Wednesday, 17 March 2010

March Story - My Grandfather's Mysterious Visitors

I haven't been writing much lately. Not without a reason. Anyway, now that we stepped in March a story comes to my mind about another March, in another age, another country, another era. A little long, but definitely a true story. (Originally it was published on another website) Enjoy!

My Grandfather’s Mysterious Visitors

Who were they and why did they come?
I was about to write a winter story with lots of snow and even more ice when the message came: our editor-in-chief would like some essay on art. OK, I will try. But it is so hard to get rid of this winter, not only the topic of my would-be story (postponed till...), but also of the real one outside. March began with an abundant snowfall. That Friday afternoon I stumbled in knee-deep fresh snow on my two miles long way home from the place where the bus-driver dropped me off saying he simply couldn’t drive any further across this all-white hilly landscape. Two weeks later the waking spring still clenches its teeth and freely allows the wildest winds to ravage all over the villages and fields. The thick overcoats and completely windproof, waterproof jackets are still on us as the days grow longer and the nights become shorter.
It was a similar enduring hopelessness that enveloped us about twenty years ago, too. When will it end finally? And how? Will it end at all? These were the questions we silently asked ourselves day after day back in the communist era in Transylvania. But now, at least I know what I didn’t know at that time: every winter ends. It is a law that cannot be overruled or changed. Not even by the harshest, coarsest, rudest dictators. Neither by their armies, security apparatus, whistle-blowers, squeakers and bootlickers... Every winter ends one day, even the intellects’ and souls’ darkest frozen encagement - time...
Many questions of mine have been answered since those black days in Romania. Except the ones I asked on that winter day: who were those three and how did they come? I am afraid I will never get to know this. If my grandfather was still alive, I could ask him. But chances are high that he wouldn’t know it either. My grandfather was a man of lands, of grains and fields and forests and horses, he hadn’t read too many books until he grew too old to make hay.
He knew however more things than I could find in the books available in our mother tongue at that time. He was already an adolescent when the First World War broke out. Seventy years later, after a mug of beer he would still remember some of the songs sung in another age, in another country, yet in the same village. He grew into a man and he grew old in the same town, but around him the borders changed two times, so he changed passport and nationality, but not mother tongue, neither conscience nor religion. He knew every tree in the forest, every road around the town. He knew every river and brook, every forest pathway. He showed me the places where battles were fought, today’s potato fields watered once upon a time with our forefathers’ blood when Tatars invaded and scorched up our villages, when my ancestors refused the Habsburg rule, when they boldly went against the Austrian-invited allies from the Russian tsar’s army... when they lost all they could lose: their horses, cattle, sons and freedom.
My grandfather remembered the times BEFORE, before the big red revolution sequestrated his hardly earned properties, before his forests became the state-owned hunting grounds of the dictator and the bosom-friends of the latter one, before the “Comrades” forbade our language, before artists emigrated because they no longer could speak up, before food and fuel was rationalised to monthly portions distributed after night-long queues in front of the almost empty shops...
And he spoke to me. That was the root of all problems. He told me the truth. Thus he made me dangerous. By telling me, who he and my other forefathers were, he told me also who I was. That made very clear to me, who and what I was NOT. It was good and also perilous to know this at a time our dictator decided to eradicate 3000 Transylvanian villages for they were useless, obsolete and above all, proved a past that should be erased from history books. By God’s Grace this project could never be realised, but for some years the sword of Damocles kept hanging above our heads.
But long before that, when I was really still a child, we had that long and heavy winter. Towards the end of it, it still looked as if it had just started. In those days, cars were not allowed to circulate at all between November and March, for there was no gasoline. For us kids, this annoyance of our parents meant rather an unbothered roaming in neck-deep snow on the roads themselves after each abundant night-long snowfall. In a March or late February morning like this I ventured on the long and really arduous road to school. One kilometre of stumbling and raising my feet high all the time, covering the last section with totally wet boots and socks. Before leaving I asked my granddad to make me a snowman by the time I got back home. Apart from asking him once to buy me a toy – a painted bird that one could wind up like a clock and that would move around then – I don’t remember asking him anything ever.
