Chess mates

A few weeks ago, my grandfather would have turned 99. This is my favourite picture of us - it was taken on my grandmother’s birthday. We had just finished a chess game. As always, he let me win.

He taught me how to play chess when I was 5. We would sit quiet for long minutes, him, waiting for my move, while I was lost in my thoughts. After a while, he would ask “are you ready” and of course I wasn’t, so he would take my queen and make the best damn move so I would win. Checkmate.

I invented a game called  “America” which consisted of one simple activity and was more like a ritual. Our ritual. We travelled from the living room (home) to the kitchen (America) with a little suitcase. Inside the suitcase, there was only one tiny pink towel. Once we reached our destination (kitchen sink served as the hotel bathroom), we would unpack the suitcase and wash our faces. That was it - after that, we set on the way back home (living room).

And all over again.

My grandfather had stories he liked to tell. My favourite one was about jumping into the Danube. As a young boy in Bratislava, he used to jump off the Old bridge into the river. The most important part was the whirl technique, which he liked to explain: “...once you get caught in a whirlpool, you are supposed to put your arms next to your body, keep yourself straight, let the whirl suck you in and throw you out. Never, ever try to move or fight against it.”

The last time I saw him was on one summer evening. I was 14, the summer holiday had just started and we used to hang out at the playground. On that very evening, we thought it would be better with some music on, so I went to his apartment just to take a small radio. I rushed in, said hello, grabbed the thing I wanted and turned on my heel. 

The last thing I remember was the quiet room and his disappointed look when I was about to slam the door, but I didn’t think about that for more than a few seconds, for I was busy growing up, and my friends were waiting and everything seemed to last forever. Even that hot summer evening in a small town in July of 1997. Concrete and pine trees, us playing basketball and listening to the churning sound of Puff Daddy’s I’ll be missing you.


He died a few days later.


I often think of his Danube story. The technique of dealing with the whirl. I turned it into a mental practice, remembering to keep calm when things get wrong, just waiting for the stream to bring me up again.