Sunday, September 25, 2011


In a dream last night I cried a little bit. Not much, but a few tears came. In the dream I was in Budapest, my father’s city, and I was looking at a wide boulevard lined with trees and in the dream I thought, “Dad would have liked this boulevard” because it was spacious and elegant, and in the dream a few tears came and I was glad for them.

Because I haven’t cried for him at all. Not since the Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago when my mother called from her new home in California to say he had died in his sleep. Finally.

I have almost started to make a list of the good things my father gave me, the good moments. Like this morning I was remembering the beige VW beetle he drove and was proud of when I was in high school.

A friend had just sent me a song by The Noisettes. I was thinking about that song this morning when I realized that the same spelling could also be pronounced “Noisette” – which is what my father called his car. Noisette, hazelnut in French.

He explained it to me somewhere, the two of us sitting together, him confiding in me – Noisette – telling me this because it made him special – he had the right car, it was the right color, and had a French name.

I remembered this morning the day he was teaching me to drive – me in the driver’s seat, backing out of the garage, speeding towards a stone wall, my father shouting – not angrily – for me to stop, and I am kicking the clutch pedal instead of the brake, “Stop! my father is saying from the passenger seat, and I hit the wall.

He didin’t get mad. That’s what I thought of this morning. Now I know how expensive it is to fix a car, but my father didin’t get angry and I didn’t feel the weight of guilt for an unnecessary expense.

Every time I think of something like this I make a mental note. The list so far is very short.

I will keep trying to understand my father, to try and separate out my disappointment in him, try and see him for who he was – but so much of him was always hidden and camouflaged. He did not want to be discovered.

And so I left him by the side of the road some time ago, let others take care of him, tried to release myself from time-honored obligations.

Because really I should not have a life of my own. I really should have dedicated my life to him. Should have always been there to help him. That is is what I have torn myself away from and what I do not completely forgive myself for.

His death hangs over me these days, like a soft gauze curtain suspended like a transparent shroud, not covering me, not even touching my life, but not invisible either. There and not there, along with what everybody has been saying to me about death.

It is the first time that someone I have known so long and so well has gone, but he has been gone for so many years geographically, and psychically I don’t believe he was ever present.

It is funny how you are left with all these bits and pieces that don’t add up – like a bouquet that is partially just stalks of different lengths, some have flowers, some are actually just green pipe cleaners.

I sort through them.

The other day, stepping out of the shower, I was having an imaginary conversation with someone in my office who, in my head, was uncertain whether I could write a letter to a very large donor, uncertain that I would get the tone right. And in my head I said to her, “Of course I will get the tone right. My father was Hungarian.”

My father took me on long walks alone with him when I was little. He used these times to talk to me, drenching me with words. He told me of how in Budapest before the war people visited each other unannounced. If the person they hoped to see was not at home they left their card, and – this was my father’s favorite part – they turned down one corner of the card.

He was full of the proper way to do things – how to eat soup, how to eat bread at the table. I remember him coming to my room when I was about ten when we were living in England to tell me – with delight – the salutation he used when writing a business letter: Gentlemen. Not “Dear Gentlemen.” Just, Gentlemen. The word gave him delight as if he were a musician and had discovered exactly the right note.

And so when I stuck up a large piece of burlap on the wall over my bed and stuck pictures to it that I cut out of magazines – some of gorgeous men, some of modelly women, I knew he would not be impressed. That it would be impossible to get it right for him because that would mean wearing tweed skirts to my knees and getting a degree in Economics or something from an Ivy League and then a doctorate and then all sorts of things that had nothing to do with rock and roll and Levis and Dylan and hitchhiking and writing and garrets and Paris.

Which made me angry, a deep low anger that had no way to appear except by no longer running to meet him, no longer seeing him as the center of the universe.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


My mother sent a birthday card to Fred yesterday. I saw her familiar writing – blue and loopy – amongst the chopped onions on the counter as Fred was cooking, and reached for it. “Oh, my mother sent me something,” I said, surprised Fred hadn't mentioned it.

