вторник, 22 мая 2018 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty four)

My mother's stories
chapter 24
The great famine of '47
        Somehow listening to my mother's stories I have never understood what it was for her to live in her village marked as “a daughter of the enemy of the people”. I think she was too proud to show me that it bothered her too much. It was not really strange, of course, that she was so eager to leave the village, considering poverty and hard labour. But it couldn't explain why my mother was so determined not to set her foot there ever again. In contrast to her grudge against her mother she was fond of her grandmother and aunt, her father's sister. The latter didn't have children with her husband and they treated my mother as their own child. Moreover she really missed her beloved oak forest, where she used to spend so many happy hours wandering with her granny. So why was the very thought of coming back so hateful for her?
        For a long time I believed it was my mother's hatred towards her own mother that prevented her from visiting the village. Yet, after putting together all the details, while writing my memoirs, I began to think that the main reason was rather different. It was her fellow-villagers' enmity that hurt her feelings even more than her mother's dislike. It was them who couldn't forgive my mother her proud demeanour, her flat refusal to bear her status of “the daughter of the enemy” as a stain of shame. I imagine it was not so easy for her to stand on her dignity because of the rural custom not only to hiss accusations behind someone's back but to throw them straight to their faces. So that was the time, I think, when my mother developed a habit of using her pride as a shield against everything and everybody, a trait that cost me so many inconveniences in my childhood and irritated me so much in later years.
       I don't remember exactly if my mother had ever had any doubts as to her father's innocence. But I do recall clearly her tale about some young Komsomol activists, members of Young Communist League, who came to her house once. They explained to her that if she meant to continue her education she had to join their ranks but before that she had to sign a statement with - a renunciation of her father.
       My mother didn't think twice to say “no”, adding mockingly at the end that Komsomol could easily do without her but she couldn't do without her father. It was dangerous to joke like that at that time and my mother was really lucky to get away with it. Nevertheless, that refusal predetermined all her future life. The doors of the college were closed for her after that in spite of her good marks at school and all the hopes of a good career were now lost.
         Besides, my mother had to pay for that refusal when a great famine of 1947 broke out in the country. I remember her looking at my father with a mixture of light envy and amusement and telling me with mild indignation that during the famine he got as much bread as an adult in his orphanage, while they received half as much as ordinary citizens being “the family of an enemy of the people”. To my surprise my father reacted good-humouredly to her remark. He just smiled reminiscently and said that he had even more than that – there were one or two pieces of sausage floating in his soup on all red-letter days. And what a joy it was for orphans to fish those small delicious bits out of their festive broth!
        At the same time my mother had to survive on their miserable bread rations – she and the majority of the population, that is, those who didn't belong to some strictly limited privileged group. The others weren't in much better position than my mother's family. Actually, they began to receive that poor help from the state only after the field work began in spring. Before that, in autumn, that very state grabbed most of the wheat that was grown on the collective farms' fields, leaving peasants to survive with that grain that they managed to grow on their personal plots. And it was not much as it was a notorious year of great drought and bad harvest.
       They say Stalin's regime never stopped trading in grain. Even in 1933 and 1947, at the time of great famines, heavy laden trains continued to cross our borders – exactly like in that joke that was popular at the beginning of the Second World War when the USSR was still happily trading with Germany. As my father told me the narrators of the joke started with the question “Do you know what our wagon wheels say when they go abroad and then on their way back?” The answer, as for me, was simple and brilliant: going abroad the wheels rattled “rye - wheat, rye – wheat” and coming back they tapped “screws – bolts, screws – bolts”. The narrators pronounced slowly the first pair of words, giving their listeners the impression of heavy carriages full of grain. The second pair, on the contrary, was pronounced in quick succession, creating immediately the image of more than half-empty wagons with small piles of iron produce somewhere at the bottom.
         So that was the price for our industrialization. But still I can't grasp why they continued to send grain abroad when people were eating grass and swelling from starvation. I can accept a wide-spread explanation that communists organized the famine of 1933 just to suppress peasants' rebellions and force them to enter collective farms. How else could they make people work hard without getting any money for their labour? But the famine of '47 was different. It happened just after the war, when the country had been rendered lifeless with heavy death toll. It seemed mad to organize a new famine at the time like this, even if Stalin was afraid of new rebellions. But then I remembered a phrase which was ascribed to Stalin “There is no one, who cannot be replaced”. It inevitably reminded me a well-known Russian proverb “Women will give birth to other ones” where the same thought was put into simpler words. They say nowadays that the great moustached leader never said anything of the sort. But does it really matter? It's enough to know that it was undoubtedly the invariable motto of communists at the time of Stalin's rule.

