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December 1968

I have written this letter today to your aunts and to your mothers, Kytja, Nadja, Jvan, Jan, Tom, Suzie, and Robert. Their childhood was part of mine, even if every one of them would describe it from a different angle, with different incidents and stresses on different happenings.

Your grandmother just died in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She was the last one of thirteen children, out of whom six had died before their first year. She was born in Northern Bohemia in 1872 and got a teacher's certificate in 1891, a rare achievement in those days. She was married in 1897 and there were seven of us children, the first born in 1898, and the last in 1915.

For you, this is a long time ago, a different era. Also, it is far away, a different culture. But I hope that my story will give the feeling of what the essence of our family was, which is, after all partly your own heritage.


Dear Mila, Vera, Vlada, Ljuba, Jara, and Kytja,

Today is the day of our mother's funeral. Since the moment a cable came from Prague about her death, I have felt so closely connected with you all, thinking of each of you individually, and, at the same time, I have a feeling of such entity that I am writing you all at once.

I know that each of us is recalling our own childhood these days. We older ones, who had our father with us until our marriages, were probably given more of the happy atmosphere of our home, the feeling of security, confidence in the world and people than you, who have lost him while still very young. But he belonged to all of us.

Our father and mother were matched as perfectly as humanly possible. In my eyes as a child, and even now, they represented a unity of feelings, moral values and attitudes. It was a very closed union and a real har­mony. Father's adoration of our mother never diminished, his never-failing love for her was expressed by everything he said, the way he looked at her; touched her; that deep devotion was felt by all of us. Our father was basically gay, liked to dance and sing, in his youth was light-hearted, fond of girls and women. He was softer than mother, more open. It was he who used to assemble us for the "twilight hour" where everybody told what happened during the day, what we had learned. We used to sing songs, recite poems, and sometimes father told us his unforgettable stories about "the Lazy Honza," "Salt more precious than gold," and "Three chests."

Mother was more reserved, more serious, and stronger in her principles. 'A severe judge," sometimes father called her. She loved our father all her life, deeply, devotedly, and with unending loyalty. After 1927, it was this love, together with her sense of duty to her children, which was the source of her strength.

I was born in Ceske, Budejovice, where I lived the first five years of my life. I remember a big house with cold halls, large windows and doors with knobs so high that I was not able to open them, the swing be­tween the door, and a spacious garden; the feeling of animosity between us and the director of the school, with whom father had some difficulties. And my first lie. I was picking strawberries in the school garden. When the director saw me, he asked me what I was doing. I tried to hide the strawberries behind my white apron, but in my anxiety and fear, I pressed them, so my dress was full of big red spots. And the director laughed at me cruelly. Mother said: "That happens when one lies," and I did not get any sympathy. But not a scolding either -- mother knew that I had lived through a bitter experience.

I remember vividly when Vlada was born. Aunt Fanynka, unmarried sister of my mother, arrived from Mseno; her presence always meant a new baby. Vlada must have been born early in the morning because I can see Mila, Vera, and myself jumping on our beds and making noise so that somebody would come. Father opened a door and said: "Be good and quiet, your brother is being born." At that moment, though, it was just his hope, but several hours later, a midwife came to show us the baby, red­faced, with black hair, swathed in a white cover with a blue ribbon, and we were delighted we had a real brother.

You, Vlada, were always something very special in our family. Mother and father were so happy that they finally got a son and we admired you very much. I was then four years old and I must have been jealous of you. Even today I can recall a dream, when I went into our cupboard and there, in mother's best china cup, that with a red ornament of flowers, was your round, black head, neatly cut off. My father came when he heard my crying and took me into their bed. In the bliss of that warmness, all anxieties disappeared.

Then it was our old apartment in Kutna Hora, on the first floor with windows on the street and in the back onto the garden. Father was sick with chronic pleurisy. He was drinking large amounts of mineral water, and the whole atmosphere was sad because he had been transferred from Budejovice as a penalty and there was, at some time, some kind of investigation in regard to his work among the Czech minorities.

There I started school. I remember the enchantment when I was able to read my first book about three kittens, and how father and mother were proud of me. That was when our "twilight hours" started. The time when mother in her new evening dress, her hair done by a professional in our home, went with father to the "Ball of Tea Roses," and all of us, including our father, were admiring her beauty. That evening, Mila, Vera, and I were naughty, and in the fight, broke the best coal oil lamp we had. Trembling, we were waiting for the return of our parents. But we got a tray of the most delicious tortes and we promised never to do it again.

