Friday, May 13, 2016

A Century's Worth of Living (Part 4)

copyright: Ata Kando


When I was six, I went on a hunger strike. I don't exactly remember what I was protesting, but it was one of the few weapons I had in my six-year old arsenal to protest the injustices that were done to me. I am a twin and my mother had the habit of always buying two of the same things; two identical dresses, two identical coats, two identical haircuts, so I was probably protesting my mother's decision to give the red one of two new dresses to my sister, which left me with the yellow one.

If you are not a twin, you cannot possibly know how much competition is involved. The thought of my sister in that red dress and me next to her looking like a canary was too much. The only way I could feel somewhat in control of my fate, was to stop eating. My sister’s far more effective strategy to get what she wanted, was to cry. Not just a sad little girly cry but a wolf cub howling kind of cry. Something told me that if we both adopted the howling strategy, it would backfire. Besides, I was the ‘quiet’ one, the ‘shy’ one. I just didn’t have it in me to howl. I preferred the passive aggressive approach. Not eat, give people the silent treatment, get them to guess what was wrong with poor Madeleine.

Our neighbors had invited us to a piano recital by their daughter Monique. She was a few years older than I with a lot of brothers and sisters, always going in and out of the many rooms in her big house. I envied Monique; her siblings were all different sizes, so she didn’t have to share her shoes or dresses. I concluded that she might not even notice if I took her brand new black lacquered shoes home with me one day. Bring those back NOW and apologize, said Ata. I left them on the steps to Monique’s front door and ran back home, apologizing profusely in my head.

Back to the recital: After a long applause, little trays with refreshments were passed around and this is when I took revenge. I refused the food offered to me, vigorously shaking my head at the tray, casting a sideward glance at my mother to see if she was watching.

But of course my protest went completely unnoticed. Although my mother secretly looked down on those anemic looking finger sandwiches, the war had taught her that only an idiot would purposefully refuse free food.

At home, we had very little money to spend on meals. For lunch we often ate a slice of French baguette covered with lard and raw onion, or just a piece of dark chocolate wedged between the crust. Ata often made 'soupe pas poignon', a pun on 'soupe a l'oignon'; a tinge of bay leaf, a little sour cream, potatoes and onions, and voila, she had just fed a family of four for less than 10 francs. Did we fight over food? You bet we did. The first one at the table grabbed the biggest potato, we licked our plates clean, we smacked and slurped, we were kids and we were hungry. On one of the rare occasions that we had desert, I kept my slice wrapped in a napkin and hid it under the bed, for later. My sister Juliette howled and told on me, Ata said I was an idiot for attracting mice and that was the end of my desert.

To make up for our lack of food, we became avid collectors. We collected things that kids our age could get their hands on for free: ink blotters that were used as advertisement for all sorts of products, camembert labels and pencils. The perfectly circular shape of the camembert labels were beautifully illustrated. All our friends were collectors, but my brother Tom was the master collector. He was our dealer. He traded pencils and duplicate labels for 'rare' blotters, until we had a suitcase full of 'supplies'. Each October, when it was time for 'la rentree', when school started, we could trade at our heart's content.

We called my mother ‘Ata’ and not ‘mom’ or ‘maman’. Nobody else called her mom, so why should we? ‘Ata is in the dark room, Ata cannot come to the phone right now, let’s ask Ata’. After my father went back to Hungary because he couldn't find any work in Paris and got stuck behind the Iron Curtain, our mother had to function both as a mom and a dad, so from then on it made extra sense to call her Ata.

Once we had only one parent, the race for Ata’s attention was on. My brother Tom, the first born, the boy, had first bids of course. We called him ‘Le chouchou’ (the pet). He called us ‘les filles’, the girls. ‘Les filles doivent faire pipi’, the girls have to pee, as if we were a Siamese twin with one bladder. Les filles didn’t do the dishes. Les filles m’emmerdent, the girls are a pain in the ass. It didn’t help that most people couldn’t tell us apart, we were dressed the same, we both had ponytails and we both missed most of our teeth.

In the summer, we went from being 'les filles' and 'le chouchou', to ‘L’√©quipe a Toto’, the ‘gang’. ‘Let’s go get them, gang’ Ata said, as we stood on the side of the road, hitchhiking to the south of France. Like a platoon sergeant, Ata knew how to breathe courage in her troops. It was US, ‘the gang’, versus THEM, whoever would give us a ride.

Ata created a sub-world for us, a world where we felt special despite being poor and not being French, which was a bigger handicap than being poor. She gave us an incredibly powerful identity. ‘Les filles’, ‘L’equipe a Toto’, ‘Les gosses’, whatever she called us, we were her loyal followers and although we regularly fought amongst ourselves, we were devoted to each other. We had a family 'whistle', we gave each other nicknames. ‘Mado’, ‘Julo’, 'Toma'. We looked out for each other. I got pulled by my hair once, tossed back and forth like a rag doll by a bigger girl. Juliette came to my defense, kicking and scratching. Tom told us stories about dragons and damsels in distress, pirates and treasure islands. He made us feel protected, he was our 'big brother' and I, for one looked up to him, like a wizard who knew things that us younger mortals were not ready for. We truly were a 'gang', all for one and one for all.

To be continued...  leave comment here