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Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Except Uncle John." Blogging a Broken Heart. Chapter Zero.

A field of rye. Source
Slovakia. Source
Slovakia source
I was a little kid alone in an empty house with a big, hard, strange man. I was scared.

I was scared because I knew that no matter what I did, it would be wrong.

If I looked at the man, they would scream at me. "You stupid fat bitch! How dare you look at him! Do you want to make him feel uncomfortable? Stupid fat worthless bitch."

If I didn't look at him, they would scream at me. "You worthless piece of garbage! You didn't even look at him! You made him feel horrible!"

If I talked to him, they would scream at me, "He doesn't even understand English you stupid fat bitch! You are so worthless!"

No matter what I did, it would be wrong.

I was frozen in fear. I was frozen in fear most of the time. Because no matter what I did, it would be wrong, and they would beat me. My mother, my father, my four older brothers, my older sister, nuns. Bang bang bang. Bruises all over, inside and out. Because I was so bad and everything I did was wrong.

Hard, stringy muscles bulged from his white t-shirt, no fat. His facial expression was unlike anything I had ever seen on an American. Do we even have a word for it? Not angry, not sad – severe. He had plainly never smiled. Never. Ever. Not a single smile.

We were alone, in a quiet empty house.

My father was wherever my father ever was. Work or golfing or something that would be discussed only in whispers or screams.

My mother was working. Always, always, always, working. Middle of the night. Cleaning offices. Six o'clock in the morning. Factory. Middle of the day. Cleaning some rich woman's house. Always working.

Oh, gosh. Mommy left for work, left the man here, left him without feeding him breakfast!

He must be hungry.

He is strange. He is foreign. He is alien. He even smells different! He comes from a village. Mommy's village. They don't have electricity there. Or do they? Running water? Stoves? Refrigerators? Does he cook on an open fire? Does he shoot his own deer for breakfast?

BANG BANG BANG. He is hammering nails! Carpentry! He is fixing the house! On an empty stomach! Because Mommy left for work and he has not been fed and he doesn't recognize the refrigerator as an appliance stocked with food!

Oh, gosh. I've got to feed him something. Even if everything I do is wrong. Even if they beat me later.

I stand up on shaky legs and go into the kitchen.

What do they like? They. We. Am I one of them or not? When the nuns make fun of my name in school, I feel like I am one of them. Right now, with this foreigner in my house, I am an American.

Rye bread. Ham. Eggs. A pickle. That's what they like. That's what we like. I can do that.

I have been taught to cook. Cooking is the one thing I don't do wrong.

I arrange it on a plate so it looks nice.

Terrified, I step towards the porch, where the man is hammering nails.

What will I say? I can't say anything. I can't do anything right and I can't speak my mother's language. But I can't let this man go hungry.

I make some noises in my throat.

The pale, scary, severe man turns around to face me and my fear and the plate of food I just cooked, and made look nice, just for him. His cheekbones ride high. His cheeks sink. Lank grey hair is pushed back from his brow. His blue eyes glitter in an almost geologic, inhuman way, as if they were signaling glaciers, their distant kin.

Our eyes meet.

And that was all it took.


I remember that exact moment as if it were a crisp photograph nestled in the folds of my brain. I remember that exact moment my eyes met Uncle John's eyes. I have loved him ever since with my entire heart.

"Except for Uncle John." I've been alone all my life. "Except for Uncle John."


My mother was born in Czechoslovakia, a country that no longer exists.

I just asked my Facebook friends, most of whom are American, "How many of you have a parent who was born in a country that no longer exists?"

Magdalena Paśnikowska, whom I had thought of as Polish, revealed that both she and her mother had been born in Czechoslovakia.

Having a parent born in a country that no longer exists can inform the sensitive soul that history does violence, and that security is a temporary illusion. The forces that made and broke my mother's beloved homeland, a homeland she missed till the day she died (I played fujara music for her as she died) those forces were cataclysmic: World War I, Versailles, World War II, Soviet occupation, the fall of the Soviet Empire. Ezekiel's God raised life from old bones: "Czechoslovakia, Arise!" Within one person's lifetime, Czechoslovakia erased.

I sometimes feel a barrier between myself and my American friends, friends whose parents were lucky enough to be born in countries that still exist. I want to teach them this one way that the world can be cruel. It can vaporize something as solid as your homeland.

When my mother and I flew into Czechoslovakia for her first visit home since she had left as a child, as the plane descended into legendarily beautiful Praha – Prague – she rhapsodized. She was so proud. But Prague is not my mother's capital city any more.


Uncle John came to visit our family in America when I was a kid. It was the 1970s. He came for a few weeks. He came alone.

I was told wild stories about Uncle John.

