It is dark when mom awakens us from our nap. The rose painted walls are softly lit by the white world outside. Mom comes in and closes the wood shutters, turns on the chandelier overhead. The room is cold, the fire in the tiled corner fireplace, low. We bundle in our itchy woolen sweaters and follow mom into the hall. Dad comes in, snow glistening on his shoulders, dragging behind him a tall evergreen. He positions it into a corner of the square-shaped room where it will keep watch for the next few weeks.
The box of fragile ornaments is brought in from the attic, as well as a box of baked goodies, and one of oranges recently received from the States. I am given permission to select an orange, which dad then peels and hands to us in slices. The citrus taste, so unexpected and refreshing, overtakes my taste buds. I am in love with this taste. In my seven I have never tasted anything this good. Of course I want more. We all do.
But mom counts the oranges, making sure she has enough for the carolers stopping by. She lines them up, threads them and hangs them on the tree. After the oranges comes the ribboned, golden walnuts, then the foil wrapped home-made chocolate, followed by the Christmas candy in its fancy paper, and finally the jewel-toned glass baubles. Mom does all the work. The rest of us are her audience. The last waxy candle is clipped to the branches and lit, and dad turns off the lights. We stare in silence at the enchanting beauty before us.
My dad starts an ancient carol about the holy mother and golden pears and silver apples. When his voice trails off my mother starts one she’s learned at her grandmother’s knee, about lambs, treasure and holy men. We end the carol singing with “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
The candles are extinguished and the light turned on. Even dimmed in its glory, the tree holds us spellbound. In the other room the table is set. The carolers are on their way.
My mother firmly believed in children taking naps. Her day was busy. The two hours we were supposed to be sleeping was the only time she could dedicate to herself without interruption. She would shut the shutters and pull the drapes, making the bedroom as dark as possible, then line each of us in the big bed in order of age. Being the oldest, I was the last to get in.
I hated napping. I didn’t need much sleep. Everything has changed the minute I gave birth, of course. Now I can sleep and sleep, but don’t have the time.
Sometimes my mother would sit in one of the chairs and wait for us to fall asleep, scolding us to close our eyes or we would “get it.” Getting it, probably meant a spanking or a slap. I don’t know. We never actually “got it,” although we always expected to. The rest of my siblings would fall asleep, and I would listen to their gentle snores and pretend that I was asleep as well. Then she’d leave the room and shut the door, turning the key and locking us in. I know. I can hear you all thinking: Inhumane. But back then everyone and their grandmother did it.
The bedroom had a glass door covered by a lace curtain. It looked right into what would be called the living room, but what was actually a fancy sitting room that also doubled as a guest room. My mother would sit and read or sit and entertain her girlfriends who’d come visit. I would get out of bed as quietly as I could and make my way to the door, crouching there, waiting to see what would happen. I wonder if she ever suspected me. If she read, there was nothing to see, as soon enough she’d fall asleep herself, and she was not a light sleeper. That’s when I would explore the bedroom’s every nook and cranny for the stashes of chocolate I knew were hidden. My mother rarely came to check on us once she had locked the door.
If her girlfriends came, she would serve them something sweet, and they’d sit around the table talking and laughing. The mother I observed then was a stranger to me. There was nothing serious about her. She was all smiles. I would study her friends’ shoes and clothes, their mannerism. Some were pretty and I was sure they were nice. The not so attractive ones, I was convinced they weren’t. I believed in fairy tales and that outward beauty equalled inward beauty.
Although she never left us home alone, I knew that some of her friends did leave their children to go to work, or stand in long queues for scarce food items. In different cultures people do different things. I used to have a French neighbor here in the States, who’d leave her three year old napping at home, while she’d run her errands. I wonder if that little girl slept the entire time her mommy was gone or if she woke up crying, terrified. But then I realized that it was the American in me thinking that.
If I would get too lonely during nap time, I would pinch the baby whose wails would wake up the others and send my mother rushing in. I would feign sleep. Surprisingly I was never caught; my brother was too young to tell.
Now I wish I had a designated time of day to nap. My children aren’t nappers. My son stopped napping soon after he turned one. He gets by on less than ten hours of sleep. My daughter napped until she turned three, and then just stopped. But I wish I could turn down the bed in the middle of the day and slip between the cool sheets. The room dark and quiet. Ah. Bliss.
When my Tante Marie’s husband died, she had him buried in the garden across the dirt road from her house. Every morning, while the valley between the two mountains was still covered by a low mist, she would put on her thick coat, grab a few garden tools and make her way over. Toward the end of that first summer without him, my sister and I were the only ones left to keep her company, the other cousins already returned to their jobs and school.
