MY DEAR MOTHER,
With Mother’s Day around the corner, I’ve been thinking of you a lot, back in the old days in Hungary. I don’t know if I adored you or hated you as a child. You were so spectacular, you always stood in the light. Once a model and actress with skinny arms and legs, you put our thicker bodied family to shame. Blonde and blue eyed, we were all darker and more ordinary.
You were not a cookie-baking mom with an apron around your waist. Yet, you baked at times, gourmet delicacies you named Non Plus Ultra and Lady’s Whim. Meringue-topped butter squares filled with apricot jam. Almond-and-chocolate slices you said were à la Rothschild. They did not come out of cookbooks but somewhere from your mysterious, Transylvanian heritage. You just whipped them out. You wrote some of the recipes down for me, but your handwriting was such a scrawl, I found it unreadable. It was like the journal you kept during your last solitary years, which you tore up as you wrote.
Yet you did nothing. You had no job, a governess looked after your kids, a maid cleaned and cooked. You needed to have a nap every afternoon or you were in bad temper. Your kids had to play quietly so as not to wake you, or, if they did, Father distributed heavy-handed discipline. “Slap. Slap, you upset your Mother!”
Of course, it is not true that you did not do anything. You kept track of Paris fashions and reinterpreted them for yourself and for us. I remember some of your outfits. In 1950s fashion, they were mostly suits with straight skirts hugging that slender body and minuscule bottom. I remember a summer suit in blue, somewhere between baby blue and cornflower blue, the color of your eyes that was particularly ravishing.
You had the dressmaker create dresses for us children, too—things with sailor collars, Italian knits, or for special occasions, white wool bordered in pink velvet ribbons. It was embarrassing that we never had ordinary store-bought clothes, like the other children. These were the years of communism, and ostentatious dress would have stood out as upper class. But you knew that too, and all the clothes, yours and ours, were so simple and subtle that nothing was ever said about them. And if we complained, we knew what you would say: “We must uphold the standards of civilization in these barbaric times!”
You were not a mother; you were a goddess. You saw through everybody, whether he or she could be trusted, honest, “stupid” or worthwhile. You did not look at positions, degrees or references, just straight in the eyes. And you were right, always right. You were uncanny. You knew what I was going to think before I thought it. You knew a lie before it was formulated. You were a moral compass at a very corrupt time. If they gave honorary degrees in intuition, you would have been the first to get one. Father, sister, and I were clumsy earthlings bumbling by on trial and error. I miss your awesome brilliance.
On the other hand, I don’t miss the histrionics and hysterics. Operatic screams followed by Father’s loving but stern shushings. They were scary and strange. As children, we did not know that there was something undiagnosed and untreated that reared its head periodically in you. We suspected that whatever it was, it was supposed to dissolve in those afternoon naps that required quiet. Like all goddesses, you were terrifying too.
I understand how you became an alcoholic. During the 1956 Revolution, you and Father decided we should leave the country and eventually we came to the US. I am pretty sure that this was Father’s decision, and he convinced you that it was the only way to avoid Communist danger. You loved arriving in New York. For someone from a small town in Transylvania, New York was the center of the universe. New York was civilization itself. Anytime you felt like it, you could put on your three-inch heels and walk down Madison Avenue, evaluating the glittering shops and boutiques. You had finally arrived.
Of course, then you went home, put on an apron, to clean and cook in an apartment not big enough for the children, who were luckily—and sadly—away in boarding school. You could still go to the bargain basements of department stores to find discarded designer originals in the sale piles, along with other women of little means. Washed and ironed, these exotic things made mystifying presents for the children in boarding school. You were still keeping up “the standards of civilization in times of exile.”
You must have been lonely. Other Hungarian refugee women had jobs; you were deemed unsuitable for a job. Everybody learned English at work or in school and blended in; you only picked up a few words from watching I Love Lucy at home alone. You had all too much time to miss the spacious Budapest apartment overlooking the hills of Buda that you would never see again. When he saw the sadness in your eyes, Father would say, “Dear, have another glass of wine.” And you would have as many as would blot out the present to which you could never adjust—am I right?
