My father always said I was Hungarian. My mother didn’t claim me in this way. To my father it was very important that I be a proud Hungarian like himself and for many years I followed his lead, being the daughter he wanted, sure that he knew what was best. And because I sensed early on that he didn’t like my mother much, was not proud of her when in the company of others, I followed suit there too, hyper aware of my mother’s social awkwardness, committed to not being like her ever.
That was one level. On another level she was my mother, always present in a way my father never was. My mother almost prided herself on being, what she insisted on calling, a plain person – not flamboyant, not terribly interesting or talented. That's how she would describe herself. As a plain person she did plain things, took us ice-skating in the woods on a pond, cooked plain suppers of hot dogs, mashed potatoes and boiled broccoli. The things my mother provided were plain, but they created a solid world that my father only highlighted here and there with a trip to the opera or a blue velvet dress.
In boarding school at night – 9 years old – it was my mother I wanted, not my father. But that was only at night. Mostly, I didn’t want any of them.
Driving home this evening I thought of the card I came across the other night, something my father had written to me a few years ago, something about wishing me well, sincerely. As I drove down 209, past Kingston, I wondered again why his love for me didn’t get through, didn’t get across, and why I was so angry and disappointed in him even years after his death, that I can’t soften up.
I thought of how hard he made me work. I wondered if I’d had a kid if it would have been any better. Everyone says how hard it is to be a parent, and I see it everywhere. But I couldn’t, as I drove, really believe that if I were a parent I wouldn’t find a way – maybe just once or twice – to be with my kid, to get across to them that I supported them, that they could count on me. Something, a moment, where I wasn’t asking for anything, just being with them.
My dad’s words on the card sounded almost anguished in their sincerity, as if he were trying desperately to let me know that he wanted me to be happy.
Was it too late? Had he already convinced me that I wasn’t what he wanted from a daughter? Because I could see the image of the daughter he had in mind as clearly as if she were real, and though I styled myself on her I also had many things she did not – she only had a few dimensions, where I was an actual person.
My father wanted a sedate picture-perfect family – wife, children, life. He had ideas of what he wanted and all of us – mother, me, sisters – were much too messy to fit into the Christmas card reality he really thought was possible.