Saturday, October 18, 2008

Etched Forever in My Mind

Nestled into the farm where I grew up was a small one bedroom house and an equally small piece of land abutting the two-lane road. The property, while fairly small, was generously blessed with lilac bushes, numerous patches of various edible berries, rhubarb, and a few well situated apple, oak, and evergreen trees. In this modest dwelling lived two spinster sisters who had lost their respective fiances in the bloodbath of WWII in Europe and never married. One was a retired teacher, the other a former librarian, but that's not really relevant here. What is pertinent to this little tale, is that soon after the elder sister passed away, the younger was beset by the ravages of cancer of the stomach. In those days, care at the end of one's days was often left to the nearest relatives or close friends. This was especially true in that rural setting, as there were no nursing homes and only one small hospital. As the sisters had no living relatives, and since 'Aunt E' was a nurse in her 'pre-Uncle R' days, it was decided to move Anne into our large house, which was equipped with far more bedrooms than we had people in residence. This only took place after Anne was unable to maneuver about on her own and required multiple trips daily down the hill to the little house beside our farm pond's outlet stream to attend to her needs. When she reached this stage, the little house was cleaned up and closed up to preserve it from the ravages of the often cruel Maine winter weather. Anne remained at our place for over a year before she finally was released from the pain and suffering of her illness. A few days after the services and interment ritual at the farm's 'family cemetery', just beyond the rear-most pasture and surrounded by a low stone wall, 'Uncle R' went to see the local lawyer about the disposition of her assets. Since this had never been discussed, he was somewhat taken aback to learn that Anne had left a small savings account and all her property to himself and 'Aunt E'. As it was midsummer, and not being quite sure how they wanted to handle the matter of the little house, they spent some days thinking it over, then decided to see if there were any prospective renters or buyers who would be willing to live in a beautiful setting, albeit with no running water, electricity, phone, a wood stove for cooking and heating, and an 'outhouse' for the toilet facilities. As this seemed doubtful, the house remained closed and shuttered in the meantime. As fate would have it, the elder uncle and patriarch of a local immigrant family from Hungary, via Czechoslovakia and Canada, had recently arrived in town. His wife had died several years before and he'd stayed in the 'old country' until all the family, save for himself, were safely settled in Canada or the USA. A large number of them settled in Maine to work in the woods and paper mills. Our town alone had seven families of the clan living in 'mill houses' and employed at the paper mill and it's associated operations. As they tended to be rather blessed with many children, space in the duplex 'mill houses' was at a premium and 'Uncle Mike'(or Grand-Papa) was scouting humble accommodations suitable to his simple needs. As he had only what wealth he'd possessed after paying sufficient bribes and transportation costs to ensure the family's future in the free world, he was seeking something rather modest, since he'd be living on money collected by all the family in a 'pool' to finance his elder years. Since 'Uncle R' wanted to have the place occupied before another winter could do more damage, he agreed to rent to 'Old Mike' for the sum of five dollars per week, which was more than acceptable to all concerned. 'Uncle R' got a live-in caretaker for the place and Mike got a place that wouldn't unduly burden his family. There was an added bonus in that Mike had been a leather worker in Hungary who was skilled at the manufacture and repair of all leather goods, from horse collars to work boots, and itching to have meaningful work to occupy his hours. Another fact I learned from Mike soon after he'd moved in, was he'd been a merchant mariner for years prior to doing leather working. He'd left the sea-going life to spend more time with the family after the patriarch, his older brother, had been killed in an accident. He might have remained there in the old homestead if not for the aftermath of WWII and the growing menace of the Soviet Union. In the early 1950's he'd seen trouble on the horizon and set upon the task of removing every last one of his kinsmen and their families from the growing oppression. First they went to Czechoslovakia, then gradually, trickled their way to the New World and new lives. He himself made it out only weeks before the Russian tanks were unloosed on Hungary in response to protests against the curtailment of the few remaining liberties. All this background merely provides the basis for a series of memories that have sprung anew from the depths of my old brain after a chance meeting with one of Mike's grandchildren, now himself in his late thirties and a new resident of a nearby town where he's bought the local pharmacy. It was actually he who recognized me and my wife and approached us. That meeting, and that earlier that day a close friend had encouraged me to find more memories to post, sparked my dormant need to reminisce. All the memories that started flooding from this simple encounter with a gentle man, who was but an infant when I left to carve a life for myself, and who knew me mainly from stories his Grandfather Mike told him about the 'boy in the faded photos' on his table, seem to be of those halcyon days when I was about ten to thirteen. He'd met me during my few random visits home over the years, one of which was to be a pallbearer for Old Mike. He knew my second, present, and last wife(all one lovely woman) from her days as a nurse in the small city where he first worked after having been licensed to dispense medications. I think it was memories of the funeral of Old Mike and working with my wife that triggered his recognition. From the day 'Uncle R' brought Old Mike home to Sunday dinner, followed by Old Mike, and myself as willing helper(no milking or mucking for me THAT Sunday), departing in the old truck for the little house down below, he and I hit it off. Old Mike had a pretty good grasp of spoken English, which he said he got from years of being at sea in the company of Irish sailors. He called me either Michal or Mickey from our first hour together. It wasn't long before we had the place opened up, swept, mopped, and dusted, and the hand pump for the kitchen sink working. Mike then told me he'd be very happy if I stayed and 'assisted' him in unpacking all the curious goods still piled on the truck. Seems he knew I was more than a 'little' interested to see what treasures this man from far away thought of sufficient value to carry all the way to America with him. This turned into quite a project, in which 'Uncle R' happily allowed me to assist, as Mike gave him ten dollars to pay him for the loss of a farmhand for a few days. Seems Old Mike was a pretty sharp cookie when it came to 'reading' people and situations. The unloading of the truck went rather quickly, followed by something I'd never had before, a small glass of red wine, hard crust bread, and feta cheese his family had sent with him. Wondrous fare, his words to me then have remained with me over the years, "take just enough sip of wine to wet the lips, bread to fill the corners of your stomach, and cheese to make the other two enjoyable." Funny how things like that are forever etched into our consciousness. Probably the combination of simple, yet wonderful food, good company, and the novelty of it all, conspired to drive the thoughts home to stay. The following three days were a mix of patiently answered questions, nothing seemed off-limits, calm instruction on where and how to place things, usually culminating in a leisurely stroll around the small property with Mike pointing out things I was well aware of, but had never really 'looked at'. His deep, smooth voice, poetic accent, and seemingly endless knowledge about the world and its inhabitants would magically transport me to wherever he willed me. This proved to be the beginning of a deep friendship, especially those first three years, that endured his having to move into town with his son's family due to worsening health, my leaving to travel the world, often taking special trips to see sights he'd described to me in great detail, and countless letters exchanged between us until his death at the ripe old age of ninety-one. When I got word of his passing, I flew in a non-stop relay race from Singapore to Boston, and then by Greyhound to my hometown to take part in the funeral. The memories of many shared leisurely strolls, simple meals, and hours drowning worms, each of us wordlessly and happily aware of the other, are once more tumbling helter-skelter through my mind. Hopefully I'll be mentally agile enough to grasp a few before they disappear, and when I have them, I'll post them here, as they're too valuable to hoard for my own enjoyment. Until next time, be well and take care.

