Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Saint Nicholas Eve…

December 3, 2008

November 5, 1952. Anyu held the heavy carved church door open for us to precede her out into the dark of a lightly snowing evening. She retied her scarf snug under her chin and pulled on her knitted gloves. She fussed with our jackets collars, pulling them up to sit jaunty against our cheeks. Ildiko hopped from one boot-shod foot to another, trying to keep warm. I gazed in silence at the Cathedral square, its cobllestoned dark perimeter lit up by lamps which gave the illusion of dandelion seed-heads against the gloom. Snow coasted in fine specks as we negotiated the cathedral steps to the square. The snow squeaked under our boots. It was as if both we and the night held our breath this eve of Saint Nicholas.

It had been our family custom to attend Mass on the eve of Saint Nicholas. The priest had made a lovely sermon of the story of the three little boys the Bishop had brought back to life and of the story of the dowry he had provided for the three daughters of a poor man. He told about Bishop Nicholas being an intermediary with God for the safety of sailors on the sea, and on behalf of the poor. It was a story long familiar with yearly repetition, and as usual we had sat solemn and silent hearing yet another retelling.

The half-hour walk on the way home to our apartment took us through the ancient part of our town.
In some of the small side streets we stopped to look at candle-lit windows where children’s shoes were lined up, well shined, in anticipation of a visitation by Saint Nicholas sometime during the night.
Ildiko and I skipped from one house to another, thinking of the children inside who were, the same as us, eagerly waiting to creep to their window at first light to see what had been deposited innside the shoes – whether chocolate coins for children who had been good during the previous year, or a lump of coal and a switch of broom for the bad ones.

The closer we were to our home destination the more subdued I became. I was not at all certain that I had been a consistently good child the previous year. I had taken any and all occasions to torture Ildiko, spoke back to Anyu, argued with everyone, actively resisted practising the violin and had sneaked around spying on any adults who visited our home.

Meanwhile, as my doubts were starting to weigh heavily on me, Ildiko positively glowed with goodness and virtue, her face alight with a confident expression reserved for the truly wholesome and self-satisfied child. As soon as we arrived home, no sooner had she unlaced her boots, but she went to fetch the shoe-shining kit Apu kept in the bottom of the hall armoire.

“Hurry up and take your boots off, Gabi,” she ordered. “Dry them off well. Then I’ll show you how to use the shoe paste and brushes.”

I fooled around struggling out of my coat and mitts, and ran off in my wet boots into the kitchen to snag a cookie or two. Busy stuffing my face with a Speculaa and munching away, I began unlacing my boots and drying them off with a cloth.

Ildiko sat on the settee, poked her finger inside a flannel bit and started to smear her boots with an ox-blood coloured paste which smelled really pungent. She showed me how to wrap my forefinger into the flannel and how to scoop the right amount of paste for my one boot. By this time, she was busy swiping her own boot with the shoe brush, sending up that nice aroma of wax and tar. I was smearing my boots carefully with the stuff.

“Make sure you work the paste into the lines of sewing in the leather,” Ildiko instructed in her best school teacherish tones. “If you don’t do a good job, Saint Nicholas will leave you coal and broom inside them. Which he should, anyway, because you are usually so awful to everyone.”

What did I know, anyway? I was a six year old brat. Ildiko, the golden child, was only eight herself. But she seemed so sure of herself. She buffed her boots with the brush in confident strokes, and then segued to bring up a high shine on the dark red leather. She passed the implements down to me so I could bring my boots to a semblance of decency, but was critical of how streaky my buffing job had been.

We took our boots into the salon. In the window seat, Anyu had set up two taper candles in candlesticks. We placed our boots, shined and laces looped, beside the candles.

“After you dress in your pajamas,” Anyu said, ” you can come and light the candles before you say your goodnight prayers.”

We scurried off to wash our teeth and change into night wear. When we returned to the salon, Anyu had dimmed any overhead lights. She lit the tapes and Ildiko and I knelt in front of the window, hands clasped. We said our prayers, quietly, privately.

I prayed and hoped Saint nicholas might not find me altogether horrible and maybe a little bit deserving of a scrap of chocolate. I fervently wished my lot would not be to find an iridescent dusty lump of coal, and a desiccated scrap of broom inside my shoe the following morning. If that would be my lot, I’d never hear the end of how bad I was from Ildiko, for the rest of my life, even.

