The gentle man
My grandfather, Paczona István, had been in the First World War. A large portrait of him hung on the wall of my grandparents’ bedroom. He looked very smart in his uniform standing on a bear skin rug with the mouth of the bear wide open.
As a young man, he had travelled from Hungary to other parts of Europe. He brought back exotic perfumes and jewelry all tucked away in secret places of their large wardrobe. He also brought back a painting of the Madonna and Child. This painting was unframed yet regal in its simplicity. Mary’s features were exquisite and the Child’s face was round with gentle blue eyes that followed you to every corner of the room.
My grandfather was a shoemaker. He had a house in the village with a fenced in yard for chickens, ducks, geese, a mean rooster and black pigs. On the other side of the fence, in front of the main part of the house, was a large vegetable and flower garden with purple violets. My mother and I lived with my grandparents in this house.
He owned land outside the village where the fields were. Some of his relatives lived in houses beside the fields. Just past the fields were the thatched-roof houses where the Gypsies lived. My grandfather knew the names of some of the Gypsies.
Sometimes he would take me with him in a horse drawn cart, to inspect or gather his crop. When he went to see the corn field, he would let me run between the rows of tall stalks which seemed to me like a forest. If he was checking the round watermelons, he would always carve out a perfect square from the middle of the dark, green rind and pull out the red flesh with his jackknife. That would be my test piece and he would want me to describe to him its level of sweetness. In the early fall, we would be sampling the grapes which would eventually become wine.
After the harvest, he always hosted a corn husking party, to which many people from the village would be invited. There was always singing and story-telling, and no one had to go to bed early. Once the snow had fallen and it was cold, he would again invite neighbours for the slaughter of the sow. I was never allowed to be there until it was time to cook up some of the newly made sausages. Everyone would devour these with kasha, outdoors in front of the open fire.
Sometimes the neighbours had parties or even held a play on a make-shift stage. A laughing clown from the production had picked me up and swung me in the air. It had been my grandfather. Another time, he had dressed up as St. Nicholas and tapped on the kitchen window to let me know that he was filling my little shoe with goodies and not coal. Of course, I was not meant to know that this person was my grandfather.
On Saturday evenings he would put on his best suit, his bowler hat and with his walking cane in hand, he would stroll to the local pub. Before my father had been taken to prison, the two of them used to go out together.
My grandfather had many friends. He respected other people. When no one would hire the Gypsies because it was said that they would steal things, my grandfather always gave them work.
He was dedicated to my grandmother Lidia, and she to him. My grandmother was very frugal and never bought herself anything. One day he insisted that it was time she went to the store and picked out some fabrics for new dresses. She finally agreed to do that. As she was going out the door, he reminded her to make sure she would not buy anything that was black. He said she was far too young to be always wearing dark colours.
That September morning, he was in charge of me. A friend of his dropped by and stayed for a while. After he left, my grandfather and I played some games. He pretended that he was a horse and he let me ride on his back. Then he made me a snack, chopping up small strips of bread that he topped with the same size bacon. He lined them up and with a twinkle in his blue eyes, he told me that they were little soldiers. He would first give me a soldier to eat; then he would have one, and so on.
My grandmother later explained that she had gone to the store with plans to buy pretty fabrics for herself. At the last moment, a strange feeling raced through her. She handed the black fabric to the clerk. She knew she had to rush home. Immediately. When she opened the door of the winter kitchen, she was relieved that the two of us were chatting and laughing.
She walked into the room where my grandfather and I had spent the morning together, cozy beside the wood-burning stove. He asked to see what she had bought. He had just placed one of his soldiers into his mouth. My grandmother pulled out the black material from its wrapping.
“Oh, no! You purchased black.” He uttered these last words, then fell back on the day bed and died.
My grandfather’s wake was in the front room. His coffin had been placed under the painting of the Madonna and Child. Someone lifted me up to say good-bye to him. His hands were folded in prayer over his chest. I said I did not want to wake him up because he was sleeping. As I was led out of the room I turned around and saw the Child smile at me with eyes that haunt me still. I was five years old when my grandfather died. I have only lovely memories of this gentle man.
From my book “Echoes of Footsteps”