I didn’t ask, because although we were sharing the same family house with my father’s parents, my mother was terribly upset with my paternal grandparents. My ever-open compassion-hearted mother, who would always send much-treasured food and delicacies to my poorer schoolmates or to needy neighbours, was very unforgiving whenever it came to her father-in-law. The reason of her staunch, inveterate and unceasing reproachful attitude was that my grandfather had had a hidden amount of money, and when the time came in 1977 he had given it away for a good cause forgetting to allocate a single penny to my parents. Ten thousand Romanian “Lei”-s were a significant sum in the nineteen seventies, more than a yearly salary of an average state-employed accountant like my mother. My parents didn’t have a home of their own. My mother’s parents gave everything they had to my mum, this is how my parents could buy a car. My paternal grandparents gave nothing, but at least they allowed my parents to have two rooms in their house. My mum would have loved to move away from there and live her own life and the mentioned money would have helped my young parents considerably. However, fate compelled my mother to sacrifice her dream of independence. The entire amount went away in an unexpected manner and thus my grandfather bought himself a place fifteen years later on the wall of my room in Budapest. He was the only family member of mine who managed to secure himself (or rather for his photo) a fix spot on a wall decorated by pictures of lotuses, snow-capped mountains, cosmic gods and famous rock climbers. Until the day I moved away from Budapest and stashed all my things in boxes he was hanging there on a framed black and white picture, on horse-back, proud, straight-backed, smiling, as a young father of two small children looking into a brighter future. Little had he known then on September 13, 1940 about what was yet to come. With a radiant face he looked as if he had thought, that yet there was a shortcut to the future.
How did he manage to gain my appreciation? In March 1977 a severe earthquake left the country in rubble. The capital, Bucharest was the most affected, but our town wasn’t spared either. The reconstruction lasted for years. Day after day I would be seeing the ruins of an already run-down fortress and the collapsed dome of our community church, the focal point of the lives of my fellows, the ethnic minority Hungarians of Transylvania. This church was built in the times of the Renaissance, at a place of a yet earlier smaller chapel. The first mention of the settlement dated back to 1321 A.D. and since those early days, whenever an enemy approached the place it was behind the walls of this small fortress that the local population, above all women and children could find shelter. Inside the walls the white church was first a Catholic church and when the waves of Protestantism invaded Transylvania, it was converted for ever. Its gothic shape, pure, ascetically plain white walls are my first memories of talking to God and also, of learning the history of man’s quest for a religion closer to God. These memories include also a hidden side-wall relief work representing the head of some big-eyed humanlike-being with Latin inscriptions underneath, some text from the fifteenth century of which at that time I only understood one single word “Daczo”, a still occurring Hungarian surname, probably that of a noble person or some leader of those bygone times.
After that dream- and wall-shaking, howling night in March 1977 only heaps of broken stones cried into the wind. Obviously, there was no money to start it all over again. The communist state would definitely not afford to sponsor the reconstruction of a minority, state-alien, irredentist, separatist, what worse, RELIGIOUS community building in the middle of the most feared Hungarian enclave of Romania. Out of question. It was German and Dutch volunteers and village communities that came with their big hearts and donations to enable the local priest and my irredentist, grandfather to buy and mix cement and to lay stone upon stone. Over seventy years old, my regime-fiend grandfather would put up his helmet day after day and go along with other volunteers to build the fortress and church back. In addition to that, he dug out that secret money and donated it in its totality for the reconstruction costs.
