Somewhere In Time

 

 

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DAYS GONE BY

 

 

Europe was still unsettled. Yugoslavia was rebuilding from the effects of war that tore country into pieces. People were trying to meet their needs. Communists took over the government but people were allowed to retain their religion and go to church, if they wished to do so.

             In those days during the Post-World War II era, George was fifteen, my brother, Swan, thirteen, I came next at eleven. Because George was the oldest, mother depended on him to help with us children. We thought he was a mite bossy, but we loved to hear our mother talk about him when he was a little boy before we came along. As we listened, we could see the sturdy blue-eyes brother with thick brown hear and spunky independence.

             "He dressed chickens in doll clothes?" we exclaimed incredulously when mother related some of our brother's amusing behavior. Chickens to us were fat, feathery, picking, pecking, cackling not so lovable fowls who were no value at all until served brown crisp from the frying pan.

             "Well, you know," out mother would begin, and we knew then that we were going to hear some more about our unpredictable brother. "We lived on a little farm several miles from Belgrade. There were no houses close and George had no one to play with, so he made do with what he had - chickens! At first, the old hens were disagreeable and didn't want to cooperate, but they didn't reckon with our determined brother. (We could picture the fat chickens running and squawking in loud protest) The poor things would finally give up to the tortuous procedure and allow George to dress them and push them around in his wagon."

             Sometimes, during the long days, he would hear the sharp whistle of a train, and away he would dash, his brown hair flying. Puffing heavily, he would reach the fence row that separated the farm from the railroad right-a-way. As train roared past, he waved his hands vigorously at the engineer. Frequently, to his delight, they would throw a shiny apple or an orange in his direction and he would retrieve it after the train disappeared in the distance.

             Mr. Vasich, the plump, friendly iceman was always a welcome break on a long, hot summer day. Skipping along behind him up to the back porch, George chattered away like a magpie, waiting for the refreshing bit of ice he always chipped for him.

             One day mother overheard him telling a story with great emphasis and drama. He had related how his Dad was fixing a loose board on the front porch floor and hit his finger with the hammer. He finished with "-and he hit his finger with the hammer and him just tussed and tussed! Not a little put out with this intimate bit of sharing, mother frowned and told him he couldn't watch Mr. Vasich next time unless he kept his mouth shut.

             Mr. Vasich was a little surprised at his usually talkative, little friend when he kept his lips sealed.

 "Cat got your tongue," he asked. George shook his head negatively, but kept his mouth closed tightly, even when he handed him the coveted piece of ice.  "You can imagine the super human effort that took!" The mother laughingly finished her story.

 The story we liked the best was one about an old-fashioned Saint Day dinner at our grandmother's house. George was really excited for there was new fallen snow and he would get to ride in the spring wagon behind their old mare, Hajduk.

 All the time mother was dressing him and combing his hair, George could hardly stand still and asked endless questions. They were at least ready, and mother repeated the instructions that she had gone over several times before. There would be a minister and a school teacher at the Grandma's as her guests, too. George must remember to act like a little gentleman.

 So, away they went, the harness crackling in the brisk air and Hajduk kicking up sparkling bits of snow. Across the big Danube River they sped with George tucked happily between our Mother and Dad. When at last they drove up to the big, white farmhouse located near Zemun, George smiled and wiggled happily as Grandma and Grandpa hugged and kissed him, and exclaimed what a pretty little boy ha was getting to be. He was most polite when he was introduced to the grave-faced minister and the spinsterish looking school teacher.

 The delicious aroma of apple strudel and roast pig filled the old farmhouse. George could hardly wait until time to eat. At least, all were seated about the big table and after a long and ponderous blessing from the minister, the meal began. It was not until the middle of the meal that our Mother began to relax. George was behaving like a model child. For dessert, George and Dad chose pink angel food cake and a sauce dish of peaches. As the last crumb of the delicious cake and the last spoonful of sweet peach juice disappeared, George smacked his lips and with a happy and blissful look at his father said loud and clear, "Isn't this good soup, daddy?"

 Making living on the small farm became difficult as each new child arrived. A move was finally made to Belgrade where our father found work at the Politika Newspaper Company. Though his salary was small, we had the security of a regular paycheck and happy times from year to year as we grew up.

 And then it happened! We vaguely knew there was something called depression going on, but we became acutely aware of. The long established Politika Newspaper Company closed down and our family faced a grim crisis. Making our situation loom even more ominous was the fact that Christmas was only a few weeks away. I can remember the worried looks upon my parent's faces, and I overheard my Mother say, "It will be hard on the children with no money for Christmas. George and Swan can understand, but what about little Tony?" Tony still believed in Santa Claus.