      To be continued...
27. The importance of family (the ending)
28. Why did they kill him?

четверг, 22 марта 2018 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty three)

My mother's stories
chapter 23
Why did they kill him?
         It's strange how people's memory works. I have been writing my memoirs for more than three years now and my mother's mental abilities have deteriorated dramatically during this time. Only a year ago she remembered a lot about her childhood and youth and only what she was doing a minute or two ago slipped her memory completely. Nowadays she has forgotten most of her past, even her violent mother, whom she hated so persistently for so long. Nevertheless her father has recently emerged, escaping the dark hollows of her memory. So she was just sitting muttering to herself in her present-day manner “What has happened to him? I can't remember”. Giving her a clue, I reminded her that her father was shot when she was only seven. My mother looked at me perplexed and asked with sudden tears in her voice “Why did they kill him? He was so good”. Trying to distract her, I started to tell her about a great number of people, who were marked as “enemies of the people” and executed at that awful time. And she suddenly remembered “Oh, yes. I was a daughter of the enemy of the people. So how did they humiliate me?” After some struggle my mother did fish out that she had been forbidden to sit at the first row at school – her place could be only at the back of the class.
         The detail that I have forgotten. It was strange. She used to tell me that being an excellent pupil she was sitting at the first row, at least at primary school. My daughter confirmed she recalled the same. So maybe my mother was just trying to use her imagination to refill the dark holes in her memory. Or, perhaps, she was forbidden to sit in the front after the War when she refused to sign the renunciation of her father. Who knows? My mother in her state can't help me now. But never mind. I still remember a lot – all those things that she used to tell me when I was a child and she was a young strong woman with excellent memory for poems and her own past. Although even then her memory was not so good for everyday business that always seemed to her too mundane to pay too much attention to.
        Anyway, I remember that as “a daughter of the enemy of the people” she didn't get a free lunch at school. It was an important addition to the nourishment, because most of the children never got enough food at home. Yet, there were some sympathetic teachers, who used to send my mother to the kitchen to wash the dishes – so that she could receive her lunch as a payment for her work. How often could they do it? It's a pity I forgot and my children don't remember either. Nevertheless it's a great relief for me to know that if I have some doubts about my recollections I can always ask them as they used to listen to my mother's stories as often as I did at the same age.
        But I do remember clearly my mother telling me that she never saw her father again after he went to the hearing. Only a note came from him some time later. In that small piece of paper, given to them in great secrecy, her father revealed the place where he had hidden the money that he had saved to buy a house for the family. I think he knew what was waiting for him. But even then, in his desperate state, he was trying to be funny as usual and added in the end of the note that he was treated there as a Gypsy from a well-known joke. The hint was transparent enough – they knew he meant “tortured”. Many years later, reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book, I learnt