Stuff that hearts are made of

Kay Grigar

Perhaps you are familiar with the comfort given by the objects that surrounded you in childhood. I grew up in Canada, although my family was Czech. Old family heirlooms from Czechoslovakia filled our house.

Kay Grigar
For my Canadian childhood friends who came over to play, it also seemed more like a museum. We had photographs dating back to 1856, paintings of ancestors I didn't know, Czech crystal and various knick-knacks that were enclosed behind glass, often hand made, very breakable and not for little kids to play with. We had books that kept my perception of Czechoslovakia as an idyllic paradise filled with castles and rolling hills. It was also the country where all these beautiful things my mother had so lovingly preserved originated.

After my parents fled Czechoslovakia in 1968, they never imagined the possibility of one day being able to even visit their homeland again. So, as a child it was always a treat to receive brown paper packages from Babicka all the way from Czechoslovakia, stinking of something like moth balls or whatever that foreign scent was they acquired from their journey. The worn box never failed to be packed with as much stuff as its size would allow. It was always a bit of a risk. Countless amounts of China were broken, but at least my sister and I could count on the "fidorky" arriving safe and sound - fidorky being small puck-like chocolate-covered wafers that stowed nicely in antique hand embroidered table cloths. Often times I felt the fidorky took on the taste of what they were stowed in, which wasn't entirely tantalizing for my taste buds, but I ate them with pride because I knew they were from my far away Babicka. I finally came to Czechoslovakia for the first time after the revolution in 1990. I was 13 years of age and coming to the country that brought to life the sense of beauty and architecture I had cultivated as a child.

After forty years of communism, buildings were neglected, but I still saw the remnants of what they once were and was pleased that so much effort was being made to restore the historic buildings. My grandparents' apartment was "plny kramu" - or as we'd say in English - "full of stuff".

Well the fact of the matter is my grandparents were moved from a large apartment to a very small apartment and most furniture was sold or taken away when they downsized. Last year my Babicka, who was my last remaining grandparent passed away and I have been living in her apartment - cleaning and bringing back to life some of the beautiful stuff that is part of my history.

I don't consider myself a materialistic person but there was something poignant about when a friend visited me from Vancouver, Canada saying, "Dude! The furniture in your apartment is huge and old school!" I replied, "That bookcase used to be in my grandfather's office." In some ways the stuff makes up for the time that I wasn't able to see my grandparents in my youth. Today I can look through my grandfather's engineering books, and photographs of him when he raced in his 750 CC engine racecar sporting a leather jacket and white scarf in the 1940s. Another interesting symbol in my mother's armoire from her teens are cutout photos of good-looking sporting young men from a Canadian hockey team, well before she ever knew what her future would hold.