Archive for the ‘Childhood Games’ Category

Mozart, Mousey and me…

August 21, 2008

Mozart is probably revolving in his grave, what with his ethereal music being recently used to entertain a two year old. He had no idea, really, that his Marriage of Figaro might provide a lip-synching miming oppportunity, accompanied by invented costumes, for a grandmother and grand-daughter duo.

Well, I thought, nothing ventured, etc.. It occurred to me that babysitting Mousey has given me grand occasion for embarking on unorthodox play, or at least play which painlessly introduces forms of music to a young child which in some adults of my acquaintance causes pained expressions and demands to turn the music down. Think Opera, and then think Rumpole and Glasgow Girl. They both concur that listening to Opera is akin to torturing cats in a back alley in the dead of night. Somehow, trying to develop an appreciation for such an art form in my delightful grand-daughter is such a deliciously subversive idea. Why, I can already imagine her as a teen-ager, playing deafeningly loud recordings of The Magic Flute, or The Tales of Hoffman whilst singing along in passable pitch and with great passion while her mother, Glasgow Girl, cowers in chagrin in the bathroom with the shower going full blast to drown out the wonderful music. Ooh, the delightful frisson of a possibility!

Mousey is used to me arriving with my purse and the black bag which she anticipates looking into to see what new thing I have brought to show her. On this particular day, it was loaded with long scarves that would completely swathe her little person and The Marriage of Figaro CD that I like to play and sing along to whenever I am alone at home. It doesn’t matter whether the singer is a soprano, mezzo, tenor or baritone, I tackle all the songs with great vigour.  I like the idea of such power lurking in the depths of my black bag!

As soon as Mousey saw my black bag she made a grab for it, pulled the scarves out with flourish and immediately cast them aside, but brought the CD into the light and looked at me with a quizzical expression. “Pooh and Tigger?” she questioned.

“Oh, no.” I said with a stage whisper. “It’s Mozart. Just wait till you hear it.”

“Yeah, just wait till I’m gone before you play it, ” announced Glasgow Girl. “can’t stand listening to that screechy stuff.” She made hurried motions to put on her work shoes, kissed the Mouse, grabbed her purse and made her getaway.

I put the CD in the machine, grabbed a long scarf and dressed Mousey in it. Took her little pillow from her bedroom and tied it on top of my head with another scarf and brought the opossum mom hand-puppet and her baby into the living room. Possie, the mom, was my prop. The baby possum was the Mouse’s. We sat on the floor and listened as the opening strains of the music wafted through the room.

Mousey immediately began to bob her head in time with the music. She tapped her toes. She moved the baby opossum toward Possey in my hand with mincing motions, very Mozartian and playful. When the first aria arrived, I mimed the song, lip-synching  and craning my neck and head with exaggerated drama toward Mousey and then toward Possie who I engaged in dramatic accompaniment. Keeping with the Music, the Mouse made rhythmic motions with her hand puppet and with her mouth.

We got up off the floor and danced around, weaving and flowing with the music; stepped with exaggerated care keeping with the crisp qaulity of sound. In the more melodic portions, we subsided onto the floor and kept the beat with the hand-puppets. Mousey is remarkable in that she shows great love of music and has a way of activating her little body with sound. At times, she listens with great acuteness, her brown button eyes take on a faraway look. She tilts her head as if she let the music inside it and it courses through  first her head, and then through the rest of her little body. Then she moves in automatic accord with the rising and falling sound. This is so magical to see, such an unselfconscious and honest response.

It was remarkable how long she was able to engage with the music, for the duration of the CD. She seemd to like the baritone passages which had a booming quality. During the soprano bits she became somewhat languid and danced around making gentle swooping movements with her arms. In moments of drama, she’d come up to me, bring her face close and lip-synch with emphasis punctuating with the baby opossum hand-puppet.

By the end of the recording, I was quite pooped out. Mousey was relaxed and alert. “Moosick finished,” she said in her quiet voice. We lay on the floor with our feet propped on the seat of the couch and covered ourselves with our scarves. She had brought a book over and we read and talked quietly. The opossum puppets lay beside us, now forgotten, or temporarily put aside.

“Would you like me to leave you the music? So you can listen to it whenever you want?” I asked her after we had finished reading.

“Yes, pwease. I like it!” Mousey said with enthusiasm.

Mozart would be pleased, I like to think. He is continuing to delight yet another generation. What a pay-off for a composer – long life for his “moosick”.

The Blackamoor in the bathroom…

October 11, 2007

As  a young child I was generally unafraid of the dark and of night. My older sister Ildiko and I shared a room, somewhat large, where we slept at night in a trundle bed that rolled out into separate sleeping pallets. During the day, this arrangement reverted to a day-bed. The grand piano hulked beside this. It made a perfect diving board from which to play swimming pool whenever our friends came to play. Naturally whenever we played swimming pool, Anyu was busy out in the kitchen or handwashing our laundry on the back balcony. Ildiko finally told on us. She always sought to separate herself from naughty activities in which I gleefully partook (and most likely instigated). She was the family’s good girl; my role was that of the bad girl. I didn’t mind this too much as it seemed Ildiko enjoyed  life a lot less.

Ildiko was an anxious, nervous young girl. At night, when I was hunkered down in my blankets drifting into sleep, she would hiss in the darkness. “Quick, look toward the piano, something is moving there!”

Annoyed, I sat up in bed and looked. It was dark, a faint light filtered in through the lace curtains and highlighted a chair draped in our clothes. “It’s just the chair, see? Now let me go to sleep ” I reassured her.

Ildiko was always fearful that something terrible would happen, some unforseen disaster or punishment for an imagined wrong-doing. She was especially in her frightened glory when we visited Nagyanyu and Dedike in Budapest. There was a Blackamoor Anyu called Dezso in the bathroom. This bathroom was closet sized, without windows to the outside. It had black and white tiles on the floor and intricate pressed white tiles on the walls. The light switch was on the outside beside the door-post.

Dezso hulked in the corner, black as sin. He was an ebony sculpture almost as tall as I was then. He wore a white turban of enamelled wood. His eyes were wide open and fierce. The whites of his eyes were inlaid ivory, as were the large teeth in his leering, grinning mouth. His muscled arms were raised at chest height, hands to elbows, and here the bath towels were draped. His massive powerfully-muscled chest rose from a plinth. (I now know what this kind of sculpture is called – a herm.) He looked like I imagined the genie rising from the bottle to look, legless, hovering with a glamorous, dangerous power.

Ildiko never wanted to go to the bathroom alone, and made me go with her to stand guard whenever she had to use the facilities. This was so tedious!

One day I decided to pull a prank on her.  I was bored. On one of her accompanied visits to the bathroom, I waited until she had her pants down and was squatting on the toilet, then quickly ducked out the door, flicked off the bathroom light and held the door closed with all my skinny weight. Ildiko asked me to turn the light back on. I stayed silent and didn’t respond. She pulled on the door to open it. I clung on for all I was worth. It stayed closed. She began to panic; she begged and pleaded for me to open the door. After a while, she began to sob in earnest and whispered in between sobs that Dezso was going to eat her alive, that she could feel him creeping up on her in the dark.

“I know you don’t care. You want me to die!” she accused, her voice becoming panicky.

I didn’t respond. Ildiko began to shriek and wail.

Anyu poked her head into the hall from the salon. “Gabi, what are you doing now? Why is your sister crying?”

