This week’s chapter continues with my grandfather’s time in Nikopol. I have changed the setting a little, bringing the conversation from Ukraine to my mother’s supper table. The conversation now changing to one between my grandfather and my significant other.
“Where did you play soccer with your friends?” asks Cait.
“So let’s see here my little chick, there was this old excavated field where the mud was packed down and we could play football.”
“Who were we?” Cait asks as she gets up and switches from across the dinner table to the chair next to my grandfather.
“Well let’s see there were Shura or Sasha, Vladimir, Alex, Nicolai, my school mate Lisa, Tamara and my sister Elfrieda. Shura was the lucky one with the soccer ball; he had a little more money because his father had a better job. All of us after school and during the summer played together. It was the best time of my life.”
My mother takes my plate and begins to clear the table. I get up and help clear the table, leaving Cait and Opa to continue talking. My mother had made the staple Mennonite family meal of chillcha and farmer sausage with red cabbage coleslaw.
“What other things did you do together?” Cait asks continuing the conversation.
“Well from October to the end of May we had school and then exams till the first week of June. But after that it was the life of the bathing suit; shoeless and shirtless. The gang would then spend our time fishing and swimming in the river. There was an island across the river that was our escape; sand dunes, mulberry trees, giant oak trees, fresh fruits and wild horses. We would swim across the river and try to catch the horses that lived in the sand dunes.” There is energy in my grandfather’s voice.”
“The girls too?” Cait asks.
“Oh yes, they were never more than two steps behind. The girls’ feet, knees and hands were as dirty as mine.” My Opa responds.
“How did you catch the horses?” She asks.
“One would climb into some trees while another would chase them under. Then the one in the tree would jump onto the back of the horse. And whooeee they would try and buck you off, they would run and look for low lying branches to knock you off.” Cait laughs. “The boys would try and impress the girls by catching the stallion, because if you caught the Stallion you could control the herd.”
My mother interrupts, “would anyone like tea?” We all nod. My Oma sits down with her infamous coffee cake. She had fulfilled her duty, one hosts the meal the other family member brings dessert. For a moment we eye the crumble cake and then Opa continues.
“On the same side as the horses was the most amazing fruits; mulberries, apricots and watermelon.”
“Just growing wild?” Cait asks.
“Oh no, we would steal it from the farmers.” he smiles.
“Harry you didn’t steal.” Oma says.
“Oh yeah and the farmers would shoot at you with salt pellets and when they hit you in the bum, boy would that sting.”
I smile watching Cait and my Opa interacting. Cait catches my glance, and then turns her attention back to the Patriarch.
“My sister Elfrieda would scold me for doing such things, but we were kids having fun and getting into mischief… Sometimes when there were freighters taking fruit up the river we would swim out to the ships, climb the anchors and run around on the deck. The sailors would chase us and we would grab watermelons and throw them into the river, jump in and swim after them. They acted like floatation devices and we would have to swim like crazy to catch up with them. If you could catch two at once that was something to marvel at.” My Opa coughs for a second and then continues. “I remember there was this one time where we climbed the anchor of a ship and this sailor was chasing Shura and I, when I slipped on the deck and fell off the ship. On the way down I cut my forehead on the anchor.”
Cait sits back and raises her hand to her lips.
My Opa continues, “So we went to the doctor and said ‘you have to patch me up.’ The next day, my mother sent me to the well to get water. The well had one of those handles you have to crank around. The handle was slippery. It slipped out of my hand smacked me in the head and cut me open again.” My grandfather begins to laugh as he retells this story from his past. By looking in his eyes, one can tell that for him it was like it was yesterday. He continues, “So I go back to the doctor and he says ‘didn’t I patch you up yesterday?’ And I said ‘Yeah but you didn’t do a very good job!’” Everyone laughs at the supper table. I can hear my Opa saying that as a child. He must have been a little of a smart ass as a kid.
“So what was school like?” Cait continues. She pulls her wavy brown hair off her shoulders and puts it into a pony tail.
“The school was divided up into school one and school two. I was in school one which was in the morning and section two was in the afternoon. My friend Vladimir and Tamara were in school 2 and Lisa, Shura and I were in school one. Lisa lived across the city square from me and every day I would walk her home… School early on was tough for me.”
“Why?” My Oma asks already knowing the answer. Like me she was listening in on Opa’s and Cait’s conversation.
“Because I had to get water and coal in the morning I was always dirty and smelled a little for when I went to school. I was terribly self conscious of this, but we were so poor Cait, so poor and we couldn’t afford proper clothes. One day when I was leaving classes I overheard the teachers talking about me and saying how poor of a student I was and how I would not pass any of my classes. I just remember crying and feeling so embarrassed. What could I do about it?” My Opa pauses for a moment. The smell of Earl Grey fills the kitchen. “So after crying, I realized I needed to look more respectable at school so I could get better grades. So I told my friend Vladimir “Vlad we need to look more respectful in school, so we can get better grades and then the teachers will respect us. Vladimir asked me, ‘what do you have in mind’. I told him ‘well I can’t afford a suit and you can’t afford a suit, but I know who can, the mayor. I think we should go to the mayor and ask for a suit.’” My Opa laughs, he tells the story with such candor.
“How old were you?” Cait asks. She is so good with my grandfather.
“Let’s see here?” My Opa responds.
“You were nine Opa.” I say breaking my observatory silence.
“Yes I must have been nine because it was before my father came back.” There is a mental light that just turned on in my Opa’s head. It’s the kind of light where his brain just put the story into context. I love how the brain works.
”The next morning we went to the mayor’s office. We demanded that we be allowed to see him. The secretary asked what our business was, and we replied by saying that it ‘was important personal business.’” My Opa stops looks at his cup of tea and then across the table and says, “Mike could you pass me some smear.” I pass the honey across the table. My Opa and I seem to have our own language. My Opa continues with his story. “So somehow we were let in to see the Mayor. He told us to sit down and as he leaned against his desk holding a lit cigarette asked ‘what can I do for you boys?’ I said ‘we know that you have some sway in the city and my associate and I are in need of some suits for our schooling and we believe that you would be able to do something about it.” I can just see my Opa, 9 years old, confident as all be walking into the mayor’s office and asking that the mayor help them purchase a piece of fabric that would help them in their schooling. “You know the mayor was so shocked by our forwardness, he just laughed, until he realized that we were serious. He set up an appointment for us at a tailor and had two suits made for us. After we got these suits, we felt like a million bucks.”
“Did your schooling improve after that?” Cait asks.
“Oh yes, the teachers approached us differently, and I did very well.”
“Tell me more about your schoolmate Lisa… What did she look like?” Cait asks.
“Oh she was beautiful; she had dark hair like yours and dark eyes that just melted your heart. We shared a bench together at school. Every day I would walk her home.”
“Do you know what happened to her?” Cait asks looking at me. I tilt my head to the floor knowing the answer to her question.
“She was Jewish and when the Germans arrived in 1941, she and her family one night were taken outside of the city, lined up against a ditch and shot. She was a beautiful girl.” My Opa responds, his voice quivering. Cait grasps my Opa’s hands. Her eyes glisten. There is silence for a moment.
“She was a beautiful girl.” My Opa says again.