 Understanding didn't make it any easier for me. I felt hurt and disappointment. As the days went by, my Father could find no regular work. An odd job happened along now and then, but our situation grew more serious by day. Fortunately, my Father always planted a large garden and on the shelves in our cellar were shiny jars of red tomatoes, green beans, corn, and several pecks of potatoes. There was also an almost full bushel of Jonathan apples that Dad picked earlier in the fall.

 At that time, there were no pros and cons about the manner in which Christmas should be celebrated. We spent exciting days in our classes at Radoje Domjanovich School where we all attended. We made shiny stars and bright red candles with yellow flames from construction paper to put in our classroom windows. Across the front of the room we draped red and green paper chains that we had laboriously pasted together. We learned new Christmas songs and sang the old familiar ones with a sweet nostalgia filling us. At the St. Nevski Church we, with other cherubic faced children, practiced the Nativity scenes and sang carols with enthusiasm and yearned for the night of the program to arrive for there was always a treat for each child. This year I was to recite a poem. I knew every line and it sing-songed its way through my heart over and over again. In spite of everything pointing to a bleak Christmas was always a magical time and somehow there'd be a way. but how could there be? My heart ached in the presence of grim reality.

 A seeming bit of magic did start about two weeks before Christmas. George, though under age, was given a job at the Little Macedonia Bakery. A distant relative hearing of our desperate plight and having some influence managed to secure it for him. We were all very excited. His job was at the front of the store at the hot dog stand. It sounded like so much fun to us. We envied him and our mouth watered at the thought of the delicious wieners with spicy mustard oozing out at the edge of the bun.

 Of course, George's small wages were a mere drop in the bucket compared to vast need of our family. Daddy found a few days of work on the county roads and Mother washed and ironed shirts for several different families. Every penny of any money earned went to pay the unending bills. A traditional Christmas seemed impossible and the small bit of hope inside me grew smaller and smaller.

The Holiday activities at the school came and went and on Friday before Christmas Day on Sunday, we presented our Christmas program. The love of our school teachers and participating in the beautiful portrayal of the Nativity brought a temporary lessening of my haunting pain. I recited my poem without a hitch and felt a bit of pride at how well I had done.

 The following morning Dad left to try and find a snow shoveling job. In spite of the gloom that had hung over our household, there appeared a mysterious lightness of heart in mother's manner. She hummed as she prepared breakfast. As George left for work there was hurried whispering at the door. My heart lifted a bit. Whispering was always a part of the magic of Christmas.

 The mother gave us the job of cracking black walnuts. It was good to be busy and we hoped mama didn't catch us popping a kernel into our mouths now and then. We knew there would be apple strudel on Christmas Day and mashed potatoes and other vegetables from the cellar, but there was no sign of pig or chicken or any other meat around which to build a meal. The mother allocated several other jobs to each of us. "We can at least have a clean house for Christmas," she remarked. Swan, you carry out the ashes, and Tony, you.. You water the begonia. The begonia sat on the sawing machine beneath a sunny window and had just recently produced several blooms among its shiny leaves.

 It didn't take us long to do our chores in sparsely furnished house so after we were finished, we settled down to a game of chess. By mid-afternoon, there was a loud stomping on the back porch and our father burst into the kitchen holding a gunny sack. Our mouths opened wide in astonishment for out of the sack came a cackling and struggling from something within. Daddy's cheeks were red from the cold and his blue eyes danced enjoying the big surprise on our faces. As he told the mother how he had done some chores for an elderly couple and they had paid him with a big fat hen, happiness shone on mothers' face. I could almost taste the delicious Holiday meal to be. Roast chicken and mashed potatoes, mmm, mmm.

 While George got ready for work that last morning, he made plans. He was determined there would be a present for everyone no matter how small. He felt like skipping as he went to the corner to catch the streetcar, but he didn't for he was almost sixteen and had a job! It was fun serving hot dogs and mustard to shoppers who couldn't find room at the crowded bakery counter. He felt especially proud when he efficiently served friends and neighbors and managed to the cash register to provide the right change. Today, being the last day before Christmas, there was more hurry and bustle than ever. The very air seemed electrified. Christmas was becoming a reality. The sharp clang of the beggar's bell came and went. I'll drop a nickel in, he planned. I can't afford more. He watched the clock as the hours went by, the excitement growing inside him. He would be off at seven, receive his check and be able to shop until nine.

 A teary-eyed little boy called anxiously for his mother. A little girl lovingly touched the fresh, pink dress of a doll with a lacy white hood.  George's legs were growing weary. it had been so busy. ten 'til seven. just ten more minutes. "Oh, hello, Mrs. Jovanovich. Yes, she's well. And how's your family? Merry Christmas to you too."