“We’re only playing. ” I said, “and Ildiko is taking it far too seriously!”

Anyu plied my clinging hands from the door lever and liberated teary faced Ildiko. She came out of the bathroom sobbing and shaking. She rushed into Anyu’s reassuring embrace. In between sobs and gaspings for breath she suggested, “Punish Gabi. She needs to know what it is to be fearful for her life. Let Dezso eat her now!”

Anyu ordered me into the dark bathroom. I strolled in, full of bravado. Ildiko closed the door on me; complete darkness enveloped me, the bathtub, sink, toilet and Dezso. I sat down on the cool tiled floor and waited. Dezso made neither sound  nor movement. I crawled over to where I estimated he was standing and ran my hands over his form. He didn’t budge or waver, and his teeth and face felt smooth to the touch. He did not chomp my exploring fingers. Then I had the idea that I should pretend to be afraid, so I started faking sobs and cries and what Ildiko might think were appropriate terror sound from someone who was being eaten by monsters.

At first, she gloated from outside the door. “Now you know what it is to be so afraid!”

I redoubled the dramatics. “Help me, please! Oh, help!! Dezso is eating my hands!”

“Are you bleeding?” asked Ildiko.

“Yes, yes, the towels are getting soaked”, I moaned piteously, “Anyu will be so upset with me getting the towels bloody.”

The bathroom light came on suddenly. Ildiko rushed into the room to save me. As she realized there was no blood on the towels hanging from Dezso’s arms and spied me sitting on the toilet with my legs crossed and swinging, not a panicky tear in sight, she stopped in her tracks and looked at me with disgust.

“Oh, you are so awful! Such a faker!” she announced as she turned to leave the bathroom. “I want nothing more to do with you.”

I patted Dezso on the turban, and went off to do other things.

Dezso was a sculpture that Nagyanyu and Dedike took with them from the family’s estate in Esztergom, as one of the remaining treasures of their previously rich life. After Nagyanyu’s death in 1976, Dezso was removed by relatives. I often wonder what kind of scary play recent generations of children make with Dezso.  Maybe he is given a well lighted room to stand in these days, where he cannot scare young children.

“Piles…”

October 4, 2007

This coming Thanksgiving weekend, Renaissance Man and his friend, Pete, are going surfing on the west coast of Vancouver Island, leaving behind wives, children and family, home and work obligations, to play in the water and sand. They don’t care whether the forecast is for sun or rain.  They just hope for good waves.

I have seen pictures of numbers of these young men of varied ages dragging and piling beach refuse into huge piles behind which to take refuge from the westerly winds punishing this shore. Their multicoloured surf-boards are erected like menhirs in Brittany, aligned, waiting for the perfect waves, the magic condition for their deployment. These worshippers of the surf are all garbed in severe black neoprene skin-suits, huddled, waiting behind their windbreak.

When he first announced his intention to go surfing in this inclement weather, my gut reaction was instant fear for his safety.  I greeted his announcement in frozen silence. Holding back from uttering a motherly caution, I wondered if this fear for my child, who is no longer a child, but a man with a family and good common sense, would ever cease in my lifetime. I marvelled at how even as a young child he was fascinated by contrasting elements; water acting on sand and gravel, piles of different things disarranged by an applied force acting on them.

At first, when he was about 16 months old, Renaissance Man was partial to outings to the sand-pit in the park across the street from our basement apartment. He didn’t particularly like the feel of sand after he had a faceful flung at him by another young child. Yet, he liked to slog through the sand on his sturdy little legs. He studied the marks behind him made by his feet as he laboured along making parallel v-shaped grooves behind him.

A year later, we were living up north where great snowfalls reigned in the wintertime. Bundled up like a spaceman in his winter gear, he waddled around in the snow, whenever he was not ensconced in his little sled with me pulling him like a plow horse. Whenever I had to dig out the car from drifts, he stayed near, patting the piles created by digging into a semblance of order with  his mittened hands.

Indoors, during the spring before he turned three, he played with his Christmas present, a yellow Tonka dump-truck. I bought a good supply of cube sugar which was his to play with, to load, dump and reload. He made piles of sugar cubes, built strange lines of several rows  meandering on the green indoor-outdoor carpet of the living room. He shrieked with frustration when he attempted to create discrete piles out of these white granular squares. They did not make tidy mounds. As they gradually lost sharp corners and edges, became rounded, they rolled down the incline of the pile in unpredictable ways.

One day we went to the central depot for our bulk provisions of flour, granular sugar, oat flakes, nuts, beans and wheat germ. He watched in earnest as I ladelled my allotted quantities of consumables into separate old cotton pillowcases. Once home with this bounty, he carefully observed transfer of these goods into large jars, cans and cartons. He ran his hands through each type of substance, feeling textures. I wondered what was going through his young mind as he did this.

A couple of days later, the results of his thought processes manifested itself, in a quite surprising way. In the middle of the night, truck-sound splutterings and roars filtered into my unconscious.  I lay in bed, disoriented, until the nature of the sounds registered on my sleepy brain.  It was Renaissance Man, playing and making noises in the kitchen. I stumbled out of the bedroom to find lights on in the kitchen. RM was crawling along, operating his yellow dump truck and spilling dark brown mounds onto the carpeted floor. He was one with his machine, providing the sound-effects of growling diesel engines. There were shallow ribbons of road-ways connecting these mounds. These had a hard glistening surface like fresh ashphalt. He had created the miniature world of a construction materials depot.

“Mom, look!” he gleefully waved muck-encrusted little hands at me.

I looked. There were separate mounds of coffee grounds, wheat germ, beans and oatmeal joined by roads composed of jam, peanut butter and brown sugar. These roads snaked around the whole kitchen floor. RM looked extremely proud of what he had made.

I grabbed him up and took him into the bathroom to clean him of sticky and gritty substances. Although he had used up food supplies so carefully laid in with what little money we had, I didn’t have the heart to chide him.

“You know, that is all stuff we eat that you used to make your construction yard,” I muttered, wiping crud from his hands. ” but we will have to clean all the roads up from the floor before they harden.”

“Can we sleep first?” he asked as he yawned.

“Yes, we’ll clean up in the morning,” I replied, carting him, now clean, to his bedroom.

Back in my own bed, I resolved to make him his own sand-box in the back-yard as soon as the spring melt ended.

Came Spring –  sunny, windy days, aspens broke into their tender green. The muddy ground dried and we cleared an area in the background of grass, and dug down to provide a pit to contain sand. We went off in the car to one of the local lakes which was our sandy swimmming hole in summertime. There we shovelled sand into garbage can, and buckets and took them home to deposit into our sand pit. We made several trips to get enough sand to make a decent play area. RM enjoyed having a part in creating his play space. He collected rocks and pebbles, and built up a supply of various sized gravel mountains that he carefully separated by size of unit components. He spent time in this outdoor play zone and built himself a complex world where he moved stuff about, constructing, dismantling and reconstructing as his imagination prompted. He collected twigs and sticks to augment his little world.

One dinner-time as we were feasting on broccoli, his little face lit up with a realization of discovery. Of a new idea.

“Mom, we are really eating trees right now,” he announced, brandishing a broccoli spear in his hand. “Can I have some fresh ones to plant in my city?”

“You are right, these do look like trees. But this is food, hard to come by. Maybe we can go and look for stuff in the yard that might make good trees,” I told him.

