I stare at a blank page. I haven’t written for a while, since over the last year or more I have started sliding down toward the fractious and unruly netherworld of politics and contention. I don’t want to be there. Staying abreast of the issues of the day is a good thing, but, well, it’s been hard to think of writing. I want to take a rest from hearing and writing about the hate groups, the deceptions and evasiveness of public officials, the accusations, the guns and shootings, the marches, the relentless wars and the shutdown of merciful welcome to refugees. I need a change of subject, at least here.
Tomorrow is the first of March, a very special day that always recalls a very special time for me, my years in Bulgaria. Let me tell you a story. This is from my book, A Breeze in Bulgaria. It was Baba Marta Day, a Saturday. The excitement had been building at the school where I taught, peaking on the day before with all the students giving each other red and white bracelets and pendants like wearable valentines made of yarn and string. Stormy and I were at home on the big day, grading papers. You can only stand that for so long, especially on a holiday…
Baba Marta and a Prayer for Dyado Petko
March 1 was Baba Marta Day, the day of “Grandmother March.” For weeks before Baba Marta Day each year the center of town was crowded with tables where people were selling martenitsas, a sea of red and white yarn bracelets and pendants. In front of the bus station and in front of cafés and on street corners, old women and old men patiently offered martenitsas for sale on tables and ironing boards and laundry racks.
On the first of March everyone would give the colorful woven yarn charms to each other, and say “Chestita Baba Marta.” The custom required tying bracelets on someone’s wrist, or pinning on a yarn ornament while saying something like “Red for health and white for the happiness I wish for you.” The martenitsas were worn until sighting the first stork of the season, or the first swallow, or if the birds were too slow then seeing the first flower blossom would do. The arrival of spring! Then the martenitsas are removed and tied on the nearest fruit tree, or placed under a rock, to ensure good fertility of the trees or the soil. We had seen the bits of yarn in trees near the blok, the red faded to pink from the year before, and at first we wondered what that was all about.
Grandmother March, the story went [one story anyway], lived on top of a mountain where she could see all the children. When the children were good she smiled and the weather was nice. But when they were not, well, you’ve always known how changeable the weather in March can be, in like a lion… now you know why. It was all up to the children and whether they made Baba Marta smile.
We took some martenitsas when we visited the neighbors who lived on the fourth floor. We knew that Dyado [Grandpa] Petko had gone to the hospital for a heart operation the week before, and that he came back with his leg amputated…. Petko was resting on a bed in the kitchen. We exchanged martenitsas with the couple and dear young Ginka, and visited awhile. Petko said he had a lot of pain, but he could move what was left of his leg and that was good. It was not diabetes, not cancer; just that when he went in to the hospital he had a leg, and while he was there they said it was no good and they had to take it off. It was pretty bad that one day you have health and everything is fine, he said, and the next day you’re not even all there. He also said that in a year he would be able to get a prosthesis.
They offered rakiya and sausages. Grandmother Gencha asked if I liked the sauerkraut I bought from their friends, and mentioned that we should be sure to return the jar. There were no secrets in this town about sauerkraut jars. It nagged us though, that some kind of secret was being kept from Petko, or some knowledge that no one would take the time to give him and his family, about what happened to his leg.
Ginka said she had lit candles in the church and said prayers for Petko. He offered the speculation that if she hadn’t done that he might have lost the other leg too. Gencha shushed him on that.
We said we’d send up a prayer too, that afternoon. Stormy had heard about a town, Rakovski, that was known as the Catholic center of Bulgaria. The population of that small enclave was something like 98% Roman Catholic. We wanted to go there that afternoon since they would probably have Saturday Mass, and see what it would be like. Petko thanked us for the intended prayer and said whatever kind of church it would be sent from was fine with him.
We got to the bus station a little late, with it having been hard to leave from our visit with Petko. It was about a minute before the departure time for the bus to Plovdiv, where we would connect to Rakovski. Since we didn’t have enough time to go in and buy the ticket, we asked the driver if we could pay him, and he said, “Sure.” The drivers kept an onboard stock of tickets for people getting on and off at intermediate stops, with little receipts to fill out for that purpose. After we paid and he filled out the trip information on the receipts, he unfastened a “reserved” sign from the front passenger seat and welcomed us to it. He had martenitsas hanging from the rear view mirror. Stormy thanked him for the ride when we got off in Plovdiv, and he smiled and wished us Chestita Baba Marta.
