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Memories Between the Memories of my Mind

By Magdalena (Lee) Prunkl (nee Dittrich)

 

        Almost all Canadians came from somewhere else.  Some came out of choice; others came to reunite with their family members, still others fled tyranny and poverty.  Most immigrants arrive with a dream of a better life than the one they left behind.  They bring with them a few trunks and suitcases and a lot of cultural baggage. 

 

        My very early roots go back to the old country where my parents, their parents, and their grandparents came from.   It was a little town in Yugoslavia (now Serbia), which belonged to several different countries over the years, so it had many different names.  Its names were- Szsecenfalva in Hungarian and Secenova in Yugoslavian.  When we were there it was called Setschanfeld and that was the German way of pronouncing it.  Now it’s called Duzine.

 

        These are a few early memories I have of Setschanfeld.  Sundays were a day of rest.  Everyone in the village was catholic so we all had to go to church Sunday mornings.  When the church bells chimed everyone left their homes, for it was only a very short distance to the church.  It was also a custom when anyone passed the church to make the sign of the cross.  Also, at either end of the village there was a huge cross and on the way to the fields for the day’s work, people would kneel in thanks and pass on their way.

 

        A newborn baby’s first trip outside would be to the church to get baptized when it was about 2 or 3 days old.  The custom was for the godfather to have his pockets full of candy and the village children would gather outside the church.  As they came out, he would start throwing candy and the children would grab and dive for it.  At this time may I mention that my husband, Frank Prunkl, and I have the same godfather.  His name was also Frank Prunkl.

 

Summer evenings, after chores were done, most people went out to the front of the house, where they would sit and enjoy a few peaceful moments.  But before too long, a neighbor would come along for a friendly chat, talking about the day’s happenings.  That would last far into the evening.

 

        In fall, when the corn was ripe, it was harvest time.  It was brought home by horse and wagon, dumped in the back of the yard, where in the evenings by the light of a full moon, neighbors and friends would gather to help with the husking.  It was then put into storage for feed or seed for the following spring.  Evenings like that was an evening to look forward to.  It was a chance to get caught up on the village gossip or small bits of news from outside the village.  The harvest moon was the only light in the yard, unless a coal oil lamp was lit.  The men and women sat long into the night, while the older children would romp and play in the shadows.

 

        As spring returned, the birds arrived from their winter homes.  One such bird was the ever graceful stork returning from South Africa.  It was said to be good luck to have a stork build on one’s roof or chimney.  With their heads thrown back, they would let out a long crackling sound that could be heard for a long distance to claim their territory for a nesting site.  Many times they returned to their old nest and just added a few more sticks.

 

Sometimes on hot summer days, mom and dad would hitch up the horses and we could go to a river called “The Bega”, where we would go wading to get cooled off.  The women would wear their petticoats and the men would just go in their underwear or pants.

Saturday was Market Day.  The farmers, peddlers, and local people would come from far and wide to sell their wares or buy whatever they could use.  It was a fun day, where often I would look for my grandmother on my mother’s side (Eva Kaip Pflanzner), who I remember wearing a long black fully gathered skirt with a small hidden pocket in the pleats.  She always reached in for a few pennies called “finf und tzwanzic bara”.  Well it didn’t take me long to spend it on candy (a black licorice).  Believe me, we didn’t have a choice of candy like we do today.  The market place was in the center of town, beside the school.  With chickens cackling, children squalling, and the loud bargaining of the people, it was all a part of the way of life.   

 

        I remember well the day I got a brand new rubber ball, one of the few toys I ever got, and the only way to carry a ball when not in use was to have a crochet sack that mom had made.  I hung it around my neck and there we would have our ball to play with in a minute’s notice or maybe to show off our brand new ball.  All the other games we played were simple and homemade, like the wagon wheel hoop, which with a stick to guide it would roll down the street just about as far as we could run.

 

        By the time the children reached 9 or 10, they already had their own chores to help ease the workload.  Often adults were up at 4am to start the day’s work, looking after the live stock before heading to the fields.  After they milked the cows and fed the pigs, they would hitch up the horses and drive them to the fields on the outskirts of the village.  The elderly stayed home with the children and looked after the chores, such as making butter and cheese.  They would let the pigs and cows out onto the streets when the cow herder came to lead them out to pasture for the day.  In the evening, the gate was opened and as they made their way homeward, every cow and pig knew exactly which home was theirs.

