Featured in Colorado Review
The Grammar of Untold StoriesFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Fall 2017
My grandmother spoke little English. Her teeth were yellow and chipped. She smelled like a book that hadn’t been opened in a long time. When she hugged me, she pulled me into her soft body forever, repeating my name in a way I didn’t recognize. My face pressed into her bosom, I stiffened at the mustiness of her dark dress. When she released me, I could breathe again. I’d done my duty.
* * * * *
When I fell in love with my husband, I fell in love with his grandmother and with their love, as thick and rich as the tomato sauce she served at every family gathering. As a boy, my husband spent Saturdays with her, and together they tore advertising circulars and old magazines into bits, tossed the colorful paper fragments into the air like confetti, and then vacuumed them up. I sucked his stories into my narrative, using his family like caulk to fill in the empty spaces where the wind whistled through mine. When his grandmother, as short and round as my own, pulled me into her softness, I didn’t want to leave.
* * * * *
It was my husband’s idea. We were going to visit Budapest for a vacation. “As long as we’re there, we could visit your grandmother’s village,” he said. “Maybe do a little research. You might find a family member who still lives there.”
With no one alive who could tell me, I had to do a little research to even learn the name of the village where my grandmother was born. I found it online, on her 1925 petition for us citizenship. The copy I printed reproduced the smudges and irregularities of the microfiche document along with names and dates and places. My grandmother’s history was strewn on the page like agates on the beach—precious stones unearthed by rough sea, waiting to be gathered. Her village, just a short ride from Budapest by train.
* * * * *
My father, her youngest, was born in the United States. Though bilingual, he didn’t teach me any Hungarian, except “fing a fürdőkádban,” a phrase that he said meant “a fart in the bathtub,” meaning unwelcome, out of place, disturbing the surface smoothness. Maybe even immigrant. Our family name, Ruskai, was less obviously Hungarian than Kovács, Tóth, or my grandmother’s name, Nagy. People often asked me, “What are you?” My father told me it was none of their business. I was to answer: American. He himself would make what he thought was a joke. “Hawaiian,” he’d say, at a time when that, too, meant not American. When the person inquiring stared back at him, trying to find a Pacific Islander in my father’s angular features and olive skin, my father would deliver the punchline: “You know, Ruskai. Like Molokai.” Then he’d chuckle. Even as a child, I knew it wasn’t funny. I didn’t understand until much later that he was deflecting his own embarrassment onto the person who seemed to question whether my father and his family belonged here. I think now of the irony in his choosing the name of an island where lepers were sent.
* * * * *
Ruskai. We pronounced it Russ ki, rhyming with eye. But in Hungarian, the s is pronounced sz, and kai is pronounced kar ee. We should have said Rusz karee.
* * * * *
I called her Gramma Ruskai. She came to live with us when I was nine years old. By then, she no longer knew my name. She was unable to connect the fractured remnants of people and places that dusted her memory. She believed she was in Hungary and that the children who had died were still alive. When she called to them and they didn’t answer, she got angry. I awoke one night to see her standing in the doorway of my bedroom, her thin cotton nightgown taut over her protruding abdomen. For a moment I mistook her silhouette for that of my pregnant mother. Then my grandmother spoke something I didn’t understand, and I wondered how long she had been watching me. Some days my grandmother ran off, surprisingly quick for someone almost eighty. My mother would have to call my father to find her and coax her home in Hungarian, although nothing about where my grandmother lived said home to her.
Before she came to live with us, my grandmother lived in a house my grandfather built himself on the street behind the school where I went to kindergarten. I never went to her house after school. I never spent Saturdays cutting up pieces of colored paper. I don’t remember going to her house for holidays or Sunday dinners—I had other grandparents for that. But in the few years after my grandfather died and before dementia left my grandmother living in her long-term memories, I went with my father when he tilled the soil and sprinkled seeds for her garden, when the kitchen sink leaked, and once when her basement flooded and left sediment on the cellar walls. I went because I liked being with my father without my sisters around. I don’t remember having a conversation with my grandmother, and I didn’t understand anything she and my father said to each other.
