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The basket

By Atanas Slavov / November 8, 1982



Mother filled the basket on Mondays and Thursdays - the days at the City Jail for contacting prisoners. She rode the bus through the park, then crossed the city by tram, and waited for hours at the reception gate, but they wouldn't take any food for father. She carried honey and walnuts and biscuits and fruits, mainly pears from our garden. Father was a vegetarian and couldn't eat the meals he was given, with the exception of the half pound of black bread a day that came with them.

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One morning the receptionist said to her, ''Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Your children are hungry now and you are carrying honey for that traitor of the people!'' So, she changed the honey to plain sugar and the homemade biscuits to cheap industrial crackers to nullify anything that might seem like affection for a husband, but continued her cruises across Sofia.

Father had been arrested in September. The days and weeks rolled over the year's edge, and there were no more pears left on the trees he had planted ten years ago.

Everyone who had been arrested with him had someone waiting in front of the jail, and as the days ran by everyone else's basket was gradually accepted, and now in the late November fog, only mother was climbing off the bus, her hands heavy with her foolish crackers and sugar crumbs.

We used to wait for her in the yard, my sisters Lilliana and Maria, and I, worried by the paleness of her face. She would cross the stone path and say, ''They didn't accept your father's basket!'' although it was obvious that they hadn't. Then she would disappear into the kitchen, her eyes cold blue with dignity, never pointing in our direction.

She was determined to stand erect in front of that jail door at every break of dawn, for she knew father was starving by then and that he needed that sugar badly. But it was not the nourishing which was the most important thing. There was a chance that he would be given permission to accept food, and she had to be at that spot, at that moment. Otherwise, cut off as he was from the entire world , father might be forced to believe that he had been deserted, even by his family. And that was the main weapon in the Stalinist style of crushing men's power of resistance: to make them believe they are despised by their families, by their friends, by the entire society.

It was a late Indian summer day when it all finally came to an end. I remember it as if it had happened today: the skies glared sunny and cold over the barren ash trees along the road. This time coming up from the bus stop, mother's steps rustled lightly in the foliage on the path. She was smiling and she searched for our eyes to pour into them her peace and relaxation. Our father was to live.

She did not enter the kitchen this time. There were two low steps at the front door, and she put the empty basket on the small mosaic porch and sat next to it, for she couldn't take a step further into the house, and as she leaned aginst her knees, she burst into tears. At first I thought they were the tears of relief, but then Lilliana started crying too, and then Maria. At last I understood.

That empty basket meant that father had agreed to testify against his brother.

''This is a shocker!'' a friend said when she heard my story. ''And offensive too!'' the expression on her face added.

For me, though, it has always been an episode of optimism, because father's brother had already been killed, so whatever father said mattered little, if at all. It was we outside the jail walls who were vulnerable, and we already had suffered and were to suffer most of all in the years to come because of father's sense of dignity that made him the last one to receive his basket. There was nothing more left for him to protect or to prove.

I am grateful that he did not see his tragedy in terms of dignity versus humility. What he saw was the vice of proud resistance versus his children's need to survive. We would not have stood a chance if he had not caved in. This was his gift to my mother, my sisters and me. He gave us all a second chance.

But we cried, for now it was up to us to do whatever we could with our lives. Our problem - we did not know where to start.