The following summer, we travelled to Vancouver to visit family and friends, go to the beach, hike in the woods and visit parks. A university friend had an installation showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Also being exhibited was an American Minimalist’s work, labelled “PILES”. Renaissance Man was my gallery companion to this exposition. I figured it was never too early to introduce him to gallery experiences, and model some appropriate gallery behaviours. His questions about new experiences he encountered were pointed, and his reactions fresh and surprising.

So, on a sunny afternoon, before hitting the sands of Second Beach to play and frolic in the sea and sand, we took a brief side-trip to see this exhibition. The main gallery held “PILES”. Grabbing Renaissance Man firmly by the hand, I hefted the heavy gallery door open. He swiftly squeezed through ahead of me, disengaged his hand from mine and simply stood there in silence taking in the various piles of gravel, gravel drawings in the floor.

“Oh, Wow!  Piles!” he chirped, took off at a run before I could grab him, made a bee-line for the nearest gravel mound and flung himself on top of it. He lay there, working his little hands in the gravel. He was grinning with pleasure. I grabbed him up, just as the irate gallery guard materialized from his station somewhere in the gallery.

“Madam, you have to have better control of your child.” he ordered in a stentorian voice. “Look, he has wrecked an exhibit!”

What did Renaissance Man care about the fact that the various piles were examples of the concept of “The angle of repose”? Or of possible methodology of placing precised edged drawings  composed of gravel lines on the gallery’s floor? He simply reacted, directly and honestly from his particular experience and appreciation of the materials thus displayed. To him, these piles of different quality of gravels represented a potential to manipulate and create with of an imagined end that he had in his own mind. These piles called to him with an irresistible and unheard siren call of “handle me, use me, make a world with me!!!”

With red face, I clung firmly to his hand and we walked around the exhibit, talking about where the piles of stuff came from, how they were brought into this place, and how possibly they had been created.

He expressed surprise that a grown man had made this display of stuff he himself was so familiar moving about.

“Dads really do this? They still play with gravel and sand?” he asked, mystified.

So, I wonder, will he, perhaps, remember his early play with earthen materials, as he plants his surf-board in the sand, shifts logs and beach debris to make a shelter from the winds, dig his toes into the sand and watch the water shift the shoreline as he waits for the perfect waves to form?

“Mens sana in corpore sano…”

August 16, 2007

“A healthy mind in a healthy body…”   The saying is derived from Latin poet Juvenal’s ‘Satire X’.

“It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.

Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death, which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings

which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings, does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes the hardships and savage labours of Hercules better

than

the satisfactions, feasts and feather bed of an Eastern king.

I will reveal what you are able to give yourself;

For certain, the one footpath of a tranquil life lies through virtue.”

The concept of “a healthy mind in a healthy body” was a leitmotiv that ran like a strong thread through much of my parents’ philosophy of child rearing. It influenced  very strongly my own beliefs regarding parenting.

This morning’s newspaper had a big headline – $22M PLAN AIMS TO MAKE ONE MILLION HEALTHIER IN B.C. and the subheading states – Victoria, health groups want to ‘create a new social norm’.  “Right now in British Columbia, only about half the population is considered at a healthy body weight, 20 per cent are smokers, 40 per cent are physically inactive and most – 60 per cent – don’t eat the recommended daily serving of fruit and vegetables.” Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun.

My parents are both deceased, but I wondered today, how they each may have reacted to this news. They were strong believers in the fact that healthy ways of living were to be learned in the bosom of the family, and that these were best established by modelling desirable behaviors.  Sport was something they each enjoyed; our family’s sport was tennis and we spent many years on the courts. It was not government initiative that had us all spend many pleasurable hours hitting and chasing the fuzzy white balls.

At the nearby high school, there are two brand new ashphalt courts.  I drive by these often and very rarely see people playing there. So there these courts sit, largely unused. No groups of teenagers hang about there, socializing as they wait to take turns for their chance to play.

Tennis is the sport that never failed to make me feel good. It didn’t require expensive equipment and clothing, nor the payment for the privilege of playing, nor the need to travel long distances in order to take part in. It is an easily accessible sport which is as much fun to watch as it is to play. And it is an activity which can be done to a fairly advanced age.

This is my tennis story:

I don’t remember far enough into the past as to what age I was when Anyu and Apu first took Ildiko and me to the tennis courts in Gyor, our home town. As far as my memory ranges, it seems that we spent most Sundays afternoons, until daylight faded, en famille at the courts from May until October.

Our tennis outings began with a brisk half hour walk through town, Anyu and Apu setting the pace up ahead, and Ildiko and I trying to keep up with them while at the same time bouncing tennis balls. She and I didn’t have tennis raquets of our own, and the balls we were allowed to play with were a couple of worn hairless brick-coloured ones.

When we arrived, slightly out of breath, at the cinder fields which were surrounded by metal mesh fencing enclosed by a perimeter of tall shivering poplars,  I always thought of the place as an huge outdoor room, open to the blue sky with a red floor and flickering dark and light green walls.

Once we entered the cinder ground, Apu would place his racquet by an available court and begin to freshen up the white chalk lines which divided the playing area. Anyu always busied herself with setting the net to the correct height, while Ildiko and I fooled around well behind the base-line, dribbling our ratty balls, competeing with each other to see who could make the highest number of consequent dribbles. Once the court was ready for occupation Anyu took up her spot facing away from the sun, and opposite her Apu faced into the sun.  Ildiko squatted outside the side-line near the net.  It was her job to retrieve balls caught up there.  My place as ball-girl was behind the base-line, near the fencing, and here I scrambled around to pick up balls missed by Anyu and to return them to her when she needed them.

We never got a chance to take the racquets and play until well after Anyu and Apu were ready for a breather – and they were tough and played for extended periods. Then, as they sat on side benches, Ildiko and I took up their racquets and attempted to play against each other. We held the racquets incorrectly, grasping them near the head because they were too heavy for us if we held them properly. We chased around on the loose cinder surface and tried not to slip and fall down.  To slip and fall down meant skinned legs with bits of red cinders embedded in the scrapes, entirely unpleasant.

When Anyu and Apu decided to resume playing, we returned to our appointed spots, and carried on our roles. As we began to understand the rules of the game and proper scoring, Ildiko helped call accuracy of serves, and I delighted in yelling when balls overshot the baseline. Sometimes Anyu couldn’t see the accuracy of a shot, as she was engrossed and concentrated on returning the balls to Apu, so when I called the shot inside the line and she had missed it she would shoot me an irritated glance. If Ildiko called fault on a serve, she risked annoying Apu. Sometimes, they got fed up with our presence on the court and dismissed us to go and play with our balls anywhere but near them.  Of course this meant that we had to stay well clear of other adults playing on nearby courts.

At times like this we practiced bouncing the balls under our lifted legs and held competitions as to who could dribble their ball the longest time. When we got bored of this we went back and sat on the sidelines watching various pairs or foursomes playing. We didn’t know where the word “Lov” came from, and only knew that it was a word we recognized as a scoring word.  We learned that “Falt” meant the ball fell outside correct bounds. This was a secret tennis language to me; these words were only used on the tennis courts.  Very odd!

