Sunday, June 29, 2014


I sit on my father’s lap at the kitchen table, facing him. It is evening, after supper and it’s just him and me. His face is large, more square than round, up above mine. I bend my head a little to look up at him, his eyes, laughing eyes, are cast downward to meet mine.

We are playing a game. My father points to his eye and I try to remember the Hungarian word. Usually I can’t remember and he must remind me, laughing, though I like it best when I do remember. Then he points to his nose, then his mouth. Some of them I can always remember, some are hard, like ear and neck.

Hungarian people come to our house sometimes. They are my father’s friends, mostly, that my mother has made friends with, sort of. My mother is always on the edge of these small parties in our living room where the men wear suits and the women wear skirts. They drink drinks and talk in Hungarian and if I am lucky Robert Major, who has grey hair, will do coin tricks for me. 

Sometimes I sit amongst them, looking at the way they across their legs. I look at my own legs that stick out straight when I sit in a chair. I would like my legs to be adult enough to at least bend over the edge of the chair. I try crossing them anyway.

My mother is the only one who does not speak Hungarian so sometimes they speak English. My mother is learning Hungarian from a book and she tries out phrases.

I would like my mother to blend in better somehow. There is a way that things could easily fall apart and my mother is the fault line, the place where the seam could break. If she could be different, part of the other side of the fault line where my father lives and where things seem to be bright and move easily.

She would be less serious. Her face would be younger. She would be more girlish instead of often wearing shorts and sneakers and kneeling in the garden. She would not pull leaves off bushes as she walked to chew on them.

Then my father would laugh with her and she would laugh back, maybe everyone in the room would laugh and look to her for the next joke.

But is it not like that. My mother sits on an arm of the couch while the others chatter. This is not her place like it is my father’s place. Her place is out in the woods.

One morning my father tells me how the night before, when it was dark and I had gone to bed, he had waltzed one of the ladies all the way down the driveway.

He tells me the story with the big smile he has when he is pleased with himself – happy and proud of who he is and how nobody else is like him. He waltzed another lady – of course not my mother. Of course, someone else.

And all the way to the end of the driveway. He did this. No one else even thought of doing it.

His eyes are focused outside the house. People beyond us get his attention. He does turn back and gaze at us – me, my mother, my little sister – from time to time, but my mother is never dressed right and my little sister is a duplicate of her, on the edge and shy. Then there is me, and him. His eyes light up as they meet mine and make me feel that I can do the things he does. Maybe. Almost. If I am to hold his gaze. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014


My friend, Ruth, whom I have known for almost 40 years, texted me this morning, saying she is sad for her father who died this week, and sad for herself for no longer having a living father.

And I am up against the quandary again, of having felt no sorrow when my own father died 3 years ago, no tears for the person who was the center, the shining light, of my first years.

I wonder about this over and over. Once, my father wrote to me during his last few years, asking to be more in touch. “We used to be such good friends,” he wrote.

This was only true when I was a little child. It was true until the time he and I were out on a walk, a common thing we did together. Since I was a little kid riding on his shoulders, my father had taken me with him on long weekend walks, walks that always felt much too long, my feet hurting.

My father always talked on these walks – telling me the history of Napolean, or how the Germans and then the Russians came through Budapest, about the bombs, or about how when you went to visit someone in Budapest before the war and they were not home, you left your card with one corner bent over. 

There were certain things my father loved, and bending the corner of a visiting card was one. The visiting card itself was another. The things he loved usually involved other people, or Hungary, or Switzerland. They were customs and habits from other places or things other people had said. They were never things here at home.

On this day he was talking about the Pope and my father asked me a question. Not an unusual question, but I did not like the feeling it gave me. I didn’t like that I knew I had to answer it in a right way, that my father was waiting to assess my response. So I just shrugged.

“Come on,” said my father with restrained irritation. I was letting him down.

I was about 12 for this conversation and it never went back to the way it had been.

It was always a mix after that, a mix I did not know what to do with except to pretend it was not there. 

Suddenly I noticed I did not like my father coming home on weekends, his arrival  an unwelcome interruption, the way he poked his head in at the door of my mother’s room where I was watching my weekly show. No, I did not want to talk to him right then, did not think it was funny when he made fun of what I was watching as if anything I was doing just for fun proved I was stupid.

I did not like him coming into my room to look over the pictures from magazines that I’d cut out and pinned to a big piece of burlap, the way he scrutinized them, making some flat joke about the women being prettier than the men while I knew he thought the whole thing incomprehensibly silly.

He asks me to help him clear the woods on the weekend. It is a few years later, a different house, and my father likes to clear all the woods behind the house – to “make a park” he says with excitement. I don’t want to turn our woods into a park. I want to listen to Bob Dylan, but I must go out and labor beside him or pull weeds from the path of pure white gravel that leads to our front door before the guests arrive.

And though I know I am still his favorite company over my mother, over my sisters, and though I still look forward to our Saturday evening trips to Lincoln Center, dressed up, as soon as we are in the car alone I feel the wall rise up, the way it rose up when he asked me a question on that walk when I was twelve, and I don’t trust him, cannot speak to him beyond monosyllables because I know he wants more from me, always more, and it makes me feel like not giving him anything. It is the only way I can give voice, or at least a little voice, to this anger that is not allowed. 

Anger, especially around my father, is not allowed. It’s one thing -- one of several things -- my mother gets wrong. She gets mad at him, at us, she yells, she loses it.  We tiptoe around her so she won’t explode. So I must not explode. That’s for sure. At least I can please my father that much. It’s one thing I can master to his satisfaction: to smile when I am furious.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


I don’t sew. Not the way some people do.
I can make no sense of patterns
or the machines that look like they will sew your finger to the table.

But I sew.
Buttons and hems, a rip in a sheet.

Not often, but when I do
there comes a gentle softness of simplicity
and memory.
Sewing a button today and
I am six years old
prick-prick-pricking the needle up from underneath
in blind search of a hole.
Convent needlework classes
taught me things I still own
like the tidy 3-point stitch just for hems
and the deft move that lands a knot right at the end of your thread.

I do a small repair today,
bringing out the sewing box I assembled
a couple decades ago at the beginning of some new life,
and I am sitting in the garden in Athens
hemming linen napkins
pretending to be invalid to stay out of the fray.

I am glad for this consistency of sewing.
Each time I return
It is the same.
They might say boys should sew their own buttons.
But I would miss this corner of ability and accomplishment and peace.