When the Men Went Away

THE CHURCH WAS NOT JUST A PLACE where one worshiped God. There, after services, one met friends, exchanged views, added something to the latest political rumors and Y llage ossip, and greeted the men recently returned from far-off places, such as America. Some of these came to services adorned in their best outfitsˇsometimes extreme, even ridiculousˇto impress the local folks.

I remember one of our villagers who had spent his time in America in the city of St. Louis. I know it was St. Louis because I used to write the letters sent to him by his wife. It was the middle of July and a blistering hot day. He came to church dressed in a pair of blue denim coveralls which were a little too long and a little too large. His white workman's gloves reached almost to his elbows and he wore a railroad man's winter hat with the flaps down covering his ears.

He obviously wanted to look like the men who laid the rail tracks from St. Louis to Montana or North Dakota. He was a moving scarecrow.

One of our villagers had known the man in America. He told my father that the only time the returned man had seen a train and a track was when one stopped at the St. Louis station to discharge passengers and unload mail. The scarecrow was employed there to pick up the accumulated trash and wash the toilets. As the true story got around, the man never again appeared in public in that silly outfit.

The one who had unmasked him was more interesting. He had worked on the railroads in Montana and South Dakota, but came back dressed as a Texas cowboyˇwide-brimmed hat, jacket, boots and spurs. The only things that were missing were the horse and the six-shooter. As it turned out, the "cowboy" had never been in Texas and never on a saddle. He had copied the outfit from the ten-cent movies he had seen in Miles City, Montana.

He was a pesky and obnoxious man, a man easy to dislike. He repeatedly used the American expressions "okay" and "all right," words unknown to our people. He wanted to make it seem that after a three-year absence he could not find the proper words in his native language. Then it became common knowledge that he had worked on the railroad with a gang consisting of his Bulgarian countrymen, and that his English was limited, more or less, to those two expressions.

Most of the villagers who returned from a foreign land were modest and considerate, not full of hot air like our ersatz cowboy, and the people respected them. But since the cowboy was detested by almost all who knew him, the local men devised a way to put him in his right place. My tather was one of the plotters.

One Saturday evening they went to the wooded grounds behind the church and dug a hole about three feet wide and four feet deep. They filled it with mud and runny cow manure, then covered it with freshly cut grass.

The next morning, after the services, while the women were busy exchanging blessed bread and boiled, sugar-coated wheat in memory of the dead, the men as usual retired to the church grounds. At the right spot the plotters started arguing among themselves as to who would be the first one to cover 60 feet and reach a particular point on three jumps.

They took off their jackets, rolled their pants and started. Each managed, as agreed, to jump weakly and end up eight to ten feet short of the target. Our cowboy took the bite.

He removed his jacket, pulled up his boots and said, "I have never seen five more clumsy men. Let me show you how it is done." He stepped back, cast a casual glance at the target, then at the crowd, tightened his belt and set forth. He hit the target and plunged into the hole. At that point he realized that the whole thing was set up to embarrass him and deflate his ego. After that he adjusted to the normal village life. He wore his boots to plow his field, but the spurs were gone, and so was the arrogance.

AS A YOUNCSTER, WATCHING THEM come and go, I both admired and pitied the "pechalbary," the men who went to foreign lands to earn a living. It took a great deal of courage and self-reliance for them to embark on such an adventureˇa journey carrying them to the end of the world, as the old people pictured America. They spoke no language except the* own. They had no vocational training, or knowledge of what might await them at that ' end of the world ". They had to traverse six or seven countries, coping with ditterent people and ditferent languages, to embark on rickety ships and cross the vast expanse of the Atlantic. How I admired the daring of these men! In my young heart I felt jealous of their adventurous spirits.

My pity stemmed from the fact that in order to earn a living they had to leave behind their wives and children tor as much as three to fve years or more.

Some children grew to adulthood scarcely knowing their tather, without ever sharing a secret or a doubt with him, bereft of a fatherly hug or kiss. I was happy that my father was near me, whether to scold or to praise.

The return to home was almost always temporary. The money earned in that far-off land went to pay debts accumulated by the tamily tor groceries and other necessities. Some had to repay the cost of their passage to America. Only seldom did one bring back enough to buy land sufficient to earn a living at home.

For most of the pechalbary the stay at home was about one year. After that they mortgaged their home, or the land they bought, tor money to return to America.

