Ritual

We have the ritual down pat: My Mom gives me an old t-shirt to wear and she takes her clothes off to her underwear. I mix the hair dye in the bathroom, wearing those plastic gloves that come in the package. I squeeze the dye into a little one-cup Tupperware dish and use a small brush from another hair dying kit to apply the color.

She sits on a little office chair we pull into the bathroom, with a specially designated towel around her shoulders.  I have to start the application at her temples, because that’s where most of the white hairs are. My Mom has tons of hair. It’s thick, curly, and unruly. And going gray. Rapidly.

Once I am done with the temples, I move on to the front of her heard, carefully applying the dye right along her hairline where the surgeon cut her head during her brain surgery a couple of years ago. There is a small hole right in the middle of her forehead where they took out some tumor-ravaged bone.

When I glance in the mirror, I see myself 20 years from now in my Mom’s face. My nose, my cheeks, my curly hair – all like hers. Our laughs are the same and so are the looks we give when someone is bullshitting us: Just a small squint of the eyes, a downward tilt of the head, an almost unnoticeable turn of the lips. It’s a killer look and I am glad I inherited it from her.

By the time I am done with the entire bottle of color, her head looks like a giant radish, dark red from the dye and all of her hair is piled on top of her head. I wipe down her ears and her forehead – I am messy – and we move into the bedroom where we sit for 25 minutes.

We chat. Sometimes about nothing. Sometimes about everything. We have one of those great, complicated, incomprehensible, emotional, wacky, mother-daughter relationships. She knows me better than anyone. I love her for that. I hate her for that. It’s painful and revealing when someone knows you so well.

I know her now too. I know her as an adult – understand her so much better than when I was a rebellious teenager, eager to break free, eager to do anything to not become like her.

I now know that it’s impossible and have given up on pretending that it’s not happening. I cry during commercials. I cry when I say good bye to people who are dear to me. I lavish love on my friends – even if it’s never reciprocated. I yell at my husband to put his hat on when it’s cold. I can’t sleep at night.  I am bull-headed. I always cook way too much food. I always think I know what’s best. I don’t dwell on the past. I plan ahead. I am a fatalist.

We fight. Never about anything that matters; there is never any doubt that we fight out of love.  But even that is rare these days. The long, drawn-out, tearful screaming matches of my teenage years are gone, when all the male members of our family quietly retreated to some distant corner of the apartment while we went at it.  I don’t even remember what those fights were about. Curfew? School? Boys? Who knows?

Now when we fight, it’s more of a quiet, subdued fight. She tells me what’s what. I get defensive. Our eyes well up. We move on. She is always right – but not in that annoying “I told you so” way. She just is – quietly, confidently.

When the 25 minutes are up, she sits back on the office chair and leans above the bathtub so I can rinse her hair. The dye runs in dark streams down her curls and into the drain. I shampoo her hair then massage in a handful of conditioner.  I tickle her ear and neck as I massage and she giggles. I hand her a towel to wipe her eyes. I try to be careful so that I don’t spray her face too much with the shower head, but it’s impossible. We are both soaked by the time I am done.

I clean up.

She dries her hair.

No more first kisses

My first kiss tasted like red wine and cigarettes. These are not completely unexpected flavors in someone’s mouth.

He was 28, I was 16. He was French, a saxophone player with long hair and an earring. We spent almost every evening together that summer, holding hands, talking, eating dinner, drinking wine. He loved to use the salt and pepper shakers on the table to demonstrate situations. As in:  “this is you” – holding up the salt shaker – and “this is me” – holding up the pepper shaker. Then the shakers were off, moving around the table, doing whatever it was he was talking about.

I am not sure what made him want to kiss me that night. We were sitting on some stairs leading to the waters of the Danube. I swear there were shooting stars in the sky, but I could have been imagining things. I didn’t know how to kiss. I was OK with our lips touching, but once his tongue entered my mouth, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I pulled away a bit, mostly to giggle, but he interpreted it as reluctance.

He had to pee.  He walked down a couple of steps to the water and did just that. Then he hailed a cab for me and said good night. The next time I saw him, there was no more talk of kissing, even though I spent the previous week listening to my more experienced cousin explain what exactly I had to do in case kissing turned into something more. She described a man’s penis as a wooden stick in a soft, leather case. This, as I later found out, turned out to be quite accurate.

But not with the French guy. Because he explained that he was a butterfly, flying from flower to flower, and he didn’t want to hurt me. That was sort of decent of him.

My first, real boyfriend kissed me while we were sitting at the same spot, along the Danube. I think I took him there, because I felt like it was a good make out spot. He sat behind me, a step up, and leaned in.  He told me he loved me. I didn’t need to hear that, but it was nice. We kissed for a long time, his hard-on stabbing me in the back.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and other kisses, too.

Like the German guy. He was mixing the fuzzy navels at a college party all night, then took me back to his room and showed me card tricks. We sat on the floor of the tiny room, Indian style, and all I could think about was wrapping my legs around him.  I looked at his ring that had his initials on it, and for a split second I realized that I didn’t know what the “D” stood for.