Waking up in the high bed that her husband had built, under layers of linen quilts and silver-threaded woven rugs, was always a delicious feeling. The room would be warm, on the table in front of the wood stove thick slices of bread, a pot of honey and one of butter, and a pitcher of milk awaited our hungry mouths. We would eat, create a fantasy land of play underneath the bed, and when the mist lifted outside the thick walls of the mud hut, slide our feet in our shoes and run out, careful to close the door behind us, ever mindful of Tante’s warning of wolves and bears coming down the mountain side that was basically in her back yard.
We didn’t like going to the garden across the way. Tante Marie had a habit of laying her body atop the mound of earth that covered her dead husband and crying out, demanding to know why he left her. Sometimes she pulled at her hair, but mostly she just cried until she was spent. If she happened to see my sister and me there, peering out from behind one of the mulberry trees, she’d rouse herself, grab her watering can and call to us to fetch some water from the already filled well bucket, and bring it to her. For the next several hours we’d work silently together, weeding, watering, gathering the onions, the radishes, the garlic, and whatever else was ripe enough to harvest for the following day’s market.
At midday when the sun would beat down harshly on her widow black skirts, we would stop our work and she would take us to the river where we were allowed to wade in and play, and even go across the man-made bridge to the other side. She would watch us and hum a tune of mourning, a tune as old as the mountains themselves, before she remembered that we were growing children and must have something to eat.
That summer, the first summer that we had met our Tante, ended one evening in early September. The light was already changing when our parents showed up to take us home. As we started on our way, Tante Marie and her fragrant garden grew smaller and smaller, and although I had worried of what would happen to her during the cold winter months without her garden and without her husband, when Spring returned and we arrived, I learned that life and hope and love go on.
Sorry, this one’s non-fiction. For more tales please visit Magpie Tales.
A quarter of a mile up the road from our house, the woods begin. On a hot summer day, we grab our water bottles and sweaters, and head out. Within five minutes we’ve left the city behind, with its noise, its traffic, its suffocating heat. We follow the dirt path that meanders through the firs, the jasmine, and the wild blackberry bushes, the only sound that of the gurgling stream, and birds calling to each other.
The deeper in we go, the cooler it gets. We don our sweaters and button them up. The kids race up ahead, my son gathering salmonberries, naming ferns and mushrooms, my daughter picking wildflowers she presents to me, or down to the stream looking for salamanders. They jump from one rock to another, wanting to be the first to get to the opposite shore. I watch, my heart in my throat, and caution them. My husband laughs and tells me to relax. He goes to join them, a protective hand hovering above the little one.
Finally we arrive at remains of the old Stone House. This is our turning point. Husband and I sit on a log, quench our thirst, and the little ones prepare to put on a show. The old stone structure is their castle, the forest their kingdom, their dad and I, their subjects.
On our way back down, I offer up a little prayer of gratitude. For my beautiful family, for the magic of childhood, for the trees, and the flowers, and the sun, and the air we breath. I am amazed and moved to tears. It is in the midst of nature that I feel closest to God.
“Start with one.” My wife whispers to me. Her voice and eyes are gentle. I smile at her, but I cannot start. She prods me daily, and yet all I can do is stare at them and the next day go and buy some more.
There used to be a day, so long ago it seems it happened to someone else, that any pencil that came into my hand was put to use, writing the most elaborate stories and fantasies for anyone who would read them. I didn’t know about life then, yet I was read widely and much appreciated not just in my country, but in those surrounding. And just like that, in the quickest breath that time could take, the world became a nightmare, my works were destroyed, and I was a person no one wanted to associate with.
Perhaps I don’t have a story to tell, after all. Who cares, really, about a has been, other than a handful of people, and maybe not even those. I had been imprisoned, beaten daily, my fingernails pulled, and the tips of my fingers burned with a lighter, and when they thought that I was broken, released like a dog. They opened the door and kicked me out, a heavy boot on my backside.
My wife tells me to write of how I escaped. How I walked the one hundred miles home, only to find someone else living in it, how I begged them to allow me to spend the night, at least, and give me a hot meal, and how they turned me away, apologizing that they didn’t dare, that they feared for their lives should they do so. I was a free man, yet, apparently no one was free to share a kindness with me.
She thinks the world needs to know how I turned away and went in search of my friends, and found none. And how I lived in the woods and foraged for something to eat, and how on the day when I couldn’t even see my shadow, how I walked to the border, and lay in wait in the tall grasses. When the change of the guard came, I ran over the open field into the river, and swam across it expecting to be killed at any moment, yet not caring one way or another.
Her idea of escape isn’t mine, and my idea of a life isn’t hers. Perhaps when I shall figure out what to write, I will start with a pencil and find out how many it takes.
This is a work of fiction. For the remainder of the summer season I will most likely blog only about once a week. For more, please visit Magpie Tales.
