My paternal uncle, Aaron, was a figure of mystery, a man I knew only through a photograph in his officer’s uniform. I knew little else about him until one day, when I was ten years old; my father received a letter from his widow Helen. After he finished reading it he told us that Uncle Aaron had left a wife and three children when he died in the war. They lived in Miskolc, a city on the banks of the Bodva River. My parents had met four years after Aaron’s death. By the time my father courted my mother, he had stopped speaking of his late brother.
In the letter, Helen wrote that she had married Jenö Kovács, a distant cousin of my friend Dolly’s father, a few years after Aaron’s passing. She also wrote of her son’s imminent graduation from engineering school, her older daughter’s marriage and the younger one’s attendance in public school. She added that her children were eager to get to know their father’s family. I overheard my parents discuss Helen’s missive. My father said he had never approved the union and refused to answer the letter. My mother said she would write.
The next time mother and I had tea with Aunt Magda, my father’s sister, she inquired about Aaron’s widow. Magda recalled that Helen had been an assistant seamstress as a young girl. Aaron, who had been a much sought after bon vivant, had caught a glimpse of her sewing the hem of a dress in the window of a couturière on Váci Street. Aaron had first spied Helen on a winter afternoon two years before the war and instantly became enchanted by her beauty, she related. He kept going by the window each day after he left his office in the family business, hoping to see her again. After he had gazed at her for a week, he knew he would never find happiness with a woman whose beauty failed to equal the object of his adoration. He stationed himself at the back door of the salon with a bouquet of flowers and patiently waited until she stopped work. He had been resolute in his purpose, so she said, determined to sweep her off her feet and marry her.
When my mother reported Magda’s comments to my father, he broke his silence about his late brother. He recalled that Aaron had discussed his love for Helen with him and confided the details of his pursuit for her hand in marriage. He tried to dissuade Aaron from making a terrible mistake, but his brother was obstinate and dismissed my father’s opinion. He had been blinded by the young girl’s beauty, father said, in a voice that implied he deemed Aaron’s actions those of a weak man.
Aaron instantly became the romantic hero of my fantasies. His early death enshrouded him in valor, vigor and virtue. It saved him from the fate of most older men had outlived their useful years. They remained in the memories of those who outlasted them only for their boring and repetitious remembrances of things past, their inconvenient ailments and their crotchety dispositions.
Helen’s letter was the major topic of conversation at the weekly family dinner on Sunday at the home of my grandparents. In their opinion, Helen was no more than a caricature of the poor working-class girl shrewdly trading her beauty for a life of ease. My cousins András and Flora indicated no interest in the subject matter. I was a precocious child and quickly discerned the family’s hostility toward Helen and Aaron’s marriage by the acrimonious resonance of the conversation. The older members of the family alleged that Helen had been flattered by the flowers and astounded by the proposal, although they had no way of knowing that she had been either flattered or astounded. I became convinced that these characterizations were merely the prejudiced conjectures of those who were fortunate by birth to have been raised in wealthy and privileged circumstances.
Helen had been a sly girl, my grandmother said, who knew she must not seem eager. She had kept Aaron dangling at the end of a string for a few weeks as he gave her increasingly expensive gifts. At last, Helen agreed to dine with him. He gave her a diamond lavallière with further entreaties for her hand. My grandmother was absolutely certain about the jewels Helen had received from Aaron, especially the lavallière. Her son had purchased every piece at the same elegant shop on Váci Street in the Inner City, a district famous for its upper-class boutiques catering to wealthy clients where my grandfather had always bought her gifts. Helen, my grandmother claimed, had insisted that Aaron properly ask her father for her hand in marriage. She had made the appointment and her groom went, hat in hand, to ask the cobbler for permission to wed his daughter. They agreed upon a bride price and were married in a civil ceremony the second week of March in 1912.
There was very little basis for most of the “information” the Nagy family was eagerly pressing on my mother. Except for Aaron’s love for Helen and his plan to marry her, which he had discussed with my father, the gifts of jewelry his mother could verify, and the date of the marriage ceremony, to which Aaron’s parents and siblings had been invited but refused to attend, the Nagy family related mostly what they had chosen to believe, not a single particle of it based on concrete evidence.
I had been aware for some time that my mother, who had grown up on a large estate near a small village, had not been received with enthusiasm by my father’s family. They considered her to be a girl from the country, despite the size of her dowry and the fine quality of her trousseau. My mother was always courteous with her in-laws, but in her quiet way she clearly indicated she did not welcome interference. My father frequently expressed admiration for her taste and style; the opinion of the rest of the family had never been of any interest to her.
Aunt Magda related that the family had ceased to have any connection with Aaron once he had married Helen. Their son was born nine months after the wedding. The family received an announcement, but sent no acknowledgment. The first girl was born in 1914. They received an an announcement as before, but they refused to recognize the legitimacy of his offspring. He had committed the unforgivable; he had caused them social embarrassment.