* * * * *
My knowledge of Hungary was scattered. I knew a little about Saint Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary, from my book of Catholic saints, although the child’s version of her story was abridged, missing details I learned about later—her abuse by her spiritual advisor, to whom she vowed obedience after the death of her husband. I knew bits about the 1956 revolution during the Cold War, but not the particulars of Soviet oppression. To prepare for the trip to Hungary that my husband and I were taking, I bought a Lonely Planet guidebook, a thick book of Hungarian history starting with migrations around 400 BC, and two Hungarian novels regarded worthy enough to be translated into English.
* * * * *
My grandmother was born Erszébet Nagy. She died Elizabeth Ruskai. As a child, I fantasized that I was descended from a queen who was also a saint. Even then, I used my imagination to fill in the empty spaces where there should have been stories.
* * * * *
I Googled my grandmother’s birth name together with the village name—Hernádnémeti. I don’t know what I thought I’d find. I’d already looked at the records available online and found only the passenger manifest for the ship she’d arrived on at Ellis Island. I did find a death notice for a woman in Wisconsin who had died just a month before. The obituary told how she had fled Hernádnémeti after the 1956 revolution. She was nine months pregnant. She made it to Ireland, then went into labor shortly after her plane took off from Dublin. The pilot aborted the trip, turned the plane around. Her son was born in the airport. A daring and courageous escape from Communist reprisals. I realized I knew more about this family’s immigration story from a single newspaper clipping than I did my own. I found the son on Facebook. “Ask him for his recipe for liver dumpling soup,” my husband said. The dish was a favorite of my father’s, and my mother learned to make it the way my grandmother did. “If it’s the same as yours,” my husband said, “you’ll know you’re related.”
* * * * *
Nagy, my grandmother’s family name, is as common in Hungary as Jones or Smith is in the United States. It is pronounced Noodg.
My father’s name was Michael. In Hungarian, Mihály. Pronounced Me high.
* * * * *
My grandmother died of a heart attack in the locked ward of a nursing home, where my father had placed her after my mother said she couldn’t take care of both a senile old woman and a newborn. I haven’t visited my grandmother’s grave since the day she was buried, on my eleventh birthday. Her stories are deposited there, too, decomposing with her. I never asked my father about her, where she was born, what she was like. I don’t know if he was embarrassed by her teeth or her difficulty speaking English. I don’t know if he brought friends home after school. He died when I was nineteen and newly in love, when I believed the only stories that mattered were the ones my beloved and I would write.
Years after my father died, I was at a conference where one of the speakers was named Mihály. When he was introduced, I heard my grandmother calling my father. I found myself standing in a queue at the speaker’s table after the session, like a bead in a rosary. He was answering questions as he packed his briefcase. When it was my turn, I said, “My father’s name was Mihály. I haven’t heard that name in a long time.” Then I felt my face redden, and I considered that I was being unprofessional, exposing a longing.
* * * * *
By the time my husband and I boarded our flight to Budapest, I’d read only as far as the Crusades in the history book. I was more interested in the guidebook and the novels.
The Lonely Planet said Budapest’s Keleti pályaudvar, which translates to “eastern train station,” was the most modern and artistic railway station in Europe when it was built in the early 1880s, coinciding with the time my grandmother was born. The station’s style is a mix of influences that reflect the country’s conquests by Turks and Europeans. The platform smelled like pastry and diesel and warm bodies. I stepped outside. It was early morning and the light was good. I pulled my camera out of my backpack and looked through the viewfinder at the sun angled on windows with leaded panes. The need to negotiate lenses and f-stops felt overwhelming after a long flight and the effort to communicate about lost luggage. I reminded myself of lost opportunities. Take the picture, I told myself. But I didn’t know how to take a photo that was not a tourist snapshot, a photo that said how I felt standing on the platform listening to people arriving and leaving, hearing words that meant nothing but were wrapped in the sounds and inflections of my father talking with my grandmother, sounds that I hadn’t heard in more than fifty years but made me feel held. I put the camera away and went back inside, took a paper slip
with a number, and waited for that number to appear above one of the ticket windows. When it was my turn I bought two tickets to Miskolc, the closest stop to my grandmother’s village. “Köszönöm.” Thank you. The language guide says it’s pronounced kur-sur-nurm.