I remember when Vlada cut his face on the corner of our table, jumping for joy that father came home earlier. And how we suffered with him when Dr. Jager had to come many times and cauterize the wound, which was not healing. In those three years in the old house, I must have felt for the first time the lack of ability to cope with Mila and Vera. Mila was volatile and full of temperament and Vera was a little intellectual, smart and much quicker than I. They sent me to a pharmacy to buy "Amacalf" for a penny and the pharmacist told me that I was a good girl and gave me a piece of candy. I remember another dream, in which both of them threw me into a ditch and an old, ugly man was mean to me. And, again, the warmth and security of my parents' bed where my father took me, all trembling in tears. The day in the third grade where the teacher gave us a difficult design and I feigned stomachache and was sent home. I came home in an excellent mood, that I had gotten out of that assignment so easily. But my mother sent me back right away and I had to tell the teacher that I was lying. The teacher, known for her strictness, took my hands and said: You were afraid of the picture, I know. It is good that you told me the truth. Go ahead and try." My tears dried out and I still remember that bunch of catkins, how well I succeeded in that charcoal drawing.

One day, father came and assembled us all in the living room saying that he had good news. He was named head of the agricultural school and we were to move into the director's house. We children were not able to understand all the material advantages, but we were very happy. The joy that was radiating from our parents' face was a good omen. Father was found innocent of the accusations and was rewarded for the hardship by being advanced.

In this house we lived probably more than eighteen years. It was a beautiful, spacious building, a small mansion; on one side the school with dormitories for the students, oh the other side the farm with barns, pond, animals, poultry, quarters for coachmen, workers and other personnel.

That was the fullest and most prosperous era of our lives. Father was happy in his work in the school and as head of the experimental farm. After school we used to go with him, hand in hand, to inspect the fields. He showed us different kinds of grains and crops, trees, birds, wild animals, plants and flowers. In the season, we used to bring home the wild mushroom growing in one 0f the fields. Mother used them for her delicious chickens in cream. I have never eaten that dish better pre­pared.

Altogether, mother's cooking was outstanding. I can recall even today that feeling of festivity of Sunday dinners, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, when we had visitors. The fish soup, traditional for Christmas, was never surpassed by any bouillabaisse anywhere in France or Italy. Do you remember those three kinds of fish, with salad of celery roots and apfelstrudel every Christmas Eve? There was turkey with almond stuffing on Christmas day, pheasants with red cabbage on St. Stephen's day, right after Christmas, pork roast on New Year's Day; never poultry or fish, so your luck would not fly or swim away from you. The first geese and ducks in late summers, tenderloin of beef with special sauce, the feasts when the butcher used to come twice during the winter to kill the pig and make sausages. That first white asparagus in the spring, those small "buchty" with sauce made of egg yolks and white wine. All the fun when the barrels of red and white wine came from Tirol, where father used to order it and when the whole family and school janitor bottled it, feeding the whole day on ham baked in a large loaf of rye bread.

Everything, people and the house was always given a full measure, nothing was cheated or sloppy. Mother had good taste, believed in quality, not only of behavior, but also of everything around her. The towels in the bathroom and the kitchen were always of linen, sheets, too, covers of damask, as was the table linen. Always perfectly white, smoothly ironed, the girls never had many dresses, but always of good quality; our petticoats and nightgowns had always ruffles of beautiful Swiss embroidery, which mother used to order directly from there. Just before the war of 1914-1918, mother had an opportunity to buy directly from the factory a large amount of velvets. And for years, all Prasilova girls were in velvet; Mila, light blue with a collar of white fur, Vera, a light violet with brown fur and I in black with a beaver collar and beaver around the circular skirt. All of us had shoes made to order from pelts of calves from the farm, which father was able to buy raw and have it cured. That was a time of elegance and father used to say: "Terusko, we really have some handsome children.”

Ljuba. Jara and Kytja were born in that big house. I remember every day of each birth quite vividly. Aunt Fanynka, the feeling of admiration and tenderness about the baby, elaborate christenings with Aunts Lea and Staza as godmothers, little golden coins behind their bibs and those christening feasts. With mother already up, prettier than ever.

Once a year, in May, when lilac was in full bloom, the whole family made an expedition to Kacina, a beautiful summer castle from the end of the seventeenth century, enclosed in a large park planted in the most exquisite kinds of lilacs, from pure white to the darkest red and purple, from single fragrant blooms to fullest clusters. And among the bushes, there were nests of nightingales coming back year after year.

