My father's hair was black and it grew straight back from his wide forehead with just the help of a few comb strokes. His hair seemed different from other men’s, the way it moved up and back with no part. My father liked his hair. “My friends said it was like Beethoven’s!” he said, happy to be affiliated with anyone great in any way.
His eyes were a pale blue, his nose straight, his chin defined, his face broad and square.
He carried me on his shoulders, never gave me anything as American as a piggy back, but while I was small enough often put me up on his shoulders, holding onto my ankles. It was perilous and delicious up there, the only thing to hold onto, his hair. He laughed and protested, Don’t pull my hair!” but there was nothing else. I couldn’t not hold onto something.
His feet were wide, like his hands and fingers. In summer, barefoot, in shorts, he sat on a green-and-white-plastic-webbed lawn chair, his square big toes often wriggling, or one set of toes overlapped on top of the other in a childlike pose at odds with his big body.
He was the only male in our small family of five that floated on an island pretty much by itself, no relatives within 3,000 miles, my parents almost without friends, certainly without casual long-term friends. They had each come to this country by themselves, the fabrics out of which they had grown left far behind, the people known since childhood left behind.
My father liked a good suit, a white shirt, cufflinks, a tie and leather shoes laced in a way noone else I knew did it. His laces did not criss-cross up the tongue of his shoe, but proceeded in a set of horizontal bars. I liked the way it looked but never could learn what came natural to him.
The closest thing my father came to being affected by the sixties was allowing pale blue and yellow into his office shirts in the seventies and, briefly, a leather man-purse.
My father had one black and white formal headshot of himself that he liked, taken by his friend and mentor, Dr. Wallis, a Belgian who practiced in Manhattan. “You see,” my father said, showing me the photo, “a ¾ angle really suits me the best.”
There was a time, a few years, when he could get his suits custom-made, a time when he was travelling frequently to Morocco, Ethiopia and Switzerland on business, when he bought an apartment on a Swiss alp in the same building where the rich blonde Swiss woman with whom he was so taken also had a place with her husband.
I was there twice – once alone with my father and once when he brought all of us, wife and daughters. My mother cooked something in the kitchenette. I ate with my two sisters at the table. Helga, the Swiss woman, was taking a nap in a room down the corridor. My father went to rouse her and he was gone a long time.
That was when my mother started to dye her hair and wear make-up, but the make-up did not sit well on her face, the smudges of blue and pink painted on top of her plainness. When Helga appeared she was pretty and laughing, her jewelry sparkled, her lipstick like Barbie’s.
My parents’ rooms had almost always been separate, no matter where we lived. The moments of friction far outnumbered the easier ones when they laughed like friends about a New Yorker cartoon. My father was usually away, home only on weekends as long as he could afford it.
Years later, when there was nothing left in this country – no money, no job, no hope – he returned to the apartment in Budapest that he had almost grown up in, where his parent and grandparents had lived and died.
He tried to keep up a pretense of commuting to the States, though my mother, with money eked out from housekeeping jobs, paid for most of the three of four trips he made over the last 25 years of his life.
“I never meant to actually leave,” he almost pleaded, but my sisters and I and my mother – each in a different way – were relieved to see him go.
He died two years ago. I had visited him three times during those last Budapest years. It was a death without a good-bye though I had had plenty of time to think about it before I got my mother’s call.