Sitting on a stack of phone books in my great-aunt Carrie’s kitchen we’re gathered around the table filling little nests of dough with poppyseed, apricot, and wild cherries. I’m nine years-old and these Czech women are teaching me how to tell a good story and how to make kolaches.
“That father of yours is a no good drunk and your poor mother, I knew her since she was a fat baby…such a beautiful smart girl. How she ended up with that zadek I’ll never know.” Aunt Carrie is pushing sticky apricots into soft dough.
“You gotta big mouth Carrie. Shut up already around this poor child. It’s the child’s father and she gotta learn that even though he’s a no good zadek there’s love somewhere in that fool’s heart. He just too sick to know how to give it.” I snicker when Stella Jelinka scolds aunt Carrie. They don’t really fight but pounce on each other like cats with claws out.
Aunt Carrie gets up to pull an apple pie out of the oven with her apron and let’s out a big fart as she bends over. I giggle and Carrie’s cousin Maria Nablova doesn’t even blink because all the ladies who come to Carrie’s kitchen to make the sweet delights fart like sailors and it’s no big deal. And so I do too. They laugh when I do it and I try to make it as loud as I can because the louder it is the more we laugh.
“You better not be doing that around them nuns,” chortles aunt Carrie. “They’ll take you over to the rectory and let the father have a few wacks at your behind with the paddle.”
“I already did it. In religion class, and it was a big one,” I say with pride, knowing they’ll want to hear the story.
The old Czech women are gathered like a flock of geese at the kitchen table; Margaret Drablik and Maria Nablova, aunt Carrie’s cousins, Stella Jelinka, who works at the Czech bakery on 13th St., Teresa Janowicz, who washes the nuns clothes at the same convent where aunt Carrie cooks, and Ernestine Petruska, a neighbor who is always cross stitching farm animals and small petaled flowers onto white tablecloths while she tells stories about her husband kissing drunk ladies in bowling alleys and peeing himself in taverns.
With a plate of kolaches and sweet buns on the table aunt Carrie prods me with great anticipation, “So maminka tell us that fart story.”
Biting into a cherry kolache, I begin:
“I had a thermos of Campbell’s Bean with Bacon Soup and a Hostess Twinkie for lunch and then I started to have that gassy feeling you all talk about when you eat too many dumplings. It was during the religion class when my belly started feeling bloated with gas.”
Ernestine Petruska is cross stitching a rooster onto a long white runner. “Maminka!” she asks with a start, “Who is the nun in the classroom? It’s not the ancient one with the wart on her chin that wears the army boots?”
“Yes Ernestine, this is the one I have told you about that wears a crucifix the size of a large man’s shoe swinging from a leather belt.”
The drooping flesh on the women’s faces is moving fast as they chew kolaches and sweet buns.
“Is that the same old nun that taught your uncle Tom a hundred years ago? ” quizzed Stella Jelinka.”Don’t interrupt her no more,” clucked aunt Carrie. “Then what happened?” her long plump jowls are now still and all eyes are on me.
“Well, I recited the bible passage I had to memorize for the class. See we all stand up in front and recite. I’m real good at it.” Squaring my shoulders and sitting up straight, I recite the passage for them because all these ladies here at the table are Catholic and feel the presence of Jesus whenever these things are spoken.
LORD JESUS is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. Even youths shall faint and be weary,and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD JESUS shall renew their strength; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint nor fart. (I add that for a laugh.)
“Oh, maminka, you are like a little angel speaking these words. You should get a prize, a crucifix blessed by the monsigneur or a lace chapel veil from them nuns. They got so many of them damn chapel veils they could be giving them away every Sunday.” Teresa Janowicz is the laundress at the convent and she always has stories about what she finds in the nun’s rooms. One time while aunt Carrie was teaching me how to stew a chicken Teresa told a story about finding a collection of doll’s heads in Sister Anaclita’s closet shelf. “Shocked I was, my God, such a thing to see. All heads with no bodies. Stuffed in tote bags they were. Why? I kept asking, why a nun would have such a collection of these strange heads with no body attached I cannot imagine.”