16 comments:

Linda said...

Beautiful story Mike...So much feeling. No photos were needed here as your writing stimulated my mind with plenty...Old Mike, seemed like a very nice old gentleman, everyone's idea of the perfect Grandfather...Thank you for sharing....

Muhd Imran said...

Oh Mike. Your stories from memory have sparked many old memories from mine too. I like it and I thank you for that.

Incidentally too, our Raya visit to our Grandma revealed two old black and white photos there, of her and my Mom when she was just 17.

Another family photo with Dad when he was in his twenties together with Mom and their first child, my eldest brother.

Grandma kept them close to her and I only got to take photos of these right off the frame to my keep.

Old memories of my childhood has always make me smile, but old memories of my parents being discovered... priceless.

patricia said...

Lovely story, Mike.
It's nice to be where we have gained enough wisdom through the years to be able to look back at some of those old ones who were special to us when we were young, and realize that we were special to them, too, without even knowing it. Love given and received even themselves out somehow over the long run, and we know it if we stop to think about it.

tshsmom said...

What a great story! "Old Mike" was such a treasure in your life.

Your story dredged up memories of my friend from Czechoslovakia. Ivan was 12 when the Soviets invaded his country. They barely made it out, with only 1 suitcase of belongings for a family of 5. I lost contact with Ivan after graduation. I wonder what he's doing now?

reeflightning said...

thank you mike for sharing these wonderful memories.
each life is a story waiting to be told!
i look forward to sharing many more of your journeys down memory lane.

thewishfulwriter said...

I loved this story. I got lost in it. I particularly loved the "boy in the faded photo" line. Another great post :)

an average patriot said...

Beautiful Mike! I told you before but you know you had a special youth. I only hope you have passed your experiences and wisdom on to as many kids as possible. It is a favorite thing of mine. Take care!

Wally da Weasel said...

Great story, Mike! Great typing too. I told ya Roscoe would be a big help.

Bro said to tell ya we got something special for ya at our site.

R C said...

The Tribe and I are very pleased to see you writing about your memories again and I assume when you say in your story a "close friend" had encouraged you to find more memories to post, you were referring to me! RC!
YOUR WELCOME!!
Good story Mike, nicely written...You made us proud..:) :) :)
PS...Do you still keep beer in the shed by the house?....

tweetey30 said...

That was an awsome story. I read it earlier and never commented for some reason. I think I got distracted helping the girls with school work.. Take care my friend..

deanna said...

Thank you, Mike, for sharing about Old Mike. You can indirectly express a lot about yourself through describing the characters you've known. So you're on your way to a great memoir now, right? In any case, I agree with those who've said they're looking forward to more.

Hahn at Home said...

Mike I love this story. You are such a great storyteller. I wish I could interview you on tape.

Dale said...

Wonderful story and beautifully told. I surfed over via Hahn at Home. Cheers! Dale

Sandy's Notes said...

It's so nice to read your words and see that you are well again; you are aren't you?

Old Mike had one special friend, sometimes that's all you can ask for! And then for it to be returned, even more special!

Kay said...

I agree with Linda. Your words paint such beautiful pictures in our brains even without photos. I enjoyed reading your story very much. You certainly have valuable memories of special, kind and interesting people. Thank you for sharing them.
Thank you also for visiting my blog. I'm glad you did because it led me to yours.

Peg said...

What a great read!

Best regards!

(visitor from Hahn and Melly's blogs.)