BIRCH BARK HAT
May 27, 1920
Squatting on the crescent of rock jutting out from the creek’s edge, six-year-old Celeste released onto it her bundle of forest treasure while staring into the soft flowing gray-green water. Sniffing deeply, her nose filled with the scent of mud and new green as she wiggled her toes inside her shoes and looked up at grandmother with hopeful eyes. “May I today, Gamma?” she asked.
Glancing at the houses on the hillcrest overlooking the creek, Gamma winced. News traveled fast in small towns. No doubt those glassy eyes would report them on the grassy slope, shoeless, sockless, skirts pulled up to their knees, splashing their feet, prompting another lecture from Myrtle on dangers to her daughter’s health. But none of that had ever stopped Gamma before, so she wrinkled her nose like a rabbit and nodded. Celeste’s laugh gurgled in harmony with the stream as she unlaced her ankle-high shoes, pulled off her socks, rolled her canvas skirt above her knees and tiptoed into the creek, sucking small breaths at every step.
“Too cold?” Gamma asked, tucking her hem into her waistband.
“Oh, noooo,” Celeste said, biting her lower lip as Gamma stepped in.
“Ouff! Is freezing! You make me a joke!”
Squealing, Celeste clutched her sides, teetering in the water.
“You pixie! Quick now, hand me the bark.”
Still giggling, Celeste passed her the long strip of birch bark they’d found on their walk, and watched Gamma submerge it in the water, gently working the edges with her fingers, pulling and bending the bark to soften it. Lulled by the babbling water tumbling over the rock clusters, Celeste swayed to its melody.
“But in truth, I confess,” Gamma broke the reverie as she lifted the bark out of the water, shaking off the drips: “To grandmamma, I make a joke, too.”
Celeste cocked her head. “Here?”
“Ne. In Bohemia, where we live. Come close now. I measure.”
Scooting over a rock, Celeste stood still as Gamma circled the bark around her head and marked her size with a small tear. “But how will it stick?” she asked as they settled on the embankment.
“Notches.” Gamma set the bark on her lap and adjusted her eyeglasses. “Six notches of The Bohemian Way.”
“Bo-MEEN-he-ahhhn,” Celeste slowly ventured, hissing with the water.
“Bo-HE-me-ahn,” Gamma corrected, positioning her fingers on the papery bark so Celeste could see. “One notch for each Way,” she said and recited them with each tear. “Truth, Courage, Openness, Curiosity, Creativity, Love.” She then offered the bark to Celeste. “Now you. Six notches on other side.”
Drying her hands on her canvas jacket, Celeste studied Gamma’s work before cautiously making her first tear.”
“Good,” Gamma nodded. “First for Truth, which no one can know but you.”
Celeste blinked a few times before making the second tear.
“Second for Courage, to follow your heart whispers.”
Tentatively nodding, Celeste made her next tear.
“Third for Openness, to embrace what come your way.”
Feeling warmth in her chest, Celeste made two tears in quick succession, but Gamma kept up with her.
“Fourth for Curiosity of what beckons; and fifth for Creativity in all you do.”
Celeste poised her fingers to make the last tear, feeling the roughness of the bark on her fingertips and paused, her eyes twinkling. “Sixth for Love?”
Gamma nodded, her fingers fanning down the row of notches. “Yah, sixth for Love; first of yourself, from inside to out. These are the roots of our Bohemian Way, in your bark hat for always remembering.” She then showed Celeste how to interlock the notches, fitting the band of bark to her head perfectly. “Now add a bit of fluff,” Gamma pointed to the collection of forest treasures on the rock. “And you make fine Bohemian Hat of ancient time.”
Sliding off the bank, Celeste stood in the water surveying her cache on the quarter moon rock: a long vine, a few squiggly-edged leaves, three feathers from the geese who visit the creek, moss from the north side of a tree, and their prize: a translucent snakeskin, which they’d almost missed in the slant of afternoon sun. Carefully unhooking the notches, Celeste laid the bark flat, grabbed a fat, pointed stick and began boring holes along its edge. “Is this how you made clothes in Bohemia?” she asked.
Gamma looked at her skirt and laughed. “With bark? Ne. We use fabric and thread, same like here.” In her mind’s eye she saw herself as a girl, furiously working her needle in the dim glow of hearth and oil lamp, days before her departure to America. “But I was the sewing machine,” she said, looking at her worn hands. “These fingers.”
“Me too,” Celeste added, stripping the leaves off a vine and holding it up. “And this is my thread! Like Bohemian of ancient times!”
“Like Bohemian.” Gamma trailed off as her mind flooded with images of the family she’d left behind so many years ago in the mountains beyond Prague. When she was too young to realize what she was trading away. When all she wanted was to flee the pain her carelessness had caused. Recalling the row of ancient stone shelters built on the ravine’s crest with a sweet water creek at its bottom, her crystalline eyes misted, making Celeste and the creek a lovely blur. How odd to find herself so far from home beside a similar creek with a blue-eyed granddaughter of her own.
“But what is a Bohemian?” Celeste asked.