 It was seven o'clock! With his wages clutched tightly in his hand, he began his shopping. No one had bought the little wooden wagon with big wooden wheels painted in red. Tony was going to love it. The wooden wagon would be Tony's last toy. George smiled as he remembered his own last wagon. It had been given to Tony and was as big as he was. What a funny sight, his chubby, little brother made dragging it around the yard with rear wheels not spinning. They were broken. It didn't take as long as he thought it would to purchase everything. Pretty print material for Mother, a blue shirt for Daddy. It had to be blue. It was his favorite color. But what about Swan? He had to find something special for him. Loaded with his bulky packages, his heart became anxious for closing time was nearing. When he had almost despaired, he spied something that would be just right. If only, it didn't cost too much.

 "The soccer ball," he said, "the one with the shiny brown color. How much is it?" he asked clerk, afraid of the answer.

"We're marking them down," the clerk smiled at George's anxious face. "They are a steal at that price."

With a sight of relief, George handed the clerk the right amount. Nothing left but a nickel, some pennies and his streetcar fare home, but Swan could play with his own soccer ball to his heart's content. He would still put the nickel in the beggar's pot.

 The cod night air was exhilarating and the crunch of the snow under the shopper's feet added to the other happy sounds of the very special season. As he waited for the streetcar, big angel flakes of snow began to fall, at first ever so lightly then gradually growing thicker and thicker until the old, trampled snow was mounted fresh and white everywhere. A shimmering halo surrounded each streetlight casting an enchantment to the city streets. "Everything is so beautiful at Christmas," he whispered to the world at large.

 Tired and happy, George climbed on the streetcar; his packages were slipping and sliding. A wheel from Tony's wagon had poked through its sack. An elderly woman helped him get settled in his seat and other passengers smiled at his obvious happiness. The conductor stopped the car at almost every corner, letting off passengers and their Merry Christmas wishes became a happy refrain in his heart. Once as the doors opened he heard the sound of childish voices come faintly and beautifully through the velvety night. He repeated the words of their song, "Oh little town of Bethlehem, " and wondered about the other beautiful night when Christ was born. When she reached her corner, he descended from the streetcar and found the snow was coming down faster then ever and he hurried in the direction of home and his loved ones. The wet snow clung to his eyelashes and stung his cheeks, but he didn't mind for in the oldest brother's heart was a warm glow. There would be Christmas after all!

 He stepped on the snow-covered porch, taped lightly on the door and his mother quickly opened it.

"Heavens, son! Aren't you about frozen?" his mother whispered, helping with the packages. "The others are in kitchen having popcorn. Dad has strict orders to keep them there until we give him the sign."

 The delicious smell of freshly popped corn and happy chatter of the children filled the little house. George was glad to be home. He and his mother quickly hid the packages in the armoire and then joined the family in the kitchen. Bedtime came soon after that, but no one wanted to go to sleep. I was worried about how Santa could come down the small stove-pipe that rose from our pot-bellied stove.

 "He'll find a way." George promised his little brother.

 "He probably won't even stop. You've been bad all year," teased Swan.

 "I haven't, have I mama? Have I Daddy?" I asked tearfully. The mother gave Swan a reproving look and got them off to bed, comforting her smallest who still believed in the magic and wonder of Santa.

 Nearly an hour later when all was quiet, George and his mother began to unload the armoire.

 "Where are we going to put everything, Mom?" George asked.

 "I've been wondering where it would be best." Mother answered. "We are so crowded. We wouldn't have much room for a tree if we could have afforded one." They both looked around the small room. George's glance fell on the sewing machine.

 "How about there, Mom?" he asked. Some things on top, some on the foot pedal."

 "Guess it will have to do." Mother replied thoughtfully.

 "And Mom, cried George, seeing more possibilities, "there are four drawers, we could pull them out, put a name on each and put their candy and nuts in there and their orange, too."

 "That's a good idea," mother agreed. "What will we do with my sewing equipment? Under the bed?" She laughed and George laughed with her. After working as quietly as they could, they stood back and took in the effect of their labor.

 "It looks pretty, doesn't it, mom?" As an afterthought, he took a bright ribbon bow from last year's wrapping and attached it to the begonia pot, giving it a festive air.

 "Yes, George," his mother answered, with a noticeable tremor in her voice. "You and my old sawing machine saved Christmas." Then she added brusquely, "It is late, we'd best get to bed."

 Naturally, when the children awoke the next morning, their eyes opened wide when they saw the humble old sawing machine attired so splendidly, and cries of delight and happiness filled the modest home. The happiest of all, of course was the oldest brother who watched in quiet contentment. Around his neck he had a bright scarf his mother had knitted for him. He caught his mother's eye amid the clamor and said,

 "Thank you, Mom. Isn't everything more beautiful at Christmas?" His mother smiled, the anxiety of the last few weeks gone from her face.

 "Yes, everything is more wonderful and beautiful at Christmas." she said softly. The worn, old sewing machine, so gladly bedecked, said nothing.  

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              Somewhere In Time

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