||The Trunk: Chapter 3
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|"My Dearest," he wrote. "Soon you will be embarking on a journey that will take you to the farthest reaches of your abilities. What can I say that you don’t already know? In many ways our children are always smarter than we are, even when they can't seem to find a way to solve simple problems. I was once faced with such a problem that taxed the sinews of my own heart until I could not resolve a solution. I had failed, and my heart cried knowing that I had to face my enemies once more, my fears.
It all began when my teacher had recommended to my parents that I should take the exam to attend Gymnasia in Pereemysl. I was thirteen. I took the exam and scored extremely high, I felt so proud. Only my parents felt prouder, that a simple farmer’s son would be afforded the opportunity to better himself; although, it took an even greater effort for Mr. Oryniak to convince the Polish authorities to allow a peasant Ukrainian to enter their exclusive halls. While our village in Ukraine was under Polish occupation not one lad from our region was ever admitted. So, I do thank Mr. Oryniak again as I convey this story.
Anyway, the day came for me to go to school. My mother and father, along with my younger brothers, we were all excited --- God how I wished I could have seen them one more time before the Nazis killed them, or my brothers before the Russians executed them for their efforts on behalf of Ukrainian independence..." Taissa looked for his tearstains that would have dried were they to have dropped. She felt hers wanting to..., she continued. “...Yes it was a great day. Mother packed my clothes into Father’s old steamer trunk, (although, I doubt if he’d ever been more than a 100 kilometers from our farm. Peremysl was only 80 kilometers west, but they rarely traveled there except for official business, but that’s another story).
So we loaded up the cart, tied the baggage, one last loving farewell from Mother. Then with Father, Yaroslav, the next oldest, and me on board, we urged 'Black Lady', our mare, to cart us away. We reached Peremysl late afternoon. It was a sight, my first time in what was then for me a big city. Everyone spoke Polish. I was in a different world, still excited but now leery as well.
When we reached the school a custodian pointed the way to the headmaster’s office, Yaroslav stayed with the cart. Inside, Headmaster Gumma laid out the rules and regulations. I felt as if I was entering a prison. I'd wanted to tell Father that I’d changed my mind. But I didn’t, I could still measure the pride that he held for me.
When we returned to the cart and prepared to carry my goods into the dormitory, Father reached into his pocket and pulled out his folding knife and handed it to me, saying, "You can either use this to defend yourself or to build with it, choose wisely. Its mark will be lasting as will be your education." That made me even more scared ---knife fights? Did he know something that I didn’t, I wondered.
I’d hoped that that farewell would never end, but it did, as they had to return before dark. And I, I faced my own darkness, and newer fears; knowing that I would probably not return home until early spring at the earliest.
That night as I was introduced to the student body and faculty, I knew what Father had already known: that a Ukrainian peasant could not survive in a Polish school without having to prove himself physically as well as intellectually.
There was at least one fight each day, some lost, some won. Luckily, none were with knives, although some times I was ready to pull it out if only to end the beating quicker. The teachers, they found me to be the butt end of every slanderous joke known, and the students repeated them as well. 'Stupid Horseface' was one of their favorite names. I was ready to leave. This was hell inside of hell.
The fourth week I’d had enough. I’d received a test score on a true/false exam that defied even my logic. My answers were all correct but the spelling of my own name was incorrect. It wasn’t the Polish version as was required. I’d received an “F”. What was the use, I thought, to bring more shame to my family, to be a failure? I wrote home, asking my parents to take me away from here, that I’d just wanted to ..., to go home.
As I waited for their reply, I gazed eastward, out my dorm window, hoping to feel them coming closer. Instead, I felt the cold drafts of mountain winds as the seasons whispered their parades.
Two weeks passed, then a few days more and a letter finally arrived. It was from my parents. They both felt my pain and wished that they could erase it, but Father had repeated, “...an education is a lasting legacy. Find the strength to have the courage to know wisdom." Then he’d added, probably at Mother’s urging, “...But, if you feel that danger is about you then come home. However, come home with no less than what you left with from here; only it will be up to you to find the way home, at least that education will be lasting as well."
I was free, I was finally free to go home. I couldn’t wait to pack up. And there was the rub. Once packed I looked at this trunk, a gigantic monster that required the strength of at least my father to carry it for even a short distance, but 80 kilometers; at that rate it would have taken me a year to get home. I wanted to, but I couldn’t just leave it here, my father’s trunk, how could I explain? So, I went about trying to find a way to take it with me. I asked everyone for a hand.
Hire somebody, they all told me --- easy enough if coins were familiar tenants inside your pockets. Mine only knew my knife. Sell it, I couldn’t. Steal a horse and cart, or just a horse? Yeah, and return a criminal... My options were being tossed into a deep black hole devouring any hope. Finally, I gave up.
But from that day on I at least found a reason to have to stay in school, I wasn’t smart enough yet. Then came Christmas, at which time students were allowed to visit family for holiday break. And that trunk, which was the shadow of my reason, finally traveled with me, carrying gifts, and to show Father that I could have. But we didn’t stay, my companion and I. Upon completion of holiday, we returned to school to not only endure but to accomplish.
You see, by that time, I’d also learned where I needed to be to fulfill obligations, and not to my parents, but to myself. I’d learned to survive not by running away from my fears, but to live within them and eventually see them all as nasty impostors. Life is an adventure towards wisdom.
And the hazing, well that didn’t end completely, but there was also more respect and less name-calling. I even made friends with some Poles and was invited into their homes. That first year, once frost settled into each morning, one friend’s father even gave me a job during the school year, milking his cow each morning before classes. That’s how I’d managed to get home for Christmas. I bet you were wondering about that..... (If only I could have thanked my parents for the gifts of love that they’d given to me... just one last time.)
So, My Dearest, I leave you with what had started my journey as you will begin yours, with this grand old trunk. I can only add that when you no longer have the urge to carry it to your next stop, then it may mean that you have already found the place to stay and look no further towards the highway. Its legacy will be lasting.
And with all my heart, I wish you love...”
Taissa looked at the signature, “...Ivan”. She’d almost forgotten that Gramps had had a real name. She wiped her watery eyes, holding on to a memory.
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