with a feeling of deep revulsion and terror that my grandfather's case wasn't extraordinary. It was a usual practice. Actually, punitive agency got official permission for such methods of inquiry. My shock was especially profound because I was growing up watching a lot of movies about The Second World War where brutal German fascists ruthlessly tormented our selfless patriots before killing them. And our soldiers were so brave and noble. If some of them, mad with grief after getting a letter about his wife and children killed by a German bomb, tried to be violent with German captives, the others always stopped him saying “We can't behave like them”. I could never watch those touching scenes without tears in my eyes. It was such an awful irony suddenly to discover that our people could “behave like them” and even worse, because they tormented their own compatriots just to force them to sign a document with some absurd accusations brought against them. No wonder people usually admitted everything. Death was preferable if the alternative was the everyday torture.
        I remember how, thinking about Stalin's repressions, I used to feel pity for all the poor people, who were doomed to live at that terrible time. But then something changed in my perception. I think it started when Russian propaganda raised a turbid wave on TV in order to clean Stalin's reputation. I felt confused when photos of old women lovingly clutching his portraits suddenly popped up all over the Internet. Looking at them I thought at first those women were just a little bit touched in their heads. But I was knocked down completely by a photo of a plump woman who wasn't even that old. A sweet smile was playing on her lips while on the portrait she was holding the head of the great moustached leader was surrounded by the USSR National Emblem that looked like a halo of a saint.
       I don't know exactly when it happened. Perhaps, at that moment as I was watching that photograph or a bit later, when I realized the extent of Stalin's rehabilitation in Russia. Anyway, a frightful thought came to me once: that bloody regime couldn't have existed if a lot of people hadn't supported and justified it. And what is more there were plenty of those, who were ready to fulfill a horrid work of torture and shooting. I was not even sure if it was my own thought or I came across it while reading online. But it didn't matter. I just felt it was true at that moment.
        So that's why those hideous traumatic scenes from the old War movies were shown so convincingly. Movie-makers didn't have to look for German War criminals to consult. They could easily find a lot of good experts with a long practice in their own country - that is in my former country, which I was brought up to believe was the best in the world. A ruthless reality gradually undermined this stupid conviction, of course. But nothing could compare with that crashing blow that it got when the whole truth about Stalin's repressions was revealed to the people. It seemed most of my compatriots felt like that at the time. And now even my best friend has recently told me that Stalin's regime was not really that bad – there were plenty of good things too.
         I do hope that my head is more resilient and nobody will ever be able to persuade me that a mass slaughter of people can be justified by some high purposes or the future happiness of all the others. It's painful for me to admit it but it looks like people can be made to believe anything at all. The herd instinct – that is what that sly mass propaganda uses here, I think. This irresistible desire to join the majority even if they are all walking to the precipice.

     To be continued...

воскресенье, 14 января 2018 г.

Пять любимых вещей моего детства (часть вторая)

Празднование Нового Года

         Не только внезапно выпавший снег чудесно преображал серые одесские зимы моего детства. Было и еще одно событие, которое я ждала с неменьшим нетерпением. И хотя моя мама никогда не готовила каких-то особых блюд к праздникам, и моя любимая тетя Зина была единственным человеком, который мог заглянуть к нам на огонек​ у меня всегда возникало трепетное праздничное ощущение, когда я думала о приближении Нового Года. Этот праздник любили все: и взрослые, и дети. Мерцающий серебристый дождик и разноцветные бумажные гирлянды, развешанные повсюду, сразу изменяли окружающий серый мир. В каждой классной комнате в школе, в каждом магазине и почтовом отделении появлялась поблескивающая стеклянными украшениями, нарядная елочка. А на главных площадях города устанавливались огромные елки. На закате существования СССР, когда мои дети были маленькими, такие елки выглядели удручающе бледно, так как украшались они в основном бумажными гирляндами, фонариками и дождиком. Но во времена моего детства для них не жалели ни разноцветных стеклянных шаров, ни бус. Все дети смотрели на такую искрящуюся на солнце красавицу с восхищением, и даже рассказы взрослых о том, что на самом деле эта громадина сделана из еловых веток, прикрученных к металлическому каркасу, не могли испортить нашей радости.
     А как много интересных программ вдруг начинали показывать по телевизору в предновогодние дни! Сколько у нас, оказывается, было хороших фильмов и искусно нарисованных мультфильмов, где сказочный сюжет разворачивался на фоне завораживающих зимних пейзажей. Предновогодним вечером, конечно, вся страна усаживалась смотреть традиционный «Голубой огонек», где наши любимые актеры и певцы общались друг с другом, сидя за уютными столиками в богато украшенном зале, периодически прерываясь для какого-нибудь развлекательного номера или представления. Казалось, они встречали Новый Год вместе с нами, принося ощущение праздника в каждый дом. Выбора у нас, конечно, не было с одной телевизионной программой, но на заре своего существования «Голубой огонек», действительно, казался чем-то свежим и необычным. Да, и готовили его в то время с гораздо большим рвением и энтузиазмом.
       И, конечно же, на Новый Год все малыши и ученики младших классов объедались конфетами. Так было, по крайней мере, в больших городах, которые всегда намного лучше снабжались. Один нарядно разукрашенный пакет со сладостями мой папа получал для меня у себя на заводе. Другой пакет мне выдавали в школе и третий – я получала в Театре Юного Зрителя после просмотра новогоднего представления. Помню, с каким энтузиазмом мы рылись в этом ассорти из разнообразных конфет, печенья и нескольких мандаринок. А в какой восторг я пришла, когда новогодние сладости оказались упакованными в картонную коробочку в виде заснеженного сказочного домика!
     Весь мир, казалось, пытался нам внушить, что волшебство было возможно не только в сказках, и в том возрасте в это, действительно, легко было поверить. Это было время, когда в декабре полки магазинов ломились от разнообразных елочных украшений. Каждое семья обычно имела свой неповторимый набор елочных игрушек. Среди детворы было принято ходить друг к другу в гости посмотреть на елку, а потом с увлечением обсуждать чья же из них самая пушистая и нарядная.
       Мне было 11 или 12 лет, когда мама сказала, что она устала убирать иголки и наотрез отказалась наряжать елку, которую папа, как обычно, купил в заводском магазине. Я понимала, что у нас мало места, и что наш большой дом еще не готов, но все-таки я расстроилась. Мне не хотелось говорить «прощай» своему детству.
        Когда я вспоминаю елки моего детства, в моей памяти всплывает не это грустное деревце, стоящее покосившись в углу нашего недостроенного дома и на которое я, пребывая в расстроенных чувствах, повесила несколько игрушек, присыпав их сверху дождиком. Я вижу пушистую красавицу, поблескивающую разноцветными шарами, фигурками зверушек и сказочных героев. Серебристые нити дождика только усиливают всеобщее таинственное мерцание, а белые комки ваты кажутся неотличимыми от настоящего снега. Конфеты и небольшие яблоки соблазнительно свисают на ниточках. Они казались намного вкуснее, когда я срезала их с колючих, слегка пахнувших хвоей веток.
      Новогодней ночью никто не пробирался к моей елке на цыпочках, и утром я не находила под ней никаких подарков. Только Дед Мороз и его хорошенькая внучка Снегурочка, оба в белых шубах и шапках, традиционно стояли у обложенного белой ватой ствола.
       Мои родители выросли в деревне, и они не понимали городского обычая дарить друг другу подарки по праздникам – особенно если это было что-нибудь бесполезное. Я, конечно, расстраивалась, когда мои родители и даже моя тетя забывали о моих днях рождения, тем более что мои подружки всегда хвастались своими подарками.
       В те времена, к счастью, в большинстве семей еще не было принято класть подарки под елку. Поэтому новогодним утром я была совершенно счастлива, разглядывая Деда Мороза и Снегурочку, одиноко стоящих под елкой на полу. Они стояли там, будто напоминая, что еще один солнечный цикл завершился и самые длинные ночи уже позади. Солнце теперь будет подниматься все выше с каждым днем, приближая приход весны с шумным щебетом птиц под нашими окнами и легкими белыми барашками облаков в кристально-голубом небе.

