When we lived on South Campbell Avenue in Chicago, our pantry smelled like musty leather. One day, I discovered the source: a large white box bound with strips of rough muslin, addressed to my grandfather. "What's in there?" I asked him. "Mushrooms," he replied. Let's look."
My grandfather carefully unwrapped the package, layer by layer. Inside were hundreds of dried dark brown mushrooms, shrivelled up like small pieces of old candy wrappers. Grandpa sifted carefully through the layers and found a letter on the bottom. "Ah, here is." He slit the envelope with his pen knife and unfolded the thin brown paper. "From my sister in old country. Look."
The ink was smeared and shaky and the letter was long. I couldn't read the Russian writing so my grandfather did. After the flowery opening, my aunt wrote, "Joe, can you help us? All we eat is mushrooms. Everything is gone."
"What does she mean?" I asked. "They have nothing, no money, maybe potatoes, maybe one egg," my grandfather answered. "They are poor over there."
"Government takes with fist."
In 1969, we visited Prague on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion. They came with tanks and guns to end the Prague Spring and stayed. We were prohibited from visiting my aunt in the eastern part of the county. We could not bring her money, shoes, or clothing. And it would have taken two days to get there. Instead, we walked the streets of the old town and looked at the beautiful decaying buildings and the yellow flowers strewn over the statues.
We passed a small shop and a woman came out and motioned us inside. "Garnets, you like?" They knew who the tourists were. We went inside and the owner spoke to my mother in Czech, which we did not speak well. But we understood: "Mrs., go home and tell them that we have nothing. Tell them, tell them the Russians took it." We were Russian, but Americans, so I guess that didn't count.
My aunt had nothing in the 1950s; the shopkeeper had nothing in 1969. I was jolted by the bell over the door as a man walked in. "Sshhh," the shopkeeper said. She turned to my mother and said in Czech, "You like these?" Blood red garnets appeared on the dusty top of the glass case. "I have these ..." She displayed black crystals -- sparkling like coal on fire. "Good price." She started to write up a yellow ticket -- the equivalent of about $30.00 for gems and crystal set in silver.
The man looked around and left. The shopkeeper locked the door. "Mrs., no time left. Here, take these and tell them in America what is happening here. We have nothing. First the Germans and then the Russians."
We took our package and left, looking for a place to have lunch. The man from the shop watched us from the corner. My mother said, "Don't look at him. We are Americans. We are safe." I was glad my mother refused to surrender our passports when we arrived -- the bribes helped and the Intourist guide left us alone for a week. He had nothing, either, except a coat and a black hat. When we left for Switzerland, my mother tipped him $20 in American bills. He shoved them into his pocket. "Not here, not here, Mrs." He turned to leave and waved at us. "Thank you, and have a good trip."
I was happy to leave the ParkHotel, replete with audio bugs placed by its East German owners. At least it was clean and had orange juice from the Netherlands, eggs, and some meat if you paid extra. We hooked up with a Hungarian tourist who severely warned my mother about dealing on the black market. "Stop it," she said. "You will be arrested. You have two children with you." But my mother continued, not caring about the danger, only about the exchange rate: 60 crowns to the dollar on the black market, 20 on the official exchange.
On our last night, I was walking back to the hotel from a brilliant performance of Ladislav Fialka's Theater on the Balcony. Steps away from the theater, a taxi driver stopped me and said in English, "Girl, where is your hotel?" "What?" "Get in, get in!" I was stunned and did as he said. "I have uncle in Detroit," the driver said. "I know you are not Czech. Where is hotel?" I told him and he said, "If you walk alone at night, they think you are prostitutka and arrest you!" I was 16, I said. "It is dangerous here," the driver told me. "Don't do that again."
I was grateful to get back to the hotel and leave the next morning. I learned that the Fialka theater was prohibited from traveling to the West after 1969. I still have my garnets. When I wear them, I think about the shopkeeper and the man who followed us. And I think about the dried mushrooms, when no one had anything.