I look at the scenes of my childhood as if from a distance, watching the small dark-haired child with bangs. She is in the living room. Her father sweeps into the room, or out of it, always speaking with some kind of flourish as if he were perpetually on stage, as if he feels always that he is being watched. the child is the one who is watching him and this pleases the father very much. He looks back at her. They look at each other, and the father always makes sure he is worth watching.
That’s what it’s like, my father always wanting to be a personality, someone you remember and want to tell other people about, the way my father liked to tell me about the elderly gentleman who, when all the families of the Budapest apartment building were seeking shelter in the basement of the building while the Germans bombed, while they were all crowded into one room, this elderly gentleman complained when his wife brought him a cup of tea in a cup that did not match the saucer. This image was stamped in my father’s mind and I could tell by the way he repeated it to me – usually on our walks together, he and I walking together every weekend, he inviting me to come with him – not my mother, not my younger sisters – which made sense: we knew Mum and Dad did not like each other, and the two sisters were too young. Though I had walked with my father when I was their age. So I am the perfect choice – for my father the walks are his chance to talk to me. He talks without stopping in the car which is parks a thte entrance to the park which is a huge stretch of land with roads, fields and woods – even a house or two – we walk for two or three hours without seeing anyone else and my father talk the whole time. I am mostly quiet next to him, walking.
There is the walk when he asks me what word we use in school for a boy’s penis. I am in first grade, and we do have a word for this. “Wiener,” I answer, surprised to be entering this territory with my father. This kind of thing I only talk about with my friends. It doesn’t exist at home. I am alone with my father. We are in the woods and he tells me what men and women do. I listen. I know it is a secret.
There is a walk many years later, in the big park, on a Sunday, my mother left behind in the house where she is cooking lunch – roasting beef, boiling potatoes, chopping salad – while my sisters play cards upstairs – we are walking and my father is telling me something about the Catholic church and pope. He asks me something and I only half-respond. This angers him. “Come on,” he says, prodding me. I am supposed to converse and I don’t want to. I don’t know why I’m this angry. I know I am wrong and bad for not speaking. I wish I could cover up what I’m feeling and let something smooth and entertaining and smart roll off my tongue, but it is stuck. I have failed. the same way my mother fails, the same way my sisters fail, by being ordinary and uninteresting.