“Actually, she sent me something,” Fred said. It was a postcard mailed inside an envelope with a few sentences about the weather. She said it is still very hot where she is, and inside I cringe a little, the cringe I do always at the thought of any suffering she might be enduring. It is an old habit.

The first time I felt it was in boarding school, lying in bed one night, a single bed in a narrow cubicle, separated from the corridor by a curtain, in a long line of curtained-off cubicles.

My mother had been to visit me that weekend with my two little sisters, one of them still a toddler. I had begged to go to the little local circus that had pulled into town, a shambly bunch of rides that looked like a glittery fairyland to me, until I saw how hard it was for my mother to pick her way through the mud in her black leather pumps, until I saw how little she enjoyed the careening car, her arm clutching the baby, her face concerned. The worse was afterwards when she realized a comb had fallen from her hair, the brown hair that she pinned up. I knew the comb was one of two my father had brought to her from a business trip to Morocco and though I knew there was no romance in the comb it still seemed a terrible loss, one for which I was responsible.

I lay in bed that night and cried like I might never stop, silently so none of the other girls could hear.

I was thinking too of the puppy that had died at home, my mother had just told me.

My mother, the puppy, and the two girls I had talked to that evening who had invited me to move into a dorm with them. I had said yes, and now, in bed, in the dark, a sense of dread came over me, that moving in with Sheila and Jane was not really what I wanted to do, but how I could get out of it, and the puppy's death and my mother in the careening car looking so unhappy.

I think to call my mother. I probably will this weekend. These calls that I feel I must make, want to make, but the content of which is relatively light. I get bored quickly. There is little I really want to share. But I want to hear the sound of her voice and I want to know she is all right.

Perhaps she will bring me up to date on what's happening around my father's death which happened a few weeks ago. My youngest sister – the one who was the toddler – is now a business woman and she was going to travel to Budapest to take care of things like my father's belongings. 

She sent me a crisp typed letter a few months ago with a list of my father's books, asking me to let her know which ones I wanted when the time came.

I don't want anything from his belongings – everything will just make me sad – not so much because he has died – but because the thought of my father has always made me sad – when it hasn't made me furious. I have enough objects already to remember him by – like the two-volume set of War and Peace, leatherbound and gilt-stamped, that I remember from childhood – and even if I had nothing physical it will be a long time before I can't remember what he was like.

I received in the mail from my aunt who has lived with and cared for my father in Budapest for the last few years, a slip of paper, printed, with a black border. It was all in Hungarian, but Fred found the Bible verse that was quoted at the top and Christina Varga who runs the wonderful outsider art gallery down the road translated the rest for me. It said when my father would be buried and where, a date that has not stuck in my head.

I liked the bible verse though. It was identified on the slip of paper – Romans 22 or something – so Fred could find it. Something about the ways of God are mysterious and not easily understood.

I liked it. I like this. I like the belief that not everything can be boiled down and understood. That things happen in ways that make no sense at all. Maybe within that belief there is room for a daughter who cannot feel the grief she keeps hunting for. It must be there, right?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


It was a Tuesday two weeks ago and I was sitting in my office at work. Things were pretty quiet, my boss was away. Summer light was coming through the window, the computer screen was my main amusement.

I had called my mother in the morning, some kind of short check-in call, nothing unusual, and she is calling me.

It’s about 1:30 in the afternoon and my mother’s name comes up on my small black iPhone. I felt a small click of alertness. My mother and I don’t speak twice in one day. Once we’ve had a call we wait at least a week.

But I’ve had that small click of alertness before when she has called or left a message, and there has been no reason for it. So I felt the click and answered the phone, waiting for it to be something unimportant.

But this time it finally wasn’t. This time finally it was the call I had been waiting for for a long time – months, years – my mother’s voice was the same – calm, quiet, concerned. She had just gotten a call, my father had died in his sleep that morning.

