Czech Mate || James Stark

Sheila’s parents had lived through the sounds of German jackboots on their city’s cobblestone pavement. When Czechoslovakia was “liberated” from German occupation after World War II by the Red Army, her grandfather started writing articles for an unauthorized literary magazine about the new rulers. The Central Committee of the party that was backed by Soviet tanks rumbling over the same cobbled streets trashed his articles and he was threatened.  

“Study Engel’s The Origin of the Family and revise your thinking,” the Party member instructed. “Or else, you will be demoted. And worse.” 

Instead, Sheila’s tata and mamka decided to immigrate to America. Without passports. They crossed mountains and borders, sometimes on hands and knees. Sometimes hiding in barns. As Sheila’s father liked to tell it, they were “cancelled Czechs.” And Sheila often reflected on how she would react if she were ever “cancelled” like her grandparents.

In their new country the family immediately consoled themselves as strangers in a strange land by gathering with others from home to preserve and pass on their language and culture. Sheila and her siblings promised their parents to keep their heritage and ethnicity alive. But maybe not so much the language. 

Local Czech and Slavic societies welcomed the new citizens and their children to join in their several activities to keep attuned to the traditions of the Old World. There were folkdance nights with customs and costumes preceded by a dinner of pork schnitzel, and a savory suickova made with beef and dumplings in cream sauce. When Sheila lost her husband, mate, and friend, Victor, to cancer some years ago, the local Czech-American community rallied around her. They visited, and brought food and as much cheer as Sheila could accommodate  

Not long after Victor’s death, Sheila’s daughter, Tanya, married and moved across the country to join her engineer husband, Eric, with his new job. 

“I’m pregnant, Mom,” Tanya announced with typical young-expectant-mother exuberance, not long after her relocation.  

“How wonderful, Tanya,” Sheila said while acknowledging a mixture of emotions. One family member had died and now a baby was bringing joy and sunlight into her dark cloud of grief. She was happy for Tanya and Eric, and ecstatic to be a grandmother. But the euphoria was short-lived with the reality of the many-hours flying distance that separated her from her new grandbaby, for Sheila hated the cramped seats, the long waits, the burdensome check-ins, and the lousy food involved in air travel.

Soon after Tanya’s announcement, her son, Peter, returned home from a study abroad program in the new, democratic Czech Republic and announced that he had found Anika, the love of his life, in Prague where he was thinking of settling with her. Sheila, though happy to see Peter making contact with her own family’s ethnicity, was suddenly confronted with what many widows face: irreconcilable loneliness. Would she really be able to sit in airplanes and then take a train to the small town to visit Peter and Anika? But then the alternative was to lose Peter to his new life.

Anika came the next summer to meet Sheila and the immediate and extended family. She was quite a hit at first with the uncles, aunts, and especially the male cousins. She was undeniably pretty with her pale complexion, blond hair, and blue eyes. Anika oozed with charm, which she could turn on and off like a modern Delta water faucet. When she was alone with Sheila, however, the charm faucet scarcely dripped. She had her own flow of general criticisms of America: the obese people, the crime, the gun culture, the poverty, and street people. “Really?” Anika exclaimed after almost every sip of coffee. “In the richest country in the world, can there be all this extreme poverty next to so much wealth? You must know that is what caused the Russian Revolution so many years ago,” she declared as if she had personally experienced it. 

Sheila wondered what ill wind had blown this person into her life at this time. She had no real argument with Anika’s rants, but why the lack of understanding for the sadness of a mother facing yet another loss and dislocation in her life? How could this bright, pretty, self-assured young woman expect Peter’s mother to answer the barrage of complaints over that which she had no control. 

“You know, Anika, Peter would have a lot of opportunity here. And you would too. This is, after all a country of immigrants who do well. And the sky would be the limit for both of you and your combination of skills.” 

“We’ll see,” was Anika’s response, as she laid down the gauntlet to Sheila and anyone else standing in the way of her plans. 

“I’m sorry, Peter,” Anika said, as she readied herself to return to her life as art curator in Prague. “Though I love you, I just can’t see spending my life here. The ongoing crime and shootings stress me so much. How can anyone build a life among so much unpleasantness? And your government seems not to want to help its citizens, at least not its non-rich citizens.”  

“I don’t think about it much,” said Peter. 

“Exactly,” said the lovely, all-knowing Anika. 

Anika often commented with sneers about how the Czech culture Sheila and the others were trying to preserve no longer existed except in their imaginations and in some elderly peasant groups back home. She certainly saw no value in it, and was eager to let everyone know how foolish it was.   

Sheila acknowledged that the local attempts to retain something of their families’ cultural heritage seemed out of touch, but they had deeper significance than Anika’s off-hand dismissals. The songs, dances, foods, and stories were ways of keeping alive the memories of parents and grandparents who had endured pain and hardship by leaving their homes, villages, friends, and work to provide a better life for their children. It seemed so ironic to Sheila that the impulses to provide a better life for self and family no longer applied to the American experience. Anika insisted she wanted Peter to share a better life in Europe. Sheila had not missed the Kafka reference Anika made by spelling Amerika with a k in her emails. 

And when it was close to time to leave, Anika announced to a conflicted Peter in her flawless, unaccented English, “No way can I live here, Peter, my dear. How can you expect me to raise children in this violent atmosphere? Not to mention the inadequate schools and the family unfriendly healthcare and leave policies.” 

What had attracted Anika to Peter in the first place? Besides being handsome and intelligent? After all, Peter was a product of this country; the one Anika seemed to despise so much. But then, Peter was also a product of the new global economy. He belonged to the new species of migratory birds that could alight and nest at will wherever their skills were in high demand. Anika also possessed technical and linguistic skills, and had even interviewed at Microsoft and some other tech companies here in Seattle and the Bay Area.  

These were the new rhythms of the expat steps modern young people danced to who were engaged in international affairs of the heart. Visas and uncertainty formed the background music. 

“Even with work, it’s not going to be so easy, you know, Mom,” Peter explained. 

“I can only get a visa for three months at a time to stay in the country and at the job and then I’ll have to go away for some time and then reapply for a tourist visa for another three months. My hope is that the company can help me get a longer-term visa.”

“You could always come home while you’re waiting,” said Sheila, thinking like a chess player trying to compete with Anika’s obvious advantage. 

As departure day arrived, at first Sheila saw only Anika’s packed bags at the front door, and sighed in relief. But shortly Peter appeared dutifully from upstairs with his own bags while saying his goodbyes by phone to his sister, Tanya. 

“Goodbye, Mom,” he said with downcast eyes. He only noticed his mother’s tears when she hugged him to her.

Over Peter’s shoulder, Sheila could see a triumphant look filling Anika’s face as she maneuvered her pieces around the chessboard.

“Mom, there’s always Skype,” said Peter. “For me and for Tanya, don’t forget.”

“I know, dear,” she said as she thought how wonderful that particular technology would have been for earlier generations.

A few months later Sheila’s heart jumped at her computer’s Skype alert. Excited to speak with Peter, she was reduced to a forced smile and expressions of good wishes to Anika and Peter at his announcement that due to the awkwardness of the visa system Anika had insisted they get married in order for him to stay permanently. 

“I won’t need to leave now, Mom,” he proclaimed.

“Oh well,” she thought after congratulating him…and Anika, “I guess having an ill-tempered Czech mate is better than having a completely canceled Czech.”

James Stark writes what he knows where he lives in the Pacific Northwest which often serves as a backdrop for his characters’ conflicts. He is retired from teaching and devotes much of his time to writing and classical guitar. He has since authored a novel and three collections of short stories.

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