My mother’s father was a person of mythic proportions in my life. He was the only grandfather I knew, as my father’s parents had been killed in the war. By the time I was born, he and my grandmother were separated/divorced, but he would reappear for brief periods in my life, always with significant impact. Most of what I knew about his background and history came from family stories, some containing inconsistencies that I was never able to clarify.
During World War I, he served as a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, retiring with the rank of colonel. Shortly after that war ended, he married my grandmother. Based on stories I heard from my mother and my aunt, they were a mismatched couple who endured a turbulent marriage until they separated just prior to the outbreak of World War II. My grandmother would not talk about him, while my mother loved him deeply, but never could bring herself to forgive him for abandoning my his family.
By all accounts, he was a dashing, exciting and mercurial man, capable of sweeping young women off their feet. This talent and propensity for exercising it was one of the sources of division between him and my grandmother. He apparently had some family wealth, and became a bank president. He was a graceful athlete, and was a nationally ranked Hungarian figure skater in his youth. He loved to dance (a trait he passed on to my mother), entertain, hunt and ride horses. He also loved to gamble, whether it was on the ponies or playing cards. I’m told he twice lost their family home on gambling debts, but then rebuilt again. It was this combination of instability based on his gambling and womanizing that led to their divorce. His last venture prior to the outbreak of WW II was apparently very successful in the pharmaceutical industry, which took him to Switzerland. There, his firm was acquired by Ciba-Geigy, and he became a functionary with the Hungarian Embassy in Switzerland. I could never pin down if his role was one of ambassador or a lesser assistant position, but when I graduated from medical school, I received from him his souvenir of that time – a gold International Watch Company (IWC) Schaffhausen wristwatch that I wear to this day. (I didn’t appreciate the financial magnitude of his gift until much later, when I took the watch to be cleaned, and discovered that it cost about as much as a new car.)
My first meeting with him is a fuzzy memory, as I was only two and a half at the time. But I remember him sitting with me at Ligeti, the big amusement park in Budapest, and the two of us flying high in the air in an airplane suspended by chains. The memory is fortified by the photograph of the two of us inside the vehicle, with him wearing a suit and a fedora looking calm and proud, and me sitting in front of him with blond curls and a smile as wide as the sky.
Shortly after that visit, he found a place in the country, where he could keep his hunting dogs and ride his horse. I would be allowed to visit him there for a few weeks each summer, as he rarely came to Budapest (or didn’t tell us if he did, based on his strained relationship with my mom, especially since my grandmother was living with us.) I loved visiting him, as he would give me his undivided attention whenever I was there, and his ability to enchant extended to young children. We would climb up in the hills behind his place to pick wild strawberries and raspberries so fragrant with flavor that even washing your hands afterward never quite diminished their scent as their flavor lingered on your palate. He taught me how to ride a horse, milk a goat (harder than riding the horse) and to shoot a gun (which had to remain our personal secret.) After meals, he would take out a cigarette from the silver cigarette case he carried, flick his lighter open, take a few puffs, then regale me with stories of people, travel, excitement and humor. One of the talents he had was captivating others with his words and images: vivid and immediate. I never tired of his stories, or became bored with any of them. I loved him in a way that was very different from other family members, and one which I still have some difficulty articulating, even today.
After I came to the States and my mother could join us, she maintained a correspondence with him. I wrote to him as well, but he only answered one of my letters. He would include messages to me on the rare occasion he wrote my mom. She made excuses for him, but I was disappointed. I didn’t see him again until I was in college. After the Hungarian government granted amnesty to those who left illegally in 1956, in 1967 my mother and I went back to Budapest for a visit. We stayed at the Grand Hotel in Margaret Island, and he came to visit us. He had a recent heart attack, which caused him to give up smoking completely. He still looked fit and energetic, sporting a suit and immaculately pressed shirt whose cuffs I noticed were getting frayed (the only sign of his diminished finances.) Unbeknownst to me at the time, she would send him money periodically, something he would have been too proud to ask for, but which he accepted. We had a great time together. I couldn’t remember my mother laughing so much in a long time, though periodically she would get somber when reminded of my grandmother’s absence and her own hurt feelings. As for me, I was totally charmed, and amazed at his breath of knowledge regarding the world and current politics, given his small town life at the time. He insisted we stay after dinner at the hotel to dance to the band playing. They were followed by a traditional gypsy group performing songs familiar to all Hungarians. Gypsy violin is evocative of a particular sadness over lost love, lost friendships, lost country. There is a saying that Hungarians are only happy when they cry, a truism captured by the gypsy melodies. We were ready to call it a night, but my grandfather wouldn’t hear of it. He paid the gypsies to come back with us to our room, ordered drinks for everyone, and had us all dancing and singing until the sun came up again. Seeing him and my mom laughing, joking, dancing, with twenty years washed away from their faces – it was one of the best nights of my life.
We would meet again one more time before he died, as I went back to Hungary after my medical school graduation, alone this time, and took the train to visit him in his rural town. He had moved to a smaller, more modest house. The animals were gone. He had two more heart attacks since I last visited, and their toll on his body was apparent. He was in his mid-seventies at the time, and the woman who opened the door looked to be in her mid-forties. She clearly was more than just a helper in the house, a fact he didn’t attempt to disguise. After making dinner for us, she excused herself to let us talk. I commented on the difference in their ages, and asked him if he wasn’t concerned. He just smiled and said, “Look, if she dies, she dies.” He was clearly hoping my mother would have come with me, but my grandmother (who never stopped smoking) by then had died of lung cancer, and my mother’s resentment toward his treatment of his wife during their life was too much to surmount. We talked about my life in the States, my plans for the future. He was clearly proud of what I had accomplished, but offered no regrets for any of his own choices, including not leaving Hungary. We both realized that this was likely to be the last time we saw each other. He died the following year. It was then then that he gave me the IWC watch. It serves as a reminder every time I look at it of his ability to love life, entertain people, and find joy in the moment. I recall some of his aphorisms, like “A gentleman never hurries, never pays (carries money – his signature is sufficient) and never looks surprised.” Mostly, I just remember how special he was to me, and how those feelings never disappeared, even when I became aware of his many flaws. I can only hope my own grandchildren will have similar feelings about me when I’m gone.