10 June 2022
The first toll of the 9 am church bell wakes me up, and I rise from a tangle of covers thrown off in the night. It’s been warm, and I have not yet come to terms with air conditioning.
Our cousin Jaci comes over while I am still washing up in the bathroom, and by the time I am out in the kitchen, everyone is finishing their coffee. I eat a quick breakfast of coffee, toast, strawberries, and apricots, and then we get ready and go to the market. It is a really hot day already, and sunny. Uncle Frank goes with us this time, and we just walk around the market and hear his stories. As we walk through the doorway of the market, and look at the busy lanes and tiled floors, he says, You know, the lanes used to be much closer together, and I remember when this was all dirt floors in the market.
It looks so neat now, so polished and clean and of this time, that it takes a moment for my mind to construct the image of what this building was before. I feel as though I am peeping through a keyhole into a different era, walking through the city with Uncle Frank and his stories beside me.
Standing on the curb of the market building along the main street, he points to a spot a few feet away. This, he says, is where a car splashed me one day when I was about to cross the street. He points again. Once, he says, I was standing there, and a car ran over my foot. But it didn’t break any bones, can you believe it?
I smile. I can believe it, because of the way he has survived over and over. The countless times he could have died, and instead walked away without a scratch to show for it. This survival, with a smile in his eyes, is so much of the reason that I want to write his stories down.
After the market we take a bus along the Danube to the Parliament building where Jaci and Uncle Frank sit in the shade while my Aunt Kati and Margaret and I walk around.
Along the neat lawns and extravagant spires, I am ecstatic to find old friends growing in the garden beds— lavender, rose, valerian, yarrow, sage, morning glory. The beds are packed with them, bounding up and intermingling. I caress the familiar faces and smile in greeting at the honey bees and ladybugs. I bow to them and ask for little bits to press in remembrance of our meeting. There are some wild strawberries growing among the flowers, and one little fruit of sunshine and sweetness goes into each of our mouths as we walk away.
We go back towards the Gellért, and Margaret takes Uncle Frank home while Jaci goes with Aunt Kati and I to get some money changed and buy chicken for dinner. First, we stop by the chicken shop, which is a small place on the corner. It has a couple birds on rotisserie and huge jars of pickles in the sun out front, just like my grandfather used to make them with slices of bread in the mouth of the jar. The storekeepers, who look like sisters and call across the counters to each other, tell us that the chickens will be ready in about 20 minutes if we want to come back then. In the meantime, we change money, and get ice cream at a little shop that Jaci says is best. It is excellent, and we share bites as we walk back towards the chicken shop and the Danube.
We part with Jaci near the river, and then Aunt Kati and I head back to the market in Pest to do grocery and gift shopping. The chicken is so hot that we have to put it in my Aunt’s baseball cap, and take turns carrying it around like a baby in our arms.
Back in the market, we get ham, cheese, butter, dishwashing pods, bread, salami, and a big bag of cherries. We go downstairs for Aldi’s and upstairs to look at the embroidery and clothes, most of which are beautifully done, but made of polyester instead of the traditional cotton and wool. There is one cotton blouse that I see. It is creamy white and striped with strawberry red thread, and there is a little tag hanging off it with a photograph of a grandmother at a loom weaving. The stall is run by a very sweet woman who tells us the story of these blouses that she has hand sewn with cotton woven by a family in Hungary. This is the kind of story that I want to wear, and so one of them comes home with me.
Bags full of groceries, we get on the bus and go back towards the apartment, but end up taking the wrong line and getting a little lost. Navigating by the sun, we get going in the right direction and make a sweaty return to the shade of our rooms.
After carrying this succulent chicken around on a lunch of ice cream, the early dinner we eat is divine. There is rétes for dessert, and then Margaret and Aunt Kati go out for palinka at the liquor store downstairs. While they are gone, Jaci and Klari surprise us at the door (with palinka!), honey and paprika for us to take home as gifts. When Aunt Kati and Margaret get back we have shots of Unicum and palinka and snack on these incredible lekvar (reduced italian prune jam) shortbread kiflies that Klari made. We all sit at the table together and talk plans for later in the week and hear stories from their childhood. I learn about Kato Neni (my great Uncle’s older sister, and Jaci and Klari’s mother) moving from Kunágota, the town where our shared family was born, to a little town in what’s now Romania, and then back to Kunágota, and how she refused to come to the US, and only moved to Budapest because Apa (my grandfather, her younger brother) told her after he and the rest of the family had escaped where they hid the key to the tiny apartment they’d all been living in.
I learn about some of Jaci and Klari’s experiences, and part of the history of Christianity and life under Communist rule here, and how hard it was.
I cannot imagine living in the world of these recent histories, but cradle the resistance and survival of those who’ve come before me. These experiences become matches and fuel in my toolbox, and I begin to ferment on how best they can be used. Because I know that the fight might have left Hungary, but it only went on to settle in other places, where other families may not be so lucky as ours.
After the stories are told and the drinks are empty, Jaci and Klari leave with Aunt Kati and Margaret to go get bus tickets for tomorrow, and I head off to bed.
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