Ash Wednesday…

February 5, 2008

 A “lapsed Catholic”. yearly I make note of Ash Wednesday, and think back on an annual ritual from my childhood, being anointed with ash on that day. I may no longer kneel to have my forehead marked with ash, but I do remember well how it felt to kneel in church, where the priest, passing along a row of genuflecting believers, murmured Latin words, dipped his finger in a little silver bowl and gently pressed the grey ash to foreheads. As I solemnly filed back to my pew I witnessed how parishioners bore expressions of a meditative calm on their faces.

From the time I was five years old and she six, Ildiko and I went to church on our own, without our parents. Anyu was embarrassed by our energetic tactics in church which included: dancing in the aisle during high mass; taking a forint from the offertory plate for every filler we were handed to put in; lying on the floor under the pews throwing and rolling our ill-gotten coin loot about on the marble floor; and singing in high-pitched Latin along with the priest during the Mass. Whenever our behavior degenerated to any of these low levels, Anyu projected a glare at Apu. This was the signal for him to remove us from the church and entertain us in the outer precincts. He didn’t seem to mind getting out from the Mass, either. He was Greek Orthodox and made disparaging comments about the “mysterioso lingua” used during the Roman Catholic services at that time. He was positivey jolly as he lit a cigarette outside the heavy wooden doors and watched us skipping up and down the basalt steps as we burned off excess energy.

It was when I was seven years old and Ildiko, eight, that I conceived an idea of where the priest obtained the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The previous summer we had gone for an outing with the family maid and had explored the precincts of the hill where the church, rectory and other ecclesiastical buildings were situated. Through one open doorway we observed nuns making the communion wafers on little pocked griddles over a fire. We lingered and watched, and as we did so, I began to have serious doubts that the Eucharist was really Christ’s body. I never managed to get past this doubt about communion and taking wafers made by nuns which were supposed to be somehow sanctified.

Then, a short while later, as we walked about on Bishop’s Hill we came upon a sight of several priests taking their leisure out-doors, lounging on chairs, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. The maid hurried us from this scene with a promise to show us the well many townfolk had been thrown into by the triumphant Turks as a form of punishment. However, as she pulled me by hand from the sight of the drinking, smoking priests, I craned my head back for one more good, indelible, look.

The following year, on Ash Wednesday, Ildiko and I attended church service and were marked by ash. As I was receiving my spot of cinder, I lowered my eyes, craned my neck and through my eyelashes, took a good look at the ash in the silver bowl carried by the priest. It looked remarkably like a fancy version of Apu’s ashtray, minus the cigarette butts. My memory flashed to the sight of priests smoking and drinking in the rectory yard, and I was suddenly convinced that the priest obtained the ashes by collecting them from a year’s worth of ashtray contents. Suddenly, I felt cheated. It was not holy ash, sanctified residue, that marked me as a believer; it was only cigarette ash. Were all these churchgoers fooled into thinking this was a sacred ritual, special, laden with meaning, when it was ash-tray contents that were used to single us out as penitents? I thought I was onto something that needed discussion with Apu and Anyu, once we were home from church.

On the walk home I internally debated telling Ildiko about my conclusion. I decided not to reveal my idea to her, for certain she’s lecture me all the way home about having evil thoughts, ones unworthy of a good Catholic girl,  and which thoughts surely well-paved my way to Hell where I would be justifiably and amply punished. I picked up a bit of the ash from my forehead with a saliva-wetted finger and surreptitiously tasted it to see if it tasted like cigarette ash. Ildiko sent me disgusted side-long glances and chastised me for wiping off my ash spot.

As we entered the vestibule of our apartment building, Mr. Weiss, our neighbour, was just going out for his constitutional. He smiled at us and noted that only Ildiko was marked. “Did you not get an ash mark, Gabi?” he asked.

I smiled at him and shrugged. Ildiko announced to him, “Like you, Mr. Weiss, Gabi is an unbeliever. She will pay for that later.” She ran ahead upstairs to tattle on me to Anyu. Mr. Weiss patted me on the shoulder and went out the door.

Upstairs, at home, I could hear Ildiko telling Anyu what a bad Catholic I was being in smearing and licking off my ash mark. I didn’t linger to hear Anyu’s reply to her; instead I sought out Apu in the salon . He was lounging by the radio, listening to Radio Free Europe and taking long drags from a lit cigarette. He waved me over and ruffled my hair when I came near. I leaned against the arm of the green chair where he sat, looked about for his ashtray. I put my fore-finger into the ashes, leaned over and put a spot of ash on Apu’s forehead.

“See, Apu, you really didn’t need to come to church today. I put the ash mark on you. It’s just as good as the ones Ildiko and I got this morning, because the priest probably got his ashes from his ashtray in the rectory.” I said with complete seriousness. ” Like you, he smokes cigarettes.”