We were always so eager to play for just a few minutes allowed us with the racquets on the court.  This was a privilege granted us for good behavior while there.  I constantly badgered Anyu about when I might be old enough to have my own tennis racquet. She indicated that when Ildiko was ten, she would have her own one, and since I was nearly two years younger I would have a little longer to wait for my own. This wait seemed awfully far away in the future, but it was definitely something to look forward to.  I could hardly wait! Ildiko was eagerly anticipating turning ten.

It was not until I was fourteen and Ildiko was sixteen that Anyu and Apu were able to afford to buy used tennis racquets, in Canada. For a few years they shared theirs with us and took turns playing against each of us in turn. We did drills in forehands, backhands, lobs, volleys and serves; they were patient and devoted teachers. The buying of a new can of tennis ballls was a big deal; we played with balls until they became freyed messes and bounced in a soggy manner. Whenever Apu could afford it, he bought a new can of Spaldings.  I loved opening it by inserting the little pull-off key into the tab around the crimped rim and peel back a strip of the metal to open the lid; the first hiss of the breaking vacuum seal never failed to thrill; the  pickle smell of brand new tennis balls was a welcome familiar and the untouched fresh nap of white fuzz bounded by the smooth rubber seams promised some good sets to come.

When Ildiko was in grade 11, Apu bought her a wooden Dunlop racquet with gut strings and a tensioning clamp. She was a very good player and was the girls singles player on our high school tennnis team.  Anyu handed me down her own good wood racquet when she bought her new one.  I liked Anyu’s racquet as the grip was comfortable, I was used to it and the balance and weight of it seemed perfect for me.  I played girls doubles and mixed doubles on the school team. Ildiko and I played against each other several times a week for practice, and walked a fair distance to the courts nearest our house, each time.  We both loved the sport. I never  really liked playing on asphalt, but there were only asphalt courts in Canada, however one didn’t as easily slip on them as on the Hungarian cinder courts.

Since those early years, I have played on grass and clay courts as well.  Each type of court surface has its peculiarities, advantages, drawbacks and difficulties.  But it is the crumbly, red cinder court of my Hungarian home town which was the first playing field where my love and pleasure of tennis was planted. I may never again play tennis on a cinder court  but every sight of that particular red – stone, gravel or clay of a matte surface quality – prods memories of family tennis outings more than fifty years ago.

Babysitter tag-team…

August 6, 2007

At the risk of being a complete bore I feel a strong urge to recount our recent experience as a babysitting tag-team.

Renaissance Man and Glasgow Girl had been invited to a friend’s wedding and asked me to come spend the day with Mousey. Of course, this is a thrilling opportunity for grandparent/grandchild bonding and I eagerly assented. Since my vision is so poor, and not feeling entirely secure in my ability to spot Mousey’s tendency to cram any and all found objects into her mouth, I asked Rumpole to spend the day as part of a babysitting tag-team.  He jumped at the opportunity. He insisted that we had to be freshly washed and bathed for the occasion and ensured we arrived on time for our day with the wee one.

RM, GG and a friend of theirs from Nanaimo, Pete, were milling about their house as we arrived.  Mousey greeted us at the front door, arms upraised to be picked up.  I scooped her up, whereupon she whipped my glasses off my face and tried them on herself, chuckling. Rumpole guided me into the living room, toward an arm-chair and cautioned “Watch your eyes, SW, she’ll poke them out!”.

Mousey made several awkward attempts to restore the glasses to my face and I observed that Glasgow Girl was dressed in a lovely summer frock while the two young men wore cut-off jeans and tee-shirts. “Is there a dressed-down look for males at this wedding?” I asked, mystified.

Pete grinned and said, “you’re thinking it is a ‘surfer themed do’, I bet. Heidi (his wife) is on her way on the ferry bringing my flashy duds. Renaissance Man has to drive us all first to his workplace to put on his ‘funeral suit’, then we’ll go on to the wedding.” I glanced over at Rumpole.  He was rolling his eyes, but said nothing, then.

Glasgow Girl brought over to me jars of what Mousey was to eat later, held them close to my face so I could discern the labels. “She won’t eat a lot of these, but let her eat until she’s had enough” she said. “Also, she will be ready to go down for her first nap in the next half-hour”.  Oo-kay, Rumpole and I would be ready and willing to roll with anything that might transpire!

The young people left, without undue fuss, and Mousey proceeded to parade her stuffed toys, one by one, in front of Rumpole. The pile of vari-coloured fake-fur creatures grew, on his lap and by his feet. She deigned to drop a goofy-looking fairy on my lap, but the cuddly stuff she reserved for Grandpa. (What was I? Chopped liver?) Rumpole looked like a potentate surrounded by odd-looking sycophants and sprawled petitioners; he had a most bemused expression on his face. I twirled the Fairy by her long skinny arms and with squeaky sounds asked, “Fairy wants to see Tigger.  Mousey, bring Tigger here”. She dug around on Rumpole’s lap, spied Tigger’s orange leg, unearthed him from the jumble and brought him over to my lap. She raised her arms in the pick-me-up gesture. Once on the couch beside me, she snuggled up and we played ‘Talking Creatures’.  After a while she rubbed her little head against my breast, climbed up on my lap, stuck three fingers into her mouth and cuddled against my shoulder. “Nap time, I think”, I announced to Mousey and Rumpole. “Give Grandpa a cuddle”.  She curled herself into his shoulder and absentmindedly fingered his beard.  I stuffed Tigger under my arm, lifted Mousey into my arms and headed to her bed-room. She was calm as I laid her down in her crib and tucked Tigger beside her. “Have a good nap. See you soon,” I chirped, whereupon she began to yell, quite angry, and jumped to her feet windmilling Tigger by the legs. She complained for a couple of minutes, and we sat in the living room, waiting, listening for her to either give up and lie down to rest, or escalate to a demanding tirade. She began talking to Tigger, in her baby babble, and went to sleep shortly.

I lay down on the couch to catch a brief rest. “No sleeping!” announced Rumpole.

“Are you kidding? It’s imperative to catch a few winks when a baby goes down for a nap, otherwise one is not in fine form for when she awakes and  is ready for action,” I muttered, rolling over. “You’d be wise to do some shut -eye yourself!”

I fell asleep but soon was wakened by Rumpole. “Mousey is awake”, he said, “go pick her up”.

She was chirping, chatting with Tigger.  I grabbed the phone and called Martha. “You and the dog can arrive in half an hour.  I’ll change the Mousey’s diaper and feed her some fruit and a bottle and we’ll be ready to go walkabout in the neighbourhood with you two” I told her.

Mousey was pleased to see us again.  She climbed up on Rumpole’s lap while I readied the bottle and fruit. She polished off both her bottle and the whole jar of blueberries. So much for her being a light eater, I mused, this child is a really hungry one! She drank her bottle sprawled in Rumpole’s arms, all the meanwhile fiddling with his beard. I suggested he change her diaper.  He made a face and replied “I don’t do diapers”. Off we went, she and I, for diaper change; Rumpole buried himself in a tome.

Martha and the dog arrived. Mousey, ensconced in her stroller, sun-hat on, greeted the dog with a delighted “Kitty”. The dog, a Jack Russel maniac, gave her a thorough lick all over her face, hands and legs. Mousey giggled, squirmed and squealed, “kitty kitty”.  Outside the dog circled the stroller, excited to be on eye-level with a small person.