* * * * *
“Nem beszélek magyarul.”
I pronounced it like this: “I don’t speak Hungarian.”
You either speak Hungarian or you don’t. It is an obscure and difficult language. You can’t fake your way through lunch with your grandmother or an encounter with a Budapest ticket agent the way you can get by in Mexico with a couple of years of high school Spanish. Despite the DNA in my cells, my mouth did not know how to shape the syllables. To my husband, not only the words but also the rhythm of them, one after the other, sounded alien. For me, the cadence of the language was specific to one time and place, to my grandmother talking to my father. I once heard Rilke read in the original German. I wasn’t familiar enough with his work to know the poem. I heard the meaning not in the individual words and lines, but in the sounds that held feeling, the way a very young child might know emotion in a grandparent’s murmurs before she knows that sounds form words.
* * * * *
Hungary is a volcanic land with thermal baths flowing with healing water, and the cave baths near Miskolc are among the most visited outside Budapest. My husband and I walked to them from our bed-and-breakfast. Plump women in two-piece bathing suits and men with lean, sharp features like my father’s and grandmother’s stood under water streaming from the mouths of cement lions or walked on mosaic tiles through the rocky passages. I expected the smell of sulfur, like eggs boiled too long, but the water smelled clean. Some pools were shallow, the water tepid. We negotiated the labyrinth until we entered the deepest reaches of the cave—a darkened room where the water was warmest and no one spoke. I closed my eyes and floated. I imagined this is what it felt like in the womb.
The drive from the cave baths to Hernádnémeti took only twenty minutes. The village wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook, although the nearby Tokaj wine region was. We passed planted fields with hawks circling above. A few turns off the main road and we were there. Children and men and even older women with soft bodies rode one-speed bicycles on the narrow streets. The houses were cream colored and mostly one story with stucco walls and red-clay roofs. White storks nested in chimneys. I looked at them through my binoculars, twisting the lens to bring the birds into focus. I could see how, with the birds nesting like that, the myth was born that storks bring babies, dropping them down the chimney like a gift from Saint Nicholas, hiding the truth about sex.
* * * * *
This is the story of how Hungary came to be: Emese, a princess, was married to King Ügyek. She could not conceive. She was impregnated by a turul, and the dream she had of a mighty river flowing from her body foretold a descendant who would be the founder of Hungary.
* * * * *
This is the story I heard growing up: My grandmother wanted to become a nun. When she was fifteen, her family forced her to marry an older man from a nearby village who was considered a “good catch.” He came to America, where he worked as a gardener until he made enough money to send for her and their three children. I think my mother told me that story.
* * * * *
It was early in the day, but already too hot for us to be wandering among the uneven rows of granite and limestone in Hernádnémeti’s cemetery. Here and there, a tree provided a little shade. I was still wearing the T-shirt I’d worn on the plane, now dampening with sweat. Some graves had simple markers, some had obelisks, angels, carved wreaths. Kovács, Takács, Szabó, Kiss. There were tombs for entire families. Because my grandfather was from another village, I knew none would be marked Ruskai. There were too many engraved with Nagy to know if I should stop and pay my respects to this one or that one. Near the back of the cemetery, half obscured by weeds, were discarded tombstones, stacked against rocks like LPs in a vintage record store. Grave markers removed because no one paid the annual fees. Ancestors unhonored.
* * * * *
The first Hungarian novel I read took place in Italy with characters on their honeymoon. But in Magda Szabó’s novel The Door, I met Emerence, a woman whose past is a mystery, who prefers being misunderstood to revealing her story. She works as a maid and takes care of the people on her street, her cats, her employer’s dog, and refugees from the violence of the secret police of the Nazi and, later, the Soviet occupiers. All she wants is to save enough money to build a tomb into which she can move the bones of relatives who have passed and where she can be buried.