You know those families that only get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Well, our family isn’t one of those. Our family welcomes any opportunity to gather up and sit down for a loud, opinionated meal, and we make all sorts of excuses to come up with a next meeting. Unless, someone is out of town, our family Sundays start soon after noon when church let’s out, and they last for a good four to five hours. We meet in our parents home, the house we grew up in, ushered in from the outside cold by the aroma of soup on the stove and a roast in the oven.
The lady of the house (my mom, or sometimes myself, as I go earlier to help) is responsible for the soup and the main course. The rest bring the bread, the beverages, the salad makings, the dessert, and the flowers. We set the table, without skimping on the details, and sit ourselves down with much deliberation as to who sits where. Somehow we always end up in the same seats we had occupied the Sunday before.
After generous compliments to the chef and a word of grace from the oldest grandchild, we start our meal. And what do we talk about? All sorts of things, really, but we especially love politics. Some of us are liberal, others more moderate, and yet others conservative. However, we agree to disagree because we love each other, and regardless the heat generated by our discussions, we respect the other enough to listen and concede when the other is right. The one thing we all cannot stand though, is the moronic repetition of the closed minded. Every subject brought up needs to permit logical scrutiny. There’s enough unexamined thinking everywhere without adding on more to that pile, isn’t there?
A couple hours into the meal, we retire to the living-room where we deposit our stuffed selves on the velvety couches and chairs, or prop pillows under our heads and roll ourselves out across the floor, cushioned by the thick persian carpets. The discussion by this time is much lighter. We recount stories of our childhood and jokes, and grandpa (my dad) hands out a weekly allowance to the grandkids that has been in effect since the first grandchild was old enough to know what money’s for. The little kids are quite enthralled with grandpa’s method of throwing money up in the air. They scramble this way and that to get their little hands around the floating dollar bills.
It often appears that time has quite stopped while our laughter and merry voices ring out the opened windows. And when it’s time to leave we do so with a bit of sadness. These intergenerational repasts sustain us all in the week to come, and as we leave and pack ourselves in our respective autos, toting plates of leftovers, and buckling children into their car-seats, we call out to each other, “What are you doing this week? Let’s get together for coffee!”
I would like to announce that this Mother’s Day Sunday, my house has officially become the Sunday dinner house for us all. I am so very lucky that my husband does the majority of the cooking. He is really one of the most naturally talented cooks. Ever. Thank you, baby!
Across the street from us, in a lime plastered, ivy-covered house, lived the shoemaker and his wife. As children, we loved to play in their rose filled garden, or sit with him at his workbench, eating bowls of stew with homemade crusty bread, and watching him cut the myriad colored leather for the shoes ordered. His wife always had gold foil wrapped chocolates for us, in the many pockets of her apron.
They were old and stooped. The only child they had ever had, long dead of some childhood ailment. Children had a tendency to die back then, the old shoemaker used to say, his eyes filling with tears. And because I cried easily as a child, I would tear up alongside him. His wife would hear me crying and come rushing out of the kitchen, scolding the old shoemaker for saddening children with his stories. She would take me in the cool, dark kitchen with her, where she was always pickling or making jams, and give me a blue velvet covered box out of an old walnut armoire, to look through.
It was a treasure box of sorts, with mementos of their child and the trips they had taken while newlyweds. Amidst the smiling photos, train ticket stubs, and christening gown and bonnet, there was also a teddy bear. A small, skinny one with a chewed paw. It bore the importance of having belonged to their baby. Out of respect for the old shoemaker’s tears (or most likely, because I was afraid to touch the plaything of a dead child), I didn’t touch it, although my young fingers craved to.
The ivy-covered house with its fragrant rose garden is no longer there. In its place is an ugly concrete building with shuttered windows. The people within are silent and secretive, and the only time one sees them is when they back their car out of their gated yard.
Yet, the bittersweet memories of childhood remain deeply rooted in my mind. A treasure box of them, that I’m determined to document before old age sets in, and I forget. Colors and textures, and sounds, and sensations. Life lessons learned at a young age.
One Saturday morning when I was 12, my father woke up and decided that that was the day his daughters would learn the feminine art of keeping house. “Marioara,” he said to my mom, “these girls are getting as tall as poplars and all they do is play.” Now I may have been 12, and already taller than my mom, but my sisters were 10 and 7, and petite. However, that’s how things were done in our family. The entire group was involved. Example: if one of us broke a rule, we all paid for it. The reasoning? So we’d learn the consequence and not attempt to break a rule, ever again. Sometimes it worked, most often it didn’t. It created an accomplice sort of bond between the five of us kids, though, and we saw to it that we weren’t found out.