We walked toward the nearby golf course.  Martha is convinced that mousey calls every creature not human Kitty, or even that Kitty might be her word for “nice”. She taught Mousey to say “woof” on this walk, and quickly Mousey began to make woofing sounds whenever the dog came up to lick her toes.  We walked through the neighbourhood. Every house we passed where there was a resident dog, doggish exchanges between the unseen behind -hedges mutt and Martha’s maniac announced our passage.  Mousey accompanied with her own intermittent “woofs”. We strolled to a neighbouring park, inspected the neighbourhood and encouraged Mousey to handle the leaves on shrubbery.  We pointed out flowers which she fingerd with an unexpected delicacy.  I was tempted to take her out of the stroller and let her experience grass under her feet, but Martha, aware of Mouseys tendency to scream loudly whenever in contact with grass, dissuaded me from that attempt. “We want to end our walkabout on a positive note – not with tears” she cautioned. We were getting hot and thirsty, and so headed back to the house.

Once back home, we repaired to the back porch with glasses, a sippy-cup full of cold water, and a bowl of water for the dog. Mousey, seated in her swing, sipped her water and watched the dog cavorting on the grass.  Rumpole came out and demanded that we bring her inside where it was cool.  We were in the shade on the porch, quite comfortable, so explained to him that it did a child good to be outside, listen to the birds chattering in the shrubbery and watch the leaves moving in the slight breeze. He ducked back inside, muttering about Mousey being overexposed to reflected light.  We ignored him and sat chatting amiably amongst ourselves, sipping our cold water.  A couple of blocks away. a train went by, sounded its horn and chugged along in its rhythmic way.  We tooted along and made chugging sounds; Mousey made ‘wo-woo-woo’ noises. We mimicked bird-sounds and said “shhh, listen! Birds!”.  Mousey craned her neck and listened, her eyes large round dark buttons. A bird coasted through the yard, she spied it and uttered an ‘oooh’. She swung back and forth in her swing, smiled, looked about even at such prosaic details as the beam supporting the porch roof over her head, which she studied in earnest. It was such a peaceful feeling, just observing her reaction to everything around her!

Martha, ready to move on to the rest of her day, said her goodbyes.  Mousey and I walked her to the front door, where the dog gave Mousey an effusive and wet goodbye. (Glasgow Girl would have been horrified by the amount of dog gob her child had been anointed with today!)

Mousey went to the bookshelves next and brought our several board books.  She gave one to Rumpole to read and brought the others to me.  We curled up on the couch and read “Gossie and Gertie” at length.  She was fascinated by the red and blue coloured boots worn by these two little geese, and most interested in the double-page spread of the two geese spying on a sheep. She pointed at the sheep when I said ‘sheep’, then pointed at the geese and waited for what I would name them. Shortly, she tossed this book aside and grabbed the board-book about the duck and the frog. I said the word, ‘frog’. She pointed her index finger at the frog.  I next tried the word, ‘duck’; she pointed at the duck. Rumpole, watching us, observed “GG and RM are reading with this little one a lot, eh? She’s a smart one!” (Being keen readers, we were so pleased at this early conditioning of our granddaughter!)

Mousey decided that she’d had enough of us for now, slid off the couch and went into her room to find other things to do. She wrestled her play-house from its perch onto the floor, began to poke about exploring the rooms and furniture, chattering to herself in the meanwhile.  After a bit, she came to the door and sent me an expectant look, as in ‘well, are you coming to play with me?’ I complied and we sprawled on the floor playing with the little people who lived in that house, put them in, took them out, discussed what they did in each room. Mousey made what seemed comments, although I could not readily descipher what exactly she said. We played for a long time with the house. Then she wanted to play with her music box.  We did and I sang along as she danced around. She went in the living room to bring Rumpole along to dance. I hear him say to her, “Grandpa doesn’t dance, sweetie.” She came back into the bedroom where she danced some more, and I sang some more.  When she lost interest I took her back into the living room and we took all the stuffed toys from around Rumpole who was nose-deep in his book, and walked them back onto their places on the couch in her bedroom.  She enjoyed this game! (Early indoctrination into house-keeping? One can never start too early!)

She went off to see Rumpole. Recently, she has been going around pointing at things and asking ‘sdat?’ She pointed at his book and asked “sdat?” “Book,” he said as he turned it about for her.  She looked at the photo of the author on the back cover. He was an older man with a short white beard.  She looked at the man in the picture, then looked at Rumpole, then pointed at the man in the picture and announced “you!” She did this several times to make sure he understood what she said.

Rumpole was amazed that she believed the man in the photo looked like him. “She’s a smart one!” he announced with great pride. She put her little arms in the air, a signal for him to pick her up in his arms. He gathered her up and stood up to take her outside. “Let’s go and see what’s up out there?” he suggested.  Off we trooped outside.  Mousey walked about, found a dead moth and brought it over to him, visited the potted petunias, hung off the patio railing and peeked between the slats, traced the passage of ants on the patio floor softly saying ‘kitty, kitty’. She next wanted up in her swing, and Rumpole strapped her in and swung her back and forth.  She giggled and said ‘whee, whoo’.  Every time the swing slowed, she thrust her chubby arms toward him and indicated the need for more pushes.  He got tired after a short while and asked me to take my turn pushing.  I carried on; he went back inside;  Mousey’s eyes drooped, she stuck three fingers into her mouth, her little head sagged and she went to sleep.  I kept up the motion and she slept. Rumpole brought my journal to me, and I made notes about certain thoughts I have been having lately about how art, commodified, can be made more available as an experience to all people, not just ones with ample financial means. This occupied me for the time Mousey napped in her swing.  I’d give the swing an occasional push and carried on writing.

When she awoke, I figured she might be a bit peckish, so off we went into the house to prepare dinner and a bottle. She looked quite intent as she eyed my preparations of mashed beef stroganoff – disgusting looking stuff. As soon as she was in the high chair she opened her mouth wide like a little bird waiting for food to be dropped into its mouth.  There is no need to coax this little one to eat, in between bites she does the birdie mouth opening, and woe betide the slow feeder! She polished off the mush, and wanted more. I hunted around in the fridge for more, found it, heated it and resumed shoveling it into her waiting maw. When it was all gone, I waved the bottle at her and she reached out for it. I unstrapped her from the high chair and deposited her in Rumpole’s lap where she lounged sucking down the bottle as if desparate and thirsty.

Afterward, we wiped her face, something she loathes and tries to squirm away from.  Rumpole said, “She smells funny, you’d better check her diaper!” (Not volunteering or anything!) Away we went for the diaper change, and then to more playtime in her room. We had the toys talking to each other, then we listened to some music and sang and danced along, shortly after which Mousey plopped down onto her little armchair clutching her sock-monkey.  After a short sit-down, she recouped, ignored me and went off to empty her  large chest. I was summarily dismissed, went off to the living room and collapsed on the couch.  Mousey closed the door to her room; a need for privacy perhaps, or up to no good.  She was very quiet for several minutes.  This I remember as not a very good sign; she was probably up to something she wanted us to not know about.  I sneaked to take a look.  She was busy unloading the hamper of dirty clothes and spreading them about on the floor.  “Mousey!  I see you!” I called through the door; she pushed it shut from the other side.  I waited until she went away from the door, opened it a crack. She jumped in surprise and giggled, caught with several dirty washcloths in her hand. I walked in and we made a game of putting the dirty clothes back into the hamper, taking turns, picking up one thing and then depositing it in the correct spot.