I didn't understand my mother's language very well in those days. I knew a few words. Years later I would spend a year in Poland and learn Polish, which is roughly mutually intelligible with Slovak.

When I was a child, though, I didn't understand, so I had to accept what I was told. I report it now, hoping I am not slandering my Uncle.

I was told that Uncle John had killed a man. Uncle John was guarding the village's grain, I was told, and someone had come to steal it, and Uncle John shot him dead. There was a trial, and Uncle John was found guilty and sent to prison.

More. Uncle John had grown tired of his wife, a traditional Slovak woman who wore only black, including a black apron and a black babushka. And she was skinny. My mother translated Uncle John as saying, "I want a fat woman who wears colorful clothes," and so he took up with Jolana, who was indeed fat, and did wear colorful clothes. She was a midwife and a witch. She would cure me of evil eye, God bless her.

My mother was uncomfortable with the witch part. Mommy complained more about the magic than about Uncle John leaving his lawfully wedded wife and living in sin. My mother was a village woman who had emigrated to America. The Hasterman, the water sprite who kidnapped children who wondered too close to the River Nitra at night, and the churching, not going out after giving birth until one had been churched, and all the other village beliefs really bugged my mom. That's what she said in English, anyway. Who knows what she said in Slovak. Perhaps the Slovak version of "Abracadabra."

After Uncle John left his skinny wife who wore all black, his sons ambushed him and beat him till they thought he was dead. He wasn't dead, but he was in the hospital for quite a long time.

Uncle John was a Communist. I asked him why. "When I was a child, hospitals and doctors were only for the grofs and the rich. A peasant could not go to a hospital. A peasant got sick and died. Today, peasants can not only go to hospitals, they can go to health spas like Piešťany. That's thanks to the Communist Party."

At a more feverish moment, Uncle John would tell us that he was a communist because one day a man stood up in the village bar and said, "Slovak som a Slovak budem." "I was born a Slovak and I will die a Slovak." And that man disappeared and was never heard from again.

And, in a village that was one hundred percent devoutly Catholic, Uncle John denounced priests as "blazons," fools, and insisted that there was no God.

Uncle John was a bit of a badass.

The best Slovaks always are.

My mother told me that the fujara players wore half shirts that exposed their midriffs because the Hungarian bastard oppressors accused the Slovak serfs of smuggling stolen loaves of bread in their shirts. The Slovaks, in defiance, cut off the cloth to reveal their flat, empty stomachs.

Hunger, theft, defiance, music: our history.

I don't know if this story is true. I don't know if any of this is true.


We were a family of modest means. We had not seen, and would never see, the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, not even the Pine Barrens in our own state.

Uncle John had performed something of a miracle. A subsistence farmer and beekeeper, he had gotten together the money, and, in a post-Prague-Spring Soviet prisoner nation, received permission to visit America.

Where we could take him?

The Bronx Zoo, my father suggested.

"No, no," I pleaded. "I don't want to see animals in cages. Let's go to the Museum of Natural History!"

"Sure," they said. "That's what we'll do." So we all packed into the car and ended up at the Bronx Zoo. I cried. My father said, "John is a mountain man. He doesn't want to look at stuffed, dead animals." My father was right.

Daddy always called Uncle John a mountain man. Uncle John walked like a mountain man, Daddy said. I don't know about that, but I know that he pronated, and I do, too. We both wore our shoes down in the same asymmetrical way – from the inside of the heel out.

We also took Uncle John to a lake. I don't remember if it was Shepherd Lake or the lake at Bear Mountain. I remember that during that trip Uncle John took up a bee by its wings and talked to me about bees. He was never stung, and the bee escaped unscathed. I was amazed. Uncle John may have actually smiled.

And then Uncle John had to go back to Czechoslovakia, and I was very sad.


A few years later, my mother said to me one day, completely from left field, "I am taking you to Czechoslovakia for three weeks."

I was exploded with joy.

I remember the view of Praha from the plane, and my mother so proud that the capital of her country was one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

I remember a communist functionary in a caged booth giving my mother a hard time and she, flustered, exclaiming, "Jesus Maria i Svaty Jozef!"

The clerk threatened my mother, "Ja te dam 'Jesus Maria I Svaty Jozef'" – "I'll give you Jesus Mary and Joseph!" Wow, we were in a country where people in power could answer back to my mother in Slovak.

Uncle John picked us up. I was still scared of him. I'm scared of him now. I know he will welcome me to Heaven, and I'll be scared of him then.

Uncle John had a Škoda. That he had a car at all was pretty remarkable. Others in the village didn't have one. His house didn't have an indoor toilet till we arrived; he installed it for us.