Startled, Gamma shook herself awake. Here it was, finally, the question she’d been hoping to hear and waiting to answer. She cleared her throat. “A Bohemian is born in the country of Bohemia, like me.”
“Near New York?” It was the only place Celeste knew other than Connecticut.
“Ne, ne. Much more far. Across ocean,” Gamma said, then sighed deeply. “But last year, after big war, they change our name. To Czechoslovakia. But for me is always Bohemia, home of the Boii, ancestors of our blood.”
Celeste blinked. She didn’t understand what Gamma had said, but she liked the tone of her voice; her storytelling voice when they snuggled up close at bedtime. “What’s an an-sess-tor?” she asked, weaving the vine through the holes in the bark.
As the afternoon sun melted in the treetops, casting long shadows across the hillside, Gamma shifted her hips. “Olden family of long ago time.”
“Who’s my olden family?” Celeste picked up the snakeskin.
“The same as me, Boii Celts.”
Gamma laughed. “T, not P – Celt. Who live east of Europe …”
Celeste brightened. “Like Ede! She was born in Italy. That’s in Europe! She showed us on the school map.”
Gamma nodded. “Yah, Italy is Europe, but Celts first live more north and east, near Mountains Caucasus. My grandfather’s stories tell of the long travel they make to find a new home, in land we call Bohemia …”
“Like when you and Mama and Papa moved from New York?”
“Poofh,” Gamma blew the air. “If only so easy. Our ancestors have much harder, more dangerous journey. You like to hear?”
Widening her blue eyes, Celeste nodded as she carefully slipped the edge of the snakeskin under the threaded vine while listening to Gamma’s story of the Boii Celts’ journey through deserts, around mountains and across snowy steppes until they came to a wide basin of beautiful land with bounteous plants, animals, rivers and forests.
“Bohemia?” Celeste deduced.
“Yah. Home of the Boii.”
Holding up a feather, Celeste twirled it near her nose. It smelled wild. “What should I do with this?”
“How you like? Indian princess?”
Celeste smiled, and Gamma showed her where to bore the holes to hold it.
“But Gamma, where did they live? In a house like ours, or castle?”
“Humph. First caves, I think.”
Celeste’s mouth dropped open. “Caves? With spiders and bugs?”
Gamma shrugged. “Not so bad, out of wind and rain, eh? And what are castles? Big caves built by men.”
Celeste thought of the castle in her storybook. “So did they build a castle?
“In time. But first a house with sticks, stone, mud and grass for roof.”
“Grass for roof?!” Celeste peeled in laughter.
“Yah. What the land give, they use. No hardware store like your Papa’s to buy things. From scratch they make what they need, just like your hat.”
“Just like my hat.” Celeste repeated. “What should I do next?”
Leaning into the creek, Gamma drew a handful of musty-smelling mud. “Mud-glue for sticking,” she said and plopped it on the rock, swirling it with her fingers.
Celeste wrinkled her nose at the musty smell and picked up a stick to stir it. “But Gamma, with no stores, what did they eat?”
“What earth provide: animal meat, goat milk and cheese, plants from forest and field. Ah! Look!” Gamma pointed to a cluster of green across the creek. “The leaves, bouncing on the water … is watercress. Grew also in my creek. Quick now, get us some.”
Yanking up her skirt, Celeste splashed to the bobbing cascade of small, round, tender greens, easily ripped a handful from the mound and hopped back.
Inhaling its fresh, woody smell, Gamma nibbled a few leaves. “Mmmmm, spring smell. Try some, my little Bohemian.”
Sniffing, Celeste gave it a lick but wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like it.”
“Augh, when I your age, me neither. But every day I must gather for supper.”
With the tangle of stems still in hand, Celeste turned back to her rock table and stretched out the watercress in a long string, tucking it around the snakeskin. “I love making birch hats,” she murmured.
“Is in your blood.”
“Making beautiful things. Making art. From everything, Bohemians make art.”
Celeste’s face opened wide. “Like what?”
“Beads, sculptures, paintings, cloth, with bright colors ground from stones and crushed flowers. And carved designs on the boats, tools, bowls. Everything they see and touch, they make more beauty, more art.”
Celeste had stopped working on her hat to watch her grandmother speak. She liked how Gamma’s eyes were sparkling. Then she sighed quietly, “I like Bohemia. Will you take me?”
“Oh yes, dítě. Is my great pleasure.”
“Your Papa I took at sixteen.”
Celeste’s eyes clouded. Sixteen seemed forever away.
Gamma laughed. “Seems long, but I have many pillow stories to tell before we go.”
Celeste’s expression popped, remembering the strange and magical images on Gamma’s needlepoint pillows. “Like the singing goat, pooping little green hearts?”
“Yah, yah … goat, green hearts and more.” Gamma lifted her arms overhead. “Like ancient ancestors, I call Oghma, Bohemian god of wisdom, for guidance to tell history, and the secret of heart’s content.”
Having finished mud-gluing the leaves on her hat, Celeste leaned down, washed her fingertips and then sniffed them, making sure the mustiness was gone. “What’s heart’s content?” She asked.