1. Пять любимых вещей моего детства (Снег - часть первая) 

среда, 27 декабря 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty two - the ending)

My mother's stories
chapter 22 
The importance of family 
(the ending)
       I don't know why the authorities usually hid the fact that political convicts were executed. The first thing that comes to my mind is that they did it just because of refined cruelty, playing cat-and-mouse game with their victims' relatives. Yet, I understand I am wrong - there definitely were some practical reasons. It's believed now that they merely tried to conceal the real scope of political repressions. Perhaps, it's true. Somehow I can't imagine communists of high rank inventing this secrecy just to save their subordinates from the necessity of telling the truth straight to the anguished faces of numerous people. Some information, however, filtered even through the closed doors. Dark rumours were spreading around the country but people didn't want to believe them. Who knows how many poor souls continued to haunt different officials' thresholds trying to learn something reassuring about their beloved ones' fate?
        Anyway, due to this cruel policy my mother had been waiting for years for her father's return, not knowing that ”ten years without the right for correspondence” stood for a death penalty. She learnt about his destiny only at the beginning of the 1960s, at the time of so-called Hruschev's Thaw, when political prisoners, who survived Stalin's camps, started to come back, cleared of all charges. I was pretty small then but still I remember my confusion when I saw my mother crying with some papers in her hands and saying something about my grandfather. I don't think I understood her explanations at that time, but later I learnt that those papers were my grandfathers' rehabilitation documents, which declared his innocence twenty years after his execution. They put an end to my mother's hopes that her father was alive and lived somewhere with another family. It seemed possible to her because political convicts usually got ten years of deportation after their term of imprisonment.
        And indeed, one man came back to the village with a wife and two sons twenty years or so after his conviction. He was one of those, who fell under the heavy tread of the notorious Law of Three Spikelets and, funny enough, got twelve years for twelve kilos of stolen grain. His return shook all the village, though not because he managed to survive, but because of a remarkable love-story connected with him. There was a girl in the village, whom he promised to marry, but infinitely delayed their wedding. Twice she tried to marry another man and every time her light-winged lover popped up just before the wedding to break it up, swearing eagerly that he would marry her soon. Even after his arrest he continued to feed her with his oaths in his reassuring letters. And what is more, he managed to persuade her to sell her own house to take care of his sick mother. So his unexpected return with his wife and two children turned into a really tragic ending for that trustful devoted soul. Suddenly, after all those years of waiting, she found herself without a roof above her head. I remember this story seemed to me so outrageous that I felt a great relief when upon finishing it my mother began to tell me soothingly that the villagers didn't allow this to happen and made that unfaithful lover buy some hut for the poor woman in the end.
       My grandfather, however, was not so lucky as that man and in vain his daughter had been waiting for years for him. But despite all the oppression that she had to endure as “the daughter of the enemy of the people” my mother continued to cherish her recollections about him. She liked to tell me in loving detail how her father used to carry her in his arms and didn't allow her mother to beat her. Or how he used to take her to the river bank, where he put her down on the grass, and she was watching him swimming and diving in deep waters of the pool named Fishers' Pit. People usually avoided this dangerous place because two men drowned there once, but her father was fearless. He worked at the water-mill and liked to tell his little daughter about dangerous tasks of fixing something high above the ground or in some deep tight hole, which nobody volunteered to fulfill except him. No wonder her father was a real hero in my mother's eyes. He was a remarkable man in many respects. For example, he finished three classes of parish school. It was rare accomplishment for villagers of his generation. He liked reading, of course, and was always in the center of any company having a fresh joke for any occasion. Who knows maybe those funny stories about Stalin that he didn't fear to tell triggered the repressive machine to persecute him? Although it's very well known that this machine eliminated a lot of people, who didn't have even such a little fault in store.
       It would be funny if it was not so sad but my grandfather was one of the few, who really believed in bright communist future and was mocking his fellow-villagers' desperate attempts to increase their wealth. It was very stupid of them in his opinion because the time would come soon when there wouldn't be any money and everything would belong to everybody.
       So perhaps, it was my grandfather's readiness to believe in better things that ruined him in the end. He did get a warning. Some kind soul, risking their own life, sent him a note, advising not to go to the hearing but flee from the region as soon as possible. Years later I read one woman's recollections about that awful time, and she really met some people, who managed to avoid imprisonment just fleeing to another region. But she, as well as my poor grandfather, thought that her innocence was too obvious to be afraid of something. As if those ruthless investigators, who used to invent ridiculous accusations for innocent people, needed any proof. I remember my mother telling me with anguish in her voice how her father put his best suit on and went to the hearing. It was a turning point in her life but I don't think she could realize this at that moment.

          To be continued...
25. The forest at last (the ending)

вторник, 31 октября 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty two)

