Without the heavy golden frame she is not that strict any more; Mami always has roses to keep her company.
MAMI AND MY OTHER MOTHERS
Olga Vállay Szokolay
My mother was young and beautiful. Of course, all used to be young once, but she was different.
Mom was 28 when she got married; that definitely was not underage in those days. When, after they were married, she went with my father to a movie theater for an “adults only” show (probably the equivalent of an R-rated production now), they did not want to allow her in, seeming to be too young. Dad had to vouch for her, just to elicit an exclamation of “How cruel to let such a young thing marry!”
To me, she was just my Mami and her chestnut-brown hair, blue eyes and naturally peaches-and-cream complexion admired by all, meant nothing. In fact, I thought that the blondes wearing cherry-red lipstick and stilettos were the pretty ones. Mami dressed conservatively and wore no makeup: she didn’t have to. It was for her 50th birthday that I bought her the first lipstick of her very own because I’d caught her filching mine for just a dab… Then I told her she was old enough to have her own. Probably the noble fragrance of 4711 cologne was her only subdued trademark. Thus, she always smelled nice.
When I was about eight months old, she thought I was ready to meet my father who was a merchant marine captain and away at sea for many months at a time. We embarked at a port on the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal (now Kiel Canal) after midnight. Mami put me down, sound asleep, on the bed in Dad’s cabin. He leaned over me, catching his first glimpse of his mini-Sleeping-Beauty who opened her eyes, gave him a broad smile and then went on dreaming. It sealed our friendship for life and after.
Mami was never seasick: one useful trait I fortunately inherited. We accompanied Dad to Spain – Seville and Malaga, as well as to North Africa – Algiers and Morocco come to mind from my parents’ accounts. How I wish I could recall all that!
Today’s profuse assurance of “I love you” was, in our circle, exclusively reserved for very special, romantic occasions, not for daily usage to kids and all. The only reference to that precious phrase was when I was being punished, with the lyric: “I am doing this (whatever) because I love you…” It didn’t make much sense to me until much, much later. Yet, there was never any doubt about love between us. When I was pre-school age, my uncle teased me, promising me something if I’d love him the best. My diplomatic answer was: “I love you best, but I love Dad the very best and Mom the very-very-very best!”
Mother’s delicate beauty inspired some painters and we had two of her portraits that had been shown at exhibits, hanging in heavy gold frames on the walls of our apartment. The smaller one was sweet and gentle. The larger one was stern and strict and its glance seemed to follow me around the room, seeing everything. For a long time it kept me on the straight and narrow…
All my life she was proud of me, while being rather sparing, actually frugal, with praises. Later, however, in my teenage years, Mami became my confidante and secretary. She helped me organize the timing of visits by boyfriends, gently steering some away, presenting them more in perspective.
When I was about year-and-a-half and a fast runner, I became too dangerous for another voyage aboard Dad’s ship. Yet my parents were understandably yearning for each other. I had no grandmothers: my paternal one died at age 36, when Dad was 10 years old. The maternal one was still alive when I was born but died shortly thereafter. It was my dear godmother living with us who made it possible for Mom to join Dad for a few months away from home. She owned a dental laboratory. During her hours at work the maid cared for me. Then Tepa, as I called my godmother, spent all her free time with me. We used to go for walks that gave me a chance to play tag. I must have given her a real hard time running in-and-out of buildings, having her pursue me in a cat-and-mouse chase. She was a great cook, making me remember her cream-of-mushroom soup and Christmas turkey forever.
My mother cried when she returned after a few months, as I didn’t recognize her and called Tepa “Mami”.
