Sunday was the Lord’s Day in my household – that is to say, it was the only day that my father was usually at home and therefore he was treated like a god by my mother and grandmother. When he wasn’t working, he could usually be found watching Sunday afternoon football on TV with the volume turned off and opera blasting on the record player. He would sit enraptured, sometimes leaping off his chair at a particularly poignant Mezzo-Soprano solo or if someone scored a touchdown.
As children, we were instructed to be quiet during this time and not to interrupt him under any circumstances. My father was under a lot of pressure. Not only was he working very hard at the hospital, but he was also requalifying as a surgeon which meant that on his days off, he was studying. Although he had been practicing as a surgeon in Hungary for several years, after we immigrated, he had to get his Canadian license and that involved becoming an intern once again. Not only was it humbling for him to go backwards in his career, it was also extremely challenging having to do all of the coursework in English. So, these little breaks on Sunday were his time to relax and unwind. God forbid we should encroach on that sacred time.
My father never read me bedtime stories or helped me with my homework. His attention towards me was sporadic and always at his instigation. I never approached him with a ball and bat and an invitation to go outside. I never grabbed my bathing and suit and towel on a blisteringly hot summer’s day and begged him to take me to the pool. He was mostly like a phantom in our household, someone who could be kind yet somewhat distant but also prone to angry outbursts.
My mother tiptoed around him and shushed us when we were too noisy; “Your father is very tired so he doesn’t have patience for all the noise when he’s trying to concentrate. He doesn’t mean to yell at you. You know your father loves you.”
Somehow despite his angry outbursts, his distance and his constant need for silence and solitude, we did know that he loved us. When he wasn’t criticizing, correcting or instructing us in some way there was a tenderness in his eyes and occasionally when he would hug me or kiss me, I felt a kind of safety that I couldn’t begin to describe.
My father had brought us to safety. We were Hungarian Jews that had survived the Holocaust and had fled the oppressive Soviet regime that followed liberation after the war. My parents had decided to escape with only the clothes on their backs. Driven by a kind farmer on the back of his tractor to the very end of the road, he dropped us off and then we walked through a dense forest at night to cross the border into Austria.
Most of the children under five had been sedated so they would be quiet but my mother hadn’t wanted that for me. My father carried me on his shoulders for hours and his warnings to keep quiet were clear. I knew not to argue but the call of nature was too strong.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said to my father.
“I have to go pee,” I said a little louder now.
The wolves will get you,” he said, softly. “The wolves are in the forest. We can’t stop now.”
“But I have to…”
“Go in your pants if you have to!”
“I’m cold, Apa.”
It was then that he stopped and gave me the scarf that was tied around his neck and wrapped it around me. I could detect the sweet smell of his sweat and cologne. We walked on and on, his feet making squelching sounds in the thick mud, now and then kicking up little pieces of dirt and stones. I knew better than to cry or complain; it was clear even to my three-year-old self, this was a matter of life and death. I also knew that my father would keep me safe.
My father was a figure of safety and security but I did not identify him with having fun or being spontaneous, so it caught me completely by surprise when one Sunday afternoon he emerged from his room.
“It’s a beautiful day, Jula. Would you like to come for a walk with me along the river?”
My brother was out playing with his friends and I had been in my room organizing my extensive stuffed animal collection. I must have looked very surprised because he just looked at my face and started to laugh.
“Come on then,” he said, extending his hand; “Let’s go before I change my mind.”
We walked out the door, hand in hand. The river was not far away and we walked along the trail as far as we could until we hit the bridge that ran across the canal. It was a railway bridge, not a passenger bridge and there were lots of signs that I couldn’t read but I imagined were telling pedestrians to keep off; “I don’t think we’re supposed to walk across that bridge, Apa,” I said.
“Nonsense. There’s no train coming so it’s perfectly safe. You’re not afraid are you Jula?”
I was afraid but I knew that my father would keep me safe and that if he knew it was ok then it must be. I took his hand and we started to walk across the railway bridge. We were about halfway across when we heard the first whistle blow. It was long and sharp and it sounded far away. I looked up at my father to read his face. He didn’t seem to miss a beat but he grabbed my hand tighter and picked up his pace, “Come on then, Jula. We have to hurry up a little bit. No big problem just a little race.”
He grabbed my hand and started to run but I couldn’t keep up with him and fell and skinned my knee. It was then that the second whistle blew and it sounded a lot closer than the first. I was starting to panic and my breathing was coming in short tight bursts. My legs felt like rubber and didn’t want to hold me up for some reason. It was then that my father scooped me up and lifted me onto his shoulders and started to run the rest of the way across the bridge. We made it in good time and then sat on the bank of the river and watched the high-speed passenger train whizz by and this time the train whistle was so loud that I had to put my hands over my ears.
“That was quite exciting, wasn’t it? But, let’s not tell your mother or grandmother about this. They might not think it was quite as much fun.”
I just nodded my head grateful to have had this secret adventure with my father. Once again, he had kept me safe, my six-year-old self thought. Years later my adult self would look back on this day with a completely different perspective, but on this day, we walked back to the house and together with my brother and mother, all settled down to eat dinner and watch Zorro.
Julia Abelsohn has spent over 25 years as a journalist, editor and corporate writer and is now enjoying creative writing pursuits. She has been published in The Raven’s Perch, The Globe and Mail, Flash Fiction Magazine, Pigeon Review and received honourable mention in The Fiddle Head and Women on Writing competitions.