Aaron, an engineer trained at the University of Berlin, had been a captain in the corps of engineers during the war. He had had his last home leave in 1917. He was accidentally killed a few months later while his men blew up an enemy bridge with dynamite. Vera, the youngest child, was born in 1918, never having known her father.
Magda also told my mother that after Aaron died, Helen was not able to support three children on his army pension and the small life insurance he had left her. She pleaded with her father-in-law for a supplement to her meager income. Despite his previous opposition to his son’s unfortunate choice of a wife, Grandfather was an incorrigible romantic who could not refuse the plea of a beautiful woman. He gave her a monthly allowance that kept her from remarrying until Kovács, the manager of the bank where she had an account, took an interest in her. The Nagy family was convinced his income was a good deal more than the allowance her father-in-law had been giving her. Why else would she quickly marry him? It was obvious to me that Helen’s haste to wed was just another biased supposition; no one had a whisper of proof about the interval between the bank manager’s proposal and Helen’s acceptance.
Having no emotional investment in what was perceived by the entire Nagy family as Aaron’s disgrace, my mother kept her promise and wrote a kind note to her newly discovered sister-in-law. A reply came by return mail inviting me with my parents to visit her and Mr. Kovács in Miskolc during the summer of 1934. Father said he would not even consider accepting the invitation and adamantly dissociated himself from the whole affair. He kept using the word mésalliance. I had not yet begun to study French and asked my mother what the word meant. It is a mismatch, she explained, an alliance with someone born into a lower social class or an objectionable family background.
I thought it was time to get a neutral opinion. I asked Dolly just how she was related to Jenö Kovács, and if her father could shed any light on Mrs. Kovács. She reported back a week later. Jenö was her father’s second cousin once removed and he had an excellent job in a bank, but beyond that her father knew nothing about the quotidian details of his cousin’s life. They exchanged a few letters after they graduated kollégium, but had not seen each other in years.
My mother and I took the train to Miskolc for a stay of two weeks in July much to my father’s displeasure. He took us to the Eastern Railway Station. The last thing he said to my mother after he kissed her hand was, “Remember I warned you. Nothing good will come of this.”
Filled with eager anticipation on the journey, I asked my mother why Helen had waited sixteen years to contact my father. It was a puzzle, my mother remarked, but enlightened by Aunt Magda about Helen’s previous financial dependence on her father-in-law, she thought she understood the reason for her reticence and went on to share some of her conjectures with me. She believed Helen could only regain her self-respect after she was completely free of the memory of the Nagy family’s humiliating treatment of her. My mother was also convinced that Helen needed to be safely sheltered in the harbor of her new marriage before she felt free to contact her late husband’s family. Her deductions made perfect sense to me.
I still remember how greatly I enjoyed the trip. We were served our midday meal on good napery and china in the dining car. I looked out the window counting trees and telephone poles and got soot in my eye. My mother carefully removed it with the edge of her Swiss batiste handkerchief. When we arrived at Miskolc there was a fairly well-dressed woman in her late thirties waiting on the platform with an adolescent girl clutching her hand. She walked directly toward us and nearly suffocated my mother in her embrace. Then she looked at me and started to say, “And this is.. ”
“Irénke, my daughter,” my mother quickly interjected. My cousin Vera, five years older than I, shyly offered her hand.
The Kovács family lived in a small apartment. It made me very uncomfortable to have to share Vera’s room. As an only child I was accustomed to the privacy of my own room, but I knew if I made a fuss it would hurt Helen’s feelings. My mother was assigned the capacious living room sofa. I wondered how she was going to extricate herself. Would she think the trip was a mistake and that she should have listened to my father? My mother smiled and said the sofa would be fine.
Mr. Kovács, a short, ordinary looking man, came home from the bank at four o’clock. His wife served tea and mignons, little pastries almost as rich as bonbons. The head of the household removed his jacket and tie, then spent the rest of the afternoon reading the newspaper with total concentration, a daily ritual his wife and stepdaughter respected, speaking in whispers lest they disturb him.
I had no idea what people in a small town did for entertainment and expressed my curiosity. Mrs. Kovács, who insisted I call her Aunt Helen, suggested that Vera take me to the park. It was a long walk and knowing almost nothing about each other, we talked incessantly. She told me she had only seen photographs of her father, some at his drafting table, some in his captain’s uniform, and the portrait taken on his wedding day. She claimed Mr. Kovács was kind and generous with her and her mother, but I saw a blank look in her eyes and caught a wistful note in her voice. I had never met anyone who was raised without a father and shuddered at the thought of it. I inquired about Vera’s brother and sister. Miklós was still at the University of Prague, Vera said, and Lenke was married to a school teacher in the town of Debrecen, a short distance from Miskolc.
