My parents’ anniversary was January 2. When I was little my sisters and I would each sit down at the dining room table and make them a card, then deliver it on the day after New Years. It wasn’t much of a holiday, but better than no holiday at all, the last little whisper of Christmas season specialness that went steadily downhill after presents were opened on Christmas Eve.
If I asked my parents where they met they said “at a party.” There was never more detail given – how did they notice each other? what was the conversation? – and I have pieced together a story from scraps found in other stories they told, and woven it with what makes sense to me.
This is how I see it. My father was a handsome Hungarian refugee living in New Haven because he had an uncle there. He had some kind of graduate student status at Yale, but I can’t quite figure it out because he also could not speak English and was forced to do menial work. The menial work was torture to him – a man who liked to dress up and go to the opera.
He’d come to the States on the invitation of a rich pretty Smith girl on her Junior year abroad in Geneva, but when he showed up at her door at Thanksgiving she didn’t like him anymore. He’d looked better in Europe than in the States.
Life in America has been cruel. He meets my mother. They are both 28 and marriage is way overdue. My father has had one marriage, back in Europe, but it had only lasted 6 months. They are both very alone, both family-less foreigners in Eisenhower United States.
My mother liked European refugees much more than the typical rich boys she was meeting around Yale with their crew cuts and baseball pleasures. She wasn’t a Yale student. She was working in a lab nearby. She meets this tall (taller than her, rare) dark Hungarian refugee – and, look, now he’s in hospital, and she can go visit him.
If someone is sick my mother knows what to do. If they’re sick or in any way down on their luck my mother has a niche she knows how to fit into. If they are well, thriving, soaring, then she feels at a disadvantage.
Shortly after they met – my stitching together of half-told stories – my father was in the hospital. My parents have never named the ailment. It always has had a curtain drawn across it, telling you not to ask. I think my father tried to kill himself with sleeping pills.
My mother was tall and awkward. Glamour was something mysterious that other girls had. She came from the outback of British Columbia where most people quit school after 8th grade, but she had soldiered on through high school and college.
And my mother says they had fun in the beginning, that my father would go camping, and do things on the cheap in the beginning – they were both so penniless that their first home together was a camper parked in New Jersey from where my father commuted to Wall St. She says that once he started getting real work and the makings of a career then he didn’t want to do things like drive cross-country in an old Pontiac anymore. He wanted to buy land, he wanted to impress people.
I remember my first home with them. I was the first child and the three of us lived in the bottom floor of a house – white with red trim – in Yonkers, a house built on a hill so that the front door – which was not ours – opened at sidewalk level, but to get to our door you walked downhill, down the side of the house. There was openness behind the house -- space -- and I sensed a river and a railroad track down below but they were hazy to me, something only grown-ups could see and understand.
My father wears a trench coat in these images. He disappears during the daytime --- out the back, down the hill, like a bird taking off into a landscape I cannot see – and then he’s back at night with a briefcase with mysterious papers inside.
I sit on his lap when he eats breakfast. He puts the sugar in his coffee. I ask him if I can stir it and he says yes. He says yes! I get to be part of the grown-up world for these moments – stirring – this is something he does that I can do just as well. It is pure pleasure.
There is an afternoon about 20 years later when I pick my father up from the airport. I volunteer because I know my father will need as much comfort as possible. He is broke and even broker after this failed business trip that was a fools’ errand at best to begin with. I know neither my mother nor my sisters can lighten his load like I can.
As we drive out of the airport, my father, sunk in the passenger seat, says, “I have not been this low since –“ I don’t know what he calls that time – New Haven? The early fifties? Since I first got to this country? But he says something so that I know we are talking about that dark time, that is connected to the hospital stay, the one when my mother used to visit, the one you don’t ask about.
I have a theory. Something to do with unspoken grief and sadness that gets passed invisibly from parent to child, shrouded in what cannot be spoken at all and what cannot be spoken outside the family circle. I feel ancient crazy sadness inside myself, have felt it since I was little, have always thought I created it. Sometimes it feels like a Greek tragedy where to free yourself you have to find a way – any way -- to sever bonds so ancient they feel like your own flesh and blood.