Apu opened his eyes wide and looked at me; shook his head in disbelief and took a drag off his cigarette. He rose from the chair, went to the salon door, opened it and yelled to Anyu. “Rozsa, come here quick and listen to what Gabi has to say about Ash Wednesday!”

Blackie T. and the British Israelite Church inheritance…

January 8, 2008

Blackie T., Carol, Byline Woman, her husband The Engineer, Lawrie and I were good friends during our art school years between 1964 and 1968, and afterward. We attended different courses while at art school, but spent time after school frequenting a Mom-and-Pop Chinese restaurant on Robson Street for cheap dinner. Here we would pile into the scarred Nougahide upholstered pews, place all our coin on the scarred table surface and tally up how much money we had among us all and what we could afford to order to feed all of us. Generally, we ended up sharing a large platter of Egg Foo Yung with a side dish of steamed rice, all of it liberally spiced with soy sauce. The free Chinese tea that came with our order was usually refilled at no extra cost, and we drank it down, grateful for its aroma, heat and taste.

One evening, Blackie T, after considering the offerings on the Wurlitzer juke box at the front of the restaurant, poked his face between the branches and leaves of the humungous jade plant separating the seating area and the booths and yelled back at us, “You guys won’t believe this! My father has disinherited me!” He stomped back to our booth in Rhythm with a song by Elvis, “I’m all shook up”.

Lawrie thoughtfully sipped at his jasmine tea. (Remember, this was in the days before Green Tea  and other varieties of tea became the rage, sign of sophistication and indication of an educated discernment of tea varietals.) Or, at least, the tea kind of smelled pretty and of flowers, I thought. We were all squeezed in on both sides of the booth, and Blackie T. had dragged a scarred chrome and vinyl chair to the side on the aisle for himself. Our dripping wet coats hung from the bar with hooks on either end of the booth benches. We were all feeling rather peckish (the girls) and famished (the boys). To us the word “disinherited” was a familar sounding one. Most of us had heard it uttered by our parents at various times, usually with reference to our reprobate tendencies of attending studies at an art school, where we were going to sink into abject bohemianism and moral turpitude. We anticipated in silence Blackie T’s revelations about the form his disinheritance was to take.

“Okay,” he announced, throwing back a scalding cup of tea, “my father has broken ground on the church construction. He is spending the money he promised me on building the bloody church.”

We all gaped at him in disbelief. His father had money enough to build a church? Was he trying to force Blackie T. into a ministry of sorts? Most of us secretly held a strong conviction that Blackie T was a rather ill suited art school student. He made the most atrocious brush and black ink work of no seemingly redeeming aesthetic value. He had flunked out of medical school in England three years previously, loved electronics and collected arcane information of all sorts, and had never demonstrated to any of us the slightest interest in thoughts religious or spiritual.

Blackie T interrupted Elvis crooning “owwo woo woo yeyyeahey,” “Yep, my inheritance is to be turned into a church in Duncan. The foundations have already been dug.”

“Must be Anglican,” muttered Lawrie. “They are kind of thick on the ground in Canada. Those Islanders love anything British, being Anglophiles.”

“Oh, no. it’s not that traditional,” growled Blackie T. “Father’s a British Israelite. He is building the first British Israelite church in BC.”

“That must mean they conduct services with  British Yiddish lingo. With a cockney accent,” proposed By-line Woman, in her inimitable sarcastic and witty vein.

We snorted and snirkled with great glee at her witticism. The creaky lady owner of the restaurant delivered our Egg-Foo Yung and steamed rice, and plunked dessert plates in front of us. We fell upon the food as if we hadn’t eaten for several days, subdividing it carefully into six equal portions, and proceeded to stuff our faces.

“Well, those British Israelites believe they are remnants of a lost Tribe of Israel,” said Blackie T as he tried to extricate a bean sprout stuck in his back molars. “I think father is the only one on Vancouver Island. Maybe he thinks if he builds a church he can attract believers.”

“Oh, this is so weird!” exclaimed Carol. “I have to see this church for myself. Do you think it will be up and ready for occupation by the end of next summer?”

“Well, father is pressing to have the main construction to lock-up stage by end of July. Let’s get together at my mother’s place in Ladysmith in August end and take a trip to see the church for ourselves,” Blackie T suggested.