Meanwhile, Rumpole was still avidly reading his book.  “Let’s take the Mouse outside and do a little contact desensitization with the grass” I suggested. He took her up in his arms and walked outside. I followed.  At the edge of the grass I made a huge show of tossing off my sandals, stepped on the grass barefoot and cavorted around while making happy sounds.  Rumpole deposited Mousey on the grass, took off his sandals and made great show of enjoyment of grass under his feet.  She made a series of amazing faces ranging from surprise to unsureness to disgust and rage and began howling.  He went and sat down near her.  She made a dive for his legs and clawed her way up his body, all the while clamped onto his shirt.  She raised her little feet, looked back to check they were clear of the offending grass and clambered to put a safe distance between her and that horrid stuff.  I played around on the grass, dragged my feet along, looked at the bottom of my foot to see if it was all right,  mucked about happily.  Rumpole wiggled his toes in the grass.  Mousey watched carefully, but was not convinced.  He put her back down and she no longer howled, but scrambled up onto his lap in desperate haste. I sat down  near them, and we just lolled about there awhile.

When we figured she had had enough grass time, we took her and gave her a good swing and she was quite happy. She started chewing on the straps of the swing.  “Is she hungry again?” asked Rumpole? I went inside and prepared a dessert of fruit and Pablum, brought it outside.  As soon as Mousey spied the spoon and bowl she made the wide-open-mouth birdie gesture.  We stopped the swing and Rumpole fed her.  She wolfed down the whole bowl and wanted more.  I brought her more, she polished it all off and still wanted a refill. After I brought the refill she ate almost all of that, until she clamped her mouth shut, turned away from the spoon. So Rumpole finished off the bowl, making faces all the while.  “How can she like this stuff” he asked, “It’s got a disgusting texture.” That didn’t stop him from scraping the bowl clean! “She’s sticky now, SW. You’llneed to wipe her off!” he ordered.

“No, it’s bath-time” I replied, extricated her from the swing and carried her messyness of to the bathroom. Once the bath was ready, Mousey was eager to shuck her clothes and be placed inside. She grabbed her floating toys, chewed them squeaked them, tossed them about in the water and splashed about. It’s odd how she hates to have her face wiped with wet cloths after eating, but she doesn’t mind at all having water ladelled  from the top of her head and having it run down her face and body. And she enjoys having her hair washed.  Go figure!

After she splashed enough water on me, we let the water drain out from the tub and she watched the spiralling flow down the drain. We went back to Grandpa, Mousey snug and swaddled in a big soft bath towel.  She peeked out at him from within the folds and giggled when deposited in his lap.  They cuddled and he dried her off. We put diapers and pajamas on her and let her traipse around in the living room.  She wandered off to get a book to read.  We curled up on the couch and were reading when we heard the front door open. “Door”, Mousey said as she slid off the couch and took off toward the front door. Her mother and father were there. She raised her little arms to be picked up. 

Renaissance Man asked how she had been.  We said in unison, “great fun!” Glasgow Girl asked if she ate well. “She was voracious and wanted more and more food” I replied.

“Let’s have dinner together” suggested RM. We demurred, being quite exhausted, and ready to to spend some quiet time together eating in an unstimulating, quiet environment.

“We’re going to the 50s Diner, read newspapers and have hamburgers and milkshakes” said Rumpole. “Let’s be off!”

As we were saying our goodbyes at the front door, Mousey padded about wanting both Rumpole and me to pick her up for cuddles.  He handed her off to her father, and we walked out the door saying goodbye. She set off a huge wail, and we heard her parents trying to shush her as we were walking to the car.

Rumpole was quite pleased to hear Mousey cry as we went off. “I think she had a good time with us, don’t you?” he inquired. “I like to know she will miss us!”

“To the Diner, James!” I instructed. “Mousey is not the only one who’s ravenous. Drive on!”

“I hope Mousey enjoyed our day together” said Rumpole, “I know I did!”

Anitra’s Dance…

April 13, 2007

An early overcast morning, at the beginning of November 1956.  Father has gone again, Mother is clearing out breakfast dishes, Ildiko opens up the piano and begins to do scales. I take up “War and Peace” and continue reading, lying on my stomach on the divan.  Eva our maid arrives to make beds, dust and sweep.  Quiet, subdued, she moves around with girlish grace doing her chores.  The light in the room is under-watery, low, peaceful.

Mother comes into the room and announces that Tibi is in the hall asking for me.  She spies the book I am reading, snatches it up, looks at the title. “You are too young to understand this book!” she announces, as she goes to replace it in the bookshelf.  “Go, play with Tibi!”

Tibi and I lie about the steps in the stairwell, exchanging news we have sussed out despite our parents best efforts to keep us in the dark about what is really going on.  That very morning, he had overheard his Father mention to his Mother that our town was most likely going to be bombed the coming evening. We decided to call out Marta and Karolyka to confer with us about what we could do ourselves about this. The four of us met in the main lobby to draw up our plans. We agreed that Ildiko should be kept out of our doings as she was known to rat us out whenever she thought we were doing something the adults would not approve. Marta  and Karolyka were delegated to scrounge up food from their family larders, water in empty wine jugs and sneak these into the basement. Tibi and I were to raid the maids’ rooms off our kitchens and remove matresses and blankets down to the basement via the elevator.  We dispersed to get on with our appointed tasks.

I ran back into our apartment.  Mother was in the kitchen preparing food. I needed to get her out of there. So I sat in the waiting room and deliberated at length as to how I was going to distract her. Through the doorway into the front room filtered the strains of piano music. Ildiko had warmed up and had moved on to playing “Anitra’s Dance”, and it seemed to be rough going for her – she got stuck at the same place over and over again, struggled with the fingering of melody. Aha!

The solution presented itself, rather naturally.  Mother was quite anxious that Ildiko be very competent playing the piano, and could be easily convinced to stand over her making multiple corrections.  So, I casually strolled into the kitchen and mentioned to Mother that Ildiko was having considerable trouble with some passages and needed immediate help. She bustled off to do the piano practice monitoring, and thus left the coast clear for me to move the mattress and blankets from the maid’s room to the lift. I hauled my treasures down to the basement and dragged them into a far corner.

Soon, Tibi arrived with his load of bedding.  We set to making separate family spaces, and made up the “beds”. The elevator disgorged Marta.  She was wearing several necklaces of sausage and had a round of cheese under one arm and a bundle of bread cradled in the other. We found a pile of bricks and made a little pallet to put all the food on. Karolyka descended next and dragged several big jugs of water to the corner.  We were most satisfied with the results of our efforts and lounged about on the mattresses discussing what it might be like to be bombed the coming evening. We imagined our parents being pleasantly surprised that we had the forethought to provide some little comfort for us all while we found ourselves hiding out in the basement. Tibi thought it might be a bit scary to be down there in pitch black, so suggested we go back and steal some candles from our pantries. Karolyka said he would be the music director and distract us all during the long night hours by organizing us kids as an entertainment troupe. We argued about what kinds of songs we could perform, and I  put forward that I knew some disgusting variations on folk-songs which might provide some humour and distraction.  So we practised these in the half-dark basement.

Soon, it was time to go to our apartments and have an afternoon snack, so we dispersed. I let myself quietly into our hallway, hoping to get by Mother without being noticed.  She heard me anyway, came out of the kitchen and scolded me for having misrepresented Ildiko’s difficulties with her practice.  She ordered me to go inside the front room and sit quietly listening to Ildiko practice.

