I never met my paternal grandparents; they died several years before my birth. I pieced together snippets of their lives in the way that young children do, comprehending little, listening intermittently.
They were immigrants. My grandfather came to New York as a child from Sweden. I don’t remember if he had any siblings. The men I remember seeing at my father’s funeral might have been uncles or cousins. I never thought to ask then. It didn’t really matter. My father was dead. What I didn’t realize, nor could’ve comprehended at the fragile age of 13, was that I lost more than him when that funeral procession ended. I lost contact with practically everyone with a key to me understanding my history.
My grandfather was a judge, and mayor of a town in the metro-Miami area. The city named a baseball field after him. That is literally all I know of him. My father’s only sister and I write occasionally and I ask her to recall, but her long-term memory is punctured by confusion and anger of being disowned for her sexuality, memories of a tragic car accident which killed her mother, severe epilepsy and harsh medications.
Of all the knowledge that she has lost, I most value extracting the fragmented memories of her mother. Because truly, it’s my grandmother’s legacy that intrigues.
My grandmother was an immigrant too. She came through Ellis Island with her older sister, Ashie-Pattle, and their mother. They came from Hungary. Their last name was some variant of Balint, which I understand means Valentine in Hungarian. One of my earliest memories was my mom talking with Ashie-Pattle about how their mother had returned to Hungary to visit and became trapped when the Iron Curtain fell and how she had died there.
Imagine being six years old. Now imagine believing that your great-grandmother had been crushed by a metal curtain. Imagine envisioning her dying under the weight of this curtain. Would you have asked more questions? Because I didn’t. I explored the horror soley in my dreams. Only to discern years later, as an adult in my early twenties, that the reality was a much less gruesome and yet much more devastating dichotomy.
My Great Aunt Ashie-Pattle lived in town, undoubtedly obliged to leave New York when she became widowed. The small cottage in rural Florida suited her well enough, I imagine she felt comfort being close to her sister and her Swedish-judge-mayor-brother-in-law. She loved watching televised women’s tennis matches , fed me my black coffee when I was nine, kept stockpiles of condensed milk and relied on my mother and I to pick her up and take her to physicians visits and the grocery store.
At some point I learned that she’d has a distinguished career as a professional dancer, travelling and performing with her late husband Ned. They had toured and danced with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She was still limber and petite into her 80′s. I would beg her to show me dance steps and she did, with unfounded grace. She always wore her jet-black dyed hair braided in a bun with red lipstick and pristine polyester suits from the fifties. She would spend an hour getting ready for a five-minute walk outside. She was proud. She was secretive. My father’s whole family seemed this way. Possibly more-so because I knew so little. Like my Aunt Margot, Ashie-Pattle had severe epilepsy but hid it with keen fervor. Because in her culture epileptics were deemed possessed by the devil and banished to asylums. She never once mentioned her medications by name. My mother would have to take doctors aside and show them the pill bottles in secret, because she simply would never speak of it. She lived this glorious charade until she fell outside the cottage one day, broke her hip and went to live out her remaining days without a dab of lipstick or a shred of dignity in a nursing home where the only thing they payed mind to were her secret pills. I have to wonder if the stigma she feared was less of being perceived as possessed, and more of being perceived as nothing but “disabled”. I found a small solace when I recently stumbled upon her archived obituary online, and noted that it listed her solely as “Dancer.”
In 634 words that is essentially all I know of my father’s family. There are so many secrets I never learned and so many questions about myself, my global identity, that remain unanswered.
In my mid-20′s I sometimes traveled internationally for work. It was around this time that I became intent upon making a journey to Hungary. I thought, “if anything, I will walk the streets of Budapest and sit by the Danube as my ancestors had. I will walk in the footprints of time and maybe, just maybe, stumble upon the truth. The truth about my family and the truth about me.”
At that time in my life Budapest also symbolized a coming of age, a coming into independence and adulthood. In the spring of 2004, I planned to travel alone by train, from a conference I was attending in Vienna, Austria. I insisted on planning this journey on my own, on seeing it through all by myself. I needed to do this. I needed to prove that I could travel internationally on my own, to a country where I shared nothing in common but 1/4 of my blood.
I wondered what it was like to go through Ellis Island as a child, to start over with nothing in New York City and build a new life. To learn a new language, and get an education, and marry, and have children. To move to Florida as a mayor’s wife. To travel the country with the most famous dance troupe of all time.
Surely if they could do that. I could manage to get off at the right train stop, read a map, and keep myself fed for a few days.
It was so much more than a trip to Budapest. So very much more.
And at the very last moment; I didn’t go.
In short, I caved to someone elses’ will. I lacked the self-respect and dignity it would’ve taken to put myself first.
I hated myself for not going for a very long time. I hated myself for being weak. I hated myself for letting someone elses’ opinion of my ability overrule what I knew as truth.
I could’ve done it. I could’ve traveled to Budapest by myself. I could’ve answered some questions, if not about my ancestry, then at the very least about my own fortitude.
The iron curtain fell and I was on the wrong side of it.
Today I think about Budapest in a more existential way. It’s not a trip I’d like to make. It is a journey I must complete.
It is my Ellis Island.
This time, the trip is about fulfilling that coming of age that has and will continue to elude me.
I must go to Budapest and I must go alone. If I don’t get on the train this time, I will only have myself to blame.
So I’m saving up. I figure I can put away five dollars a week for the next ten years and I can find my way back to that train station, back to those crossroads of my symbolic quest for identity.
Only this time, stepping off the train is merely evidence that I’ve already found all the answers I need.