by Tom Kando
I was born in Budapest, but we fled from Hungary to France two years after the war. I was seven then, my sisters were five. We were refugees and our life in Paris was difficult. My parents couldn’t find jobs. Soon my father went back to Hungary, reasoning that he would be better off living under Communism with a job than under Capitalism without one. That was the last we saw of him.
My mother did finally find a job working in a photo lab on the Boulevard Saint Germain, in the 6th arrondissement. She had to be at the lab from early morning to eight at night. She had a nearly two-hour long commute each way, combining a long walk, then a bus, then twenty-five subway stops.
We didn’t see much of our mother during those years. Sometimes she paid for a horrid, witch-like care-taker (with an ugly mustache). We also spent time in cheap boarding houses. At times, we simply took care of ourselves, feeding ourselves and putting ourselves to bed. My mother would get home well after ten. How well I remember her gentle good-night kiss, how happy it made me, even as it woke me up.
The problem was most acute when school was out. What was she to do with us during the three long summer months every year? She had to put bread on the table, did she not?
So, she did what many other Parisian professionals did at that time. She sent us to a farm some fifty miles outside the city. We spent the three summer months there, fed and housed by the farmer family, in exchange for payment of course, as well as a good amount of child labor. We did this several consecutive summers. I remember the name of the hamlet - Flexanville - and that of the farmer and his wife: Monsieur and Madame Ismer. My mother came to see us every other Sunday or so.
Lest you think that this was a form of child neglect, it was not. The practice was common. We were not the only children in the care of Monsieur and Madame Ismer. Other single parents working in the big city also dropped their children off for the summer. For example, an Air France flight attendant (gorgeous, in my child’s mind’s recollection) left her six-year old daughter Babette there. And there were others.
The Ismers also had a crop of their own children. Their son Mark was the leader of the pack. When we first got there, I was eight and he was probably three years older. The bullying started immediately.
For one thing, the three of us spoke a villainous-sounding gibberish - Hungarian. The other kids would have none of it. The mocking and teasing were relentless. Survival required me to switch to French immediately. When my mother came to visit after a few weeks, I refused to answer her in Hungarian, I was too ashamed of my native tongue.
Tough boys played around me but not with me. Mark was big and strong. Did he beat me up? Only a little. He wore his hair in a crew cut (“à l’Américaine”) and then I did too. Did they like me better now? I was still afraid.
Another few weeks passed before my mother’s next visit. By then, not only had I stopped using Hungarian altogether, but I had totally forgotten it. It was deleted, wiped out, gone forever from my brain. At the age of eight, I had written some beautiful little pieces in that language; I still have these. But I cannot understand them.
How well I remember these long, red-hot summers in the French countryside. My childhood, in another century. The farm, the fields.
The Ismers owned the farm and also Flexanville’s flour mill. I can still see the flour powder all over the floor of the mill. Monsieur Ismer was the town’s balding, frizzy-haired miller. He and his wife were hard task-masters. The ugly wife screeched incomprehensible French. Were we the slave-children?
We went out into the wheat fields to collect the straw left over after the wheat had been harvested. We also picked the cherries and plums from the trees, making sure to put the rotten ones into the aquavit vat in the barn. Monsieur Ismer promised to beat anyone he saw throwing away any fruit.
One day some of us, sweltering, drank from a dirty water pipe. Monsieur Ismer blasted us in no uncertain terms and swore that he would beat the hell out of anyone who ever drank from that source again - didn’t we understand that this water was full of shit and that we could catch poliomyelitis?
But we also played. In addition to the usual play - cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, soccer - we also held pissing contests. Who could piss the furthest? This game was illicit of course, and we hid behind the barn to play it. Curiously, it was often a girl who won.
One early morning, six-year old Babette stepped on a lovely little furry multicolored duckling. The duckling’s intestines burst out of her tiny feathery belly. Babette hid the oozing duckling under a bed, where it lived on silently, breathed laboriously and died slowly. Madame Ismer discovered the body and beat the hell out of Babette. Pretty little Babette cried silently for a long time. And so did I, but were my tears for Babette or for the duckling?
Babette's mother was the beautiful Air France stewardess. She worked in Paris, the city of lights! So beautiful, I thought! Tall, blonde, regal, with deep blue eyes (I am in love with the memory). I even remember her white lace shirt....
But the most vivid memories are about my mother leaving, my heart sinking and my tears welling up on those late Sunday afternoons, as her departure approached.....
© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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Wednesday, May 10, 2017
by Tom Kando