A Christmas tree of memories of Vlasta Brankovská (Vánoční stromeček vzpomínek Vlasty Brankovské)

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Author: Josef Čermák (CzechFolks.com PLUS)

I occasionally see her at concerts and community celebrations. A vigorous (she’ll be ninety in July, but no one could guess that), apparently utterly self-confident, self-sufficient, practically invulnerable, woman. The only thing I knew about her was that she taught children (and adults) to play tennis, and that she had a son, who worked in real estate and also played tennis. On the first day of the year 2011, I was watching on the Toronto Czech television program, Nová vize (New vision) a re-run of a film. The beautifully tanned producer, Marketa Slepčiková-Rešovská (Marketa has to her credit some 350 television programs, many of which, especially those created in the last two years with cameraman Igor Rešovský, are of outstanding quality), introduced Vlasta Brankovká (that self-confident, self-sufficient woman I occasionally see at concerts), standing beside a Christmas tree.

Vlasta Brankovská calls it the „Memory tree”. It was decorated with ornaments from several eras. One dates back to the middle of the 19th century (that ornament adorned the Christmas tree of Vlasta”s father, another graced the Christmas tree of Vlasta when she was a little girl, still another was a gift from a friend killed by the Nazis; other ornaments were given to Vlasta by her children and students. Your first impression is, that Vlasta and that tree somehow don’t fit together – the tree shows a different, pleasantly sensitive face of a woman, who decorated the „Memory tree”.

Everything is always somehow different than it first appears. That utterly self-sufficient, self- confident, practically invulnerable woman is not that completely self-sufficient and life – as does to everybody – ruffled her more than once. She is self-sufficient but not completely. And she is not invulnerable. A few years ago, the telephone in her home rang. Vlasta reached for it, but before she could say a single word, she collapsed on the floor. The caller called 911. An ambulance took Vlasta to a hospital. She regained consciousness 4 hours later. Her legs were paralyzed. She was forced to learn to walk again. She learned not only to walk, but to play (and teach) tennis. She was attacked (I hardly know any woman not victimized by it) by cancer. She beat that, too. And she still drives and plays (and teaches) tennis.

Her youth was lovely. She was born to a well-to-do family which, next to their residence, built a tennis court. Vlasta (except in winter) practically moved there., and she became a good tennis player. More than good. At one point, she ranked among the best ten women tennis players in Czechoslovakia. During the Nazi occupation, she worked in factories. After the war, she graduated from a dressmaking master school and opened a fashion salon. After the Communist coup d’état, she and her husband had to make a decision: to stay, or leave the country. Her husband was completing his engineering studies and wanted to stay until he gets his diploma. He eventually got it (in electrical engineering), but in the meantime – as Vlasta put it – the cage fell down. Because her husband really excelled in his profession, he was allowed to work on major projects. With Vlasta, it was different: for a while the Communists let her keep her salon; then they closed it. For her, it was back to work in factories. Until someone advised her that she should enroll in a course for tennis coaches. She did, and finished the course close to the top. She started to coach children – very successfully (first for Slavoj Praha and then for Dukla).

Her specialty was to start with bats and hitting balls against a wall, which – as one of her students remarked – intensified the coaching. Vlasta feels that her method of immediately correcting any mistakes her students made, contributed to her success as a tennis coach. When in 1968 Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact armies, Vlasta (her husband died in the meantime) again had to answer the question: to stay, or to leave the country. She – as she puts it – had three choices: to stay and look after her very extended family and go crazy; to stay, say something nasty about the Communist government and end in jail; or try to leave the country (which at that time was relatively easy). Leaving the country appeared easiest. She arranged to send her children to Vienna, where a friend would look after them and followed later. Before too long, they all arrived in Canada. And again: decisions, decisions: Vlasta was almost fifty and didn’t speak English. Still, she was a very successful coach in Prague – so why shouldn’t she succeed in Canada? A potential employer was impressed by her coaching credentials, but how was she going to communicate with her students without knowing English? Her daughter Barbara, who was with her, answered for her mother: No problem, sir. She will show them. And Vlasta did show them. She started with a small group. Before she (sort of) retired, she had one hundred students. When she was 82, she played – in Austria – at her first international competition. She placed – in the 80 and over group, second. She still wasn’t satisfied. Although she received recognition from a number of tennis organizations she wasn’t quite happy with the tennis training in Canada, mainly because Canadians seemed to be allergic to her bats. But Vlasta Brankovská still had a lot of energy and it was not easy to ignore it.

So, to what does she owe her success to? She responds by telling a story which must be true, because, surely, otherwise Mrs. Brankovská would never tell it. It is a story about a group of frogs, who decided to climb a very high tower. At the beginning, all were moving at or more less the same speed, croaked merry songs and looked very self-confident. About half an hour after they started, the first frog quit. A little later on, a whole bunch of them began to whimper at the same time: that their legs were hurting, that the tower was too tall, that they all should give up and go back because, even if they managed to get the top, they would then have to climb down and no one could manage to do that. In another ten minutes, five frogs gave up. Those that remained, were croaking more and more until they persuaded themselves that it was simply impossible to get to the top. At that point of time, the frogs turned around in a mass, and started the descent. All, except one. That solitary frog merrily continued in her upward climb. Until she reached the very top of the tower. And then she climbed down. When she got there, she was greeted by all her colleagues, who gave up. They congratulated her but their felicitation sounded rather sour. They wanted to know how she managed to get to the top, how she managed to succeed where they failed. The victorious frog (they had to put their question in writing) answered: All I was concerned about was how to get to the top. I didn’t listen to your lamentations and defeatist propaganda. I am deaf.

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