But it didn’t matter. He kissed me, like he was about to swallow my face, holding my head in his hands, stroking my hair. He was delicious.

Years later a good friend and I found ourselves at my apartment, on my brand new love seat, watching late night TV. Very late night TV – past SNL, and the late news, and the infomercials. We drank vodka and grapefruit juice and his left hand drew circles on my shoulder.  “So, we are making out now,” he said after the first peck.  Well yes, we were. And it was wild, dizzying, tender, and incredibly hot. Hours later, when I regained my senses, I was sitting on the floor, with parched lips, panting, wondering if my eyes will ever focus again.  Some days, when I need something to smile about, I still think about that night and his kiss.

My last first kiss happened nine years ago on that same love seat, after a dish of Dairy Queen vanilla soft serve. There was a bowl of apricots in the kitchen, and he cut one up and fed it to me, slowly, slice by slice. My eyes were closed, but I heard the soft clink as he put his glasses on the coffee table and I knew that the next bite will not be an apricot. We now buy apricots frequently every summer, commemorating the event.

So, I’ve been thinking about these kisses, because I’ve been also thinking about the many, many kisses that have not happened before and since then, and the ones that never will.

There was the guy who flew from California to meet me and left me with a partial kiss on the corner of my mouth because, as he later explained, his feelings for me were more like what he felt for his little sister. Or the kiss on the forehead I got from the German guy when he came to say good bye before my wedding. Or the embrace and kiss on the cheek from a married friend that burned on my skin for weeks. I thought that surely everyone can see the red outline where his lips have been.

So many possibilities, so many roads not taken, so many mistakes averted, lives changed or left undisturbed. A small turn of the head, or a hug that’s just one short moment longer than necessary, and that’s it. You are not who you are and your life is suddenly off in a whole new direction. And all because of – what? I mean, kissing is like sticking your nose in someone’s ear. Or sticking your finger up someone’s nose.  It’s totally ridiculous.

If I am lucky, I will never have a first kiss again. This makes me sad. I used to enjoy the butterflies, and the bumping noses, and the clinking teeth, and all the weird, slobbery awkwardness. And no matter how hot your marriage happens to be, there is just no way to recreate the Danube, and the shooting stars, and the taste of wine, or the card tricks, or the grapefruit with vodka.

This all sounds melancholy and sentimental, I realize. But these things have been on my mind lately. And while I generally manage to control the kissing, controlling my mind is another story.

Immigrant hoarding

A couple of years ago, when I was fresh out of college and living in my first apartment, my parents came to visit from Hungary. Opening a kitchen drawer, my Mom was surprised to find months’ or even years’ worth of Hungarian snacks, spice mixes, and other food stuff stashed away.

“Why do I keep sending you all this when you don’t use them,” she asked me. I didn’t really know the answer — or didn’t want to admit — that it just felt good to have all those familiar flavors right at hand, even if I didn’t want or need to use them. The shiny packages of meatloaf mix, the crinkle of the chocolate pudding powder package, all reminded me of home.

Eventually I began to understand that all of us immigrants are hoarders in a way. We might be well-adjusted, we might fit in, and there might be nothing about us that screams “I am not from here.” But I bet that every immigrant in every part of the world has a drawer like mine, packed with stuff from home.

It doesn’t have to be food — I also hoard magazines from Hungary, crossword puzzles, a package of tissues my childhood friend’s mom gave me when I had the sniffles during a visit to Budapest, and a sweater that was last washed in my parents’ washing machine at home. I haven’t worn it — or washed it — since in hopes of keeping some of that familiar smell intact. It’s fading now, but if I burry my nose in it for a couple of minutes, I can still get a faint whiff of the detergent and the room where it dried on a clothesline.

Another characteristic of this behavior is buying common, everyday things in your home country and smuggling them in to the U.S. because you believe that your country’s product is superior. Now that my parents are living in America, I think they are slowly beginning to exhibit traits of this secret immigrant behavior as well. They just returned from a visit to Hungary and they brought back things like pots, dessert forks, shower gel, and deodorant. Because, you know, there are no dessert forks in America.

OK, I admit — the deodorant was for me. (So what? The American stuff is just too flowery for me!) That, along with bags full of Hungarian cookies, chocolate, and spices all made the trip in suitcases only to be stuffed into secret drawers and cabinets for weeks and months.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this hoarding. But I feel silly admitting the melancholy I feel when I eat the last cookie from Hungary, or when I run out of my favorite deodorant. So I try not to eat or use everything. And I think this is how the hoarding starts: I purchase and transport products because I truly believe that I will use them. But then the emotional attachment to these products prevents me from actually enjoying their existence. So I end up with expired chocolates and spice mixes, three-year-old magazines, and sweaters that don’t fit anymore.