“Devilry is what she’s doing. Oh, yes, it sounds like voodoo. She’s sticking pins in them doll’s eyes doing a spell on the old priest that is screwing the rectory cleaning lady.” Ernestine Petruska told me she is psychic and can see things in other dimensions. I ask her to do a psychic reading about Father Costin and the cleaning lady but she just laughs and tells me that’s for when I’m older.
“Go on now, let’s hear what happened next child,” said aunt Carrie who always steers things the way she likes.
“Well, then it was Lumere Hamsa’s turn to recite. All the kids make fun of him ’cause he smells and has bad teeth. His family is real poor. I saw Lumere at Kresge’s one day and his dad was real drunk and punched him in the head in the toy aisle. Lumere just stood there with his head down rocking back and forth and his dad yelled at him so loud I could hear him in the cafeteria. He was in front of class and wouldn’t say anything when Sister Ermenita kept asking him to recite. Nothing. We all knew what was going to happen. It starts to feel like the whole room will explode ’cause everybody gets so afraid. Like all the air gets sucked out when nobody is breathing. Then Ermenita puts her face real close to his and screams, “WHAT DO YOU THINK JESUS THINKS OF YOUR DISRESPECT FOR HIM. THE MAN WHO DIED FOR YOUR STUPID FAT UGLY SINS!”
OOOHHHH…they all gasp. She really said that? I nod. Yes, she really did.
“Go on now,” said aunt Carrie,” pouring more coffe.
“She started swinging that big crucifix and walking around the room. Some of the kids put their heads down on the desk. They didn’t want to see what was gonna happen. But I have to see stuff with my own eyes.”
“Well, maminka, I remember when you had to call the police on that no-good louse father of yours. You couldn’t even reach the phone. There was your poor mother beaten up by that devil and you pulled the kitchen chair up to the phone to call the police.” Those tablecloths and pillow cases of Ernestine Petruska’s hold all the details of all the stories told at the kitchen table. With every stitch she fastens words and feelings into the fabric and there they live like little secret truths inside of all the blooms, beaks, and trails of color.
“Well, I was gonna call the police but I called grampa Frank first. Grama Gen said he was too drunk to drive but he came anyway and chased my dad down the street in his overalls all the way to Beasley’s grocery store.”
“Your poor mother. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph please help and bless our dear Carol Jean. Help her to find strength in her faith and hope in Jesus.” Margaret Drablik makes the sign of the cross and has tears in her eyes whenever she talks about my mother. There are pockets in her soul she lets no one see and I have a feeing she too knows pain like my mother has. Margaret is the quiet one but when she speaks it is usually to offer a prayer or to reprimand for a spiritual offense. We all bow our heads, knowing that Margaret’s holiness runs deep in her blood, and that we are to receive this moment as a blessing.
“Go on with the story,” barks aunt Carrie.
“Ermenita started hitting Lumere with her fists. In the face. Real hard. I was crying inside knowing that he gets hit at home and at school, at Kresge’s and by boys on the playground. I knew I had to make a fart to distract her. But it didn’t feel like there was enough air for a big one. I started to pray to the Virgin Mary and St. Francis who loves children and animals to help me fart at this important time. She punched him five times and blood was coming from his nose and lip. It was dripping on his white shirt and onto the floor. There were only three of us kids who were brave enough to keep looking. I kept praying; please Mother Mary, Queen of the Littlest Angels, Mother of our Lord Jesus, please help me have a loud fart so I can help Lumere out of this terrible situation. I imagined the gas growing and moving through my large intestine and small intestine and down into my bowels.”
“How do you know about such things as intestines and bowels?” quizzed Maria Nablova.
“She’s a hypochondriac like her grandmother” aunt Carrie says with glee, “and she looks these things up at the library don’t you maminka?
“yes!” I nod proudly. “I can see organs and stuff in my mind because I study the anatomy and medical books.”
“Go on with the story maminka,” commands aunt Carrie.
“Then like a big gust of wind, the fart comes, as loud as I had prayed for!”
“Holy Mother of God what did she do then?” Stella Jelinka asked with a mouth full of poppy seed kolache.
“Well, she stopped and she did like this: (I demonstrate how Sister Ermenita drops her head low, chin to chest, eyes widen with intent to do harm, and stares up over her black heavy framed man glasses perched on her long humped nose.) Then she walks real slow around the room with her hands behind her back. All the kids folded our hands nicely on our desks and sat up straight like little angels floating in clouds. She didn’t say anything. She walked real quiet up and down the aisles swinging the crucifix.”