My mother's stories
chapter 22
The importance of family
       There was something mysterious about my father's childhood. He could remember himself only since the start of primary school when he was already seven. All the earlier recollections, for some reason, passed completely from his memory except for one vague episode when a man in a military uniform visited him in the orphanage. Yet, he couldn't recall anything else about the man or his purpose. My mother, who remembered herself since the age of two, found this gap in his memory rather funny.
     I remember how she dropped something casual about this strange forgetfulness for the first time and seeing my astonishment tried to make fun of my father as usual, but he stopped her with one glance. It was not a laughing matter for him. As an orphan he was very sensitive about everything connected with his origin. In fact, all that was left for him from his parents was their names in his birth-certificate and the city of Zaporizhia as his place of birth. In vain did he try to get any additional information about his parentage after he came of age. Nevertheless, even this tiny knowledge gave him a reason for pride.
        First of all, it was his surname, of course; the surname that he shared with the famous Ukrainian poet and which was so attractive to the girl he loved that she agreed to marry him. I remember two thick volumes of Taras Shevchencko's poetry always lying on the stool near my father's bed. It was actually the same book of two different editions and he liked to reread them both. He told me once that his favourite verse was “I was thirteen and pastured lambs behind the village”, confessing to me that he couldn't read it without tears in his eyes. It struck him as very touching that at the same age of thirteen he also shepherded lambs behind the village and just like the poet he had neither parents nor home.
       Another reason for my father's pride was the city where he was born. He never visited it afterwards but he loved the sound of it, often calling himself Zaporizhian Cossack. He really liked to believe that his ancestors belonged to those free, warlike people, who created Zaporizhian Sich, a kind of republic, which was located on the banks of the Dnieper River centuries ago.
       Listening to my father my mother couldn't help teasing him sometimes, telling him with a sly smile that his surname and his place of birth could have been invented and he might not be Ukrainian at all. It always made my father angry - as if she tried to deprive him of the dearest recollections about his family.
       Many years later when the first and the last president of the USSR Michael Gorbachev made the secret information available for ordinary people the knowledge of the true extent of Stalin's bloody repressions came to us as an awful revelation. It was the time when I learnt that my mother could be right after all. A popular magazine “The new world” started publishing a previously forbidden book “The Gulag Archipelago” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and with a spasm of disbelief I discovered that there really was such a practice to change political convicts' children's names before sending them to orphanages. So who knows? Perhaps my father was one of them.
       My mother's attitude to her family was completely the opposite. It's so odd how people don't usually value those things that they have in abundance. My mother lived in the village full of her relatives and could trace her family line back to her great-grandparents at least. There were no doubts that she was Ukrainian. Yet, it seemed she never appreciated any of this in the slightest. I used to think it was just her usual aspiration to be different. “I am not like others” - was not it her favourite motto, her unconquerable argument in all the discussions? But after writing so many pages about my mother's life in the village I think I've started to understand her better. Being Ukrainian meant slavery for her and hard work in the fields without any money paid for her labour. No wonder she was so eager to leave the village. Listening to my mother's stories I used to believe that she left the village because of her mother's mean attitude to her. But now I don't think so. She would have left even if her mother had been fond of her – only in this case, of course, she would have had her mother's support and blessing.
        My mother's arrival in Bushkiria was definitely a change for the better for her. She lived in the town of oil workers, worked as a draftswoman and got real money as her salary. I remember her telling me with slight bitterness “Can you imagine? Every nation admitted I was theirs except Ukrainians. Germans, Jews, Russians,...” Then casting away her frown she began to tell me with a smile about one woman, who assured her that she belonged to her nation. My mother's blond hair had turned rich auburn by that time and her eyes were green. As the woman herself was dark-haired, round-faced and her eyes were dark and narrow, everybody laughed, of course. But she continued to persist good-naturedly “No, no – you are definitely Mordovian. Just look at me. Can't you see we look alike?”
       As for being Ukrainian and her life in the village my mother tried to forget about it, I think. She felt rather like an outcast there in spite of her success at school and popularity among the boys. One of her most aggressive suitors shouted at her once that she thought too much of herself being in reality a daughter of a criminal and a slut. And what else could he think if everybody in the village knew her mother had affairs with married men and her father had been announced “an enemy of the people”? And it was true. Her mother didn't hide her love affairs from her children. It was not a rare occasion when a man stayed for the night in their house. In gratitude he usually fixed something or brought some wood for the fire. Masculine hands were always in great need on rural farms. My mother, however, couldn't talk about those men without a note of anger in her voice, muttering bitterly “Just imagine – sleeping with her lover and children in the same room!” Only recently I've suddenly realized that it was not something unheard in the village. At that time most of the poor families had to sleep in one room as it was the only one in their shabby huts. But it was not my mother's father who slept with her mother in one bed. That's what infuriated her so much, I think.
       As for her father it's surprising how much she remembered about him considering that she was only seven when he was arrested and shot. It happened in 1937, the very same year when one of the most prominent waves of Stalin's repressions rolled all over the country, ruining lives of so many innocent people.

      To be continued...

вторник, 29 августа 2017 г.