* * * * *
Bryan Cartledge begins his history of Hungary, The Will to Survive, like this: “Nations need myths. Hungary, a country that became conscious of nationhood rather late in its history, has its fair share. Hungarian myths are more concerned with origins than with gods or heroes.”
Even today, when you can swab the inside of your cheek and send it to National Geographic to get a map of your heritage, uncertainty surrounds the answer to the question of how Hungarians, with a language incomprehensible to their neighbors, came to be a cultural island in the center of Europe. Cartledge says the most likely explanation is that they migrated from western Siberia as part of a group of Finno-Ugrians, which splintered into smaller groups, one of which became the linguistic offshoot known as Magyars. Their identity is entwined with a language unique to them. Their language is how they know who they are. It is how they know that someone is a member of their tribe.
Magyar. It’s pronounced like this: Mudg yar. The language is softer than it looks on paper.
* * * * *
My grandmother’s petition for citizenship, the sworn statement of her birth, her marriage, her children, and her immigration, had information new to me. I pulled the facts into this account: She was seventeen and my grandfather twenty-four when they married on February 10, 1899. My grandfather left for America a year later. One year and one month after he arrived in America, my grandmother gave birth to her first child, a son. She bore another son two years later, and a third two years after that. When the youngest was two, she and her three sons boarded the Slavonia, which arrived at Ellis Island on July 11, 1907. The petition does not list the daughter who I know was born in America, the one who died when she was nine years old. It does list my father’s birth, in 1919, a year after the daughter died. My father, the replacement child, the fourth son, but the one who carried his father’s name, Mihály.
* * * * *
My father ran away from home when he was fourteen. He went to a seminary to become a priest. My grandmother went after him, brought him back. That part of the story always surprised me, since I’d been told my grandmother herself wanted a religious life. Years later, my father and my mother met when they both joined the Third Order of Saint Francis, the lay branch of the Franciscans, whose patron saint is Queen Elizabeth of Hungary. My parents were both devout Catholics. My grandmother threatened not to come to their wedding. She told my maternal grandparents that their daughter would be unfaithful.
* * * * *
The Catholic Church where my grandparents were married was easy to find; its steeple rose above the one-story houses in Hernádnémeti. I could hear the priest talking in the rectory when I knocked at the door, but he didn’t answer. The curtains on the windows were closed. I wanted to find my grandparents’ marriage record, to hold in my hands the original paper with my grandmother’s signature and my grandfather’s mark. Although I knew marriage records are kept in civic offices, not the church, I thought a priest might speak English.
My genealogy search had not led me to any family members. The man on Facebook, whose mother’s name matched my grandmother’s, called me “cousin” when he accepted my friend request, but I didn’t have enough information for us to know if we really were. He only knew one person in the village who spoke English, and she was out of the country.
My husband and I drove the narrow village roads searching for anything that looked like civic offices. We couldn’t read the signs. We stopped at what looked like public buildings, first a school and then at what we discovered was a senior center, and asked if anyone spoke English. “Szia.” See ah. It means hi, hello, bye, ciao. I felt the embarrassment of traveling without speaking the language, of expecting that even in a village of three thousand there would be someone who spoke my language. We found someone at the senior center. She was in her twenties and wore a nearly sheer dress with a gold chain belt. She looked like a Greek goddess. When we told her what we were looking for, she tried to give us directions in broken English, then gave up, opened the back door of our rental car, got in, and told us she would take us there. We’d driven past the building, but the sign outside made me think it was a hospital, and we hadn’t gone in.