The car's shell was made out of the same flimsy material used for cookie tins. It was propelled by a large rubber band being wound up and then released – my best guess at Soviet era mechanics. Uncle John carried a complete tool kit. We regularly stopped for repairs. Once we arrived in a city in the mountains just because, luckily enough, the car had died at the height of a pass. We coasted into town.

I was with Uncle John, in his little home, on his little plot of land, for three weeks.

With him I donned gloves and gathered nettles by the side of the road, with him I fed his pigs, rabbits, and chickens. We went to Piešťany and Topoľčany.

Three weeks were drawing to a close.

Uncle John and my mother had a talk. A tense talk. Loud. Important.

"He wants you," she said. "He wants you to live here in Slovakia with him. He says he will send you to a very good school, everything covered."

My heart beat fast.

"I said no," she said.

I wish my life had ended right then. I wish some superhero could turn the earth, turn back time, and … what?

I would never have been brave enough to defy my mother. Uncle John would not defy her. Who could have rescued this moment?

My mother hated me. I would devote hundreds of hours over the coming years to trying to overcome having a mother who hated me.

Here was a man, Uncle John, who loved me, and whom I loved. I loved Slovakia. I loved the rabbits and the chickens, the honeybees and the storks on rooftops. I loved the old women in black who constantly hugged me and made me drink slivovice and eat gooseberries and told me sad stories I couldn't begin to understand except for a few stray words: "Your grandmother sang beautifully … Nazis … Russians … war … Jesus and Mary … eat!"

Uncle John wanted to send me to a good school. An education. I craved this.

Why did she keep a daughter that she hated so much? Oh, that was it. My mother hated me so much that she kept me with her in order to keep me from love. 

Fujara player with midriff-baring shirt. Source
Six years later. I am no longer a little girl, though I am still scared most of the time, convinced I am monstrously fat and do everything wrong. I was sitting in my large, post-French-colonial house in Africa, taking a break from planning lessons, reading a letter from my mother.

Through these letters that she sends me in Africa, and, then, in Asia, I meet a different woman. This is one of the best writers I have ever read. She is whip smart and witty as Mark Twain, as Dorothy Parker. She is actually also compassionate. Who is this woman? I not only love, I admire her.

She begins the next sentence this way, "When you read this, do not cry or grieve. I have received news from the village. Uncle John is…"

I begin screaming. Alone, in this big, African house.

Later I wake from a nightmare. I am pounding on the wall, screaming and crying. Bruno, my lover, tries to calm me down. He can't. I just keep repeating, "Uncle John! Uncle John!"


I have this.

This is something everyone on planet Earth seeks. It is that feeling that you are in the right place, no other place. You occupy the exact right time, no other time. You are with the very best person on the planet you could ever possibly be with, no other person. Everything that needs to be said is being sad, no other words. Strangely enough, I have this with someone with whom I cannot converse. He speaks no English. I know only a word or two of Slovak.

It is summer. The sky is blue. The clouds are white. The sun is gold. The road beneath us is dirt.

A man is walking up ahead of me. He has survived the bastard Hungarians, and the lowlife Austrians. He has survived World War I and the Depression in this village, where hunger was real. He has survived the Nazis. He has survived the Soviets. He has survived.

He is dressed in plain, black clothes. Black slacks. White shirt. Black jacket. His black shoes are worn down on the insides.

To our right is a field of rye. It moves with the wind as do ocean waves. It hypnotizes. Red poppies, white daisies and blue chicory fringe the road and the field. Clouds of butterflies play above the blossoms. The rye is strangely blue.

I am following this man up into his mountains. That's where he keeps his hives. It's the season when the queens try to escape. Wearing only a fedora as protection, he will climb a slender sapling, stick his bare hand into a swarm of bees, find the queen, grasp her, and bring her back, bringing all the other bees with her. He will save the day.

After that, we will walk this same dirt road back to the cottage. Jolana will kill a chicken and make knedliki and we will eat, and then sleep.

But that's later, this evening. For now I am just doing just this. I am following this man on a dirt road. And this – not when I publish my book, not when I see the Taj Mahal, not when I win a large sum of cash – this is the perfect moment of my life, which nothing can take away.

Uncle John. Far Left. 
A field of rye. Source


  1. Thank you for this beautifully written piece, Danusha. Love and real human connection...the kind that stops time. I love hearing stories like this.

    1. Kim, thank you very much for reading and commenting.

  2. Lovely post.

    You wrote, "Having a parent born in a country that no longer exists can inform the sensitive soul that history does violence, and that security is a temporary illusion."

    This made me think of the look of disbelief I've seen on the faces of people from places like Lwow or Stryj when reminded that their town or city is now in the Ukraine.

    1. Liron, thank you and bless you for reading.

  3. such a wonderful tribute - if only we could all have an Uncle John

    1. Gemma thank you so much for reading and commenting. Happy New Year!