Chastened, but privately pleased with myself, I climbed up on the divan and quietly sat.  Ildiko played “Anitra’s Dance” over and over again.  The sprightly tempo echoed my feelings of pleasure and excitement with having had a part of making a little haven of safety for my family and those of my friends.

Playing Dentist…

April 10, 2007

A mad rapping on our apartment door sounds. Our maid, Eva, scoots to answer it, saying to me, “keep practising your violin… you are not finished yet!” I make half-hearted sawing motions with the bow, meanwhile keeping an ear out for what is happening in the hall-way. Karolyka bursts in, all excited, and orders me to pack up my case, we have an adventure to begin. Eva is displeased with this turn of events and makes noises about how I am to properly finish my practise. I bring out the big gun, a threat to tell on her to Mother! (The previous evening, while she was baby-sitting Ildiko and me, she brought her boyfriend Zoli in to keep her company.  This was verboten, we knew it, and threatened to tattle on her unless Zoli permitted us to spend some considerable time combing and styling his beautiful blonde hair.  Naturally, we got our way. He sat there, looking miserable, as Ildiko and I worked him over with a number of hilarious hair variations. Zoli never got a chance to steal a kiss from Eva, as we kept him thoroughly occupied!) Naturally, Eva is terrified of  being on the end of Mother’s sharp tongue, so reluctant, allows me to run off to find Ildiko. We kids make our escape from the apartment.

We run down the stairs, noisy, and decide to call out Tibi who lives one floor down, and Marta, the Gynaecologist’s daughter who lives across the hall from Tibi. Tibi’s father, an Ear Nose and Throat specialist and his wife, along with the rest of our parents, are off for the day at a tennis tournament. This means that all of us kids are left in the care of various maids, in other words, are basically left to our own devices and without any sort of adult interference.  This is good!  it leaves us a clear playing field, largely undisturbed.

(Most of the families living in our apartment house have parents who are medical specialists.  Our father is a Pediatrician, Tibi’s an ENT doctor.  Marta’s father, a Gynaecologist, has the most mysterious job.  We are largely ignorant as to what exactly his work entails, and only know that he has only women patients come to his surgery.  Karolyka’s father  is a Dentist.  He is a humourless man who we all rather dislike as he works on all of our teeth.  However, he has the most wonderful, arcane equipment in his surgery, very science-fiction scary.)

We gather on the stairwell outside Marta’s and Tibi’s apartment to determine what we will follow as our play for the morning.  Karolyka, being the oldest, is our main instigator and leader.  He proposes that we play doctor and patients. So we troop back to our apartment, where, while I keep a lookout for Eva (she is in the kitchen whistling away) we sneak into Father’s surgery.  Ildiko, as self-important as ever, declares that she is the Pediatrician.  The rest of us line up, ready and waiting for her to come at us with the hypodermic needle.  At the last moment, before she is to plunge the needle in Tibi’s arm, we break out in an argument.  Needles hurt, and we have largely changed our minds about allowing her to be doctor. Whispering loudly we hash out that the most realistic doctor play is one which allows for maximum tool usage, and minimum pain.  Karolyka boasts that his father has the most wonderful tools and the most exotic surgery – drills, a patient chair which goes up and down, picks, probes and little mirrors to stick inside mouths – and that he, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps as dentist, has been noting carefully what is done in that surgery.

We charge out of the apartment, and run down several flights to Karolyka’s apartment.  Erzsike, their maid, is an older woman, very pleasant, but hard-of-hearing.  She is out on their back balcony doing washing, so we are safe to sneak into the dental surgery. Karolyka, to look official, puts on his father’s white office coat and rolls up the sleeves. Fully in the role, he seats us in the waiting room and tells us that he will see us each, shortly and in turn.  He decides that the sequence of seeing us patients is youngest first to the oldest.  I like this, as I am the youngest and my trial will be over with first. Tibi, then Marta, and finally Ildiko will then take their turn in the chair.

Karolyka leads me into the surgery, covers me with a green sheet and sits me down in the chair which he then laboriously pumps with his foot to raise.  Commanding me to open my mouth, he shines a light around inside it and pokes away with a probe near my back molars. “Hmmm… this filling doesn’t look right”, he announces, “it will have to come out!” He picks away at a tooth for some considerable time, then makes me take a small drink of water to swish out my mouth. Proudly, he shows me with a small mirror the repair he has made, rubs his hands together, lowers the chair and whips off the green sheet from my shoulders and escorts me back to the waiting room.

“Next patient, please!” he calls out.  Tibi, reluctant, walks inside to meet his fate.  We, in the waiting room, play our parts well.  We sit and read newspapers, and don’t converse.  Being at the dentist is not a social occasion, and certain social form must be kept.  Soon it is Marta’s turn. She goes inside as Tibi comes out.  His cheek is puffed out, a bit of cotton batting escapes at the corner of his mouth.  He looks a bit unhappy, but ignoring us grabs a paper and begins to read.  Ildiko is starting to get nervous.  She fidgets and heaves big sighs and occasionally mutters “Oh dear!”  We ignore her in our best waiting-room fashion.

Finally, Marta emerges cradling her face, and Ildiko shuffles into the surgery like a lamb to slaughter.  Karolyka, in full dentist swing, welcomes her by rubbing his hands together in anticipation. Sure, he is eager and happy, no-one is poking around inside HIS mouth! Time ticks by slowly for us in the waiting room.  An occasional “Ow” sounds from inside the surgery. Iloko’s teeth must be particularly bad, as it seems to take forever for her to be “treated”. After a long while, Ildiko walks out into the waiting room, her face full of tears.  Proud, she reports to us that she was a most difficult case for Karolyka, but he has done a very good job and her teeth are like brand new now. I am quite suspicious of Ildiko, she seems to want to have suffered greater trials than any other person.  True to form, she goes into great detail about all that Karolyka had done to her teeth, and seems pleased that he activated the drill to help clear out some problem fillings.

Karolyka takes a long time in tidying up the surgery, while we cool our heels in the waiting room. Erzsike comes in and asks us why we are there, sitting around.  We tell her we are bored and hungry and want snacks of lard bread. She herds us into the kitchen, prepares and hands around slices. I wolf mine down.  Tibi pulls the cotton batting from his mouth and tries to eat his slice. Very slow going for him.  Marta sucks on her bread slowly, making little headway in the eating. In her lofty fashion, Ildiko graciously refuses her bread.  Karolyka has worked up a good appetite and gladly munches on her portion as well as his.  After eating, we disband.  We have had enough play for the day, and some of us don’t feel too comfortable.

Ildiko and I climb the stairs, go inside the apartment and into our room.  She lies down with her teddy bear, while I dig out my favourite book, on the head-hunters of New Guinea.  I while away the time until supper imagining how to roast portions of my most hated schoolmate, a la New Guinea Native woman.

Later on, Mother and Father return from their tennis tournament.  Eva serves a light supper.  I am famished, having worked up  a good appetite thinking at length about the victory feast in New Guinea, especially how good a roast of an enemy’s leg would taste so delicious. Ildiko refuses to eat anything.  She seems uncomfortable drinking her tea.  Mother, concerned, asks her what is wrong.  Ildiko makes motions toward her mouth and says her teeth are sore. Mother makes her open her mouth and looks inside.

