Telling our family stories: The night the soldiers came

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I’m currently teaching a creative writing program through the lens of family stories. This week, the students are tasked with bringing in a family heirloom to inspire their weekly writing. Personally, I use a lot of objects to invigorate my own writing process. Of course, I normally write about dragons and other creatures of enchantment, so I have to build most of my objects. However, there are many objects in my family handed down from my paternal grandfather . . . and so I’ve written a short piece below about my memories of my grandfather’s “cabinet of curiosities”—otherwise known as his workshop.

* * *

I remember my grandfather’s workshop vividly. It was a tiny room sequestered in the basement of his and my grandmother’s house, down the stairs, around the corner, at the end of the hallway, as if the rest of the house might have been ashamed of it or at the very least wanted to keep it a secret.

The room itself was immaculately organized. My grandfather was a fastidious man and he did not tolerate clutter or disarray. Every tool and piece of equipment had its place, tucked away in a clearly labeled drawer or hanging on its rightful peg, sometimes with a forensic outline to mark its absence while in use. I’m pretty sure my grandfather knew every splice of leather, every knob of wood, every hinge of metal that occupied that workshop. The central piece of the workshop—the altar, if you will—was the Singer sewing machine, a beautiful relic from his time as a cobbler.

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My grandfather’s Singer machine is in good hands—and in good use, by my industrious brother. He inherited not only the machine, but many of my grandfather’s talents. 
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My brother keeps a cabinet of tools (some of them also inherited from my grandfather) above the Singer machine. 

The dominate color in the shop was a peculiar turquoise green color. My grandfather used this color for everything: the handles of his tools, the trim of his workshop counters, the marvellous wooden barn he built for me when I was six or seven.

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My grandfather’s signature color on full display in this homemade broom. He grew the broom grass in his back garden.

I never actually witnessed my grandfather at work in his shop. I think time spent there was a holy occupation for him, perhaps in evenings after dinner or on a Sunday morning before church. But I can imagine him tinkering away there—gracefully, methodically, magically.

Yes, that workshop was like an enchanted place to me. My grandfather was a creator of found-object art, long before that term was ever coined. He threw nothing away—or let others do so either. Each item he salvaged would be cannibalized and transformed into some new garden tool or household implement, or perhaps a strange trinket or toy. He’d cut an old cottage cheese container into pieces and use the plastic flaps to make a windmill to frighten away the birds from his vegetable rows. Or an old gourd from the garden would become a musical instrument for his grandchildren to play. The workshop was a place where broken things were mended, where abandoned objects received salvation.

For my grandfather the workshop might have been a sanctuary, but for me it was a place of stories. Each of the objects residing there had something to tell. You could walk in, pick up an item (if you dared to disturb that pious place) and see when it was made and what year. That was my grandfather for you. He was a recorder; he wrote or engraved names, dates, and places on everything. Some of the things in that workshop had come with him all the way from the old country.

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A brush that made it all the way from the old country to Canada.

Other items were like the Singer machine, remnants from his various careers: shaving brush from when he was a barber, awls from when he was a cobbler, notepads from when he ran his billiards hall and other businesses. The notebooks were written in Hungarian, English, or German—or sometimes a combination of all three!

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A notebook with my grandfather’s writing, recording his purchases for his shoe repair business.
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A small tool from my grandfather’s days as a cobbler.

 

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Another cobbling tool.

 

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From my grandfather’s days as a barber.
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My grandfather with my grandmother and their first three children, standing outside of the barbershop and pool hall he ran in McLean, Saskatchewan (circa 1939).

Sometimes the stories in this place were not told by the objects, but by my grandfather himself. Every Sunday I would go to church with my grandparents and, afterwards, for a good old-fashioned European lunch. While my grandma prepared cabbage rolls, roast ham, or duck, my brother and I would gravitate down to the basement to listen in wonder as my grandfather regaled us with tales of his life.

The story I inevitably think of first is about the night the soldiers came to his hometown of Farkasgyepű, near the end of the Great War. My grandfather was just a kid—he would not have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time, though I must confess I don’t know exactly how old he was and, as a child myself, I never had the sense to ask for clarification.

So I don’t know the exact date or even time of year or day when the soldiers came. Just that they came, their intention to round up every man or boy who could hold a gun—or a pitchfork—and to enlist them for the war effort. When I imagine this scene now, it’s raining. Not a torrential rain, but drizzling down, slow and steady, methodically and machine like. Dull. Relentless. A harbinger for things to come.

The soldiers rounded up everyone in the village, assembling them for inspection and registration. If you were fit for service, you were pinned with some sort of ribbon or badge. My grandfather knew what was coming, the fate that was being presented to him and the other men. When the soldiers addressed my grandfather, he feigned deafness and affected a slight limp. He did not receive a ribbon. He was not loaded up on the trucks and carted away to be sacrificed to a doomed war effort.

As my grandfather tells it, everyone who was taken away that day did not come back. So he survived, the war came to an end, and my grandfather toiled away for another few years before finally deciding he needed to find a better life. At the age of twenty-six, he set off by himself to cross the Atlantic and immigrate to Canada. He had a suitcase of Hungarian money (which turned out to be mostly worthless) and a few keepsakes. He set up a humble life in Canada, started a family, and never returned to Europe.

Sometimes I ponder that story of the soldiers coming to Farkasgyepű and wonder if my grandfather was a coward or just extremely clever. I guess sometimes the line between the two is blurred. The hard fact of the matter is that he survived—while others did not.

The truth is, I can’t see my grandfather as a soldier. Sometimes I think the mere act of enlisting might have killed him. Reminiscing about his workshop reminds me that he was a maker and repairer of things—not a destroyer. On that miserable day in Farkasgyepű, at the end of the Great War, he might have fashioned the most important thing of all: his destiny.

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The book my grandfather was given for immigrating to Canada from Hungary. The title translates as “Canada in a Nutshell.”
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Interior pages of my grandfather’s “Canada in a Nutshell” book, showing details of my his immigration.
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Interior pages of my grandfather’s “Canada in a Nutshell” book.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Telling our family stories: The night the soldiers came

  1. Oh, how I love stories like this. I would say your grandfather was very clever and very brave. He was doing what was best for his future family. I come from a similar background, except my great grandparents came to the prairies in 1911, having the wisdom to see what was coming. My grandfather was about 8 at the time. Thanks for sharing this.

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