by Laura Roman.
She said “Budapest.”
The way she said it made me take notice.
I was in a cafe, inadvertently eavesdropping, when I heard her say “Budapest.”
She said it incorrectly, that woman in the cafe.
The “s” should have been “shhhhhh.”
She said “s” as in “sssssss” and it conjured up my Hungarian grandmother and her stories of snake dreams.
It was the only time my grandmother purposely mispronounced the “s” in her mother tongue. She wanted to emphasize the dreams as warnings, signs of an imminent betrayal.
She had been married to a young Hungarian veterinary surgeon, my grandfather, at their families’ plotting. Behind them was the weight of history. She bore two sons, one after the next, in 1941 and 1942, with World War II raging all around them.
He did what he wanted, my grandfather. My grandmother would return home to find she had been locked out until he had finished with the servants.
“Sóhaj, there are no problems. People create problems,” she said.
And so she waited.
In the late 1940s of post WWII, they were living in Southern Hungary, when the borders shifted, and they suddenly found themselves in Communist Yugoslavia. Elizabeth’s husband, the veterinary surgeon, had a lucrative private practice there. The Communists told him they would not tolerate private enterprise and gave him the choice of joining the Communist party and working for the state, or getting out of Yugoslavia, since they were not citizens. Elizabeth rescued Andrew from being lined up against a wall to be shot, by pleading with the Communist Commissar’s girlfriend to intercede.
Elizabeth formed an ambitious goal – to emigrate with her family to the US. She motivated her husband to bribe the Communist officials to issue them an exit visa. In the spring of 1950, the family took a train from Belgrade to Trieste, Italy, where they lived in a Quonset hut in a Camp for Displaced Persons. They couldn’t get a visa to the US, but they did get one to Canada. Andrew went ahead several months to set up a household in Ontario, and later that year, Elizabeth and her two young sons traveled by train to Aurich, Germany, and lived in a refugee camp staging area. From there, they sailed from the German port of Bremerhaven to Halifax, Nova Scotia. From Halifax they took the train to Ontario, arriving in Canada October 1950. There, Elizabeth and her husband worked in the Bata shoe factory, owned by another European immigrant. My grandfather was unable to practice medicine.
My grandmother learned English in night school. After several years, the family finally received their immigration papers to the US, and moved to Fitchburg, MA, just outside of Boston. “Women have rights in America,” she said. My grandmother filed for divorce. She packed up her boys and moved to California, where for 25 years, she was a successful realtor in Beverly Hills.
Her husband, blindsided, eventually returned to Budapest, and then Prague, where he died alone.
My grandmother was a conjuror. That conjuring was the antidote to betrayal, which she said ran deep in our veins. Hundreds of years of betrayal meant that our blood was a kind of magnet for deception.
“Meg foglak védeni.”
“I will protect you,” she said.
She said that death is a myth – that you just need to learn a new mode of communication.
I would know by my dreams she said.
Of when the snake was coming to visit.