Everybody got up that morning at four o'clock without any protest, settled in an old, large, horse-drawn carriage, and started for the twenty-mile trip. We usually arrived just in time to see the sunrise and to hear that sweet song of nightingales. We admired the lilacs and then all of us settled down to a picnic breakfast of coffee cakes and chocolate, kept hot on bricks. Those bricks, hot from the oven, wrapped in blankets, were also used to keep one's feet warm on winter trips by sleigh to our relatives in the country.

Another exciting trip was a yearly trip to Prague, never with all of us, just two, selected with a great deal of justice. That meant an evening in the Opera house, in the box of our uncle. Since then I have a hard time listening to Wagner; an evening with Parsifal at the age of thirteen was a dose just too large. But we have enjoyed many plays and operas and heard many concerts.

Our daily meals were always on the formal side. The table covered with white damask, all implements in their proper places, all of us around the table on time. The family was alone quite seldom. There were cousins and aunts; some of the cousins from the country stayed the whole school year. Mlle. Simon from Besancon and a young German boy from the Sudetenland, who were supposed to teach us French and German, but who were corrupted into learning Czech; Uncle Charles, unmarried brother of mother, debonair and worldly; grandmother from Mseno, who died in our house in 1922. Aunt Lea, Aunt Klouda, witty and gay, who played the piano so beautifully. And that lively group of gentlemen who came from Prague once a year to celebrate the feast of the pig's slaughter.

The house was always full, alive, running smoothly, orderly. And mother was able to find time to teach twice weekly at the high school. I can see her sitting in the midst of the living room at her desk, preparing her classes. There she was also working at her finances. Every expense was put down and there were many budgetary envelopes whose con­tents were shifted many times during the month. We were such a big family, there was never too much money, but we never had a feeling that there would not be enough for something important. Mother was a good housekeeper, a good organizer.

Our father was broadening his fields of activity. He was involved in the politics of the Agrarian party, which he saw in the light of an idealist, was lecturing in professional circles. The experimental farm was prospering, the garden bearing all that exquisite fruit and vegetables which father imported from all over Europe at the beginning of his management and which were grown up by now. Do you remember those pale, almost transparent peaches, which were espaliered on the walls of our house? Or those sweet, fragrant roses in the circle before our windows? On every day of October 15, the name day of Teresia, our mother, father got up earlier and brought in two bouquets of those roses, little nipped by frost. And there was one vase on the piano, one in the middle of our table, covered with the pink damask table cloth, the best china, festive pastry, and all of us children in starched dresses in a row waiting to recite our poems of well wishing, the youngest one always getting away by saying: "I am too small to learn a wish, so I shall say my little prayer for you."

Life was brisk, interesting, and happy. The core of it mother and father, united, loving, generous, with a sense of justice, demanding high standards and the best from themselves and from all of us. “Work does not lower a person, but a person can lower the work by doing it badly," was my mother's conviction. Father gave me for my fourteen year's birthday a diary in which he wrote in his careful handwriting with a French pen, this dedication: "The stricter you are with yourself and the softer with others, the happier your companions will be, and the more satisfied yourself." Not that I was able to apply it when needed, but I have never forgotten it.

The year of 1918 was very meaningful for all of us. It was October 28 when father assembled us all, including both maids and our wash lady in a circle in our living room and said: "Austria has lost, and we will have an independent republic of Czechoslovakia, with Thomas Masaryk for our president." And he was crying for joy, we with him, everybody was embracing everybody and everybody was happy. The little ones did not comprehend fully what was going on, but entered in the mood of celebration wholeheartedly. And then the era of new hope and new activities began. I went back to school; Mila left for Prague, to enter the New School of Social Work, Vera who was unhappy in Prague was making plans to go to study in Munich. After my graduation, I went to study in Prague, but I remember those happy weekends at home. There was such a strong feeling of belonging to our family and to all of you individually. Mila was always full of temperament and elan, Vera impressed me by her intellect and sense of perfection, Vlada was admired by all of us because he was male, strong, and with the charm of a good heart, Ljuba was such a beautiful girl with large green eyes and something mysterious, Jara gentle, sensitive, a little princess. And Kytja, the youngest, loved and admired by everybody, gay, natural and spontaneous.

I can see you all, my sisters and brother and I am so grateful for everyone of you, for our childhood and mostly for that lucky star which brought our mother and father together.

There were beautiful people...


December 1968


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