My mother's stories (chapter twenty one - the ending)

My mother's stories
chapter 21 (the ending)
The forest at last
       I started doing physical exercises every morning to prepare myself for future trials, but here, unexpectedly, my mother showed her changeable character in full measure and put up a real fight. I don't know why she was so totally against my second walking tour. Supposedly, it had something to do with the idea of a tent, which, in her eyes, was a very convenient place for a young girl to lose her virtue. She tried to scare me off with a story of a man from her village, who died from pneumonia after he fell asleep on bare ground in May. I objected to her that it wouldn't be bare ground if we put inflatable mattresses under our sleeping bags, but she paid no attention to my words.
       Just before our one-day training tour, when we were going to learn how to put up tents and build the fire, my mother suddenly felt ill and asked me not to stay the night there. I had a nasty feeling that she was pretending being ill as she was not very good at it. Yet I couldn't risk it, growing up with the knowledge that my mother's heart was weak. So I promised her to come home before dark. It was difficult to leave the camp when the fire was already crackling merrily under the cauldron and soft fingering of the guitar was flowing through the still evening air, but I came to our leader and told him I couldn't stay. I left together with another girl, who lived in the next street and who'd told some lies just to join me. It took us half an hour to reach the nearest bus stop and after another forty minutes I was home. It was already getting dark, but I was not really surprised to find my mother in a very good mood, wrapped up completely in her domestic affairs. It was, perhaps, one of the points of no return, which we had a lot in our relationship. Mutual disappointment I would rather call it.
        Anyway, our battle continued till that very day when my father came home from work and said that it looked as if his factory trade union was not going to pay for my walking tour. My mother seized this opportunity at once saying we couldn't afford to waste so much money on my entertainment. So suddenly everything was over and I had to go to the club to tell our instructor I couldn't go. I remember the agony I felt while walking there. Leaving the club I tried to suppress my tears, but they were rolling down my cheeks. I heard some boy sneering behind my back at such improper behaviour at my age, but it didn't matter to me at that moment. I felt too miserable.
       My father didn't usually interfere with my mother's decisions. So it was a real stroke of luck when he, seeing my despair, suddenly took pity on me and said he would give me the money for the tour. I don't think I have ever had such a dramatic change from total misery to radiant happiness again. My mother didn't give up yet, however, and tried to use her tears as a last resort. She had never used tears as a weapon before and I remember how difficult it was for me to say “no” to her. But somehow I did and the day of my departure came at last. My globe-shaped rucksack was extremely heavy, swollen with my sleeping bag, clothes, food supplies and an inflatable mattress. We were going to carry tents and mattresses in turn, as I learnt later. It added several extra kilos to our rucksacks, which tried to bent us to the ground even without them. It's still a mystery to me how I managed to reach the club with that monster on my shoulders. My longing to see the forest had to be really strong to give me strength for that.
      And then there was an intercity bus with a spacious luggage compartment where we had to cram our rucksacks. On the bus I found that there was something wrong with my chair – it stuck in one position and I couldn't move it. Our instructor, as usual, didn't pay much attention to my problem. Sitting near the dark window with my back upright I felt uncomfortable and unlike the others couldn't sleep. Yet it didn't bother me too much at that moment. Listening to the soft drone of the engine, while our bus was making its way along the dark road, I felt happiness bubbling quietly inside of me. After all these years of dreaming about travelling I was going to see the forest and the mountains at last.
      At that moment I didn't know, of course, what was going to happen to me there. Although it was not difficult to predict that our instructor would be as ruthless and sarcastic as ever and that it would be really hard to walk in the mountains with all these uphills and downhills and huge rucksacks on our shoulders. But who could have guessed how unbearable it would be? Or that our instructor would hurry those who began to fall behind, banging with his alpenstock on their rucksacks? I had to gather all my strength not to give this man the pleasure of hurrying me with his stick. It was more than enough for me to be his favourite scapegoat on this tour. He loved bombarding me with his jokes, egging the others to laugh at me. They didn't laugh only once when during a conversation about everyone's favourite dishes, he suddenly glanced at me and shouted gleefully: “Look! Look at her expression!” He got no laughter in response, only averted eyes. This reaction was not, actually, odd. It was our last week in the mountains – the week of near starvation. Lack of food was especially annoying because at first we often buried the remainder of our porridge with tinned meat in the soil, not being able to finish it. It was our instructor's fault, of course, but he, it seemed, didn't feel too guilty and entertained himself every evening by starting conversations about food.

    Incredible as it is, in spite all the trials and moral pressure every time I had enough strength to raise my head I felt the same quiet happiness bubbling inside of me: while looking at the slopes covered with woods or inhaling fresh scent of pine-trees or looking at the bonfire and singing to the light strumming of the guitar. Or just peering at the distant tops of the Carpathians wrapped in light lilac haze early in the morning. The mountains, unlike people, didn't deceive my expectations, being even more beautiful than anyone could have imagined.

      To be continued...