Inside, we met Zoltán, a man about my age, a little taller and his hair a little more gray. I explained what I’d come for—the marriage certificate. But even in English, I didn’t say what I wanted: stories, connection, family. Our interpreter tried her best, but she could convey only fragments of sentences, of meaning. Her basic English classes had not covered the vocabulary of genealogy, the grammar of untold stories. Finally, I opened my travel notebook to the family tree I had compiled. Not much, really: just my grandparents’ parents and siblings. Zoltán smiled and nodded as he said, in English, “Family tree.” He took the notebook and set it on his desk, put his glasses on, and leaned over to study the information on the single page. I saw him nod again. Then he pulled a pencil from the pocket of his light green, short-sleeved shirt, and next to the name of my grandmother’s mother, scribbled something in the margin as he spoke. Our interpreter repeated what he’d said: “She was born in Slovakia.” She smiled with the satisfaction of a schoolgirl who knows she’s given the right answer.
“Meddig leszel itt?” How long will you be here?
“Jöjjön vissza két nap múlva.” Come back in two days.
“Én némi kutatást fogok végezni.” I will do some research.
He photocopied the family tree.
* * * * *
My guidebook said that in addition to the thermal baths, castles are a must-see, so while we waited for Zoltán to research my family, we visited castles. From Hernádnémeti we drove to Boldogkö Castle, just thirty minutes from the border of Slovakia, suddenly interesting to me as the birthplace of my great-grandmother. I learned later that at the time of her birth, there was no Slovakia; it was all part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Hungary’s history, detailed by Cartledge, is a series of successful invasions and unsuccessful revolutions—a country too important to ignore, but too small to be powerful. A country that was appealing enough to be divided as a spoil of war, but struggled to be independent—its borders shifting with every turn of power, people falling asleep one night in Hungary and waking up the next morning in the same bed but a different country. First the Mongols came, then the Turks, then the Habsburgs, and later the Nazis and the Soviets. The castles built on volcanic knolls and other rises were not the stuff of queens and fairy tales, but fortresses for protection, with watchtowers and torture chambers. We climbed the ramparts, peered through the narrow openings used to spot the approach of marauding armies while they were still far enough away to give the villagers time to gather behind the protective stone walls.
Back at our bed-and-breakfast, I read the history like a high school student, flipping back and forth, gathering bits that allowed me only glimpses of the story. I wondered what having a history infused with fear and surrender does to people. What it does to families. What it shatters.
* * * * *
I never asked my grandmother what it was like for her to leave her village and family at the age of twenty-five and get on an ocean liner with three children: József, six; Lajos, four; and János, two. Were they seasick? Was she afraid? What was it like to stand in line at Ellis Island surrounded by the babel of others seeking acceptance? What did she bring with her? What did she leave behind? I never asked her what it was like to be an immigrant in Cleveland. What it was like to lose a nine-year-old daughter. What it was like to feel her nine-year-old granddaughter tense in her arms when she held her. I wonder, if I’d asked, whether my grandmother would have had the words to tell me.
* * * * *
The three boys who immigrated with my grandmother grew up, left home, and changed their last names. Two of them died young. I barely knew my cousins, who were much older. I assumed my uncles had just Americanized their names, as many immigrants did. But my father, even though he valued assimilation, kept his father’s name. I wonder now if my uncles were motivated by something other than assimilation. I wonder now what their origin story was and what they were told it was. A stork in a chimney. Impregnation by a mythical falcon.
I imagined possibilities because that’s what you do when you don’t know a story. I imagined my grandfather returning to Hungary every two years to father children, and then I discarded that story because I believe if he could afford to travel, he would have sent for his wife. And all the babies were born in March, which would have meant that my grandfather, a gardener who tended gated estates in a suburb of Cleveland, would have taken time off in June.
I imagined possibilities that you don’t talk about with your children. I wondered if my grandmother worked as a maid while she waited for her husband to send for her, maybe for a wealthy family in which the wife went to Lake Balaton every June, leaving my grandmother alone with the man of the house. Was it love? Was it what she did to keep her job?
I shift the fragments in my mind. They settle into an image of her father. But the information spins loose. There is nothing to hold the fragments and they fall apart, swirl without finding a home.
