered giggling.  (For sure this meant she might hold out giving me slice of cake, or she would be sure to lecture me about my lack of seriousness before allowing me a mangy, mouse-sampled portion.)

Usually, after meditation hour, we met the bunkhouse Matrons in a big clearing.  Here we were taught ‘woods lore’, such as identifying trees in the forest, different vegetation that existed in the under-growth and sources of water such as streams and ponds and of the animal life that depended on them. Each afternoon, a different theme was presented.

One unforgettable afternoon, the head Matron announced that we would learn to identify the edible mushrooms in the forest. We were shown sample mushrooms of different types and had to carefully observe the characteristics that identified them as edible type.  We handled these and closely inspected their details, and we were allowed to carry one sample each to help us compare mushrooms we might find in the woods. Each matron then grabbed up an empty flour sack and led a number of us into the woods surrounding the camp.  We spread out and searched the ground for likely prospects to pick.  This was very interesting, as there were several varieties of mushrooms in that forest.

I tenderly held a Deer Mushroom cradled in my palms. It was beautiful, with a broad, deer- coloured cap, delicate pinkish gills on the underside and a slender chalk-white stalk. I crept through the forest, studying the fallen and decaying trees littering the ground. Matron had said that this particular mushroom grew on rotting, downed stumps.  Ildiko was around somewhere, I did not notice nor pay attention to what she was seeking, as I was thoroughly occupied with hunting for the beautiful Deer mushrooms. No other kind of mushroom held my notice for long, I left them alone.  Whenever I was lucky enough to find one of my own kind I’d carefully lift it from the forest floor and ran to Matron for her to check it and make sure it was the correct type, and not a poisonous one.  We were in the woods for several hours and at the end of that time I had maybe found only twelve or so of them.  But I was very thrilled to be able to find that many and was looking forward to tomorrow’s feast of the mushrooms we had all picked!

We returned to camp for a late supper. The Matrons disappeared to look over our mushroom harvest and discard any which might be of  doubtful edibility.

The following day, after free  morning play, we settled at the long outdoor tables, tucked into a meal of mushrooms fried in lard accompanied by thick slices of dark rye bread with which we could make messy mushroom sandwiches. We ate in appreciative silence, intent on savouring this meal which was a fruit of our own labours.

At late afternoon, the whole group of us hiked through the forest to a neighbouring village, on the Austrian side of the border. Here, in a colourful painted wooden church, we listened to evening service, delivered in German. The local people wore folk-costume of dazzling ornateness, quite distinct from costumes worn by peasant people living in villages nearby our home town, Gyor. At twilight, quiet and subdued, we passed  back through the woods toward our camp.  On the walk, I complained to Ildiko about having a stomach ache. “Keep walking and stop whining.  You’re such a baby!” she retorted.

Back in camp, while we were washing up for the night and getting our pajamas on, Ildiko made a mad dash for the out-house. Then, one by one, the girls from our bunkhouse also went out and lined up outside the facilities. As I was waiting my turn in line, I suddenly threw up into a nearby bush. At light out, girls were still lined up to toilet themselves, and dragged themselves, sweating and nauseous, back to their bunks.  Our Matron came to make sure lights were out and found nearly half of us ill and asking for some relief. We spent a rough night, either running for the outhouse, throwing up, or lying restless and sweaty in our beds.

The following morning, our morning routine was no longer in place. Matron came in and announced that many kids in the camp had fallen ill, that we had probably eaten some toxic mushrooms mixed in with the edible ones, and that doctors and nurses from nearby Sopron city had been called to look after us. We didn’t have to get up for morning prayers, and would have to stay in bed until we were cleared by the medical people. We lay about the rest of the day, sipping water, napping, and gossiping about who in camp may have died from poisoning. Luckily, no one died, or had to be taken to hospital, but messages had been sent to parents to come and retrieve their adventuring children.

Anyu and Apu arrived the next morning, a full five days before the expected end of camp. Apu was very calm about the whole situation. He said we may have been lucky to not have had the dreaded Death’s head mushroom in our mixed feast.

I was happy to return home, where I could more easily escape Ildiko’s activities as my over-seer. She, on the other hand probably felt liberated from looking after me!  And we both lived through the mushroom poisoning, none the worse, after all.

12 Responses to “Dog Days of Summer…”

  1. Nita Says:

    You took me into a very different world Gabriella. 🙂

  2. ybonesy Says:

    I don’t know if it was because of the setting, the era, or your writing, but this post indeed transported me into a different world. It reminded me of how some movies are (I’m thinking of Pan’s Labyrinth, for example), with a certain magical air to it.

    Also, I can’t believe the matrons cooked the mushrooms you all picked. Even if they scanned each one and threw out the suspicious ones, that was a risky thing to do. But it sounds as though a brief illness actually was a nice reprieve from the discipline of camp.

  3. QuoinMonkey Says:

    I agree with ybonesy. Great writing about fascinating customs and country. The camp seems more elegant like learning ‘woods lore’ and being watched over by matrons. Thanks for telling your story.

  4. suburbanlife Says:

    Nita – I hated the regimentation of this camp, but my parents probably thought it was good for us and we’d learn useful information. It was all very primitive and outdoorsy.

  5. suburbanlife Says:

    ybonesy – (i love this handle) back in the 50s in post-war Hungary people were not so concerned about care-givers liability, and in all likelihood my parents must have felt secure in sending us to a religious camp with a good educational bent. Mushroom identification is tricky, and probably in going though sacksful of mushrooms tedium of the chore may have reduced the attentiveness of identifying suspicious ones. There must have been just enough passed through infection to make the mixed feast give strong gastro-intestinal symptoms to so many kids. Anyway the idea of being poisoned had a certain exotic danger to it, so the novelty of that was interesting.

  6. suburbanlife Says:

    QuoinMonkey – I would not describe our camp as elegant, but perhaps earnest and serious. Some of the current camp advertisements certainly could be described as such – sailing, canoing, tennis lessons, fairly sophisticated crafts. Have you read Margaret Atwood’s “Wilderness Tales”? She has a peculiarly Canadian take ( in the 50s) of experience of the outdoors as seen from a youthful point of view.

  7. the individual voice Says:

    Where was your regular non-camp home? In a city, a village? What part of Hungary and what was it like there for the part of the summer you weren’t in camp– weather, landscape, etc.?

  8. suburbanlife Says:

    Thank you for posing these questions, individual voice. They help propel me toward considering what might make my writing stonger and more compelling for readers.
    This putting sketches on a blog is a bit like being in an on-line writing workshop, and is most useful – if people are willing to make comments that prod each others efforts, perhaps question why some ideas are highlighted and others generalized. I miss work-shopping other writers work, direct discussions help everyone learn so much, to sharpen one’s own writing and aid others in doing the same.

  9. the individual voice Says:

    I am captivated most by the stories of your Hungarian childhood. They have personal meaning to me.

  10. onemoreoption Says:

    Lovely post. Well written.

  11. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Keep posting these delightful memories. I love them!

  12. nemoo Says:

    Another beautiful post, G. Finns are avid mushroom pickers like the Hungarians. Even so, there are stories in the local media ever fall about how some picked poisonous mushrooms and fell ill.
    Enjoy your Sunday.

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