The dress was bright-yellow, with small black squares on it; the sweater white, or beige. The pants dark brown, the suede shoes were brown too, only lighter. I still remember how determined I was to put them on by myself but finally had to give up. My grandmother would then crouch beside me and help me do that.
The monkey bars (back then I only knew the German word for it: die Stange) was painted dark-green. My palms would tingle and smell of iron after swinging on it.
The bicycle was blue-and-white; the word “Universal” was written across the blue horizontal frame bar in thick, white cursive. The bullet light was surprisingly strong and shaped like a chubby white rocket. It had wide black tires and white handles. Several generations of children learned how to ride a bike using my “Universal”: first I, then my younger sister, then my even younger cousins and then numerous neighborhood kids… When I saw it for the very last time, in spring 1991, it was still being well used.
I don’t know if “Universal” survived the war that had already started. But that spring, which, on a personal level, turned out to be the most wonderful and the most horrifying time of my life (isn’t it interesting that heaven and hell often walk hand-in-hand?), was the last time that I saw my grandmother. And my father, who had bought me “Universal”.
Oh, well … I have the rest of my life to contemplate the juxtaposition of light and dark, and love and pain, so now back to my “Universal”. Back in 1965, it was probably the best children’s bicycle that money could buy. When I got it, I was only three, and my legs were too short to reach the pedals. It didn’t stop me riding it, though. I would mount my bike, legs dangling on its sides, and devoted family volunteers– my grandfather, Josef, my grandmother, Mina, my great-grant mother, Maria, my young aunt, Anne-Marie, and my mother, Renata– would push me up and down the street, as long as I wanted to ride it.
That year my father also bought me a fancy sled, with a back rest. The above mentioned volunteers would bundle me up, put me in the sled filled with previously warmed blankets and cushions, and drag me through the town wrapped in deep snow. Slavonia is so flat that there is no other way for kids to sleigh.
When I was a little bit older, my father would tie the sled to the end of his motor bike, and pull it at a slow, walking speed, around the nearby park. I would lean on the back rest and immerse myself into the serious business of catching the snowflakes on my tongue…
Winter holidays are coming, bringing with them special meaning: the memories of the Christmas trees of my childhood, of delicate glass ornaments, of sugar candies wrapped shiny, colorful papers… Of three January weeks I would spend with my father… Of smells and tastes of other places and times…
I wish I could fill my lungs with the sharp and moist Slavonian air that smelled of upcoming snow and smoke from the red-brick chimneys, and hold my breath until ‘there and then’ blend with ‘here and now’, so that I could be whole again.
I wish I could touch my bike and my sled, just one more time. Run my fingers along those thick white, slightly embossed letters that read “Universal”, and over the smooth honey-brown wood of my sled.
And take that little girl into my lap, hug her tight and tell her that everything would be okay.
Only that, nothing else.