* * * * *
I was eager to see Zoltán again, to see what he might have found, even though I told myself two days wasn’t a lot of time, not to have any expectations. I prepared by asking questions of an internet translation program and writing the answers in my notebook so that I could point to them and hope Zoltán would write answers that I could translate into English.
He motioned for me to sit in front of his computer. He leaned over me, looking at the screen and controlling the mouse while he loaded a genealogy program. There were thousands of names. Thousands. All with connections to this village. This was not two days of research; I’d found the one man in Hernádnémeti whose interest was in documenting the links from one generation to the next. He clicked and a photo came into view. He clicked back and then on another name, another photo, showing me something, then someone, one image dissolving into another, all too quickly for me to follow. My
thoughts were spinning.
I heard the bells in a church tower ring the hour. Zoltán made a selection, clicked “print,” then left his office and returned with pages still warm from the printer. There was my grandmother’s name. Her sisters and brother, who died as an infant. Her parents. Her sisters’ children and their children’s children. My relatives. Six generations—from my great-grandparents to the newest members of the clan, the same ages as my own grandchildren.
I didn’t have words for what I wanted to say, so I pointed to the Hungarian words I had copied from the internet translation: “Honnan tudtad, hogy hol született a dédnagymanám?” How did you know where my great-grandmother was born? Zoltán smiled. He pointed to himself, then to my great-grandmother’s brother on the family tree. “My,” he said.
I gasped. Not surprise, but the wordless breath that escapes when the muscles around the heart let go. It was the sound of a longing being released after having been held tight for a long time. It sounded like the first breath a new baby takes.
I gave him what I had to offer in return: data—the names and birthdays of my three sisters and me, the names and birthdays of my two children, both adopted from Korea, whose untold stories of identity and immigration would not be found on these pages.
He gave me an email address for his son, who, he said, speaks English. Then my husband took a picture, and Zoltán kissed me on both cheeks, by then wet with tears.
* * * * *
On the train back to Budapest, I studied the material Zoltán gave me, shuffling the names and dates dispersed across the pages until they made stories. Aside from my grandmother, no one else in my family left Hungary. Most, even in the fifth and sixth generations, listed Hernádnémeti as their place of birth, place of death, the place where their children were born. I may have passed some of them as they pedaled bicycles along the road or sat in wheelchairs in the senior center. One of them might have been our interpreter, who told us she longed to visit America. One of them might be paying cemetery fees every year to keep grave markers on our relatives.
I thought about how my grandmother’s five children were listed, but not her grandchildren. Before my visit, my sisters and I were as unknown to my relatives who remained in Hungary as they were to us.
* * * * *
The history book says that much of the Hungarian diaspora was due to oppression or reprisals after failed rebellions. Some who left were wealthy. Some educated. Some were skilled workers. Some were Jews. My grandparents’ departure placed them in the Great Economic Immigration in the decades leading up to World War I. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were displaced by industrialization, overpopulation, and unemployment. If things were so bad that my grandfather left for America, how did my grandmother survive during the nearly seven years that she remained in Hernádnémeti? The likely explanation is that she continued to live with her parents.
The family tree Zoltán gave me listed my great-grandmother’s death as October 19, 1906. She would have been forty-eight. A few months later, my grandmother boarded the Slavonia, bound for America. Had my great-grandmother been ill? Did my grandmother take care of her? Was her mother the reason she stayed? Was her father the reason she left? Did my grandmother awaken in the middle of the night and see her father’s silhouette in the doorway and have reason to be afraid?
What was taking shape was an image of a woman with unknown struggles and untold stories. I wonder if anyone knew her. I wonder what she would think about my asking these questions, wanting to know her truth. Would she, like the fictional Emerence, prefer misunderstanding to exposure? I wonder what it costs to live a life without choices, without language, without the intimacy that comes when you know another’s suffering. How it breaks you. How you survive. I thought about how I wanted to pull away when she held me, and I wonder if I reminded her of her only daughter. I remembered how my grandmother murmured my name—Losi, Losi, Losi—and how I judged her for mispronouncing it. Now, in my memory, I hear the softness.