We decided that a summer trip to the Island to see this new construction would provide us all needed distraction from our crummy summer jobs. So we planned a weekend camping trip for the first weekend of August. We’d camp out in pup tents at Blackie T’s mother’s, and do a tour and inspection of the Church. As we ate our humble repast, we proposed possibilities for how Israelites might have ended up in England, and decided this was so far fetched a proposition that Blackie T’s father could not possibly be in his right mind. At the end of the meal, after two refills of our teapot, we thought it wise to disperse to our individual destinations.

Summer came, with it end of the school year. Lawrie went to work with his brother as a faller. Carol’s summer job was as a stock-taker for a company that did stock assessments of large grocery stores. I worked as a cleaning woman at Vancouver General Hospital. By-line woman went to work as a clerk in an insurance agency, and her husband, The Engineer, carried out his shifts at a local saw-mill. Blackie T. returned home to the Island, where he worked as factotum on his Mother’s estate.

Blackie T.’s parents had divorced. His father had withdrawn into monastic existence on acreage near Shawinigan Lake. His Mother retained the family home and acreage in Ladyshith. Blackie T bounced between his two parents, trying to satisfy and convince them both as to his attentiveness and loyalty as a son. This was his full-time summer job; one which he carried out with great attentiveness.

Came August. Lawrie, Carol, I, By-line Woman and The Engineer convened at Carol’s apartment to load up our pup-tents and sleeping bags into The Engineer’s station wagon. We piled into the vehicle and drove to the  C.P.R. ferry terminal where we caught the ferry to Nanaimo. On the ferry, we couldn’t afford to eat in the dining room, so ate our pre-packed sandwiches as we lounged outside on the upper deck. From Nanaimo, on the other side of Georgia Straight, it was a short drive to Ladysmith.

Blackie T and his mother greeted us. His mother was already into her cups by 4pm in the afternoon, and she led us, lurching drunkenly, into the back yard where we were to set up our pup-tents. We organized our places to sleep and entered the house. Of course, Mrs T was so inebriated that there was no supper ready, so all together we pitched in and cobbled together a supper out of stuff in the pantry and fridge. Wine flowed freely during supper. Mrs T. launched into an alcohol-fuelled recitation of how her ex-husband had ruined “her baby’s” life by having the temerity to build a church with money slated to keep “her baby” from ever having to sully his hands with mundane occupations. Blackie T poked back the food, looking mightily aggrieved.

After dinner, Blackie T suggested we wait till sundown, and then take the trip by car to Duncan to see the Church. He waved a key around to show us he had access and did not need to break down the doors to get in.

“But, Blackie,” I protested, “we won’t be able to see the inside when it’s night-time.”

“Don’t be so dumb, G,” he retorted. ” I had to sneak the key away from my father. No one can know we have been inside.”

He brought a flashlight, some candles and a gallon of wine and loaded up The Engineer’s station wagon. We all piled in and left Mrs T waving drunkenly at us from the edge of the driveway. Duncan is some twenty minutes drive from Ladysmith; the church was not a long drive off the Island Highway. The Engineer parked the wagon across the street from the church and killed the headlights. We sat in the dark, smoking and passing the gallon jug of wine around while listening to the cooling ticking of the car’s engine.

“We have to be very quiet while crossing the over the road. If the neighbours hear us they’ll call the bulls.” Blackie T led our motley group in the dark of night to the church door. He fiddled with the key in the lock, opened the door and shepherded us inside the dark church. Lawrie had the flashlight. He fired it up and scanned the beam around the interior.

“Turn that off.” ordered Blackie T. “We’ll light one candle and set it near the pulpit.” It’s odd how quickly our eyes acclimatized to the low light condition. It was possible to make out the arches and beams and other structural details. Oddly enough, while the floors were roughly concreted, the pulpit had been lovingly finished. We milled around turning and gaping around in the dark. By-line woman took a swig from the gallon jug of wine and passed it around to the rest of us.

“I need a smoke.” said Carol. “Who else wants a cig?” She placed the jug into my hands and pulled out her Craven-As.

I was about to pipe up and admit that I, too, needed a cigarette when Blackie T. hissed. “Don’t you two dare smoke in here! That’s blasphemy. Besides which, father will know I have been in here. He hates cigarette smoke.”

The Engineer wandered off in the dark toward the back of the church. The rest of us sat on the concrete and passed the wine jug around. All of a sudden we heard a scuffle, a muffled thud and a loud “Oh, shit!” And then groaning and a plaintive “Help me!” Lawrie jumped to his feet and lighting up the flashlight started to head in the direction of the distress call.

“Turn off that light!” ordered Blackie T.. “Here, take the candle with you!” We followed on Lawrie’s heels as he crept toward the dark depths of the church. “Take it slow and careful,” cautioned Blackie T. “It’s easy to get hurt in here.”