As we approached the town of Rakovski on the bus out of Plovdiv, the church stood out on the skyline like a giant fortress. We knew it wasn’t an Orthodox church because the bell tower was part of the building, not a separate structure. There were no signs identifying the name of the church, the Mass times, or anything else. But it looked Catholic.
It was just about time for the 4:00 PM daily Mass, so we went in. About twenty parishioners were scattered here and there around the church: four teenage girls, a young nun, and everyone else women in their seventies and eighties. The woman entering ahead of us picked up a slender candle and paid her ten stotinki, as indicated by a small sign lettered in pencil on a piece of cardboard, and set it unlit on a little sand-tray stand. Half a dozen candles stood together in the tray, all unlit. I guessed that they would light them during Mass, as part of a ceremony. Stormy followed suit, paying the fee and setting two candles in the stand without lighting them. We were used to carefully observing what we saw other people doing, for cues on how to act. Observe, evaluate, adapt. Here of all places, in a Roman church, would be the time to “do as the Romans do.”
The pews were straight-backed wooden benches. They were movable, not fastened to the floor. Kneelers, plain boards with no padding, were fixed in place on the back of each bench, to be used by the worshipers in the next row back. Counting and multiplying benches and rows, as I often did by habit, I found the church had 150 seats. As gigantic as it looked from the outside, I would have thought there would have been more than that.
Painted murals depicting biblical scenes were everywhere, on the walls and on the ceilings, and “unorthodox” statues in various places around the sanctuary. The statue of St. Joseph, on the right as always in the Roman churches, was marked with a label in Latin letters, the only non-Cyrillic writing in the place. The stations of the cross were all in their familiar positions counterclockwise starting from the left front, and they consisted of framed pictures. Above the choir loft in the rear of the church was a painting that was familiar from catechism books and countless holy cards collected by generations of Catholic schoolchildren – a Guardian Angel watching over a little boy and girl as they cross a turbulent stream on a footbridge under storm-darkened skies. Comfort, security, reassurance.
The priest came out with three altar boys. The boys wore white satin cassocks with broad red stripes down the front, looking very liturgical. During the Mass the boys did not recite any of the prayers or the responses. They took care of the hosts and wine and water and rang the bells, and at other times stood and smirked at each other as if sharing an inside joke. The Mass had a familiar rhythm to it, and the people recited all the responses and longer prayers in the monotone of lifelong habit. The teenage girls led songs. Everyone sang. The girls did the readings. The “Peace be unto you” ritual greeting was subdued, with a hand touch rather than handshakes or hugs, and a murmured Posdrave, meaning simply “Greetings.”
After Mass, we saw that the unlit candles had been taken out of the stand and put back in the box with the ten-stotinki sign on it. The good intentions they carried would have to make it to heaven without the little flames to propel them. We would not mention that to Petko.
A little knot of congestion formed at the doorway as people bunched up to leave, for the same reason as in Orthodox churches. Each of the faithful, before leaving, paused to kiss the image of Christ just inside the door. In an Orthodox church it would be an icon in a picture frame or iconostasis, but here the same ritual was observed with the sculpted figure of Christ on the crucifix.
The priest asked us what brought us to town, and ventured a guess that we were visiting our parents. We had heard before that Stormy, at least, “looks very Bulgarian” but still the supposition took us by surprise. He was interested to learn that we had come all the way from Pazardjik just to go to church there in Rakovski. He was becoming preoccupied by the teenagers putting martenitsas on his wrist as we said goodbye.
We walked around the neighborhood a bit, took some pictures of a giant stork nest on top of the church and an old stone tower out in a nearby cornfield, then caught the bus back to Plovdiv as the sun was sending golden streaks out of the west on its way down. The driver on the bus from Plovdiv to Pazardjik was the same one who had brought us there six hours before, who had sold us the tickets onboard. He smiled in recognition as he took our tickets, and again waved us into the “reserved” front seat. It was dark when we got home. It felt like a pretty full day, this Baba Marta Day, just a visit with the neighbors and going to church.