“Oh, my God, Bela… come and see this!” she calls to Father.  Father gets up to look. He shakes his head in amazement and asks “How did this happen?” Ildiko, in full Catholic confessional mode, tells all. “Karolyka did this to me” she admits.  My mouth is the next to get a full looking over, but I get off lightly, only one of my fillings is missing. Ildiko, on the other hand, had the thorough dental treatment, she has not one filling left in her teeth.

Mother and Father disappear downstairs to confer with Karolyka’s parents.  The full extent of our day’s play at dentist comes to light.  All of us are in deepest trouble, especially Karolyka, whose father must now fix up all the fillings cleaned out by his son from the mouths of all the playmates.  The whole apartment building is in an uproar, buzzing with news of what rotten children we all are and how we must be carefully watched in the future.

And four of us kids had to endure future visits with Karolyka’s dentist father.  This was definitely not as much fun as playing at dentist.

Karolyka never followed in his father’s footsteps as a dentist.  Last I heard of him, he was a Rock musician in Berlin.

Itching powder…

March 24, 2007

The pictures of  Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov, the Holy Trinity of Communism, projected their benign paternal smiles from their place high on the back of our classroom wall. This was 1954. It was our Russian hour. We were learning to sing “Volga”(Volga, Volga, matyradnaya, Volga, Ruszka, yareka…Nyevigyela tu pudarka, koddanszkova Kazaka…. is my bad Hungarian translated memory of this song). It was a lovely tune, full of love and longing, on the same level of feeling as “Isten Elti a Magyart” our Hungarian national anthem. I was 8 years old, one of the many faceless kids in our form. My neighbour and playmate, Tibor (Tibi) was seated quite far away from me, because we were conspiratorial and got into a lot of trouble over all kinds of stuff.

Our teacher was a drab lady, intensely serious, earnest – a real drill sergeant, I now realize trying to remember her. She didn’t demonstrate one flash of humour, ever, although she was basically kind and didn’t make extreme comparisons about our performance, to our faces, at least. However, our parents had an inside line into the classroom, it appeared, for the slightest falling down on our job as student mysteriously greeted us as a “What did you do! Why must you get singled out for blame?” on our return to home.

During recess our group tended to go absolutely wild and manic.  We badly needed to let off steam! We gossiped, plotted, teased, bucked up each other in little sub-groups. We ran around yelling and laughing.

One of the trouble-makers in class, a clever and inquisitive boy, drifted around from group to group in the schoolyard. He quietly whispered, sotto voce, and groups would grow around him. He said he had concocted some “itching powder” guaranteed to drive even the most self-controlled and calm one of us wild. Loudly we deliberated and argued as how there was no such thing, and where did he find this stuff?  He produced an envelope. It contained a mysterious white powder, which he assured us would have us all convulsing with fits of scratching if we but put a little pinch down the back of our shirts. He proposed to pass it around to all of us to try, once we were back inside the classroom. He promised the reaction of our teacher would be quite hilarious to see.

In orderly line-up, we marched back into the classroom, quietly excited that the next hour would provide some relief from the constant and repetitive drilling we had to endure while at school. Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov looked really pleased about something. Our teacher resumed teaching us fragments of the Volga song. She wrote the phrases in Cyrillic on the blackboard, then the translation in Hungarian. We copied these down as she kept repeating the correct pronounciation over and over again.  Every time she turned her back on the class to write a new phrase on the board, the envelope was passed from hand to hand, surreptitiously, the powder disributed among us all. Many kids tucked the powder down the back of their neck, while the more serious and “good” ones just passed on the envelope without taking a pinch.

Finishing the writing portion of our exercise, the teacher had us place our hands behind the small of our backs, sit up straight and begin following the written phrases on the board to sing the song. Over and over again we did this, until we really sounded quite good, I thought.  “Sing with emotion”, the teacher would exhort. We did! “Really feel the song and what it means!,she said. We tried to do this, really getting into the spirit of things.

Soon, kids sitting in front of me began to move one hand or another up their back, scratching. Others would squirm. Some pressed back into the chair and writhed about subtly. A few gave up the pretence that they were all right and began to scratch with vigour, quite noticeable. Tibi, sitting  a few rows in front of me cast back a quick grin. One girl beside me started to giggle and just couldn’t stop. Teacher looked  about the classroom and demanded to know, “What’s got into you all?” More wriggling, scraching, chuckling and giggling. The instigator piped up and said “There must be something wrong here, I feel awful and very itchy… can I please go home?” Teacher walked over and looked at the back of his neck, then proceeded to the next scratcher and did the same. She began to look concerned, worried even. Then she left the classroom and brought back the Principal. He looked over several kids’ necks, scratched his head with a “My God” kind of expression as he thought and debated about what to do with us all.  Finally, he announced that we had to leave the school and walk home quickly. “Don’t linger on the way! And stay away from people on the street”, he said.

Sure, I itched, but this was a huge bonus – freedom for the rest of the school day.  Tibi and I skipped home, singing!

Mother was drinking ersatz coffee with Tibi’s Mother.  We ran in and reported what happened.  We gave clear details and the complete truth. Our mothers checked down the backs of our shirts and discussed the red rash they noticed there. Tibi’s Mother dragged him off home. My mother was furious and ordered me to bed, no talking, no reading, no singing, no playing. So much for freedom, I thought!

As I lay grumbling in bed it occurred to me that maybe Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov really had something to smile about, up there on the back wall of our classroom.

I am still chukling about this situation, even after so long a time. And I wonder if Tibi still does too!

WORD BOWL…

March 20, 2007

Ahhh…morning

he knows a curious fact about

the half-melted sun, and yet

his fortune is to find

the bloom teasing inside the flame

which sheds light on young

pine trees at whose feet recline

boulders with grace.

This is a resulting sketch from an exercise in a poetry workshop given by my young poet friend. We were to choose at random from a bowl 10 slips of paper, each bearing a different word. Then we were to use all of the words to generate a sketch. There were amazing, varied sketches written by everybody there.  I think it might be a good way to encourage writing in children, and wonder if there are teachers in intermediate and secondary grades who use this, or a similar method, as a way to play intentionally with language and encourage kids to generate their own imagery and statements.

Tennis Whites

March 3, 2007

At fifteen I wanted so much

to swan onto the court

in pristine whites – a top with

tasteful scalloping around the chest,

a flirty razor-pleated skirt

from under which would peek-a-boo

frilled white lace panties, shoes

proper shock-absorbing leather

and socks that didn’t reach

above the neck of the shoe,  except for

a bouncy little pom-pom.

In this get-up an illusion of competence

would be complete and predict

the surgical precision with which a player

might deploy that instrument of competition,

the professional-grade tennis racket.

At fifteen, however, I was

very much the ugly duckling

waddling onto courts in my

drab adolescent plumage

of badly-fitted black and white checkered shorts,

an electric lime-green Banlon top,

thickly folded ankle socks and

cheap canvas sneakers from the local Woolworth’s.

I did have a top-of-the-line tennis racket

with expensive gut strings, and always

the best new Spalding balls that reminded me

of freshly formed snow-balls.  And yet,

in this outfit I looked like what I really was,

an awkward, poorly accessorized Eastside girl.

I lacked that certain polish which would put

an opponent on notice that here was

a player who might prevail,

until I made my first service.

GM,  April 4, 2005