It was Christmas Eve, 1944. The Russians were fighting on the Pest side and the sounds of heavy artillery filled the air over all of Budapest. We lived on the top floor of the eight-story apartment house where 15 months earlier one of the very first bombs dropped on the city fell just a couple of hundred feet short of our flat. My parents’ best friends living on the second floor invited us to dinner and suggested that I’d stay with them overnight due to the dangerous shooting. Ilus néni, an artist and Mom’s closest friend, knowing that I was interested in drawing and painting, gave me a set each of fine quality watercolor and tempera, along with appropriate paper and brushes. With her daughter, Ildikó, we sat in their bathroom, an interior space, where I was thrilled trying out the new paints. After Ilus néni explained the rules of composition to me, I painted a nativity scene and she was delighted. That night she became my mentor for years to come.
On Christmas Day, along with the 130 other inhabitants, we moved down to the basement of the building where we stayed for the ensuing six weeks. Ildikó, then seven, got a pair of kiddie-skis for Christmas that she let us kids try on to slide down a tiny snowed-in heap of dirt in the yard during the siege of the City. It felt like flying and I knew I wanted to ski. Next Christmas, Ilus néni gave me my first pair of skis. She and her family also introduced me to the joy of language, and in particular, to puns…
All these became organic parts of my life, of much success, much joy and much love.
At age 16, I fell hopelessly in love with a guy eight years my senior. My, he was already an assistant professor at the University! He played the guitar that was my fascination all my life, from the Italian songs played by my uncle to Bluegrass that drew me into the American folklore. He was so different from the boys in dancing-school! Like myself, he was an only child; he skied, sailed and could draw like magic. And just when it seemed we could get better acquainted he, like oh so many who had a chance and the luck, left the country.
I was devastated.
Yet, somehow the opportunity presented itself for me to meet his parents. Joining the post-war cottage industry, his mother tried to augment the shrinking paychecks of her husband by making ladies’ purses out of nylon fabric. Her name being also Ilus néni, to differentiate, I gave her the nickname Nylona néni that she found quite endearing. I became her sales lady and we did great business.
She could not escape noticing the similar traits and interests between her far-away son and me. Thus, after I sent her an illustrated letter from my vacation, she arranged for correspondence between us. It lasted for a few exchanges but the distance between Budapest and Salzburg seemed unsurmountable in those days.
Nylona and her dear husband became parents at a later age and, by their own admission, would have wanted a daughter. Instead, they had a boy and even he was so hopelessly far away. In semi-jest, they wanted to “buy me” from my parents to have their old dream come true… She considered herself my vice-mother and was just as devastated by the news of her son’s sudden marriage as I was.
As all my “other mothers”, Nylona was best of friends with Mami. They enjoyed vacationing together and humored each other into their first flight to visit their respective families in the United States.
Marcelle néni knew and liked me since childhood. Her daughter and I were best friends and I spent several vacations at their place at Lake Balaton in our teen years. Then their family managed to emigrate to the U.S. and lived in Connecticut when my husband and I fled from Hungary. From Vienna, I notified my uncle in New York who, not being able to do so himself, approached Marcelle and her family about sponsoring us.
They didn’t hesitate: picked us up at Camp Kilmer, put us up until we could move into our own and helped us in any way imaginable to establish our new home in our new country. Away from my own, Marcelleka, as she became to me as an adult, was my surrogate mother. She validated my humor, my playing, my being different, my being me.
In a long, circuitous way I arrived back at Mami. She visited us last in 1981, when she was still fully mobile, alert and although older, still beautiful. Then I visited her for Christmas 1984, finding her shrunken by several inches due to osteoporosis but still lively and nimble.
By 1987, however, on her road to final deterioration, she was homebound, cared for by relatives in exchange for inheriting her apartment. I gave her an audio-tape of La Bohème, Puccini being her all-time favorite. She could play it over and over till she fell asleep.
When I arrived, she was perplexed: she first did not recognize me, as if reciprocating for my blunder of 50-some years earlier. As she realized who I was, we both cried, hugging each other tight, for the last time.
Next year I had to attend her funeral. Surrounded by all our loving friends and relatives, it was comforting to see the urn containing her ashes next to that of my father’s. They were together again at last.
Every person in this reminiscence has passed to the other side, but I feel privileged to be the guardian of their memory. Happy Mothers’ Day! – till we meet again…?
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.