I heard it like I might hear any news. Calm, very calm. My mother and I spoke just for a minute or two and then I hung up.

I called Fred, but he didn’t answer. There was no one at work to go talk to. The afternoon continued – a few phone calls, some scheduling to figure out, emails to send, photocopies. When I passed someone in the hall I said hi the way I always do and once in awhile I noticed that I’d forgotten my father had just died.

For a long time, usually when I am driving, I have asked myself – OK, Dad is probably going to die soon. Are you done? Will you be OK if he does? Will you have any regrets of things you could take care of now?

And it always felt like there was nothing more to say or do.

Last year for his birthday I sent a Fritz Kreisler CD – some of my favorite violin music, very easy to listen to – I was sure he would like it. I hadn’t sent him a present in years, hadn’t been inspired until I got the idea to send him that record.

Somewhere last year I got some kind of note from him – he wasn’t writing himself anymore, someone was typing for him and he was signing an approximation of his familiar signature.

I had noticed his signature when I was little, had asked him about it. “Why do you write your name like that, Daddy? No one can read it.” I couldn’t read any of his writing when I was little, but especially that signature seemed not even meant to be legible. He had answered with some kind of pride, as if he had fashioned that signature with care, with an eye to impressing others, and I had done right to notice.

Last year, the signature he scrawled at the bottom of the short paragraph someone else had typed was shaky, spidery. In the note last year, the last one I’ve received from him I think, he had urged me to be more in touch. “We used to be such good friends,” he had written.

He must have been thinking of me as a toddler, adoring him.

I called on Christmas. He was unable to speak. I don’t know if he understood me or not. He managed one strangled phrase, “keep in touch,” though it sounded generic, something he might say to anyone.

So I will not hear his voice again though I can hear it easily in my head. I can hear his Hungarian accent that for the first ten years or so of my life I thought was just his voice.

The last time I saw him was 2006. I said good-bye from the back seat of a taxi, him in the front. He had insisted on getting a taxi for me and Fred to take us back to our apartment across the Danube on the other side of the city. We actually were staying much closer to my father, but I didn’t want him to know this, fearing that our presence would be in even higher demand.

I didn’t want my father to get the taxi because I knew he had no money. We didn’t either so I couldn’t pay for it. But he insisted, and he told the driver to take the scenic route by the castle lit up at night.

And when the taxi stopped outside the apartment we were not staying in, I was pretty sure this was our last time, and I think my father must have been thinking something similar. There were tears in his eyes, not unusual for him. “Goodbye, Dad, goodbye,” I said, not lingering.

It is a tragedy that anyone dies and disappears and is gone forever. And I feel that, but my father was my father and our connection was in shambles and irreparable. He is a sad being, someone I have felt sorry for for decades.

I have searched for a moment when we were together and he was not trying to impose something on me. I have searched for a moment when things were really right between us, and I don’t find one.

So I am left with the memory – a million memories – of him that I know I will continue to write and think about – someone I knew, my first lover, you could say, a deeply injured person, someone who was once huge in my life a long long time ago.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011


My father got out of control angry just a few times, always because my mother would not stop talking, needling – I knew if she would just stop everything would be okay – didn't she know she was making him furious, that it was building, cresting, like a wave? 

In the car – he is driving, she in the passenger seat, me behind her, sisters, younger, beside me. It is dark. We are returning from somewhere. My mother is doing it, doing that thing that makes him grip the steering wheel in silence. Tighter. My sisters and I in the back seat are quiet quiet quiet, waiting for this to be over, my father responding in short terse phrases only when he feels he must, clenched teeth until finally he stops the car by the side of the road, gets out, says, “I'll walk home,” -- he is about two miles away – and now my mother is quiet, finally, the spell broken. She drives us home and noone says anything except maybe I play with my little sister as if nothing happened, knowing I can give her this much, easily.

