Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I was dealt a mother from British Columbia, a tall woman – slim, small-breasted (“flat-topped,” she called it), long legs. A woman who never thought of herself as beautiful, a woman whose head was full of voices that told her her feet were too big (“You’d be tall if you didn’t have so much turned up at the bottom,”), her nose and her hands, also too big. A woman who felt ungainly and unpopular in a crowd.

I was dealt a father from Hungary, a damaged man, damaged by I’m not sure what – Word War II, but things earlier and more subtle than that.

I was dealt two sisters, both younger than me. They live an hour apart from each other with their husbands in California. They do things like Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays together. Funny, how things shake down. The alliances between us have shifted back and forth over the years. Currenlty, and I think now forever, I am the one separated out and they are linked together. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but now it makes a lot of sense.

Writing and making my writing public by posting it all on the web has drawn the line in the sand.

One sister is a bodyworker and nutritionist who lives in Berkeley and does very progressive sustrainable agricultural things with the small piece of land she bought with her husband. They will retire there, I imagaine. They are people who think about retirement and have been planning and living their lives with retirement being an important consideration.

The other sister is a financial consultant to the very wealthy. She likes giving advice. She thinks of herself as a very fair, straightforward, approachable and – most of all – practical person. She believes in conservative financial practices. She was still in high school when my father went belly up and the house was sold from out from under her and she was told, oops, no money for college, sorry. She balances all her accounts religiously and gets very angry if her husband uses the debit card and forgets to write it down.

I used to get mad about things like that. Terrified, actually.

I was dealt being born first when my parents were living in their first apartment in Yonkers. Before that they’d lived in what they called “the trailer.” I’ve seen pictures of it. Nowadays you’d call it a camper.

When I was born we lived in the downstairs of a white house with red trim. I thought of it as a red house. It was built on a hill sloping down from the street. We walked down some steps from the sidewalk, and entered through a side door into the middle room of the apartment. There was a brown formica-topped table here with thin black metal legs. My father sat here in the morning, drinking his coffee. He let me put the sugar in. He let me stir it.

He disappeared during the day. He went somewhere, out through another door in the living room, a door that led to the outside which I could not see but which contained a railroad down below and a river. And at the end of the day he came back from there, carrying a rigid square briefcase that opened with a snap of its two brass clasps.

My room was the smallest. My crib was there, in the corner, by a window that looked out onto the steps that came down from the street. It was a shadowy room. My father’s filing cabinet was in there and a table at which I remember sitting once when I had just received a plastic electric organ. It was my birthday or Christmas. There are pictures of me sitting on my father’s lap in front of this little keyboard and it is hard for me to know what is actual memory and what is from the photos – but unlike most baby pictures when I have no recollection, when I look at this series of four or five black-and-white photos of my father and me – me on his lap – playing the organ together, they look familiar, like I was just there. We are both in pajamas and bathrobes, but I think it was morning, a rare thing – in my family you dressed before breakfast, a habit I have broken.

My parents slept in a fold-out couch in the living room. The curtains on the windows in that room were long and white and filmy, covering what lay beyond, giving me the feeling that everything out there on the other side of the windows was misty and difficult to see or understand.

I knew that we were Hungarian. My mother wasn’t. But my father was and somehow I was too. I didn’t think anyone else in the world was. I thought of it as a private condition, and Hungary as a country no one else had heard of. This Hungarianess filtered through my father’s conversation. It pulsed quietly from the rounded, off-white vase painted with flowers that my grandmother sent. We lived in this house until I was three. And then we moved and the first sister was born.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your memoir. I was dealt a Hungarian stepfather. I'm still trying to figure out what typifies "Hungarianess". If you have any thoughts I'd enjoy reading them.

Vancouver, Canada