We came upon a hole in the concrete floor. It was about 5 feet deep, a quite wide rectangular pit with what looked to be dirt floor at its bottom. Lawrie shone the flashlight beam on the moaning and prostrate form of The Engineer, splayed on the pit floor. He was rubbing his chest and sides feeling for injuries.

Poor, concerned By-line Woman. She asked solicitously, “Are you all right dear?” She sat down at the edge of the pit and reached her hands toward him. Lawrie jumped into the pit and began to help The Engineer up. He was all right, only winded. Whew! Lawrie hooked his hands together to provide a foot hold for The Engineer to step into and elevate himself enough to be able to throw the other leg onto the pit’s edge. Then we pulled him out and husband and wife were once more reunited on ground level. By-Line Woman passed her husband the wine jug. “Have a sip, ” she said. “You can use it.” He took a protracted swallow, passed the jug, and began to swat the dirt from his clothes.

“What the hell is that hole there for?” he asked.

“I believe you happened upon the crypt, or rather, fell into it,” said Blackie T. “But you have risen again, and we really should give thanks.” He walked the candle back to the pulpit, set it on the floor nearby and grasped the pulpit’s edge with his large hands. “Come, all of you. We must now give a prayer of thanks for being reunited with our good friend; for his safe return from the depths.” He looked downright eerie, lit as he was from below. His  handsome saturnine features took on a devilish cast, his widow’s peak almost seemed as if sprouting horns.

I did not like this turn of events. It felt wrong to make a mockery of a space which was intended for a spiritual purpose, never mind that it may have been a cultish belief that may be celebrated and shared in the place. I felt distinctly uneasy and said so. I asked Carol and By-line Woman to come outside and have a cigarette. We left, went out and sat in the tall grass outside the church. The men followed shortly afterward. Blackie T locked the door, gathered us all. We walked across the road to the car, climbed inside and got on the way.

“So, that’s your inheritance, eh?” said Lawrie. “Do you think it will ever be used for British Israelite services?”

“If father lives until after the building is complete, then he will probably will it to some organization of similar flakes,” explained Blackie T. “But if it is not quite complete, he’ll probably leave it to me to finish. I guess I can always live in it, although it might be a bit strange to live in a church.”

Blackie T’s father did not see his church completed before he died. A few years after completing art school I lost contact with Blackie T. Carol and Blackie T died within a couple of months of each other five years ago now. I never did ask Carol whether she knew if he had ever lived in the Church. They had remained in  greater contact throughout the years. Occasionally By-line Woman, The Engineer and I talk about our youthful doings. Next time we’re together, I’ll be sure to ask them if they know what happened to Blackie T’s inheritance. And I do wonder if the British Israelite Church is still standing in Duncan, or if it has served some congregation or another as a  spiritual home.

Dog Days of Summer…

August 14, 2007

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.

A powerful, thoughtful, thought-provoking blog…

May 29, 2007

Today, Roger at www.citrus.wordpress.com has posted “Scary”, in which he has gifted us all with a poem “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich. It is a powerful poem, made me think of the many occasions when I understood and accepted the finiteness of my existence, of my unimportance in the scheme of things, and the impermanence of all experience and of all natural phenomena. Change, constant, inevitable, is the one certainty I must acknowledge and truly hold firm in my awareness during this journey down the river of life.  A daunting prospect, and yet at the same time I find a certain relief in receiving this reminder today.

Funeral Crasher…

March 25, 2007

“Who is this older man in the tweed jacket with patched elbows?  He comes in late after all  mourners are seated, just before the service starts.  He sits by himself in the pew at the back, on the aisle seat.  While the minister drones the Psalm..”yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…”he wipes his eye with his sleeve. During the Eulogy, he nods in silent agreement.  Solemn, subdued, at the end of the service, he files out to the lobby with the rest and takes his place at the end of the condolence line. Once face to face with the widow, he grasps her hand in both of his and murmurs, “Harry was a great golf and tennis partner.  I will miss his many comments and observations on sports and life.  My condolences.”  The bereaved woman is surprised to learn her husband – he who had been a paraplegic for the past twelve years after that awful car accident -had been so skilled on the links and the grass courts! The condolence line moves on and with it the man in tweed.  With the milling, jostling crowd he shuffles toward the refreshments table.  Here are platters of stuffed eggs, tuna sandwiches, brownies, tea and coffee. Here he takes up station and works through the offerings.  Many may wonder about his connection to Harry, the deceased, but are really too occupied to pay any mind to him. He eats a sampling of food from the table, then leaves saying his courtly goodbyes to those he passes. Unnoticed, he pushes out into the rainy afternoon.”

