My first two-wheeled bicycle was blue. I went with my father on the weekend to get it. It was parked in someone’s driveway. We were answering an ad in the newspaper.
This was also the time my father showed me how to peel apart the little green helicopter leaves that fell from the big maple tree and stick them on my nose. It was something he was pulling from his own childhood that had happened a very long time ago, in a different country, before The War. The War was something huge that had happened a very long time ago. Old people knew about it. But it was over and it would never happen again.
Instead, now, there is my mother with her brown hair pinned up and her plain face without makeup or jewelry, without colored nails.
I like her jewelry pouch made of green satiny fabric, round with a zipper, and her necklaces and earrings inside. She keeps it in the top drawer of her bureau and sometime I sit with it on her bed and look through the strings of smooth pearls or the silver earrings with their tiny screws.
It seems like other women – the ones my father likes – the ones who sometimes visit, the ones who drink and laugh -- are prettier and younger than my mother and my father likes them much better. I wish my mother was different. I wish she wore high heels, but instead she parks by the side of the road in high grass and takes me with her to look at the old church she noticed as we drove by, a church nobody goes to anymore. It has signs on its locked front door, but my mother walks over the bits of broken glass and gravel round the back and finds a side door she pushes open. I keep hoping she will turn back, but she wants to go in. Sometimes she finds old books, old things left behind that she likes and brings home.
My father doesn’t do things like this.
My father walks on wide paths or dirt roads, places where it is easy to walk, places where there are no cars and you can see fields or woods, but where there is a path, and he brings always one of his walking sticks, sticks he has bought as if they were jewelry. He shows them to me and I know by the way he flourishes his cane, sometimes swinging it in a circle as he walks or using it to point to something, that the stick is like a good friend to him, the stick makes him feel better, the stick believes in him.
Sometimes my father wears his overcoat spread over his shoulders like a cloak as we walk, leaving his arms free.
He has taught me to fold my coat so that when I put it down somewhere the lining is on the outside. My father has shown me this carefully and when he teaches it to me I feel like I am learning something everybody knows, like the alphabet.
Both my parents take me on walks. I go with my mother through woods and orchards without paths. She pulls a leaf off a branch to chew on as we go. She exclaims about a jack-in-the-pulpit or a skunk cabbage or a cardinal. My father talks to me as we walk. He talks the whole time. I listen. Sometimes he tells me the story of the book he is reading. Sometimes he tells me something about history like Napoleon, or the Inquisition, or Hitler. Sometimes he talks about being a teenager in Budapest, about the bombs, or about the village my grandfather grew up in. One time he asks me what my friends at school call a boy’s goo-gah . “Weiner,” I answer. Then he tells me something about how men and women get in bed and the weiner falls in the woman’s goo-gah.
My father likes to lay a game after lunch on weekends. This is the only time my sisters and I eat with both my parents. My mother sits near the swinging door to the kitchen, my father at the other end.
One by one he invites each daughter to stand on his knees and hold his hands. He begins by bouncing his knees slowly, holding my hands, looking at me with his bright blue eyes, smiling, singing a Hungarian song about a circus pony. I like the beginning. I can balance on my father’s knees, the tune is bouncy. I sing along. But always my father quickens the pace and the game is to stay on as long as you can and you always end by losing, falling, he catches you, laughing.
When people visit my father urges me to play piano for them. I hold out as long as I can. I don’t play well. I never practice, am never confident, but he always insists, smiling, never stern, but immovable, and I give in, playing making mistakes.
His hair is black and grows straight back from his forehead. He combs it with a small plastic comb. Combing with one hand, smoothing with the other. “They said I looked like Beethoven,” he tells me, delighted.
“Intelligent people have high foreheads,” he says, and I feel like I am learning something everybody knows, that this is a fact. Like the alphabet.