Sometimes, one needs to go back in order to continue forward.
Forty-three years ago, my parents packed up two suitcases, two children under the age of 4, and a 100 dollar bill and embarked on a clandestine journey from Communist Hungary through Europe to a new life in the United States.
“Can you believe that the four of us are back in Budapest…. all of us? I am so happy that we’ll have this opportunity to see Nagymama together,” my brother Gabor (a.k.a., Americanized Jon Destin) whispered to me as we hugged upon meeting in the hotel. My mother who had arrived the day before from New York and was anxiously waiting for us smiled nervously. This trip, without children or partners, presented unprecedented opportunities for creating treasured memories and also carried the risk of an emotional tsunami of extraordinary proportions.
“I had my doubts but I made it,” I answered him.
Truly, it seemed unbelievable that I was standing in the lobby of a boutique hotel in central Budapest with my brother from California and my mother from NYC.
In addition to the three of us, my dad was “in town”. My parents divorced more than 30 years ago. My dad and his wife reside in California, but he spends a good part of the year in Budapest where he founded and leads a Reform Jewish community.
I live in Israel, married with 4 kids ranging in age from 8-17. Due to a congenital condition, my 13 year old son is a below knee amputee and we had arrived from California with a brand new prosthetic leg less than 48 hours before I was scheduled to leave for Hungary. Until the last moment, I was unsure whether the prosthetic would be ready and if I would be able to make this trip.
When I landed in Tel Aviv, my older son asked, “Are you really leaving again in two days?” I swallowed hard, feeling familiar pangs of guilt, looked into his eyes and said, “Yup, I gotta’ go”.
Nagymama will turn 93 in January. She lives in the same Budapest apartment my parents emigrated from. A survivor of Bergen Belsen and Theresienstadt, a mother of two children, grandmother of four and great grandmother of seven, unlike the majority of survivors, she never fled Hungary.
“In 1945, I stayed because my parents also returned, in 1956, I stayed because my parents were elderly and couldn’t leave; in 1972, when your parents took you away, I stayed because Peter [her son] was still here and studying. In 1981, Peter and his new family also left, but I stayed and remarried. When Hersi-baci [her third husband] died in the late 80s, I felt I was just too old to start over again. Now I am here, and here I will stay. I hope I live only as long as I can take care of myself. Just make sure nobody ever diapers me,” she told me over and over again during the two years that I spent working in Budapest in the early 90s.
Today, she suffers from advanced dementia and is cared for, round the clock, by two angelic women from Transylvania who replace one another every month.
My mother and uncle alternate visits from the United States every couple of months. On this visit, my brother and I joined our mom — no partners or kids invited. We visit Nagymama every day. I try to elicit a smile or some sign of recognition from the grandmother who loved me so much and whom I love dearly. At times, I think she understands but mostly she stares ahead, an eerie emptiness in her expression. Over and over in my head, I hear the lyrics of “Jack and Diane”: “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”
In the afternoons, we walk the city. We feast on the food of our childhood heritage — Kremes, Chestnut Puree overflowing with fresh whipped cream, and the best Flodni (a traditional Jewish Hungarian pastry) in the world, baked in my cousin Rachel Raj’s gourmet pastry shop. We sit for hours in cafes with crystal chandeliers and antique furniture, reminiscent of an entire world that no longer exists.
We walk and talk about family history, about relationships, about Nagymama’s life, her decisions, and our decisions. Our discussions rarely focus on the present or the future, but rather recall the past — our past and of those who walked before us.
And then, night falls. For the first time in a quarter of a century, I lie alone in my comfortable hotel room — a luxury and one rarely afforded to mothers of four children. With no pressure to wake up early to ready the kids for school and myself for work, I spend these five precious nights digesting the intense daytime conversations (not to speak of the pastries).
For the first time in many years, I feel whole, strengthened by my childhood foundations, better equipped to tackle the challenges of my present life. These treasurable days have enabled me, at the age of 47, to reassess where I come from, where I am and where I want to be.
For these gifts, I am grateful.