My mom, being the wise woman she is, set about finding age appropriate tasks for us three. The youngest was shown how to fold clothes and organize the closets. The second was soon scrubbing the toilets, polishing the furniture and vacuuming, and I got sent to the kitchen to start on the soup, and peel the potatoes. I was 12, old enough to know better than burn down the house.
All the while cleaning the chicken, I was remembering the ones at my Tanti Marie’s country house, running around the yard without their heads, blood splattering everywhere. Not a pretty sight, nor memory. But I persevered and soon enough I added it to the cold water-filled pot waiting for it. To that I added salt, carrots, onion, celery, and parsley, placed the lid on top and moved on to the potatoes.
I will admit that to this day, I do not enjoy peeling potatoes. There is something about their cold and slimy texture (to me, at least) that raises the hair on my arms. I cut them, cubed them, filled another pot with cold, fresh water, added salt and the potatoes, and set them to boil. After the potatoes were fully cooked, I drained them, added the softened butter that had been sitting on the counter for so long it had practically melted, and then the milk, and stirred like crazy. They turned out delicious.
When the soup was ready, my mom strained it, disposing of the celery, parsley, and onion, saved the meat and carrots on the side for frying them later, and explained the importance of simmering the homemade noodles in the soup broth. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make the noodles. Those remained my mother’s and grandmother’s responsibility.
Over the years I experimented with the addition of herbs, garlic, roasted shallots, heavy cream, sour crème, crème fraiche, and a few other condiments in my mashed potatoes. The soups became more complicated as well. Yet, regardless of the outcome, my most proud moment is when we sat down for lunch on that Saturday, and I served everyone the chicken noodle soup and mashed potatoes I had made.
The wind blows gently through the fir trees and the walnut’s leaves are scattered across the driveway in a carpet of gold. Whatever leaves are still hanging on tremble and dance, and it could be just hours before the waves of the wind beckon them away completely. It had rained all night. Its incessant tap-tapping on the windowpanes keeping in rhythm with the children’s gentle snores, before puddling down beneath the green tinted petals of the hydrangea bushes.
The house is cozy and warm, a gentle fire burning on the hearth. The young wood fizzles and cracks. It isn’t old enough or dry enough for the honor of such a job, but it is splendidly keeping us spellbound. Sitting here, I am reminded of autumns as a child in my beloved Tanti Marie’s village house. Woods and wild forest as far as the eye could see… Oh, how I loved that place! And the wind blowing fiercely, rattling the shingled roof and rustling through the mulberry trees in the courtyard.
On rainy days she would weave her rugs on the loom, entertaining us with stories of the wild creatures in the ancient forest of ashes, oaks, and pines behind her house, and how they had come down at dawn or at dusk, snatching the hens out of the henhouse. And sometimes yes, even children. The bears and the wolves had no fear of the men and women of the village, and we were cautioned to never linger on a darkened road.
On warm days she would get a few village boys and smoke out the beehives running up the hillside, squeezing the honey from the combs and filling oak barrels with it. Those wild raspberry and blackberry bushes produced the best tasting honey. We ate to our heart’s content, and for days after every meal was prepared with it. When we returned to the city, we had delicious honey to last us through the winter. And with the honey cakes, precious memories of a gentle soul who had spoiled us with her pure love.
When I was a child I was afraid of every shadow. Maybe it was cultural, maybe it was generational, but the adults related to me thought it important to threaten me with either kidnappings by gypsies, monsters (babau), or goats (apparently they liked to eat little children and came out at night), anytime I wanted to do something they didn’t feel like. Certainly, one of those three was out to get me, waiting until I was all alone and then snatching me quickly and throwing me in a sack they carried for just such an occasion.
I was a timid child and maybe not so bright, because I must have been twelve when I finally figured out that it was all a big, fat lie. Still, the damage was done and I continued sleeping with a night light on for many more years. To this day, to be alone in complete darkness raises my hairs on end, and every little creak is a monster’s footstep.
When the movie Psycho came out in the nineties I went to watch it with my husband, thinking that I was an adult and to be scared of something make believe was indeed silly. Maybe I actually thought that or maybe he insinuated something to that effect, because there I was popcorn and pop in my lap, waiting for the movie to begin. And was I brave? Let’s just say that for weeks after I only took a shower if my husband was home, preferably standing there and talking to me. Even now, if I am on a trip somewhere alone, that shower image pops in my head and I choose to bathe instead.
The funniest thing about this is that I am around people that die all the time. I am right there when they pass from this life to the next, and I often am the person who takes the pulse and listens for that last heartbeat. And did I mention that the house I live in has been used as a hospice at some point? Yet, none of these things frighten me. I go through the house at night and feel no fear. There’s nothing lurking in the shadows.
But ask me to watch a scary movie and I will have a month of sleepless nights.