One evening, “Rumpole” and I were dinner guests at a small party our son, “Renaissance Man” and his wife had organized for a group of their closest friends. “RM” is a funeral director, as was one of the men attending this soiree. Each of these young men manage funeral homes in close walking distance from each other. “RM” asked his friend during dinner, “Was the crasher at your service yesterday afternoon?” So that question led to a spirited, yet thoughtful dicussion about the many reasons why people, including complete strangers, might attend funeral services.  They noted this old man at many funeral services, and concluded he was lonely and hungry!

“Twisted Sister”…

February 3, 2007

This blog was initiated by   “It is my honor to declare war on you” by http://jahsonic.wordpress.com

Follow the links, check them out- they provoke curiosity!

“Rumpole” says I have “Catholic Tastes”!  Wondering what this meant, after he left home, I Googled this. Yes, I know that we have a shrine here at home made up of a crucifix I inherited from my Mother, and of a copy of the “Virgin of Vladivostok” icon “Rumpole” brought back from one of his travels.  I consider myself a Lapsed Catholic, so found this reference to Catholic Taste somewhat perplexing. We have a sculpture of Krishna I value which may indicate just how far I have lapsed.

The mind creates surprising connections.  While looking out the window (it was foggy) and scrubbing the counter I found myself whistling “Dominique…routier pauvre et chantant..” which  was composed and sung by Soeur Sourire, a Belgian Nun. I am fond of sacred music.  Long time ago, my sister and I danced in the aisle of the cathedral to some very fine sacred music.  We just couldn’t help ourselves.  Mother was so angry and embarrassed that she never again took us to church afterward, and insisted Father do this by himself.

This whistling led to my recalling Sister Saint Cecilia, my grade 5 teacher in Catholic School. We had just moved to suburbia from Hungary. Father and Mother decided that it might be better for us to go to a school which emphasized Catholic values.  Any nuns we had had experience with, very limited experience, either grew wonderful plants and were experts in Botany or prepared the host wafers in a kitchen at the rectory next to the Cathedral. (I never could make the connection between nuns baking the host, and the stricture to never be able to touch the wafer to the teeth after having recieved communion. While returning to the pew, I was usually busy working my tongue around trying to scrape the wafer off my dry palate.  The nuns made the hosts, the priest used his hand to put it on our tongues – so were my teeth so dirty?…This was  a toughie!) Here  in our new school I discovered that nuns had yet another job – teaching. But there were also some other fascinating discoveries about nuns. They may have dressed the same but like other women sure were different. Our teacher, Sister Saint Cecilia, was young, and huge surpise to me, made classes fun. She loved Elvis Presley and played his records in class ( at home we kids were not allowed to listen to anything Elvis, so this was just fine by me!). She sat on top of her desk, swinging her legs in time to the music while we copied things off the blackboard. The older nun in the next- door class preyed on her – she always poked her nose in the room and glared at Sister St C.who, soon as she was aware of the old nun looking at her,  would stop whatever she was doing, straighten her habit and clasp her hands in front of her waist demurely. One day coming back to class from the bathroom, she was headed to the office of Mother Superior AND was skipping down the hall, habit skirt swaying. Here was a kindred spirit, I thought, someone who did things her other Sisters and Mother disapproved of sometimes. She took disapproval rather well.  Also, she was gentle preparation for another revelation about Sisters.

At this school there were specialist Sisters also. The nun who taught Art and Physical Education was Sister Saint Alexina, who I now realize was about 45 years old back then. She was rangy and agile. But she didn’t seem to enjoy teaching us basketball. Every time our class started fooling around, not paying attention, she’d stop the basketball coaching and bring out the skipping ropes. She showed us some terrific skipping moves, and loved to take her turn. She was very good at this. So, here was a nun who skipped!  Was this allowed?

Sister St. A taught us drawing, which I found lot of fun. After school, at home I’d sit with a pencil and draw on the front and back leaves of books, my own, and Father’s. Paper was more accessible at school, so there was greater opportunity to draw. Drawing on textbooks was Verboten in class, so as kids do, I drew on every surface permitted.  Sister. St. A wrote and sent a note to my parents asking if they would consider letting me go to the nunnery on Saturdays where she taught several children drawing. This is where Sister, casually chatting with us in the garden at rest period would discuss anything we kids brought up.

