a woman dead for five decades (from a work-in-progress)

The dream was as natural as life. She was there, sitting in a big chair, and I sat with her, my daughter (about fifteen) at my other side. I held her hands with their long cool fingers. She had almost no accent. If the dream had been real life, she’d have been about 120.

We talked. I can’t really remember what we talked about but I was sorry I’d left it so long. I didn’t say this to her but I felt it intensely: if I’d known she was still alive, I’d have visited much sooner.

Holding her hand, I turned my face close to hers. I went to Horni Lomna, I told her, and tears ran down her cheeks. I should have brought you a picture. But those trees…

She said, not as an interruption, but as a memory: those were plum trees. The tears coursed their way down her wrinkled cheeks, water finding a route across dry land.

And spruce? I asked. Spruce, on the road leading to the church?

She nodded.

And is it the Lomna River that passes just in front of the house, with the little bridge over it?

She didn’t say anything.

I put my daughter’s hand in hers. This is your great-granddaughter, I said. But she was thinking about something else, her thin hair pulled into a bun and her house-dress faded. Or perhaps couldn’t see us there in the room where none of the dates fit together – her birth, the trees covered with snow in February in Horni Lomna, the age she was when I was born, my own age when she died, and what would a woman dead for five decades be thinking about in a room with two strangers sitting beside her? Maybe the plum trees by that small house, maybe the weather, maybe the years and what they’d brought, and taken.

my grandmother's house

Our daily bread 2

I am thinking that bread must have been made in the house in Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born in 1881. This wasn’t my mother’s mother – I have no idea who my mother’s mother was; or, wait, I have an idea, but I will pursue that a little later on – but my father’s: Anna Klusova, daughter of Adam Klus and Eva Szkanderova. There are other names, a long line of them running across paper like the blue thread of the Lomna River I see on the map in front of me. Her house, just near the river, a small bridge crossing it by the road, and then a path, deep with snow when I visited in late February of 2012. I could see her house from the cleared yard of the house directly in front of hers but I couldn’t cross the white field to peer in the windows where she must have looked out to see what was going on in the world of sheep and spruce trees.

Deer pausing to drink from the river, or maybe a fugitive wolf, or a goshawk swooping down to take up a shrew in its talons. I know these animals exist today in the Mionsi  forest above the house and in those years their numbers must have been considerable. In fairy tales, the young girl walking home alone was often shadowed by a wolf. The church where my grandmother worshipped and was married from is perhaps a mile from her house. I imagine her walking home from Mass with her scarf pulled up over her face against the wind and hearing wolves in the mountains, knowing they would enter her sleep in the bed she surely shared with a sister or two. Or noting the stamp of lynx paws in the snow as they led over the bridge and up into the trees.

So the windows where she looked out: I’ve seen them. And there’s a chimney, so they had fire, and of course they would have eaten bread. My father didn’t cook much but he did make pancakes and he always put buckwheat flour in them. Buckwheat figures in some of the dishes of the Beskydy Mountains so perhaps my grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather: how intimate a term to use for someone I never met, will never know, and yet whose house I yearn for at this great distance: the Sunshine Coast to Horni Lomna; something in excess of 8000 kilometres), described in my grandmother’s certificate of birth and baptism as a farmer, well, perhaps he grew buckwheat on that slope of hill behind the house. There were fruit trees under a burden of snow. Plums? Apples? In summer photographs, the valley of the Lomna River is verdant and lush. I imagine the taste of apples grown there, fed by those waters.

Can a relationship be recreated with such small ingredients? With the possibility of buckwheat, the dream of wolves? Only think of bread – pulverized wheat berries, water, yeast. Salt had to be brought in to the area for sheep and people; they traded plum jam, slivovitz, woollen goods, and cheese. In that small house, I imagine the bowl of dough rising by the hearth, curds in a wooden trough, and jars of plums gleaming on a shelf.