“Oh Holy Jesus maminka you must’ve been scared out of your little pelt!” winced Ernestine Petruska.
“Well, I had to work hard to hold back another big fart that wanted to come shooting out of me after all my intestine prayers, so I was squeezing my butt real tight so no fart would escape. She was pacing around slow and swinging her crucifix like an ax murderer. She yelled to Lumere: GO GET A BUCKET OF WATER FROM CURTIS AND CLEAN UP THE MESS YOU MADE ON THE FLOOR! Then she started sniffing around to smell where it came from. But the good thing was that it was not the smelly bean fart. It had no smell and I thanked Mother Mary for that too.”
“WHOOO DID IT! She screamed like the angry God himself from Heaven. WHO DID IT? Then she went over to Mikey Bolander’s desk, grabbed him by his ear and jerked him up right out of his seat. His feet weren’t touching the ground and he was shaking so hard he peed his pants. I thought I can’t let her start beating on Mikey ’cause he’s just a scrawny poor kid too who gets hit at home too. So I raised my hand and stood up real slow looking down at my patent leather shoes. I did it sister, I said, real quiet and acting scared. But I wasn’t too scared.”
“Hail Mary Full of Grace, what the hell did she do then?” and Ernestine Petruska’s needle was moving faster and faster through the rooster’s beak.
“Well, Lumere came back with a bucket and mop to clean up the blood so I had a little time to ask Mother Mary to please please shower me with grace and protection and to help me not to say smart assey things to Sister Ermenita ’cause I can do it with some of the nuns but definitely not with this one. And then I had a quick chat with Saint Nicholas the protector of little children to please protect Lumere from getting punched again. She walked up behind me and put her hand on my back and pushed me out the door. Then a voice in my head started talking to her: I think it was Our Blessed Lady and she started saying this: You are really a nice woman who doesn’t like to hurt kids. You know Jesus wouldn’t hurt children and he doesn’t like that you are punching kids and making them bleed. Be nice to this little girl who only farted because she has beans in her intestines and she was so sad that her classmate was getting punched in the face.”
All the women are laughing, but I tell them I really did hear this sweet voice in my head and it was our Mother Mary. I knew it was true but I think the women have forgotten how to listen.
“Keep telling maminka, what happend then?” instructed aunt Carrie.
“I told you about my friend Brian Underwood whose dad beats all the kids, well one time when we were up in my treehouse he told me if you look someone who’s going to punch you straight in the eye without blinking they get scared. So that’s what I did. I asked the Blessed Mother Mary to come into my eyes and I looked up at Ermenita with soft eyes full of the Love of Mother Mary. It seemed like we were floating above the ground in that dark hallway that smelled like old nun clothes. I began to wonder where Ermenita came from and how she got to be so ugly and mean. I wanted to lift up that old smelly heavy black skirt and kick her in the leg and pull the curtains from her head to see if she had any hair. I wanted to step on her foot and punch her in her long humped nose. But Mother Mary said that’s not a good idea because she could crush your head with her army boots and your brains would splatter all over the floor and walls. So I listened to Mother Mary and just looked at the old woman and I felt sad for how mean and ugly she was, inside and outside ugly. She told me to sit on the steps that go up to the library. She didn’t even try to hit me or yell at me. She just walked back into the classroom and I stayed there on the steps until the bell rang and it was time to catch the bus to grandma Gen’s house.”
Aunt Carrie is filling up a round tin painted with candy canes. “Your mother always liked the poppy seed best even when she was a little girl so these are for her.”
The crisp fall air is cooling the hot kitchen. For every cup of words now there is four cups of silence. We, the czech ladies at this table, are full of sweet delicious things that have been shaped with worn and caring hands. The light through the kitchen window softens our faces. Mixing bowls and lunch plates are piled high in the tiny sink. We leave the table only to gather again to tell our stories, to listen to the little details, to ask the questions that will turn a key into the next unlit room of our lives; and then if all goes well, to tell something forbidden, something that can only be shared with a basket of kolaches around the sacred altar of the kitchen table where the fart of a girl-child will perhaps alight the spark of a story waiting to be born.