 Curious, we wanted to know what she did before she became a nun. ” A bubble-dancer” she replied, and herded us back inside to resume drawing. So what was a bubble dancer, I wondered? When asked, she said our parents should explain this to us. Later, during supper, I finally managed to blurt out “Just what is a bubble dancer?  Sister St. A told us during drawing class that she had been one!” Everyone stopped eating and looked at each other, surprised.  Mother blushed and pinched her lips together. Father started laughing uproariously.  They left the room, stayed out a long while. Returning, they announced ,” You are both too young to know what a bubble dancer is!”.  So, I figured this was a Secret neither parents, nor nuns could reveal.  Why? Something about dancing, nuns, bubbles that couldn’t be discussed at dinner, or anywhere? So, people who should be in the know, have rules and suggestions we must follow, and who approve and disapprove (and punish, if necessary) refused to even answer at all?  This I found very confusing., which led me to conclude there were Secrets involving Sisters one was only privy to when older.  The end of that school year was the end of a Catholic Education for us! 

 Considering this, as I moved on to washing down the cupboards, it occurred to me that quite often Education may have unintended consequences, in spite of the best intentions of those doing the Educating, when even in a Catholic Education there tend to be bombs dropped onto innocent minds which leave a long-lingering fallout, with unanticipated results.

Back in the 60s, many young people living in North American suburbia made what might be considered a modern day equivalent of a Grand Tour. I was one such fortunate suburbanite, and hitch-hiked and got around the Old Countries by train.  On a hot July afternoon, a friend and I were sweating it out by the side of a dusty road that ran along beside the French Mediterranean. Our bags by our feet, our thumbs at the ready, we languished waiting for a ride which would pick us up.  We were pretty subdued, trying not to move around too much in the heat, chatting casually.  My friend, a suburban girl educated in a Public School, noticed a group of women relaxing on the beach below the road where we waited.  She pointed out to me that they were wearing unusual beach attire, not the usual bikinis worn by some women on Cote d’Azur beaches on which we had basked on in order to acquire a fashionable dark tan. My friend and I tried to blend in (while in Rome, and all that) so wore bikinis like the youngish French women. Curious about these  lounging, different looking women, we noticed they wore long black clothes but left their heads, arms and lower legs exposed. Strangely, they had rigged up a protective perimeter made up of black cloths that flapped in the breeze. “I think these may be nuns”, I ventured a guess. “Oh”, said my friend, and there ended our exchange. Wiping the sweat from my dusty forehead, I privately mused on this and discovered that shock and surprise were my main reaction to this nun sighting. Sisters sunbathing showing bare heads, legs and forearms?

Moving on to cleaning the stove, and bored with Dominique, I began singing “How do you solve a problem like, Maria?” a catchy song form “The Sound of Music”, a movie-musical a bunch of us girls attending Art School in suburbia went so see one rainy afternoon ( we just couldn’t face the upcoming session on Uncial calligraphy in Design class, skipped out, saw the matinee –  I didn’t particularly feel guilty about this after all there was a connection, in my mind, between Uncial hand and a story about a nun. Perversely, I reasoned that my father, who was opposed to my attending Art School  instead of the U to study Pharmacy, and my mother, who lectured me ceaslessly about being a “good girl”, would see the utility of my learning something “of value”.) So here was a novice questioning her vocation who also liked to sing, dance, play with children, loved music and fell in love with a rather attractive, moral and caring man (with bad hair) who had a herd of kids already. As played, by Julie Andrews, the young nun Maria nicely symbolized the dilemma faced by young women in the early days of the Sexual Revolution, whether to choose between either marriage or abstinence. Of course, the question of sex in Catholic marriages was merely implied. After all there were a great number of progeny from the original Von Trapp family, and presumably Good Catholic Couples only had sex in order to procreate (so we had been told in Cathechism classes) so maybe eventually the Von Trapp Singers was enlarged by many new little Von Trapps.  Could be?

When wool-gathering, a mind slips around without following strict chronology in recalling memories.  Searching the thicket of memory to alight somewhere, my thinking slipped to a later experience of watching “The Nun’s Story”, a film based on the real-life dilemma encountered by a young Belgian nun. The main locale of this movie is an exotic place, the Belgian Congo, where as part of their apostolic work, some Belgian nuns provide nursing aid in a remote jungle hospital.  Here the young nursing Sister Luke, as played by Audrey Hepburn, is daily faced with an irascible (and probably agnostic?) medical head of the clinic, Dr Fortunati (the attractively rumpled, intense Peter Finch) whose attitudes cause the young nun to question her vocation. On seeing this movie it became clear to me that Sisters had more demanding jobs to do beyond studying botany, preparing the host, teaching in school, leaving the nunnery before taking final vows to marry an older man with a passel of kids.  Here was a nun, who ,through a period of over a decade, struggled with her vocation and her relationship to her religion.  She had a far more exciting option than Maria (Sound of Music) to consider, after all Sister Luke had to debate whether to remain a nursing Sister in the Congo or some other backwater or run off back to Belgium to work in the Resistance as a civilian.

