My father sometimes spread his overcoat across his shoulders, without putting his arms into the sleeves, to walk outside, stylish walking stick in hand, to take in the strong fragrances of the earth, to cast his appreciative eye along the line of hills or mountains, trees or fields, wherever we happened to be living at the time. For he liked to walk in the country, along roads, before sitting down to a good meal and then perhaps returning to the city. Like a character in a Tolstoy novel.
When my father read he held a Mont Blanc pen or pencil in his right hand, marking the words or phrases or paragraphs that struck him. Every book and newspaper article was marked. As a child I looked at what he had underlined and could see no reason for any of it. Once I asked him why he marked what he did, and he just raised his eyebrows and smiled, enjoying that he had mystified me.
Sometimes now I look at an old book of his and there are his markings, random. They still provide little clue to his mind.
Since his death two years ago I have taken to wearing his watch for two reasons – because it’s a watch purchased by a man with expensive tastes and because my child’s heart still clings to his, despite all my adult knowledge.
My father told me once or twice amongst all the many stories he told me that have blended into a cloudy mix of having a girlfriend who was a countess. She must have had a title of some sort. My father had a weakness for titles. A pretty woman with wealth and a title would have been irresistible. He took her to some posh hotel in the Alps for a weekend, not telling her of course that he had no money to pay for any of it. But he had his weekend and his countess and his fancy hotel, and stayed behind to wash dishes or perhaps he ran out on the bill. I don’t know. But my father liked the rich life and my mother did not and my father went bankrupt and my mother got to be right.
Once in the last few visits during the last few decades my father remarked as we came home from his favorite neighborhood restaurant up in the hills of Budapest -- not an ultra fancy place anymore, but fancy enough and they knew him there – we could have been in a horse and carriage but it was the 20th century and we must have been in a cab – he remarked that my mother loved us kids so much.
Love is not a family word. Perhaps that’s why the sentence stayed in my mind. I return to it, wondering why he said it, if it’s true, wondering where he stood in the equation.
For he was always on the fringes of the family – the one male, the one who only partially lived at home, the one who spent the last 25 years of his life in a different country from the rest of us.
“I never meant to leave for good,” he said to me, but we had never made an effort to bring him back. For me, it was a relief to have him on another continent.
As a child I had complained that I wanted a “coming-home daddy,” which made my father laugh with pleasure. It suited him to not be a coming-home daddy, to be someone better than the norm.
“Don’t leave me just swinging in the breeze,” he reproached my sister once during those last Budapest years, making both of us furious.
I look at the blue and green mug and feel affection because Dad saw this mug. He saw all the Hungarian pottery I brought home that afternoon. I spread it out proudly on a table, talking animatedly, telling of my successful navigation of the city with my scraps of the language, the good prices I’d managed. It was more than rare for me to have a story of my own that I wanted to tell him. “It’s good,” he said, looking at the mugs and vases, “not the most traditional, but very nice.” I too knew it wasn’t the best of the best, but we both liked it for what it was – colorful and unique.
I borrowed all my father's woolen sweaters to wrap the fragile ceramics in for the plane ride home. He gave them to me willingly. At home, it occurred to me that I could probably get away with not mailing them back. The international shipping was expensive, and a hassle, but I mailed them to him promptly, completing the circle.