Perhaps it was on the short trip to Switzerland when I was 11. It was some time when I was alone with my father. It was evening, after dinner, and we were in the lounge of a hotel or a fancy restaurant amongst expensive couches, perhaps a blazing fireplace. I was sitting next to my father on a couch while he nursed a drink and he was telling me about the war, about Hungary and his eyes were full of tears. He caught my eye and smiled a little as if to acknowledge or apologize for the tears, which did not spill over, but remained in his eyes.
Recently, I was thinking about one of the stories my father liked to tell me. It was about how his father, as a young man, had planted fruit trees out in the country by the ancestral thatched-roof cottage in which he’d been born. By then my grandfather lived in Budapest, but the family returned frequently to the village for vacations. My father liked to tell me in detail how his father had dreamed of beautiful fruit trees, had purchased them, planted them full of hope and how the rabbits had eaten and destroyed the saplings. The lovely lovely dream came to naught.
It was told as a heartrending tale and I received it as such. My poor grandfather. He had his heart broken.
A week or two ago I thought – wait a minute. So what the rabbits ate them? Why didn’t he plant again, or figure out an anti-rabbit strategy? Why was one failure so important?
My father did a lot of giving up, I think, took failure very seriously. Lost his house, jobs, money, the bits of prestige that came his way.
He told me a lot of sad stories. When I was a little girl I said out loud one day, basing my opinion on my father and his friends who often came then to the house, that Hungarians are sad. This made my father laugh, and he repeated it for years, almost proudly, as if, yes, that’s how Hungarians are and should be.
When I visited him in Budapest where he went to live for the last 25 years of his life my father took me to the apartment of an old girlfriend for dinner. A plain woman now who spoke with earnest regret of all that had been lost in the war 50 years earlier.
My father told me a number of times of being a teenager and coming across his father in his room, looking through his wallet. “’Why are you going through my wallet?’ I asked him angrily,” my father said. “’My son, I am just putting a little money in it.’” And my father’s voice was filled with sad remorse each time he told the story as if he had caused his father pain and could never soothe it.
I know the feeling. If I were my father and I had a daughter I would tell her tearfully of the time my mother visited me in boarding school.
I was 9 or 10. I begged her to take me and my two younger sisters to the local, muddy little circus that was parked in town for a few days. She gave in when I could not stop asking. But I could tell on the ricocheting tumbling ride she was frightened, mostly for the baby she held in her arms. And afterwards she noticed one of the combs from her hair had disappeared.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Back in my school bed alone, in a curtained-off cubicle I could not stop crying, the kind of silent crying I had learned how to do in boarding school, the tears coming in relentless hot waves as all I kept seeing was my mother – in her black and white houndstooth suit with the long full skirt and her black dress shoes – gripping the bar in the metal capsule we were strapped into and the comb now gone forever. I had injured her, hurt her, and it was too late to do anything about it.