The Trip that Was...and Wasn't

Alice Burnett

© Copyright 2021 by 
Alice Burnett

Alice's drawing of her brother.
              Her brother, drawn by the author.  

“Alice, a white skirt would be nice to travel in on the plane!” said my mother.To my eyes, a white pleated skirt was the height of fashion, and I was thrilled. Most of my clothes had been hand-me-downs lately, and I hadn't minded, but I had just turned thirteen, and fashion began to matter. “And I'll wear my good suit.” My mother was all atwitter, and wasn't thinking clearly about the practicality of such outfits. That's just how people travelled in those days, the early sixties.
Our whole family was planning a major trip to Czechoslovakia during the summer. My parents were from that country, and hadn't seen their families for 15 years. Applications to have Babička, my grandmother, visit in Canada for several months had been repeatedly rejected.

“You know, Jaruško, we could go home instead,” my father remarked, calling my mother by her special name. “That would be even better. The children could meet all our relatives, not just Babička.” A trip like this was a huge undertaking, and the decision to go wasn't made lightly, but my parents lived frugally, and were able to save up for it ahead of time. This trip was a big deal! No wonder my mother was excited. My younger brother, Eddie and I were super excited! We'd never travelled by plane before.

The white skirt, however, never materialized, much to my disappointment. It was deemed unpractical, as we decided to travel across Canada by train, some 4,000 kilometres, from the coast of British Columbia all the way to Montreal. That was the economical way. Only then, after four days of monotonous travel, would we board the plane to Europe.

We arrived in Montreal already rather rumpled and travel-weary. I'd had a cold and cough six weeks earlier, and had found it hard to get used to the clickety-clack and the bumping and lurching of the train at night. Our tiredness fell away, though, as we landed at the old -fashioned airport in Prague, Czechoslovakia. My mother, and Babička fell into each other's arms. Happy tears flowed. We were all swept up in great hugs from a contingent of female relatives.

“It's so good to see you! Look at the children! They're so tall!” the relatives exclaimed over and over, as they gazed at my brother and me. Ten-year-old Eddie and I understood Czech well enough. We'd heard it all our lives, spoken in our home. We would lazily answer our parents in English. Now we had to refine our speaking skills.

Prague, that noble city, was a lot different from our small mill town back home. We stayed at the ancient apartment of an old friend of my parents. A whirlwind of sightseeing, theatre performances, and late nights ensued. And with the adults, talk, talk, and more talk, catching up on the years when visits had been denied, and quietly discussing the effects of the Communist takeover on my parents' homeland.
A few days later, we boarded another train for the three-hour trip to my mother's birthplace. From the train station in Sušice, my uncle pulled a cart with our luggage for the short walk to the imposing old house, My grandfather, now gone, had been a professional photographer, and was able to buy the house, even paying off the mortgage, with the money he'd saved during the First World War, when business had boomed.

I was glad to finally meet my aunt and uncle, and our cousins. Irena and her brother, Jara, who were only slightly younger than my brother and me, were already asleep in bed. When we arrived, the commotion woke Irena. Wide-eyed, she sat up, and greeted us in Czech . “Ahoj, ahoj!” We had heard so much about our cousins through the many letters my mother exchanged with her family. Now we were here, together, in the flesh, and it took us a while to calm down. I was already overtired from protracted days of travel, and was relieved when we were finally shown the bedroom where we were to sleep. I fell into a deep sleep, and wasn't bothered by Eddie's constant kicking during the night, as we shared a pull-out sofa bed.

Morning came early. No one was allowed to sleep in. That was the European way. The following night, we were sternly told, “You can talk quietly among yourselves after you go to bed, but no walking around from bed to bed. Cousin Irena had a lively imagination, though, and invented a green monster, who left letters in the adjoining bedroom. Since she was the only one who could write the monster's language, she wrote the letters. Tip-toeing across the room, we slipped the letters onto our parents' night table. Forgetting the rules, we cavorted about, long after we were supposed to be asleep. “Here, Eddie, draw a picture of Zelena Přišera, the Green Monster,” instructed Irena. Her pencil flew across the room, landing with a loud clatter behind the sofa-bed. We tried to smother our giggles, but the noise brought Babička to the door.

“Get to sleep, you children!” she scolded. “It's late.” How could we sleep in such an atmosphere of fun? I had never had to share a bed with my brother before, who flailed about at night, shifting the covers to his side of the bed.

A full week of excursions began, mostly walks to viewpoints on the low, forested hills surrounding Susice. What fun to share these outings with cousins!