It feels odd that my identity and how I define who I am are somehow tied to such ordinary objects. I mean, what does an old plastic grocery bag from the Kaiser grocery store chain has to do with who I am? But somehow, it does.  I have bunches of them hidden in the bottom of my closet in a big, comforting pile.

I try to treat my secret hoarding drawer and the stuff in it matter-of-factly: it is there, it serves a purpose, it makes me feel better to have one, and anyone who doesn’t like it can get over it. All right, so I am a little defensive about it.  Maybe it’s because I know that there’s only a very fine line between keeping things for sentimental reasons and having to cut a path from the door to the bed through piles of old plastic bags.

Family History

The stories start right after Sunday lunch.

We are all crammed around our tiny kitchen table – me, my brother, my parents, my fraternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather. The table only fits four, so my Dad is sitting on the office chair brought out from the living room and I am sitting on a small, red leather stool that’s usually in the hallway. I am wedged between my brother, my grandfather, and the dishwasher.

Our Sunday lunches – golden chicken soup, Wiener schnitzel with potatoes and cucumber salad, brownies – start late and end quickly. Toward the end of the meal the others know what is coming and they start to scramble towards the living room right after the last bite of dessert.

It is probably my position at first – too far from the door with no obvious escape route – that makes me the perfect audience for my grandfather’s stories. Later I feel too polite and too invested to get up and leave with the others.

So I load the dishwasher and sit back on my little red stool and prepare myself for a long afternoon.

Most of the stories I already know by heart. There is the story about my great-grandfather who sold jewelry to patrons of a gentleman’s club and then bought back from the ladies who worked there.  Or the story about the time my grandfather hid in an attic for three months from the Nazis, living on water and beans while Budapest was being bombed. Or the time he took 25 orphan girls from Budapest to Romania on a cattle car right after the war by tricking other passengers into believing that they all had typhoid fever.

There are many, many stories about my grandmother, who walked for three days in November 1944 to the Austrian-Hungarian border on the way to Dachau Concentration Camp.  He talks about their life once the camp was liberated by the Americans. My grandfather made his way there on falsified Russian military papers to find my grandmother alive, working as a translator for the Dachau War Criminals Tribunal. There is the story about Maxi, the Peugeot 202 they bought after the war in Dachau for 60 Marks. About the BMW motorcycle they brought back to Budapest in a wooden crate and sold to buy furniture for the apartment where my little red stool is now my perch in the kitchen.

So many stories, they are hard to keep straight. Times, names, places change as he tells them the third or fourth or fifth time, but I am 14 and I don’t bother with the details or inconsistencies. After a while, it all seems like one big fairy tale – parts of it true, parts of it fantasy about a long-gone era and people, including my grandmother who died of cancer when my mom was 18. The questions I do have – like why did he prepare a hiding place for himself but not for my grandmother or how he knew that she was alive – seem too sensitive to ask.

My grandfather’s stories, his 28-page memoir and my grandmother’s brief description of the war tribunals make Dachau sound like a place where American soldiers hand out Hershey bars and nylon stockings.  My grandmother has detailed descriptions of how many cigarettes the SS officers – by then prisoners of war held by the Americans – received per week during the trials. But nothing about what she saw or went through before the liberating troops arrived.  There are no personal side notes, no observances, no reflections about the place and the time and her role in it.

For a long time I don’t really know what it all means and I am not really sure what to do with the stories. As I get older, leave home, and move to the U.S., I feel a vague sense of responsibility to remember what my grandfather told me. There are details that not even my mom knows about, as we find out after my grandfather’s death. I also have a sense that my life in some ways is turning out the way my grandmother would have liked hers to be – the American troops in Dachau did offer her and my grandfather a visa to come to America, but they returned to Budapest instead. It’s a decision that from what I know, my grandmother always regretted.  And now here I am, a U.S. citizen. I feel like this is more than coincidence; that something in my family’s history propelled me to be here.

malmedytrial-300x241Almost twenty years after those afternoons in the kitchen, when I first come across this photo on a website about Dachau, I am not even sure it is my grandmother sitting in front of the soldiers, wearing glasses. The pictures I’ve seen of her were taken during summer vacations with lakes and mountains in the background, not with a group of former SS soldiers. The picture was taken during the Malmedy Massacre trials in Dachau, where German soldiers were charged with the killing of 84 American prisoners of war. During the trial, my grandmother was a translator for the defense.

After I find the photo, I am taken aback by the fact that just by typing “Dachau” into Google I find something so personal, something that only existed in anecdotes told over coffee and brownies. The photo makes all of the stories and the people in them real. There she is, my grandmother, who survived Dachau, and who helped to put the bad guys away. It’s real; it’s on the Internet.

The photo also makes me ask whether I am living up to the people behind the stories; whether my story will be worthy of telling someday after a Sunday lunch. I am not really sure. And as much as it felt like a chore to be polite and to listen to my grandfather, looking at the picture I am relieved that I did, that in a way I was a witness to my family’s history – and to mine.