Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hungarian Condoms and Tea Sets (illustrated!)


The locale is Budapest: my mom and dad got married ca. 1937 (can’t remember exact year, I wasn’t there). My brother was born in 1938 (gasp how did he get that old!), and then my parents dutifully practiced birth control. They bought condoms at the neighborhood pharmacy which actually offered a free tea set to whoever turned in 100 empty condom wrappers. Well my parents did, and the pharmacist told them they were the only ones in the neighborhood brave enough to do so. I don’t know what happened to the tea set, though.

OK, how to visualize the setting? A quiet suburban dirt street, cars are few and they raise dust. The joke was that when a car went through, the dust took three months to settle. Was the sun out, brightly lighting a small storefront pharmacy? I see it all in miniature, almost like a toy set, probably because it has to fit in the limited space inside my head. Actually I would like to get a look at that infamous tea set and even more the impressive collection of condom wrappers ( I wish I had asked my mom where they had stored them --perhaps in a cookie jar?).....


No, the condoms didn’t fail. What happened is that my mom and dad were getting ready to go to Great Aunt Riza’s birthday party. They had to dress up and the time was short. In the process of undressing and dressing they got terribly horny and there was no time to mess with a condom –so --ta ta– here I am! They were late for the party anyway and had to come up with some lame excuse –so perhaps this explains why I’m always late and always have to invent some lame excuse of my own (The dog ran away and I had to catch him....etc)

So how to imagine that scene? Was it raining? Perhaps there was a wild storm like those shown to hint at great sexual passion in the Hollywood films of the time (how did we come down now in the twenty first century to allude to sex by showing two people in separate bathtubs side by side but not even touching –gasp!). Were electric undercurrents springing forth in the Danube in the form of foamy wild waves of .... (reader fill in the blanks, please). Yet I picture the scene in fuzzy slightly washed out pastels, a soft molecular dance between two pointillist shadows...(sheesh what did you expect? Am I supposed to actually visualize my dad putting his penis into my mom!)

Later, when my mother was pregnant, she swam and swam in the Danube... The river, she said, nurtured both of us. My mother was one heck of a swimmer! She had come very close to making the Hungarian swim team to the infamous 1936 Olympics in Germany. Tragically some pretty sad things also happened in that river just a couple of years after I was born (the web knows; just look up Danube Budapest Holocaust....).

There are no photographs of my parents’ wedding. My dad’s mother was dying and they got married at her bedside. Other pix didn’t make it, except one. It was a passport photo. By that time they were frantically trying to get out of Hungary because they were Jews (converted to Calvinism for protection but really agnostic by belief, but since your ID had to have your religion in it, and there was no slot for agnostics, let alone atheists, they had tried another route. But the minister who converted them kept a list of the converted Jews and turned it over to the Nazis)

So to make a long story short, my father didn’t make it. My mother did, escaped from prison, went underground, spied for the Allies and was part of a network that saved other people, a gypsy smuggled her kids out of Budapest, then we got smuggled back in.... etc etc etc but that will have to be for another post ‘cause remembering is pretty tiring, not to mention tiresome.

The Holocaust came late in Hungary and, as elsewhere, included Tsiganes (Romas a.k.a Gypsies) except for the musicians in Budapest who were spared so that the Nazi could keep on enjoying their amazing music. Gypsies haven’t talked much about their Holocaust but I heard it in person from the musicians who worked in my mother’s Hungarian restaurant in Brussels....

Warning! mega digression afoot: when the Congo was negotiating with Belgium for independence, the Congolese delegation used to regularly come to the restaurant, and, lo and behold, I actually made an order of fries ( Belgian fries of course: “French fries” are impostors) for Patrice Lumumba himself whom I still mourn as I read of the seemingly endless catastrophes the inhabitants of the Congo have endured since his assassination...

Oh well, I hope you didn’t all get lost in these zigzagging journeys between continents and centuries. There are no fixed boundaries in memory so it all gets jumbled together –there’s a theme though, but that’s for the reader to uncover....

Forthcoming: how my uncle Zoltan escaped from his work gang by running between bullets, was hidden by an enormously fat women and fell in love with her and all fat women thereafter (except for his future wife who’s also my father’s first cousin and shares his and my last name and is the last surviving members of this group of siblings and cousins), and later on became postmaster of the whole of Hungary for the brief happy moment in between the Nazis and the Communists regimes....


So here comes a tearjerker of a poem:

Father Lost (lament over a single photograph) (poem)
To my brother Paul, my childhood protector

Father hiding in the wordless memories
of a baby you held in your arm
brown eyes to brown eyes did I coo?
When I was two you were gone
where where, anyukam, asked my brother
six years old where is my apu?
So he left secret messages to his father
behind an enormous wardrobe
he moved back and forth from the wall
by the magic of his sorrow

And I?
Only one photograph left
passport photos side by side with my mother
black and grey shadows in an old frame
Bella and Laszlo were trying to get out
of Hungary just before

My mother’s face turned toward the photographer
only one ear showing but I know the other
sideways over her shoulder her eyes so light
so serious already did she know?
My father’s face turned to the right looking away
only one ear showing and I don’t know the other
his eyes so sad already did he know?

I stare and stare and I can see under the sad eyes
a song on the lips
and laughter and delight
my mother said there was so much music and dancing
and then

He was an engineer in a shoe factory
he thought of using old tires for the soles
because of the war
he sometimes or once made shoes from scratch at home
for the feel of it
he sang in the shower
he sang so well the neighbors asked
what radio station they were playing next door
in the morning such beautiful music
after the war my mother
went to the train station day
after day waiting for him to come out
of a train

The twenty first century already emulates the twentieth
but we’re good at information
So I’m trying to find out
what my father’s eyes saw
Google conjures up a map
of Müldorf
a town like any other
I see roads and streets in pastel colors
I find out my father died under the weight
of hundred pounds sacks of cement
and an empty stomach
my lost father
younger than my children
but I find him at the moment of death
at the moment of light
he knows Bella hid
and his children will live

Father oh father
for a moment a tenuous moment
I am your mother
holding your tears in my arms
shielding your eyes

The moment is lost as often as it is found
and still I ride the train
now far away from those tracks
yet linked to them in a straight line
I can see all the way
to the dark horizon where their beginning ends
in void
and so lost daughter still I reach
with an infant’s wordless clumsiness
towards my lost father’s photograph.

Poem copyright 2008 by Catherine Tihanyi

Top: Bella (aka Isabelle Vital) and Laszlo Tihanyi ca. 1939, 40?
Second: Kati, 1945, Switzerland (head had been shorn for lice
in order to enter Switzerland after weeks of waiting at Austrian border)
Third: Geza and Miklos at the restaurant in Brussels
Last: Paul and Kati in Zurich ca 1946/47