The heads of at least half of the homes in our village were "na chujbina"ˇout of the country. Under the circumstances one would think that a young wife, without a husband beside her year after year, would shut her eyes, break the traditional moral code and engage in illicit love. This seldom happened. But when one did, and the village learned of it, she was ostracizedˇavoided by relatives and friends.

Breaking the code was a mortal sin, condemned by the church and by the people. There was no point in arguing about natural needs and impulses; they had to be suppressed. Propriety and faithfulness were important. That is how parents and grandparents lived, and how their offspring should live.

Such a scandal aroused the whole village. Relatives made it known to the husband away from home. Then the letters and checks stopped, causing hunger and misery. The most pitiful victims were the children, who suffered humiliation and deprivation. By the father's request the children then were taken by close relatives. There was no court order for this. But it was how it had been done for generation after generation, and that law superseded all others.

I remember one such case. The husband was in America and the wife, Bimba, lived with her mother-in-law, a woman with a very strict moral sense and boundless pride.

Night after night a neighbor noticed the opening and closing of the front door after midnight. Then the young woman began to suffer headache and constant indisposition. Because of the unexplained illness, the mother-in-law confined her at home. In church, at the village store (which was my father's), or at the water fountain, the mother-in-law explanation was that some mysterious illness had befallen her daughter-in-law. She attributed this to illwishers and to witches who had put a curse on her daughter-in-law. One night the old woman carried the incense burner to all parts of the home, and to the front and back yard, a few minutes after midnight to break the spell of the witches, but nothing improved. For this reason she kept the young woman at home and the front door always locked.

Baba Kata, the village busybody, who had spent many a night trying to uncover the mystery of Bimba's illness, one day saw the mother-in-law at the store and rushed to her house. The old woman had left the front door half open. Baba Kata entered the front yard and noticed Bimba sitting under a tree. Surprised and a little confused, Bimba invited the unwelcome visitor into the house.

"You must be very, very sick, young lady, " said Baba Kata. "Your stomach is unusually puffed up. What is wrong, my child? Have you been to the doctor in Resen?"

"Something is growing inside me, something like a large tumor, but mother does not know exactly what it is," Bimba replied. "She treated me with a salve of wild herbs, she took me to the monastery and I slept all night inside the church, but nothing has helped. "

The explanation did not fool Baba Kata. For more than 50 years she had been the village midwife. She had brought the young lady into the world.

Now she knew the story. Bimba was pregnant, and the baby should arrive within the next few weeks.

The news spread quickly in our village. Bimba's house fell under constant siege by the curious despite the protestations of the stout mother-in-law, who claimed that Baba Kata's diagnosis was wrong, that her daughter-in-law suffered from some unexplainable malady that no doctor could cure. She cursed the malicious gossipers who were seeking to ruin the reputation of her family. "Gossip, gossip and nothing else," she kept saying. "And who is spreading that gossip? That old witch Kata, who never found a husband and never married. If she was good and proper, even as ugly as she is, still some one-eyed man would have married her. But even her neighbor, Kelesh Tase, refused her. I will have her sent to an insane asylum. "

The brave words of the proud old woman impressed no one, although everyone in the village felt sorry for her and for her son, the husband far away.

What happened to the baby after it was born was a mystery while I was still at home. But a year or so later, the son sent money and asked a friend to bring his mother to America. Bimba disappeared from Yankovetz and no one knew where she went. Some said she married a man from a remote village in Kichevo, about fifty kilometers from Resen and Yankovetz.

The mother and son lived for a while in a small mining town in Western Pennsylvania. Embarrassment and shame over the event, even though it was not his fault, had driven him to the desolate community, its streets covered with coal dust. Nothing resembled the tidy village, with its flowers and trees, that the mother had left behind. Even worse, there was no one but her son with whom she could exchange a word. She found herself a prisoner in her son's home.

The yearning to go back arose in the first month, but she was torn by her code and her mother's love. How much would this hurt her son, her only child? And was it not her duty to be with him, to help him outlive the shame cast on him by his unfaithful wife? Are not mothers, after all. to suffer for their children?

The proud old woman suppressed her anguish and pain and remained with her son. Then one day he decided to marry a local woman, a widow whose husband had met his death in a mining accident, and the mother was elated. But things did not turn out the way she expected. This was America, not Macedonia. Here, not the mother-in-law but the daughter-in-law commanded the household. And this one knew how to rule and how to torture the mother-in-law.

The proud old lady could not stand it any longer. Broken in heart and in spirit, she asked the son to send her back. She had only one wish: to die in her homeland and be buried next to her long-departed husband.