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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Aunt Lizi

It has been almost a year since my Aunt Lizi died. She was my mother's last living sibling. I didn't know her very long, but I feel blessed and fortunate to establish a relationship with one of the few remaining people who knew my mother before she married my father and started to lose her happiness.

The moment we stepped into Lizi's house, after all of the hugging and kissing, of course, we were directed to the kitchen table. Her grandson, my cousin Tom, was acting as interpreter. "You are to sit down and eat. You will not leave the table until all of the food is gone," she instructed him to tell us. So my Uncle János, my cousin Susie and her son Tom, my sister Liz, my friends Marie and Julie and I sat down to a delicious meal. Lizi did not sit down. A good Hungarian hostess thinks only of her guests.

We ate heartily of this wonderful meal. It started with a chicken soup made with very fine noodles, noodles which she had made herself. She made noodles for almost everyone in the village, apparently. There was a lovely green salad with a light, vinegary dressing. Then the gulyás pörkölt or goulash stew, with little dumplings called galuska. This was followed by roasted chicken, which I am pretty sure was walking around her yard earlier that day. The skin of the chicken pieces had been pulled back and covered with dressing, and then put back in place. It was all so delicious! I pulled out one of my few Hungarian words. "Finom!" I said. "It is delicious!" Lizi's face lit up with a huge smile. She kept nudging members of the family and saying the Hungarian equivalent of, "Did you hear that? She said it was finom!"

Toward the end of the meal, my cousin Viki arrived at the house after her day of teaching. She spoke with all of us, but sat slightly away from the table. During this midday dinner, we had talked about walking to the Hungarian/Austrian border to see the way my family had walked out of Hungary in November of 1956. After the plates were removed from the table, Viki went over to the kitchen sink. "Aren't you going to come with us, Viki?" I asked. "No," she answered, "I wash the dishes." I asked if she wanted help, and was firmly told no, that I was a guest. So we went out on our walk.

The village my family is from is absolutely lovely. It is so green and open. The lilac trees (no mere bushes here, the lilac trees were over ten feet tall) were in bloom, as well as many other beautiful flowers. As we walked down the road, we saw the former schoolhouse and an abandoned monastery. It was quiet and peaceful. Soon we were at the border. It is very easy to tell exactly where the border is, even though there are no fences or roadblocks like there were years ago. The road suddenly switches from paved to dirt. Where there is pavement, the road is in Hungary, and where it is dirt, Austria begins.

Lizi walked up to the border, but we could not convince her to step even one foot across. The many years of Soviet rule had ingrained in her that she could not cross a border without her papers. Even more than twenty years after the Soviets were gone, she couldn't make herself step over that free border without feelings of fear. She just couldn't be comfortable crossing into another country without fear of getting into trouble for not having her identifying papers. Liz and I followed her lead and stayed in Hungary. We went to the little church and cemetery, the cemetery where Lizi now rests, and then back to Lizi's home.

After we had visited for a while more, Lizi sort of disappeared into her pantry room. She came out with a platter of sliced ham (yes, we did see pigs in her outbuildings) garnished with shavings of horseradish root, and numerous hardboiled eggs. We had another more casual feast which ended with Lizi's homemade jelly roll filled with apricot jam from her own kitchen. It was simple food and was absolutely delicious. Susie had brought a dish with her as well, one that I loved immediately. It was made with potatoes, onions, paprika, and noodles. Finom!

The next day, as we prepared to leave Hungary to go to Paris, Lizi happily posed for pictures with her family. Tom and Susie took us to the train station where many hugs and kisses were exchanged. Susie was smiling and crying at the same time and saying, "I'm so happy!" When we got on the train, she and Tom stayed on the platform right outside our window until the train departed. I felt very loved, and had met several people from my family. They had let us know that we were thought about often, and that they had tried to find a way to get us back to Hungary when our mother was killed. Just knowing that they wanted us made me feel more complete.

In the time since our trip, I have heard that Lizi liked to tell everyone about her "lost relatives who founded her." I have been able, thanks to the internet and my cousins' abilities to speak three languages, to establish a relationship with Viki and Tom. And scary but true, I was even able to sing Christmas carols to Lizi. Love makes the notes sound sweeter, I hope. I couldn't even bring up the subject of a video chat this last Christmas, though. I worried that it would remind my family of the lovely woman they had lost ten months before. I knew the holiday would be difficult enough without that. But I am sure that the love they have for her kept them strong. And that they ate lots of delicious foods. Or rather, that the food was finom. And I know that they miss her. I certainly do. Szeretlek, Lizi. I love you.