Life is a journey, full of stories. This is a story of a young girl, her grandfather, monkey bars and childhood memories.
“Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk,” Curly snickered while he watched Moe rip another handful from Larry’s furiously out-of-control locks.
The screen of the black and white television with the wavy line dancing in time to the Three Stooges flickered occasionally as my wee, four-year-old legs rose up and down in rhythm to my grandfather’s shoulders. I braced myself for the next Stoogey antic that would make him laugh until tears stained his undershirt.
I was perched on the back of the couch, legs dangling over his shoulders. Comb in hand, I was the world’s best hairdresser, fashioning his thick, snow white hair into belly-achingly funny hairdos. Or so he let me think.
He let me think a lot of things. He said I would be famous and the way I sang Barbra Streisand’s ‘Second Hand Rose’ into the hairbrush, made me believe his words.
Search for a better life and monkey bars
My grandparents – Nagymama and Nagypapa (or ‘Puppy’ to me), my uncle and my father immigrated to Canada from Hungary during the time of the Hungarian Revolution.
Tenacious DNA bolstered my first breath. I grew pinchable cheeks from the love good food provided. My grandfather told me I was beautiful. I believed him, even when the mean kids called me ‘fatso.’
“Poosh, Lina … poooosh!” he’d say, calling me by the nick name he had for me; his thick, Hungarian accent a sing-song of urging and supporting. And that sympathetic grin made me want to “poosh” even more. His bear-paw hands were pressed against my little, butterball back. “I can’t, Puppy. It’s too hard,” I whined. “Nem birom!”
We usually spoke to each other in Hungarian. Nem birom. I can’t. It was as simple as that. As much as I tried, I couldn’t seem to hoist my chubby frame on my own through the hole between those monkey bars. And nothing mattered more in my universe than fitting in.
I wanted to be like them perched high atop those steel branches crawling lemur-like from bar to bar; jumping, swinging with the rest of my snotty-nosed friends covered in the dirt of sandboxes, swings and slides; hide and seek skinned knees and the stubbed toes of forgotten shoes.
And so we tried. Every single day, we tried – an early testament to my impatience and bullish persistence and a clear indication of my grandfather’s profound love.
“Vere is he?” my grandmother asked when she realized my grandfather wasn’t at the butcher block or in the workshop making the sausages for which he became so well-known. Realizing that I, too, had disappeared, the conclusion was obvious.
“Dey are at dat stoopit playground again. He has verk to do,” and she either came to get us or sent the kid who worked for them, who relayed the message there would be trouble if both of us didn’t return to the store pronto. We preferred it when the kid showed up.
Cigarette smoke danced its way to the heavens carried on the sacred solfeggio of laughter. Sunday after dinners in the little kitchen in the back of the corner butcher/ grocery store where my grandparents lived, petted me with the rush of love for which I waited all week. The sameness of it all snatched me up into its arms to a place where I knew everything would always be all right.
No one was wearing the pristine, white butcher aprons Nagymama would stay up bleaching and ironing during the work week – often into the small hours of the morning. Instead, the men usually spent Sunday summer nights in T-shirts and pants with undone belts from too much chicken soup, breaded chicken and mashed potatoes rich with butter and whole milk. And too much pastry Nagymama would lovingly bake throughout the week. They played Snapszli. Some cards had acorns on them – that’s all I knew about the Hungarian game that bolstered testosterone.
They drank homemade wine sweetened with 7-Up while the women, in their cotton sundresses, sat on an oversized couch, the back of which was decorated with intricately crocheted doilies. Sips of coffee were broken by whispers that so and so had to get married after a midnight rendezvous at the dunes of the local beach. Their eyes grew soft, some with empathy.
“Tök!” Puppy smacked his Snapszli card on the table. I saw Nagymama glance over at him, her eyes twinkling not only with a fierce love, but with a desperate attraction. That one look told the story of blistering heartache; of ancient love, the knowing of which is wordless.
They’d survived so much, these two. War and revolution tore them and their small family apart – reunited only to leave their homeland with literally nothing but the clothes they wore.
They came, fighting every step of the way, to this new land where they didn’t know the language or the customs. Yet, there they were in this small slice of Heaven they bought with sleepless hours, sweat and saving every penny and my little heart swelled with almost more affection than it could stand.
Somehow, I knew no matter what path I would travel, I would never be a victim. I would always survive. There was fight in my paprika blood.
A Sunday kind of love
The company of adults was a Sunday gift. I marveled at how they would change some of their rich, Hungarian words into English hybrids. They had a language all their own. And I knew this special code. The only girl of five grandchildren and the only one to have learned the language, on Sundays I felt like I won the prize. I had the trophy.
On Sundays it didn’t matter that I was the fat kid. It didn’t matter that my bangs weren’t cut straight or that I was always known as the girl with the pretty face. Cherry popsicle red stained my little, bow tie lips pursed in smugness as I rode my bicycle with the banana seat and the bell that only sometimes worked.
On Sundays, I mattered. So, it was on this Sunday night the monkey bars and I had our clandestine liaison. There were no other kids around. I stood there for a good while just glaring at their iron toughness.
I picked up a handful of sand, gritting up my fingers for the gymnast feat about to come. I stepped up onto the rungs at the side, stretched my arms out grabbing hold of my fierce foe and dangled there.
I took a breath and lifted my legs through the top hole, sturdy like a fine gold clasp. I let my hands go and swayed with upside-down grandeur on those monkey bars.
“I’m gunna do it. I hafta do it.” I heard my own voice in the now burgeoning darkness. On an enormous, concentrated exhale, my pudgy little arms pulled excruciatingly and precisely and I was through. But I didn’t know I was crying until I allowed myself to feel the pain in my jello arms. I just sat there until I saw the first star.
That playground was different on Monday. There was no question I would climb those monkey bars again, and keeping it a secret from my grandfather was harder than the doing of it. I will never forget his face as long as I live.
“You deed eet, Lina. I verrrry prowd uff you.” I’d never heard him roll his ‘r’s’ so superbly. And he spoke in English. This was special.
“I did it, Puppy. I did.”
Life forever changed beyond the monkey bars
This man who loved roses; who gave food away to people he knew were having a hard time; who filled the grubby, ever-penniless palms of kids with candies without ever asking for a thing; and who, quite honestly, never had a nasty word to say about anyone – quietly and quite gently, died.
He was 67 years old when his benevolent heart just stopped. With an 11-year age difference, he left Nagymama a youngish widow. He left two grown sons, daughters-in law, four grandsons, siblings, nieces and nephews and so very many friends. And he left me. I was not yet in my teens.
The magical corner of that immigrant, working class neighborhood and monkey bars in my small town, never again seemed as colorful, or as joyful, or as carefree. He was the glitter in so many lives as much as I was the star in his.
My Nagymama lived to be 90. She was the last person to call me Lina. But, Lina is who I’ll always be. My Nagypapa. Any demons in my life have been no contenders for his spirit which has lifted me out of the uninvited abyss many times. He is still my glitter.
Sometimes, when the monsters scream my name and light is but a shadow, I swear I can feel his hands on my back and if I listen very carefully, I can hear his angel voice in my ear, “Poosh, Lina … poooosh!”