Gamma leaned forward and drew a circle around Celeste’s chest. “Inside your heart are special clues to find the life meant just for you. But it speaks not in words, so you must listen well to understand its meaning. And when you do, you will have the dearest friend to help find your deepest truth, from inside to out, and the quiet happiness of a life fulfilled. This is heart’s content. This is Bohemian Way.”
Celeste looked up at the pinkish clouds and deepening blue sky, trying to understand. Then she picked up her decorated hat and laid it on Gamma’s lap.
“This is my heart’s content,” she said softly.
“The birch hat?”
“Making it,” she said, admiring the feathers, leaves, snakeskin and vine.
“Ah, making it! In you, the Bohemian blood runs deep.”
Sitting together, they silently admired the hat and each other as the sky’s pink faded to soft gray. Looking up, Gamma tapped Celeste’s legs.
“Come now, put on shoes. Time to wear your hat home proud.”
Vigilantly watching from her kitchen window as the sun set, Myrtle let out a big sigh when she saw Gamma and Celeste finally appear on the crest of the hill. Squinting in the waning light, she scrutinized their ambling figures and asked aloud: “What in heaven’s name is on her head?”
Martin rose from the kitchen table and peered beyond his wife, seeing his mother and daughter heading toward the house. He knew instantly. “A bark hat. Made one as a boy.”
Myrtle scoffed. “Where could you find bark on the docks of New York?”
Pulling his ear, Martin shook his head. “Every now and again Mother would take me to the country. When I was around Celeste’s age, we found a creek and made a bark hat together. Took all day.” Martin reached for a glass off the window sill and drew water from the kitchen tap. “She showed me how to curl the bark as we stood in the creek.” He gently inhaled, sucking air through his teeth, still able to smell the mix of grass, mud and bark from that day. “I loved that hat, but it got crushed on the trolley ride home. Never made another.” Keeping time with the jaunty step of his daughter as she crossed the grass toward the house, he recited: “Truth, Courage, Openness, Curiosity, Creativity, Love.” Sighing deeply, he returned to the kitchen table and his opened newspaper.
“So did they live there forever?” Celeste swung her grandmother’s arm.
“Our ancestors, the Bohemians.”
“For long, long time there, until one day some strangers – warriors – attack them.”
“Meanies!” Celeste cried, thinking of the boy in kindergarten who smushed her painting.
“Big meanies! Many of our ancestors run far away, to other countries. But some stay, hiding in mountain until warriors leave and is safe again. That is our family story, which I tell another day.”
Holding on to her hat, Celeste carefully climbed the porch steps and ran into the kitchen, beaming. “Mama, Papa, look what we made today! A birch bark hat!”
Pushing aside his paper, Martin held out his arms, lifting his daughter to his lap. “Ah, you lucky girl. A Bohemian birch bark hat!” Closely examining her work, he named each treasure she’d used. “What a fine, fine job you’ve done, my dearest Celeste. Quite a talent you’ve got,” and he kissed her cheek with a loud smack.
Giggling, Celeste slid off his lap and crossed to her mother at the stove. “And Gamma said she’ll tell me all her story pillows and take me to Bohemia, when I’m older.”
Smiling, Myrtle cooed in return. “Very nice, I’m sure, but you’d best go wash for supper. Martin, would you help her, please?”
As Celeste scooted off hand-in-hand with her father, Myrtle’s smile disappeared. Turning to her cooking pots, she vigorously stirred the soup, banging the wooden spoon against the sides. Stopping abruptly, she faced the table, “I won’t have it,” she spurted at Gamma, waving her spoon, “Filling my child’s ears with your Bohemian nonsense. She’s a modern girl in modern times who won’t be needing any silly past, so I’ll thank you not to talk about it, ever again.”
Gamma’s jaw dropped then promptly shut. Glancing down the hall to make sure Martin and Celeste were not returning, she steeled her eyes at her daughter-in-law. “What you say, Myrtle? Celeste should have no past? You erase your family and now her father’s, too? So she come from nothing? No heritage? No ancestors? No stories for learning?”
“Ancestors? Ancestors!” Myrtle retorted, waving her spoon erratically. “What difference did they make to me? Vile memories I spit on. She don’t need that blackness, and I’ll not have it rob her chance for a better life – better than yours or mine. Better than a shopkeeper’s wife. She’s my daughter, and I say: speak no more Bohemian bile.”
Pushing herself from the table, face empty of emotion, Gamma stepped toward Myrtle. “I cannot do what you ask. Your child she is, but Martin’s, too. In their blood is history, beauty, knowledge and heritage that long survives on earth. As mother, is your right to raise her as you want. But grandmother has obligation, too.”
Myrtle coiled for a fresh retort, but Gamma raised her hand for silence. “Between you and me, Myrtle, I know is not right. Is not easy, living under my roof all your married life; but is the fate of our hearts, which we can fight or make right. Celeste is yours to raise, but in other way, she’s mine. So this promise I make: Your wish for her I will not undo, but my heart demand I answer true any questions she may ask.”
The slight arch of Gamma’s eyebrow caused Myrtle to blanch and tightly purse her lips. Squeezing the spoon in her hand, she opened her mouth to reply but turned back to the stove as the bathroom door banged and Martin and Celeste returned from washing their hands.