It is easy to give to my little sister, the one with the curly hair, the big eyes, the round cheeks. Different from the other sister whose hair is straight and light brown whom  everyone says takes after my mother. That's what the adults say so she and my mother are one team, and me and my father are on the other, and the littlest sister, Esther, who comes last, after the teams have already been formed, is sort of on both and neither.

Later, in high school years, my mother occupies the room at the head of the stairs. It's the one she was in when we were little, before we moved away. Now we are back and though most things feel very different my mother returns to this room, and now it is completely her room. When I was little my father sometimes joined her in the double bed up there, but for many years that hasn't happened in this or any other house we have lived in, and there have been several. 

Her room still has the dark wide boards with the old square nails – though by now much of the house and its old board floors have been covered in wall-to-wall beige carpeting, my father's doing. Beige is his favorite color – he says so to me as if this choice is classy, a sign of aristocratic taste.

My father would like to be a member of the aristocracy. Not American aristocracy. There is no such thing. There is only European aristocracy. He even uses the word “nobleman,” pronounced it gently with his Hungarian accent, with complete sincerity and respect when describing a character in a novel he is reading.

My mother has a plain, wooden dresser in her room, dating from my early childhood when she used to seek out old pieces of furniture and refinish them – sanding and staining. She doesn't do stuff like that anymore. When I was little she had a camera and a camera case and a light meter she held in her hand and a darkroom where my little sister sleeps now. My mother takes a few photographs now, but only snapshots and the drugstore develops them.

In her room, in the corner between two windows, she has a simple wooden desk with three drawers down the left-hand side. The desk is glossy and must too have once been something she bought and re-stained. The beige push-button phone sits on this desk along with things needed to pay bills and write short notes.

My father bought us all beds when we moved back in, and he bought a double bed for my mother. 

He sleeps downstairs now on a yellow fold-out couch. He closes the two narrow French doors at the bottom of the stairs in the evening when I, my two sisters and mother have gone to bed. He closes the doors and sometimes he plays classical music records on the stereo that sits inside a big piece of furniture with glass doors and shelves – it fills a wall. He calls it an “armoire” and he keeps his shirts folded from the dry cleaner on the shelves below, hidden behind wooden doors – and on the upper shelves behind the delicate glass doors he keeps mementos from his travels: the brass mold for coins from Morocco, the Kenndy silver dollar floating in a cube of plexiglass, the tiny enamelled pill box in which he keeps the gnarled stone they took out of his gall bladder when we still lived in England. The pill box has small elegant print: I am yours while life endures, it says, and I know the blonde, rich Swiss woman, Helga, whom we are supposed to call “aunt,” gave it to him and I know he would rather be with her than with us.

Sometimes at night my father sits in one of the two big armchairs upholstered in a yellow and brown print of sunflowers, reading an Iris Murdoch novel or Somerset Maughm, always with a Mont Blanc pen in hand to underline the words and phrases he likes. Sometimes I review the marks he has made in a book. They usually make no sense to me – random underlinings – and when once or twice I ask him, “Dad, why did you underline this?” he raises his eyesbrows and smiles as if he has a secret and will not tell. As he reads he keeps a chunky glass of whiskey on the rocks beside him, and the kitchen is nearby when he wants a late night snack. No one else snacks.

When we first come back from England, moving back into this house, my fathers sits me down and shows me a brochure for asphalt. This is his new job, he says proudly. He will be selling this road surface and he makes it sound like a job that is fabulous and glamorous and how he is excited. He says too that he has only brought in $7,000 so far this year, a fraction of what he used to make. These numbers are foreign to me. I do know that my father has never sold asphalt to anyone before – that this is not at all what he should be doing. He is someone who needs a fancy office in a city with a secretary – but these things seem to have disappeared and he is acting now as if selling asphalt is the perfect next step.

But it's only when I see the Christmas tree that year that I know something is very very wrong. There are not enough presents. There are too many empty spaces and holes where there should be a package or a bow, and that's when I know we are poor, that I must not ask for anything.