* * * * *
I continued to turn over the pages of the genealogy, piecing together patterns, counting the months between a wedding and the firstborn like a village biddy. Two years after my grandmother left for America, her older sister Magdolna married for the first time. She was thirty years old, and I imagined her labeled an “old maid,” living at home with her widowed father. The following March, seven months after the wedding, Magdolna bore a son. The man she married was the widower of her younger sister, who had died only five months before, after giving birth to their second child. I made up one story: The grieving widower has an affair with his wife’s older sister in the months immediately following his wife’s death. I made up another: The older sister is pregnant, and the widower needs a mother for his two young children.
I focused again on my grandmother’s father: a man with two Catholic daughters whose pregnancies at the beginning of the twentieth century are clouded. I looked at the genealogy again. My great-grandparents married in January 1879, three months after Magdolna was born.
I wondered what the relatives in Hernádnémeti knew—if anyone paid to keep my great-grandfather’s headstone erect.
* * * * *
Three months after I left Hungary, I saw images in the news of Keleti pályaudvar packed with Syrian refugees. Families dispersing across Europe. They traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia to Budapest, some on foot, some in trucks, some by rail, some trying to reconnect to those who left earlier. Most wanted to get on a train to Vienna and from there to Germany. All of them looked tired: carrying all their possessions, queuing up to buy a ticket, struggling to be understood. I thought about how I found my travel to Budapest so fatiguing, my lost luggage such an inconvenience. I read that Hungary resisted these refugees and justified closing their borders with the memory of massacres by Muslim invaders. I remembered the minaret we saw near the ruins of a castle in Eger.
Those who didn’t leave Hungary know the story of invaders and oppression—Nazis who sent Jews to concentration camps and sent the Hungarians who weren’t Jews to be massacred on the eastern front. I remembered how Zoltán’s genealogy had limited information about my grandmother’s American descendants. Those left behind don’t know the stories of those who fled, who lined up at Ellis Island, hoping to bring their education and skills to a new country, willing to leave families and language and stories behind.
* * * * *
Besieged by neighbors for most of its history, with Magyars a minority in their own country, Hungary was late to unify around its culture and always fearful of being overwhelmed by the prevalence and power of Germans and Slavs and Muslims, Cartledge explained. They made their difficult language the symbol of nationality, the core of their identity. The teaching of Hungarian—Magyar—was not required in all primary schools until 1879. And by 1898, all towns and villages had to “Magyarise” their names. Tombstones could be inscribed only in Magyar. By the time my grandmother left for America, teachers used only Magyar for instruction. The language gave them pride and a sense of connection that had been missing. Language linked my grandmother to the family she left behind but kept us from connecting.
* * * * *
I look sometimes at the photo my husband took of Zoltán and me, cousins born two years apart, a world apart, linguistically separated. There are facial similarities. But it is his body. His average height. His barrel chest. The way he wears the belt of his trousers, a narrow belt worn a little too high. So like my father.
In the photo I am smiling—not the smile of tourist snapshots, but a smile of mouth and cheeks and eyes.
* * * * *
But for the shame of immigration, the shame of sex—maybe incest, maybe rape—the shame of my grandmother speaking English poorly, the shame that kept my father from teaching me to speak Magyar, I might have stories that hold their shape. I might have known my grandmother more deeply when she was alive and have more of her to hold on to now that she is gone. I have only fragments. Not even puzzle pieces that could fit together if I turned them until I found the connections. Just scraps, like the bits of colored paper that tumble about in the mirrored end of a kaleidoscope when it’s turned. But they are unstable. The bits shift again as soon as the tube is moved, the angled mirrors suggesting a new image. The fragments are not connected. There is no grammar to hold them in place.
Lois Ruskai Melina’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Blood Orange Review, Carolina Quarterly, Crack the Spine, Lunch Ticket, and 2016 Best of the Net Anthology, among others. She is retired from teaching in higher education and when not writing can sometimes be found rowing on the Willamette River near her home in Portland, Oregon.