By this time, I was in a thorougly religious musical mood, and was faced with washing the kitchen floor. I dug out a recording of Elizabethan music sung by a counter-tenor, put it on the turntable to play.  By the time the mop and hot water were in readiness the record had moved to “Miserere, my savior, God have Mercy on me poor wretch….” which I sang along with while beginning to wash the kitchen floor. Soon, my thinking slipped to the movie “Agnes of God”. In this film an guileless young novice is found in a psychotic state, having given birth to an infant which was found dead in a garbage can in her cell. This was a most disturbing psychodrama, because it was set in contemporary times.  And yet, during the years when I saw “Agnes of God”, (the80s) I had also read “The Devils of Loudun”, as well as the story of Heloise and Abelard, both of which had an effect of profound sadness on me. Here were aspects of human behavior among people in the religious orders that may not have had exposure to the light of day and understanding, had it not been for the fact that exposing hypocrisy in all matters pertaining to life had by the time of the 80’s become more a norm.

By this time, I was ready for a cup of tea, and as I  sat sipping it was mulling over having watched the UTube video link provided by person doing a blog as jahsonic,.  This video is a takeoff of Julie Andrews’ song “The Lonely Goatherd” from the Sound of Music, by the contemporary pop queen Gwen Stefani.  Complete with yodeling, trendy nun’s fashion accessorized with movie-star cool sunglasses, dancing and goose-stepping regimented children in quaint costume, glam-rock sequin bedecked guitar (that “Rumpole”, my traditionalist guitar-collecting husband would sneer at) and marvellous videography this was a video that I must admit to enjoying, and watching in sheer fascination.  It was absurd, and entertaining at the same time.  This makes me realize that “Rumpole” was right in saying I had “Catholic Taste”.

And yet I wonder what many young people who come from differing spiritual and social upbringings would make of this video?  Would they be made curious enough to explore just how come this kind of imagery came to be possible as entertainment, to scratch beneath the surface of appearances?  I do hope that is the case!

The Passion

February 1, 2007

Two little girls

on a crisp and windy spring evening walk

hats pinned in place,

new patent-leather shoes and virginal ankle socks

twinkle up basalt steps.

Good Friday, Missa Solemnis,

priest in purple mourning.

They dip fingers in holy water,

Genuflect, ease into the pew.

Age-old pageantry unfolds,

holds them spell-bound.

The sermon recounts

Christ’s last hours of life.

The older one sheds tears;

the younger fidgets,

uncomprehending.

50 years later, a phone call comes.

“You have got to go see The Passion”,

says the friend…

“It’s amazing, harrowing, upsetting!

Mel Gibson of Road Warrior fame

has made a film of Christ’s last hours of life.

The dialogue is in Aramaic,

the setting in Palestine, the actors,

unknowns, the budget huge”.

“This is entertainment,

All to fill the void; millions of dollars spent to create

Something more terrible than the actual lives of

Most living things; one should never have to pay an admission to hell.” *(C B)

50 years later, the older sister is living

her own version of hell.

She doesn’t need to watch a facsimile

glimmer on the silver screen.

After all, it was she who often walked to church

barefoot, carrying her shoes and missal,

weekly re-enacting the Passion,

emulating Christ.

The younger one still fidgets,

uncomprehending,

and asks “Why?”

*(Charles Bukowski quote)            GM, 2004

Variable Weather in Suburbia….everywhere in the world

January 28, 2007

Some of you dropping by have reported variable conditions  today – snow in Belgrade, stormy in Cornwall.

It’s sunny here, and lovely, but miss snow. If you are an armchair traveller who doesn’t get around much any more stop by at:

www.dreamscorner.wordpress.com  – “St Sava – All Schools’ Slava”

He gives good tours!

Fog in suburbia…

January 26, 2007

It is foggy in suburbia this morning.

This brings to mind 2 sites the fog of the internet  has revealed to me, and which I  plan to linger in to enjoy and learn more about the nature of fog as experienced elsewhere by people.

citrus.wordpress.com

michelebrownphotography.wordpress.com