Trip that Was...and Wasn't
Copyright 2021 by Alice
Her brother, drawn by the author.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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'
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.
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.
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.
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.
full week of excursions began, mostly walks to viewpoints on the low,
forested hills surrounding Susice. What fun to share these outings
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.
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.
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.
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.
slept soundly for
the next few hours.
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.
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.
promptly popped one into his mouth. “So they do!” he
Days went by.
was the trip
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
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
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.
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.
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.
had survived the
trip that wasn't.
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
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.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher