I was sitting outside on the patio, enjoying the morning sun being reflected back from the still snow covered peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains when a ladybug landed on my arm. It stayed for a minute, then flew away, but not before it brought back a flood of memories of my mom. You see, the word in Hungarian for ladybug is katica bogar, which literally translated is the Kathy bug, my mother’s name (katica being a diminutive of Kathy.) She died for almost 23 years ago now, but her influences on my life remain with me to this day.
She was an intelligent, beautiful woman, who, like many of her generation, suffered through, and ultimately survived World War II. Being the daughter of a bank president, she and her sister enjoyed a privileged upbringing prior to the War, with governesses to teach them German and French, a nice home, all the cultural benefits of a major European metropolis, and a comfortable life. All this was swept away as Hungary was pulled into the Axis powers, and disappeared when German troops occupied the country. She and her family were not supporters of the Nazi Party, nor of the regime of Admiral Horthy, whose Fascist followers used the war as an excuse to strip those outside of their circle of their material possessions.
I wish I had paid closer attention to the family history when I was growing up, but like a lot of children, my attention, and thus memory, is selective. I remember how she and her sister had to go into hiding during the war after an informant turned them in to the Gestapo and their Hungarian minions for helping to hide a couple of young Jewish girls from being sent to concentration camps. Living under false identities, they were in constant fear of their lives. Toward the end of the war, when much of Budapest had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers, and all the bridges across the Danube blown up, there was very little food to be had in the city, even for the few who still had the means to purchase it. Only gold, or some other substance of value, could be used for barter. My mother was given the task of finding a way to cross the river, mostly frozen over by the winter’s cold, and head out to the farms on the other side to try to barter her gold necklace (given to her by my grandfather when she turned sixteen) for something to eat.
A few fishermen were willing to act as smugglers and take someone across the river in their boats, but the price they demanded (gold or a young woman’s favors) was more than she could or was willing to pay. She set out on her own with a pole, jumping across ice floes, and somehow managed to get to the other side. She eventually found a farmer willing to trade her gold necklace for some flower, a few eggs, and some vegetables. He had lost his wife recently, and as part of the exchange, he demanded that my mother cook him a proper meal. She reluctantly agreed, fearing both the delay this would cause and the true motives of the farmer in keeping her there longer. In the end, he turned out to be a man of his word. She again had to cross the river at night, but made it back with her precious cargo in time to aid her sister and mother.
It was shortly after this that she met my father. He had been fighting with the Partisans, and was shot after he and his group attempted to ambush a German patrol. The bullet entered his abdomen and came out through his right leg. He somehow managed to crawl off into the woods without discovery. My mother, meanwhile, was out foraging for mushrooms and edible plants when she found him. She helped him to a nearby barn, hid him in the hay, then enlisted the aid of a physician she could trust to help treat his wounds. The rest of the story is opaque to me, but she somehow managed to help him stay in hiding until the war ended, following which they were soon married.
His background was very different from hers. He grew up in the Tokay region of the country in a small town, where his family had vineyards, and produced wine. Prior to the start of the war, he was a veterinary student, but was never able to complete his studies. When the war ended and the Communist took control of the country, he was barred from going back to school because his family had been landowners, and thus were considered to be “oppressors of the people.” After their wedding, they lived in his family home until 1947, when the Communist government confiscated all private lands. They were forced to move to Budapest to find work in order to make a living. He eventually found opportunity as an electrician’s apprentice, while she found employment as a secretary in the Ministry of Education and Communication. Her mother had come to live with us, as I had recently been born to take care of me while they both worked.
Despite not being a Communist Party member, through her hard work, positive personality, and treating coworkers fairly, my mother was rapidly promoted until she became the personal secretary of the Minister himself. This relationship would play a role in eventually saving her life, but that is another story. Meanwhile, my father also worked hard, became licensed as a fulltime electrician, and was able to enroll in night classes at the University of Budapest in electrical engineering at a time the country needed engineers, and his family background could be overlooked.
My mother loved the water, and was a strong swimmer. Each day before going to her office, she would visit one of the thermal pools for which Budapest is famous, and spend an hour swimming outdoors, winter and summer, rain or shine. On the weekends, she was able to join a rowing club on Margaret Island, and row in racing shells up and down the Danube. I remember her laughter as she told friends that this kind of activity was the thing that helped keep her sane. The rowing club had something similar to a caboose with a rowing seat and a place for oars used as a trainer for new recruits. As a boy, I was allowed to sit in there and practice in the trainer, imaging myself out racing with other members of her club. It was one of the many good memories of my life in Hungary. I will write another time about the less pleasant memories of my life under Communism.