More than twenty years later, each time I visit my hometown and light-heartedly spend probably much more money there than those long-inflated ten thousand Leis, I walk home over the hill and I see the fortress, the tower of the church and the graveyard nearby. And I know that the earthly rests of my grandfather have a calm, unharassed sleep there. Regardless of my poor mum’s sacrificed freedom, he did the right thing. The church-tower is still standing erect there and can be seen from far.
So, it was this grandfather of mine to whom I said that winter morning: “Please, build a snowman for me by the afternoon.” I thought, I could ask him this favour, after all he had both time and snow beyond measure. Off I went along the almost tunnel-looking pathway to school and then to a school-theatre rehearsal. I reached home sometimes in the late afternoon, but still in daylight, since it was March already. The moment one enters our yard-gate one has an encompassing view of our entire yard, the two flower-gardens on its two sides, the backyard with hens and our dog as well as the barn at the end of it. So, basically I could see in the first second whether my snowman was there or not.
Well, it wasn’t there. What I saw made me run closer. Instead of a snowman, consisting of a huge snowball upon which there would be another, somewhat smaller snowball topped by a yet smaller snowball decorated with coal eyes and carrot nose, as one can expect from any decent snowman, I found there three statues. Aristotle, Socrates and Plato. Or Demosthenes, Cicero and Seneca. Or they could have been Marcus Aurelius, Julius Caesar and Octavian, or Martin Luther, Jean Calvin and Zwingli Ulrich, or why not, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael? Maybe Transylvania’s great governors from the hoary past, Gabor Bethlen, Istvan Bocskai and Ferenc Rakoczi? Or Goethe, Schiller and Rilke, perhaps George Mallory, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, mayhap even Robert Frost, Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg... whoever. But definitely not some ordinary people. Three men, three busts on completely smoothed surface, perfect flat pedestals, three noble visages, far-penetrating eyes, bold cheekbones dashing against an unknown medium, all three of them looking into the same direction as they were lining up one next to another.
Who were they and how did they come? What message did they bring along for the ephemeral time between a heavy snowfall and the first spring sunbites? They were there mute, nobly raising their heads, not searching my regard, but rather looking somewhere far behind and above my head, and my grandfather next to them, just finishing with the last touches of his smoothing board. He had been working on my snowmen, his statues since I left in the morning. He used no carrot, no coal, no coloured material, only snow, water and smoothing or plastering tools. He wiped his front and with a smile inaugurated and gave over his artwork to me. Then he went into the house for he had cold. I was staring at the three visitors flabbergasted. Me, the ten year old proud owner of three white Carrara marble statues in the backyard standing with my feet growing roots into the snow beneath...
Then I had to go inside too, the dusk came with chillier breezes. I don’t remember much of that evening. One thing I find still strange though. Although my grandfather had never ever even drawn a sketch, neither my father, nor my mother seemed to be surprised at all, they left the wonder unmarked. Just as if it were so normal that we have three busts of three exceptional fellows in our backyard. Just as if my grandfather was a Rodin in disguise. Well, he wasn’t. He was a man of truth, of lands and forests, of arable fields and hard work, a man of horses and bicycles and also of a good beer sometimes. A man of stonesolid faith. A servant of the church, an expert of grains and herbs and cows... But he was definitely not an artist.
Just two days after that deep snow session my wonderful statues were reduced to small forsaken stubs soaking in icy water. I am the only one to know that on a late winter afternoon Aristotle, Socrates and Plato paid a voluntary visit to my grandfather, or were summoned by him there for my sake. Of course, they could have been Marcus Aurelius, Julius Caesar and Octavian, or Martin Luther, Jean Calvin and Zwingli Ulrich, or why not, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael as well. I don’t remember their faces well enough to compare them now to illustrations representing famous people of the past. But I do remember the smoothness and white nobleness of their faces. They definitely were there, maybe all simply to tell through their short-term snowstatue-carrier that every winter ends one day. That this is a decree which cannot be overruled by dictators and superpowers.
Oh yes, maybe that’s what they had to convey. Or, otherwise, who were they, and why did they come? Who will they visit next?

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