In 1966–’67, when I was four, my family lived in Hungary for a year. During that time my father, an East European historian, researched his book Jewish Nobles and Geniuses. While he sequestered himself in the Jewish archives, my artist mother painted, met other artists, and took care of my sister, Xanda, and me. My parents’ social life revolved around an avant-garde, intellectual circle that was watched by the Communist regime. The only conscious memory of that time that I have is getting onto a crowded bus with Xanda and a babushka.
Or maybe, like most of my childhood memories, that’s just a photograph. Other photos of that time include my parents sitting with their dear friends, Miklós and Szuszi Erdély, in their kitchen, smoking cigarettes and discussing the artistic and political happenings of the day; the Erdélys’ teenaged sons, Dani and Yuri, standing outside the gate to the enclosed garden of their decaying home; and my sister and me playing with a pile of Dachshund puppies. I wonder: at such a young age, did I take in that country’s fear, its history of repression and terror, a sense of being watched, overseen, and judged?
But wait; those photos might be of a later time, return trips. And does it matter how old I was—four? seven?—when my parents took me to the countryside, or even if we were in Hungary? In my mind’s eye, my parents and I stand under a grape arbor at a country villa surrounded by switchback paths and fields. The memory doesn’t include my sister. Two-and-a-half years older, Xanda had perhaps stayed with friends. There was a girl there though, slightly older than I. I see her in a light cotton dress, long-limbed and slender, with black braids past her shoulders. She was going to walk to a lake for a swim and to pick beautiful, blue flowers. Did I want to come?
I was not entirely convinced, uneasy, perhaps, in the strangeness of the country, the foreignness of the language. My parents, though, encouraged me, likely as not baffled by my limited curiosity. I went. The girl and I walked along those switchback paths, on and on into the unfamiliar. It seemed a terribly long way to that beautiful lake.
“We’ll be there soon,” the girl promised me in stilted English, over and over again. I squinted to see in the blinding sunlight. My clothes stuck to my skin. The heat suffocated any sounds as every step increased the distance between me and safety, my parents, and home. I was very far from our home in East Lansing, Michigan. Why was I not there, curled on a couch and reading The Story of Dr. Dolittle to my cats, Foggy and Bathsheba? Instead, I followed a scorching path with trampled, yellowed grass behind a strange girl, who walked and walked and promised a lake of cool water. Where was it? Did it exist? I got scared, remembering the stories of gypsies kidnapping children, breaking their legs and leaving them to beg in the streets. Maybe this girl, taking me so far away, was a gypsy. Were we really going to a lake? I doubted it. I wanted to go back. The girl looked at me. “I’m going to the lake to swim and pick blue flowers.”
She continued on. I turned back. The road looked different. The switchback lanes rising up to my right and down to my left shimmered with heat. I hesitated . . . but the girl was gone, and so I walked alone. I was lost and weeping when an old peasant (who to my eye looked remarkably like a gypsy with his grizzled beard and dirt-covered clothes) came up with his pony and cart. He spoke no English. But even if he had, I wouldn’t have known what to say, where I was, or where I needed to go. Somehow he knew. Maybe he had seen me with the girl and knew where she lived. He took me back to my parents. They were surprised to see me back so soon and did not understand my tears.
Flash memories. Influences of the past. Why begin with this anecdote, full of doubtful facts? Because it shows these two things: at that young age, absence filled my heart, and it took a farmer to save me.
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