Shattered Tears for My Homeland
December 19, 2005, Budaörs, Hungary.
Miserable day. Cold. Damp. I bear it, though, like a medal of valor, but tarnished. I walk between the rows of crosses in search of a marker, a sign, any sign. Where is Ó V Á R I? Where is the place she has lain for over half a century? All I find is clay, pale and tacky, and now stuck to my polished boots.
I anchor myself in this muddy paste and face the forest of timeworn tombstones, feeling deserted. A bitter gust kisses my cheek. Go back and find her, it seems to whisper. Don’t give up. Where is this voice? Grandmother, I say out loud, are you here? My eyes moisten, just as a copse begins to sway, murmuring over its lost limbs.
I wince at a jagged tombstone, mottled and cracked, the chiseled name dulled by lichen. I am mistaken: it is not hers. Is she even buried here?
Grandmother, I shout, suddenly brave and determined. I’m here at last. Are you happy I’ve come? But my eyes blur, my throat catches, and I look down. I love you. Can she still hear me? I still have your gift, did you know that? I’m sorry we left you. Really, we had no choice. The tears unleash and I lick the salt. Above, a band of ravens mock me in their midnight blue. I shoot them a fiery glance and fling my arms in a flailing whirl. They disperse and land on the wounds of broken branches.
I turn to go, and my stomach lurches. Was that a skull? A femur? A brittle bone? Should I gather my footsteps and run? I shrink while my heart explodes.
On the way back to town, absentminded, I collide with an aged man, his face tough from sun and too many roll-ups. He snaps at me in Hungarian. “Watch it! I wasn’t born in a glassmaker’s dream.” I recognize the old expression. “Are you blind, or angry?” He staggers but regains his balance, fist tight on the curl of his cane. We are near the Csárda restaurant: the sweetness of fried onions piques my hunger.
“Bocsánat,” I say. “Sorry, I was upset. I’ve just come from the cemetery.”
He considers my apology. “Have you now?” He twirls his long moustache, rubs his bristly cheeks down to the corners of his mouth, making it pucker like a gaping catfish. “The dead don’t give a damn, my dear. It’s the living that care.” He sucks deep on his unfiltered cigarette, lifts his chin and puffs a string of perfect rings. Then smiles. “Tell me,” he says, the gruffness gone, “how did you get into the cemetery? It’s locked.”
“The gates were open,” I say.
“Hooligans!” He flushes with anger. “At it again.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“They break the locks, lure in the curious. Be grateful they didn’t find you. They prey on people like you.”
“What do you mean, people like me?”
“Your black coat, your accent.” His deep-set eyes, the color of pigeons, scan me up and down. “Your coat’s new and your Hungarian accent is worn out.”
“Oh.” I inhale the cold air and pull my collar up to my ears.
“The graveyard you visited is the oldest in town. Centuries old. Nowadays, the caretakers can’t keep it up.”
“Is there another one in town?”
“Of course. In the other direction, where I’ll be heading one day.”
“Tell me,” I say, “there used to be a train station, with winding tracks. Where are they?”
“Long demolished. You’re standing right on them.”
I look down in disbelief at the slushy street. “Why?”
“Progress, my dear.” He gestures wide. “Streets. Cars. Pipes for sewage. Buildings. Take your pick. But don’t forget the revolution.”
“There used to be a cinema and school. Are they gone too?”
“Some things stand the test of time,” he says. “Over there, a few blocks away,” and he points with a nicotined finger.
Ever so briefly, my heart expands: something of my childhood days has survived.
I look up the street. “When I lived in Budaörs, my house faced the tracks. I must be standing close to where it was.” The revelation hits me and I cup my face with clammy hands. “Thank you,” I breathe through my fingers.” The old man shrugs and shuffles to the restaurant.
* * *
I shake as I face my old house, my beginning, my once-upon-a-time. Is this what I pictured? Is this the gossamer dream locked in my heart all these years? I don’t know anymore, but I feel I have traveled full circle.
I grip the frosty aluminum railing and see instead a weathered picket fence and a small child peeking through. Yes, this is where I ran and played, this is where I watched my tiny world pass by, where I waved to the whistling trains. My mind races, a chaos of memories.
The front door creeks and an old woman, goodly in girth, emerges. For a moment, I strain to place her, not sure if she belonged here once, and then I snap as if into wakefulness and open my mouth to speak. She coughs and leans the shovel she holds in one gloved hand up against the wall. She buttons her coat and reties her paisley scarf.
“Jo napot kivánok.” Good morning, I say in my Sunday-best Hungarian.
She busies herself scraping wet snow off the porch. For an instant, I see the white oleanders, the scarlet geraniums, the watercolor pansies in terra cotta pots that my mother would place there for the balmy summer months. “Excuse me,” I say, “this used to be my home.” I move closer to the locked gate. She still hasn’t heard me, or has chosen to ignore this foreigner in the black coat and worn-out accent.
“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am, but I’ve come a long way. Can we speak? Kéremszépen? Please?”
“What do you want?” she says, straightening up, arching her back.
“Just a few words, just a few minutes of your time.”
She lets out a frustrated sigh and drags her shovel to the middle of the courtyard. Panting, she leans her full weight on it, shoulders sagging forward. “Go away, I don’t know you. Let me finish my work.”
“I can’t,” I say. “Please let me come in.”
She moves as if to return to her scraping, then looks at me hard. “I have no time,” she says.
Desperate, I plead, like a lost child. “I grew up here. Over there is where we had a mulberry tree, and there the outhouse. I had a swing. There was a shed and a courtyard with chickens running all around, and a dog. Please, can you let me come in?”
The words tumble out and I feel foolish, but my heart is pounding. The old woman’s eyes are locked on me and I can see them deepen. She shuffles to the gate and unlocks it. “Come in then,” she says. “You’ll be warmer inside.” She turns toward the door and I have to strain to hear: “My husband died ten years ago. I’m alone now. Maybe you can tell me why this house was trashed when we bought it.”