The park turned out to be spacious and well kept, encompassing a large pool and an adjacent grassy area with athletic equipment. The rings and trapeze offered me an opportunity to practice gymnastics and enjoy the attention my skills always attracted. I must confess I was a terrible showoff, a trait my mother disapproved; she was forever intent on getting me to adopt a more modest demeanor. Giant old elm, oak and weeping willow trees provided shade from the sun on the green lawn. One of the pathways led to the river where we sat on a bench, watched the boats go by and dreamed of adventure in faraway places.
Vera pointed to the bandstand and said she liked to attend the concerts on Sundays with her mother and Mr. Kovács. After a week of swimming and sunning, Vera and I acquired a good tan. We customarily had lunch at home and rested during the heat of the day. After the sun set we took a stroll on the main boulevard. Twice during the visit my mother treated us to a movie. We saw “Morocco” with Marlene Dietrich, and “Morning Glory” with a new young actress, Katherine Hepburn, who looked beautiful when she cried.
Aunt Helen told us Lenke and her husband János were expected for Sunday dinner. Most of Lenke’s friends still lived in Miskolc and Aunt Helen planned a party to reunite her daughter with them. She had very little help. A daily char came to do the heaviest cleaning and laundry; my aunt did all the shopping, cooking, washing up and mending.
Vera and her mother baked all day Saturday. My mother lent a hand by making a Dobos Torte, much admired by Helen and Vera. Even Mr. Kovács, a taciturn man, paid my mother a compliment. Vera borrowed a gramophone from a friend who had all the latest dance records. By Sunday morning the house was spotless and filled with the aroma of a fine bakery. Mr. Kovács wore his Sunday suit, a white shirt with a stiffly starched collar, French cuffs and gold cufflinks.
Aunt Helen laid out a Russian-style cold buffet, perfect for a hot July day. The most important dish on the menu was a large poached freshwater fish garnished with home made mayonnaise, watercress and capers. She put plates, glasses, napkins and flatware on the dining table. Lenke and János arrived at one o’clock. Her old friends began to appear by one-thirty. After introductions were made, Aunt Helen invited the guests to go to the heavily laden sideboard and urged them to help themselves. Around four o’clock, after dessert and coffee were finished, the men rolled up the carpet and Lenke put a record on the gramophone.
The adults and I withdrew to the kitchen and the bedrooms while Vera, nearly sixteen, stayed with the young crowd and danced. Lenke talked with my mother first, then with me. She was an ebullient and sincere young woman, spontaneously affectionate and devoid of guile. She confided that a child was on the way, although she did not yet show. My mother embraced and kissed her and offered congratulations.
After the party was over and all the guests had gone my mother put her arms around Aunt Helen and told her she was a wonderful hostess and a very good mother. I was glad she expressed sentiments I also felt, but was too shy to utter. The last few days of our visit consisted of relaxed, quiet hours and the enjoyment of simple pleasures. We established a bond with Helen and her daughters that was to last until we left Hungary for the United States.
On the train back to Budapest my mother pointed out that whatever Helen’s original motivations might have been in marrying Aaron, she had turned out to be a very good wife and mother. We witnessed her generosity by constantly giving of herself to please and help her husband and children; she was bounteous beyond her means. It was more than my mother could say about some women born into luxury. I knew she was referring to the women in the Nagy family. I felt much the same way and asked if I could invite Vera for a visit. She said, “Of course.”
I was certain she enjoyed the prospect of relaying her observations to my father, his parents and Aunt Magda. We were silent a good part of the journey, each of us deep in private thought. I was eleven years old, too young to have given marriage the slightest consideration. I took it for granted that people married and had children. I reviewed all the information served up by my father’s family and my observations of the attentions Aunt Helen lavished on her second husband and children. My mother had never said anything to alienate me from my father’s family, all the more reason that her ensuing comments took me by complete surprise.
“Marriage is a very chancy proposition,” she remarked. “These calculating accountants,” she declared in a tone so cold it gave me chills, “these cynics who see themselves as the backbone of society and the keepers of social order treat a conjugal union as a business merger. They investigate marital prospects as if they were about to purchase stocks and bonds; they assess the value of the paper and the future yield of the investment.”
I was jolted out of the security of childhood, not by a gentle, step-by- step unfolding of real life, but by a sudden pivotal event that revealed the true colors of the people closest to me. I saw the bitterness my mother felt toward my father’s family for the first time. I was shocked and wondered how long she had been angry and how she had been able to contain her deep resentment without any outward manifestation until that moment of unexpected disclosure. I couldn’t help but subscribe to her opinions and did so with a sadness that augured unpleasant weather ahead in the family. That trip, which had been pleasant up to that moment, was a turning point in my life. I became less naïve and trusting as a result of my mother’s comments, and felt angry with her for forcing me to open my eyes.