'It keeps his mind going': Sask. man's homemade instrument brings him back from Alzheimer's

For Les Kish, playing is bittersweet as it reminds him he won't be able to return back home for his final years.

Playing is bittersweet as it reminds him he won't be able to return back home for his final years

Les Kish still picks up his citera now to play for a while. His wife Mary didn't play an instrument and instead was his audience. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

On Easter Sunday in 1961, Les Kish played his first song on his new homemade citera. It was an accomplishment and reminder of his homeland just in time before the birth of his first child. 

Almost 60 years later, Kish strums the instrument to remember but also be reminded of a place he will never be able to return to. 

Music can take people through time and space and for Les Kish, it takes him back to the countryside in Hungary. Kish has Alzheimer's but still remembers how to play and the stories behind the songs. 7:00

Les was born in 1932 in a small town in Hungary. After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the short-lived uprising against the Communist regime, he fled to France.

After a year, he came to Canada. While working in Saskatchewan, Les met Mary. On that day, it was clear there was something there, Mary said.

Mary was a young waitress in a cafe. She recalls Les walking in with two friends. 

"He asked me what my name was and I told him it was Mary," she said. "He turned to his buddies and he said 'That's the girl I'm going to marry.' And they said 'Yeah, right.'"

"They bet him $10 he wouldn't. And two weeks later, guess what?" Mary said with a laugh. "And we've been together ever since."

Les came over from Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. (Submitted by Les and Mary Kish)

 Les and Mary were married by a Hungarian priest and started their lives in Saskatchewan. Even still, Les missed his homeland. 

He wrote to his mother in Hungary, asking about a citera, a stringed-instrument which is similar to a zither.

His mother sent him a letter with all the specifications. 

"As soon as he got it, he spent every working minute on it. He wanted to play it so bad," Mary said.

Les and Mary only had one photograph from the day after their wedding day. They didn't have wedding photographs of their marriage by a Hungarian priest. (Submitted by Mary and Les Kish)

In 1960, Les started searching through the garbage for wood and nails. The couple couldn't afford to buy wood, so he kept his search hidden from Mary until he had enough. He finished it in 1961. 

"He made that one winter, took the whole winter to make it. And then he finished on Easter Sunday. That's when he made his first song," Mary said. 

Les finished the instrument in time for the birth of his first child. The couple had four children total and always had a musical home as each child learned an instrument as well, and his daughter is learning the citera.

Les and Mary Kish had four children as well as grandchildren. (Submitted by Les and Mary Kish)

"I've always loved it. You know it's very soft," Mary said. "I've got favourite tunes he plays too."

Les learned how to play in Hungary. He said he would take his neighbour's cows out into the field to graze and play while he was on the countryside with them. 

"Sometimes he's in his own little world and he'll just play it and. Doesn't talk to anybody, he just plays it. So I'm really thankful that he's got something like this." 

Les Kish created the citera after searching through the garbage dump for wood he could use in 1960. He finished it in 1961. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Throughout the years, Les would take the citera to the Hungarian Hall in Regina. He and the other men would sit around it, playing it and singing together. 

Les is now 86 with Alzheimer's disease. It can be hard to keep him occupied, Mary said. Les goes to exercise therapy but he needs more, she said. 

"He's got his music that helps him a lot," Mary said. "It keeps his mind going — it's been a real blessing for him."

Les and Mary smile with their granddaughter a few years ago. (Submitted by Les and Mary Kish)

When Les plays, it takes him back to Hungary, Mary said. The two have been able to visit a couple of times, but Mary knows he misses it. Hungary is where he was born, where his parents are buried, where he had a son from before and four grandchildren. 

"If he thinks too much about it he'll start to cry," she said. 

"If he could he would go back to spend his last year there," Mary said. "But they wouldn't accept him now because of his Alzheimer's."

Mary would assist him but she's on dialysis every second day. The couple talked about him going back alone, but Les doesn't want to go without her.

"So we're here," Mary said. "Not by choice but we're here." 

Les now plays with goose feathers as his fingers are becoming older. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

The couple now live at the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre in Regina. Les still plays for Mary and Mary still listens, nodding her head to the music. 

For Les, music is a way to remember and the only way to go back home.