My sister never forgave you for being an alcoholic. You and she were in the habit of quarreling because you had different ideas of what “civilization” was. After Father died, the drinking became worse. You hallucinated turbaned Turks sitting in the room, vomited all over walls and on the bed. American treatment methods were of no avail. You could be coaxed to AA meetings and rehab programs, but never admitted to being an alcoholic. You would listen patiently to the horrendous confessions the alcoholics made of their former addiction, and then you would stand up and say: “What am I doing here among all these unfortunate and disgusting people?”
While I was fatalistic about your future, my sister was determined to cure you by draconian methods, if necessary. She had recently moved to a small town a few hours from New York and decided to take you there, near her. She found a living situation where you would live alone but did not have access to alcohol. You pulled out all the hysterics and histrionics. The idea of returning to a small town, similar to the small town you came from, after the worldly glamour of New York, was unbearable to you. You screamed and kicked. You spewed poisonous accusations at everyone. You were not a mother; you were a monster.
My sister won and took you, and in time, amazingly enough, you sobered up. (With an occasional lapse.) My sister saved your life, but from then on you and she were barely on speaking terms. I was the beneficiary of the new sobriety. Evidently, my sister and I played good-cop-bad-cop. At various times a year you visited me. You recovered your looks and elegance on these visits. You dressed simply in blouses and pleated skirts. Never pants. You baked Non Plus Ultra and Lady’s Whim pastries for me, which we had with afternoon tea, after your usual afternoon nap. There were still occasional hysterics, but they were under control. We had a wonderful time together in your seventies.
Over tea, you imparted some of your wisdom. For example, you disliked feminism where the aim was to make women do everything a man can do. You thought that was stupid, counterproductive, and unnatural. You thought that a woman should be valued not for what she does but what she IS. That made a great impression on me, as I happened to be treading the steps of a career. You said that this was—and would remain—a man’s world. Women would have to learn how to get what was rightly theirs, without having to slave for it and to become imitation men. Though not modern, you had a great sense of feminine pride and rights. You made sense.
As it turned out, you didn’t just come to see me in New York; you also came to see a man. This mentally borderline, barely recovering alcoholic widow, who had also recently suffered from a broken hip and a slight stroke, was having a romance with a handsome, tall, white-haired doctor. Of course, he was married and had grown children. He had been the family doctor since before Father died. My sister saw it as infidelity to Father’s memory. I saw it as love, the unpredictable gift of fate. I saw no harm in it. The doctor would come, with a stethoscope around his neck, pretend to examine you, and then recite romantic Hungarian poetry he had written you in a sonorous voice. He was clearly smitten. You were something even then. Eventually you decided that the romance, the visits, and perhaps life itself were coming to a close and met him for a last time and said a restrained, emotional goodbye. Then the two of you parted forever. It was something out of the movies.
You spent your last year in a nursing home found by my sister in her town, and I came to visit. Your liver disease was incurable. One day my sister called that you was dying and I should come right away. You looked fine, and we spent a couple of hours pleasantly chatting, saying nothing of importance. There was nothing to take care of; you had no money or inheritance; you had given us your last bits of costume jewelry some time ago. You had nothing. You were wearing an ordinary, pink nightgown. We both knew that this was the last visit, but didn’t mention it.
At one point, you told me to go, and we both got up for a long hug. I knew that you told me to go because you wanted to spare me the experience of the possible messiness of your actual dying—you were protecting me. You also did not want to be seen at that moment. You were proud and brave, and not afraid to die alone. You insisted on dying alone.
I felt guilty in retrospect about not taking you to live with me, near the end. But you always said that you have had your life and did not want to be a burden on me. And added that it was my turn to live my life now. You wanted my life well lived. It was said with some of the grandiosity of the former actress, but you meant it.
You were my mother.
Your older daughter
P.S. A couple of years after your death, I received a call from an unknown Hungarian woman visiting New York. She had known you before you married Father. She wanted to meet me to tell me that you were not what we all thought you were. You were a “gold-digger,” who had been married to someone else and divorced him quickly so you could catch Father. I thought about it for a minute and told her that I didn’t want to hear anything about it. And then, I put the receiver down.