Sunday, February 5, 2012
Refugee from Paradise
I’ve received a letter from Aunt Felicia. “You are a lucky girl to be going to school in London,” she writes. I know she is right, even though I am lying in bed at home with the chickenpox on the first day of school, and I am worrying about missing two weeks of school work with my English so poor. At least I can practice by writing in my journal.
I know Aunt Felicia is right, even though Uncle Ed hasn’t found a job yet, and we have to live on what Mami earns by making hand-embroidered blouses for Mrs. Pavel.
I know I’m lucky, even though food in England is scarce and rationed. Most weeks our ration books allow us to buy only a quarter pound of butter, half a pound of bacon, and one or two eggs per person. We buy meat not by the pound, but by the “book.”
I must remember next time to use the right word in the butcher’s shop. Even now, as I sit here scratching, the memory of my humiliation stings. I walked up to the counter and said in what I thought was perfect English, “Please give me some flesh for one ration book.” The butcher said, “Blimy!”, the customers laughed, and I fled the shop, flaming red in the face. In Hungarian meat is flesh and flesh is meat. The same word serves for both.
I know I’m lucky because we don’t have to pay for medicine or doctor visits, because school and school supplies are all free, because we have a roof over our heads and no Russian soldiers in the street.
I know I’m lucky, but I don’t feel lucky at all.
I spend the day trying to forget the itch and wondering what my face will look like when the blisters are gone. I wasn’t much of a beauty to begin with, and I doubt that craters on my cheeks will improve my appearance. I take aspirin for the fever, and I lie awake most of the night; at fifteen, chickenpox is no longer a child’s disease. I try to pass the time by writing letters home—home to Hungary, the country I’ve had to leave and will never see again. I have written to Daddy telling him about all the sights of London: the mummies in the British Museum, the Rembrandts in the National Gallery, the Crown Jewels in the Tower. Before I seal the letter, I must show it to Mami and Uncle Ed. They have to make sure there is nothing “political” in it that could hurt Daddy at home. The Communist government is looking to arrest anyone who criticizes the system.
Daddy is not very careful with his letters to me. He writes about things he loves—Hungarian literature, history, folk music and art. But he also includes remarks about the government in what we call “flower language,” using innocent words to fool the censor. Of course, by now I’m sure the censor knows perfectly well that “illness” and “hospital” are flower language for arrest and imprisonment, but Daddy doesn’t care. “Our neighbor Peter was suddenly taken ill last night,” he writes. “He will spend the next ten years in the hospital. Doctors are quite ruthless these days."
I have a meerschaum pipe in my bottom drawer. It has a long black stem and a beautiful burnt orange bowl carved like a ribbed seashell. When I run my fingers over the smooth stone, I always feel better. Last night my blisters were itching and hurting, and I could not sleep. I got up quietly so my mother would not wake up, and found my pipe.
When we arrived in England and unpacked, my mother saw the pipe among my underwear
“What on earth possessed you to bring this?” she said.
When I was a young child, I would have immediately told her why. But I am fifteen now, and I can no longer share my pain with my mother. What makes her happy makes me cry in the night. I know she loved my father up to a point. I know she cried when we left. But she left Hungary to go to the man she loved—and tore me away from my life. I know I’m better off here. I know things are getting worse at home. But I can’t help feeling that she let me down. When I was a child, my mother could fix anything that went wrong for me. Then I found a terrible wrong that she could not fix—and did not even try. So I did not tell her why I smuggled out the meerschaum pipe.
The pipe had belonged to my grandfather who had a whole set of them, all with long stems, carved in various graceful shapes. He kept them in a polished wood display case called a pipatórium.
When my grandfather died in 1938, my father inherited the pipes. Daddy rarely smoked them, but he polished them carefully and often held one in his hand when he was thinking or when he had something important to say.
As I am holding the empty pipe, I see my father. He is sitting across from me in our living room with the pipe in his hand.
“Promise me you will tell your mother that you’ll stay with me if she leaves,” he is saying. “Will you promise?”
“Will you give me your hand?”
I do. And I keep my promise. I tell my mother that I want to stay with my father.
“Nonsense,” she says. “A girl has to go with her mother.” That was my last heart-to-heart talk with my mother. She thinks she knows what’s inside me, but she is only guessing.
When I was three years old, a wise lady taught me how to cry quietly. My father had taken me to visit friends in another city. I think it had something to do with keeping my mother from running away. Anyway, my mother didn’t know where I was, and I was crying for her. This lady, the sister of Daddy’s friend, tried in vain to distract me. Her ears must have been sorely tried with my wailing. Finally she said to me, “Penny, you must learn to cry quietly. We all cry quietly. I cry quietly, Uncle Bill cries quietly, Uncle Ernie cries quietly. So you must learn to cry quietly too.” And she taught me how to let my tears flow without making a sound. It is a skill I find very useful now because I sleep in the same room with my mother.
We have two rooms. Uncle Ed has a room to himself. Mother visits him at night, and then comes back to our room. “The secret of a happy marriage,” she says, “is separate bedrooms.” Well, they’re not actually married yet—Mother’s divorce is not quite finished—but I’m sure they’ll be very happy when they are. They’d better be!