By Manya Friedman
As the instructor distributed a prewar photograph taken in Munich, Germany, he requested, “Tell me your impression of this picture, and how you would fit into it.” At first glance I noticed a family gathered in the garden on a sunny day, all in a cheery mood. Then I noticed the short leather pants worn by two young men, and my heart skipped a beat. Typical German. So many years have passed, yet we are still sensitive to certain signs. On second thought, this could have been an assimilated Jewish family that had adopted German traditions. Either way, I somehow did not fit in there. But gazing at the picture brought back memories about my own family and the summers before the war, when life was carefree, spent in the country...
The farmer’s family usually gave us their best room, even if their children had to sleep in the barn sometimes. All for a few extra zlotys they could make during the summer for renting to city-folks. Though life in the country on a farm was very primitive, the last days of school were spent day-dreaming of the freedom, the open spaces, fields and meadows stretching as far as the horizon, occasionally obstructed by a grove of trees. We gladly exchanged the bakery-bought sweet rolls for the farmer’s black bread thickly spread with freshly churned butter (no fear of cholesterol yet). Rolling down a steep hill, in tall grass, challenging the others, who can roll the fastest? Chasing the goat out from the vegetable garden, or sometimes being chased by the goat in turn, annoyed for being disturbed. Our help was not always very productive, but the farmer was indulgent with us, probably having fun watching city kids. Once they were trying to teach me how to milk the cow. They were holding the cow’s head, but the cow hit me in the face with its tail trying to swat off the flies from its back, and I bent backwards so far that I fell off the milking stool, with my feet in the air and the milk bucket turned over. That was my last attempt to become a milkmaid. Though we must have been clumsy doing farm chores, we were willing to learn and adapt. I recall jumping in the lake with only our underwear on, copying the farm children. And helping to collect the freshly laid eggs, still warm to the touch.
I also recall the bellyaches from eating too many green apples, and the cuts and bruises on our feet from trying to run around barefooted like the farm children. Our faithful companion was the farmer’s old, shaggy dog. He seemed rejuvenated each summer we arrived. Sometimes on the way to the farm we would wonder if he was still alive. Every time we paid some attention to him he would run ahead, then come back wagging his tail like a young pup. But when we were busy playing and ignoring him, he would just lie there pretending to be asleep, yet watching us with one open eye. The same way he was watching the farmer’s few sheep grazing in the yard. On Sundays you could hear the church bells ringing, calling the faithful to worship. Occasionally I would go with them to the little church; the farmer usually stayed back, claiming too many chores to be done. Instead of staying in church, we spent most of the time at the adjoining, very old cemetery, trying to read the hardly legible inscriptions on the headstones.
Reminiscing about all this, it’s no wonder we could not wait for school to be out. Mother would pack up the large wicker coffer brought down from the attic. The hinges in front were connected with a metal rod, and padlocked for security. It also had sturdy handles on each side because when the coffer was filled it took two people to carry it. We each gathered a few of our favorite things, and mother always insisted that we bring along some books, not to waste the summer without reading. We said goodbye to grandparents and relatives, though it was a short goodbye, many of them would come out for the weekends to visit. The horse-drawn carriage was waiting in front, the horses impatiently shifting from side to side. Father came along for the ride to get us settled but had to return to town to attend to his business. However, he came every weekend, brought lots of goodies from town and a host of relatives for a visit. He also brought for mother the week’s newspapers; the news was stale, but mother was mainly interested in the serialized section of the latest book.
The picture in front of me reminds me of such a weekend, when relatives came to visit, sitting under a shaded tree, inhaling fresh air, sipping cold drinks, and exchanging news and gossip. I see myself as that young girl, between the ages of nine and twelve, at every occasion hanging around older cousins. With a grin I now recall those years when together with one of my older female cousins and her friends, I made myself inconspicuous, pretending I was not there, yet listening to every word they uttered, giggling when they talked about boys and other feminine topics. On the other hand, when I was around my older male cousins, I craved to be noticed, though their conversation was of little interest to me. They usually talked about sports or their dreams of someday owning a car. Whatever they said, an occasional pat on my head made me happy that I was there and that they noticed me.
The summer quickly came to an end. Time again to pack up, but this time everything was carelessly thrown into the old wicker coffer. However, we had many more packages to carry back home, baskets with fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs – also a healthy tan from being outdoors all summer long. Father came to take us home, bringing gifts for all the members in the farmer’s family. The carriage was being loaded, we said goodbye over and over, reluctant to leave. Even the old dog got hugs from us. The children were running along the carriage as long as they could keep up with the horses, waving goodbye.
©2002, Manya Friedman. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.