In between walks in the hills, Eddie and I played in the back yard with Irena and Jara. Neighbourhood children wandered in and out. My grandfather had planted fruit trees—cherry, apple, and pears, and shrubs—gooseberries, and red and black currants. All of these trees and bushes were almost as old as our mothers, as my grandfather had planted them soon after he bought the house, when our mothers were very young.

A favourite game we played was what we recognized as Old Maid. It was simple enough to follow in another language, and soon we were calling back and forth, asking each other for the particular cards we needed to make up pairs. Cards slapped the old wooden table as we triumphantly watched our own piles grow. Irena, the spitfire among us, was the loudest and most excited, keeping us in line if she didn't think we were playing strictly according to the rules.
I, on the other hand, began to feel draggy after a while. It became too much effort to decide which card I needed in my hand. Card games weren't really my favourite; I would rather do something creative, like building little houses in the dirt out of matchsticks and small pebbles. I began to yawn drowsily in the warm summer air. The dappled shade made dizzying patterns on the table as the branches of the old cherry tree swayed back and forth. I was startled out of my reverie by Jara's shouting. “I won!” He jumped out of his seat, hands lifted high in the air.

Good. I've had enough, I thought. It was cooler inside the big old house. “I don't feel well,” I moaned. Stretching out on the couch bed in the kitchen, I promptly fell asleep. An hour later, I woke up, hot all over. “Let me take your temperature, said Babička. “Yes, you have a fever,” she announced, pulling the old-fashioned thermometer from my armpit. “Off to bed with you.” Teta Růža, my auntie, tucked me into bed. “Throw that sickness under the bed, and I'll vacuum it up!” she said cheerfully. I smiled feebly at her attempt at humour.

I slept soundly for the next few hours.

The next morning, I had to stay in bed. That was no fun. I still had a fever, though, and if you had a fever, you had to stay in bed. My mother piled on the peřiny, puffy feather quilts, in an effort to make me sweat, and break the fever. It didn't work.

Dr. Kopecky, who lived down the street, brought me some cough medicine. “Mmm. That tastes good,” I told him. The fever still didn't go down. Blood tests revealed I had pneumonia. Dr. Kopecky was back to give me a shot of penicillin. “Ouch!” I got more than one shot over the next week. “La, la, la, la, la!” I sang to myself to keep my mind off the sting. Later, I had to take my penicillin in the form of huge, flat pills. “They taste like dry clay!” I complained.

Doctor Kopecky promptly popped one into his mouth. “So they do!” he agreed.

Days went by.

That was the trip that was.

My father was eager to visit his family, eight hours away by train. He fully expected that we would all go together as a family, and began planning our trip. “Alice can't travel yet, you know,” said my grandmother bossily.

That is for us to decide!” my father protested loudly. Heated words flew back and forth, until my father stormed out of the room in anger. In that country, at that time, medical practices were different than ours in Canada. Communism had kept the country locked into old-fashioned ideas. Children were to lie in bed for days when they were sick; convalescence was drawn out and cautious. I felt much better, but travel was not even to be considered. My father was defeated.

My parents and brother left without me. My father was still bitter that I wasn't able to get acquainted with his side of the family. I didn't protest too much at being abandoned. Now that I felt better, I lapped up all the attention. My grandmother and aunt thought of ways to amuse me. I loved looking at the family photograph albums. My grandfather's beautiful portraits abounded, of my grandparents and parents when they got married, of my mother and aunt in various poses, as babies and children. “Who is this?” I would ask about each new face. I found out a lot about that side of the family.

When Teta borrowed a few books in English from the public library, I was delighted. I loved reading. Babička showed me how to knit a sweater for my faithful teddy, who had accompanied me, despite my new status as a teenager. I also liked to draw, impressing my cousins with my artwork. “Would you like to paint?” asked my auntie one day. Carefully covering the snow white sheets and peřina with a cloth, Teta brought me water colours so I could paint in bed. My grandmother didn't get her way this time, and I could hear her clucking disapproval. But I was in seventh heaven! Weeks went by. I even received postcards from Ostrava, my father's hometown. Eddie chuckled over the poem and letter I had sent him.

Finally, my parents and brother came back. Eddie peered around the doorway. He stuck out his tongue and flapped both hands wildly. I was so affected by this greeting, I drew a picture of Eddie in my diary.

I had survived the trip that wasn't.

Alice Burnett is a retired teacher who loves to travel, as well as to write stories based on her own life. She had a story called “Are You There?” published in A Chicken Soup for the Soul book, Laughter is the Best Medicine in 2020. She also regularly writes devotionals for PresbyCan, an online site, and The Christian Journal out of Medford, Oregon. To both she submits voluntarily, and without pay.

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