My Two Old Countries

January 10, 2012

It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized my formative years included a different element than most; and that element consisted of growing up in a neighborhood where everyone over the age of 25 seemed to have originated from The Old Country, where magic was not only alive; but was as close as a generation away.

Now, before the age of 7 (before I knew my grandparents even existed, much less lived 3 blocks from my house) I was already well versed with The Old Country of fable. Indeed, my mom read aloud to us nightly from fairy tale books I adored, and well I knew that The Old Country was filled with: elves, faeries, nymphs, lost gold, dragons and trolls (not necessarily in that order) – among other neat things. I also knew about changelings at a very early age (indeed, my mother insisted I must be one!) and would’ve considered the additional possibility that I was a misplaced fairy princess except they obviously were less mischievous than I (being obsessively attracted to pink dresses, wands and good deeds: everything I was NOT).

I knew Dad (being from Rumania) was from ‘The Old Country’ but as the phrase was never fully explained, I had presumed Dad’s Old Country stories merely left out the juicy bits about elves, faeries, trolls and such; and that Mom’s job was to ‘fill in the blanks’ at bedtime with The Violet Fairy Book, etc.

So when I met my grandparents for the first time and learned they too were from The Old Country (and indeed they even LOOKED ancient!), I couldn’t wait for some juicy details. AT LAST here were people SO OLD they had obviously personally encountered all the characters in my fairy tale books.

Grandma was from Hungary; my step-grandfather from Greece: so they held very different perspectives (which at the time seemed totally the same to me.) Both spoke in heavy accents. Grandpa actually read English well and with the aid of a finger to keep track, proudly and pointedly read the newspaper daily. Grandma, illiterate, relied on television for her news. Both liked to discuss the Affairs of the Day with one another and any such discussions always began with: “It says HERE that….” (I say ‘discussions’ but the volumes would get quite loud and there was rarely silence in their house as a result. And they never were at a lack for words.)

So one day I convinced my mother that my grandparents would love nothing better than to see The Green Fairy Book during my visit. Mom (as usual, puzzled) agreed upon me taking it over to them, blissfully unaware that I fully intended on GRILLING my grandparents on the darker side of their Old Country experiences: all the bits Dad kept leaving out (and Mom, being a Yankee herself, was obviously clueless on the details whenever I asked her burning questions about fairy matters that went beyond the basic yarn being narrated that evening).

Grandma and Grandpa were involved in the usual lively intellectual discussion over the News of the Day when I appeared, Fairy Book in hand, so I politely waited for a lull in their conversation. Mom had well taught me the ritual of waiting and then entering a conversation with an opener: I had only to pounce when that right moment presented itself.

Grandpa (authoritatively, puffing on his favorite pipe and shaking his paper as though the news were dropping into his lap): “It says here that we’re putting a man on the moon!”

Grandma (tensely watching Twilight Zone): “….and it says HERE that we need to stock up on Raid again! Those Giant Ants are obviously getting the upper hand; this is the THIRD TIME I’ve seen this!”

Grandpa: “What’s more important, woman?? Exploring the moon, or investing in Raid?”

Grandma (snappy): “It depends on whether you want to ‘moon’ over obvious fantasy or face the reality of a major kitchen invasion! When your dinner’s at stake, MAYBE you’ll see my point!”

Grandpa: “I should THINK I know the difference between fantasy and reality – unlike you! Why, in The Old Country, we…”

(…the door was obviously open for my entrance, and it was time for me to stroll through it and speak up.)

Diane: “….had ALL KINDS of real neat things! Like elves and fairies, and trolls…though I guess those pesky dragons were a handful, huh Grandpa??”

Finally I had both their attentions, the prior (boring, in my book) news discussion forgotten.

Diane (enthusiastically): “It’s all HERE, in this book!”

I authoritatively held out one of the Fairy Books.


Diane (respectfully): “BUT they left out a few things you two can undoubtedly fill in! Like: what was it LIKE to have a Kitchen Troll? Did they really do ALL the work while you were sleeping? What if you threw all your peanut shells on the floor: would they get mad? Could they turn you into animals, like a toad?”

I was on a tear. And when you’re on a tear at age 7, Respect goes out the window.

Diane (pitifully): “Mom can’t answer my questions. But she’s not ANYWHERE as OLD as you are, and she’s not from The Old Country either.”

(…sensing a possible social snafu by the way my grandparents’ jaws dropped).

Diane: “Um – not that you’re as old as a TROLL, of course. Just close. And we don’t get the neat stuff like you got there because … we live in The Young Country.” (…I’d never heard THAT phrase – but some facts just stood to reason.)

I plopped myself down and proceeded to wait for the juicy details about Life in the Old Country With Trolls, Elves and Fairies. Presented from the Horse’s Mouth by those obviously well acquainted with magic and forces of good and evil.

Now, my grandparents were pretty hard to shut up. Indeed, they excelled at out-shouting each other, convinced their perspective or issue was the most important News of the Day.

But, apparently I had them beat.

They looked at each other. They looked at me. I waited, expectantly.

It was Grandpa who finally revealed The Truth, diplomatically without bursting my fantasy bubble:

Grandpa: “Ummmm – we come from a DIFFERENT Old Country.”

Grandma (relieved SHE didn’t have to do the explaining) agreed with him for about the first time in their marriage, nodding vigorously: “Jah, a VERY DIFFERENT Old Country!” she repeated enthusiastically.

Moi(confused): “There are TWO Old Countries?”

Grandpa: (warming up to the subject): “Oh yes. Heehee. Ahem. There’s The Old Old Country which is there in your book (and he nodded at the much-loved, worn title in my hands). And then there’s The Old Country next door – which is where your grandma and I and your family comes from.”

THIS was a revelation! No wonder Dad had no juicy stories: he was from a Different Old Country! My mind reeled, then my face fell – disappointed. No elves. No trolls. I was from a BORING family, after all!

My grandfather observed these changes of expression and in his infinite wisdom realized the crushing blow he had inadvertently dealt to my over-fantasized young mind.

Grandpa (craftily): “HOWEVER…being neighbors and all … there was SOME LEAKAGE.”

Grandma, less literate than he, had no idea about ‘leakage’, but it sounded good and it still absolved her of explanation for something obviously way beyond her grasp, so she nodded vigorously and agreed happily: “Jah, LEAKAGE!”

I brightened. I may not have come from a world where Kitchen Trolls cleaned magically at night and elves were active, where changelings occurred daily and one could always potentially be a princess in disguise – but by george, I was from someplace next door , where magic actually LEAKED over the border.

And so I began a closer relationship with my grandparents: one fueled by tales of: elves, faeries, nymphs, lost gold, dragons and trolls (not necessarily in that order). My grandfather, in particular, apparently had a close relationship with all of them (due to – it was revealed – his job as Border Patrol Officer between The Old Old Country and The Old Country). Eventually Grandma overcame her shyness and chimed in with her own accounts of Struggles on the Hungarian Border.

And I was happy at last. I come from The Old Country, from that border area where magic LEAKS OVER. I AM different.

And – I believe in magic!

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