 

        The village had two artesian wells.  One was to the entrance to the village and the other was at the other end, towards the east.  All their livestock was taken in the early morning to the well before heading to pasture and again in the evening, before heading home.  The well itself was a long cement trough with a pipe driven into the ground, where water flowed continuously, day and night, year after year.  The runoff formed a body of water, where the people of the town made their own bricks with mud and straw, using a form that made about a dozen at a time.  After drying them for about a month, they were used for building.

 

        Horses were very much necessary to work the field, transportation, and, of course, a sign of social prestige.   Anyone with a good horse was very proud indeed and looked upon as a man with means.

 

        At times, the school children were taken along to the field, where they would play in the shade of a tree or in the shade of the wagon.  For lunch, a thick piece of bacon was put in a white sack with bread.  By the time lunch rolled around, the bread had a very appetizing bacon smell and taste, and of course by this time the workers were ready for a hearty meal.  How well I remember my father coming home and us girls running for his lunch sack in hopes of finding a bit of leftovers.  We called it “Hosa Brot” meaning “Rabbit Bread”.

 

        It was a hard life, but they also had their happy times.  My mother recalled, with fond memories, the good times they had at the dances, where as young ladies they would dance late into the night, then home to do the chores and a few hours sleep, and back to the dance hall.  Weddings were another fun time.  Sometimes they would last for several days and there was always much to eat and drink.  It was another reason to celebrate.

 

        Another special occasion was All Saints Day.  That was on the 31st of October.  Nearly everyone would go to the cemetery at night and light candles on the graves and pray for the dead.  As a youngster I remember playing hide-n-seek among the graves and in the shadows of the headstones.

 

        The people of this small European town took great pride in the appearance of their homes and were always washing and painting.  The village itself was a picture out of the past, with nothing ever changing.  Life seemed to have been at a standstill for centuries and very little ever changed.  Very few strangers moved in unless a village lass or young man married an outsider.

 

        I went back 50 years later for a visit.  Things were still the same, although the houses were in great need of paint and repair.  The people lived and died without ever leaving the village, unless it was to go to Belgrade to see a doctor.

 

        One day my mother was at her grandmother’s house, when she happened to see a letter on the table from (?), which really gave her the first thought of leaving.  It didn’t take her long to make up her mind.  She started to inquire, writing letters back and forth for one year to the immigration office in Petrovgrad.  My mother had a half-brother (John Pflanzner) who was living in Kelowna, British Columbia at that time.  He had gone to Regina, Saskatchewan in 1922 with his mother (Margaretha Pflanzner), his father and his grandmother.  My father went along with mom’s wishes, realizing that there was no future there for his family.

 

        After they received all their papers, all plans went ahead and mom and dad sold what little they belongings they had.   Dad’s father (Franz Dittrich) agreed to give dad half the money for the house, which gave them just enough to make up the difference for what they needed and what was required for entrance into Canada.  We gathered up only our most valuable possessions, and several feather comforters, which was a number one priority when a young girl got married.  My mother was still using hes 42 years later.  She made one for each of her daughters, although I gave mine to my sister, Liz, years back.

 

        The trip in Canadian funds cost 676.88 - 200 per adult and ½ fare for the girls.  We also had one thousand dollars in case.  With great excitement the day grew closer and we were a young family with a spirit of adventure.  It must surely have been the biggest thing that happened in Setschanfeld for many years, for the whole village was talking about the Dittrich’s leaving for a land they knew little about.  Leaving a home, never to return, surely took great courage.  Friends and family gathered and offered good luck and farewell wishes.  Many thought we were doing the wrong thing; others envied us.  In those years people did not travel a great distance, not knowing what lay ahead.  We left by train from Setschanfeld, August 28, 1938.  We boarded the ship, “Duchess of Richmond” in Cherbourg, France.

 

        Once upon a time, there were years when we were young, when our parents and grandparents were young.  In those years since the turn of the century, our world has turned upside down, right-side up, and sideways.  And in those once-upon-a-time years, life seems kinder than it really was.  But no matter how we try, these days somehow leave their silhouettes behind, like smoke wishing up a chimney. 

 

        Time! Oh turn back! Just for today, and make us all children again even though we cannot stay.  Let us relive those days, so close or hazy in my memories - so far in real time.