Family Plot

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

In my family, there was a plot to marry me off to a nice Hungarian girl who would think nothing of giving up her life with me to take care of my aging parents. They had even settled on a distant cousin of mine, one Ilona Vörös (Helen Red in English), a resident of Újpest who worked for MAV, the Hungarian State Railways.

This all happened in the mid-1970s, when my parents brought Ilona to the U.S. to introduce her to me. Mind you, I had nothing against marriage per se; but something about this whole arrangement set all my warning lights blinking and alarms sounding off.

Me in Hungary 1977 on the Shores of Lake Balatón

Why would any self-respecting young woman want to enter into a kind of weird marriage in which would become a slavey to my Mom and Dad, whom I thought were being incredibly naive about the whole thing? When I backed out of the arrangement, my father was furious with me. Why? I had not made any promises to marry Ilona, and then send her to Cleveland to serve as a housekeeper for my parents. I was just going to meet her and see what came of things. (Which was naive on my part, I now see.)

I suspect that what my parents really wanted was for all four of us to live in one household. I had been in Los Angeles for ten years. This was a plot to bring us all together. But I didn’t want to live with my Mom and Dad, as much as I loved them. I rather liked living in California on my own. As for marriage, I preferred to find someone who was not hedged about with all kinds of weird expectations.

Then it came about that Ilona and one of her MAV co-workers had been carrying on a long relationship in Budapest. Then my Mom had words with Ilona’s mother, and within a year or two, Ilona and her family were persona non grata.

Probably just as well.

Buckeye Road

Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, Once the Tallest Building West of NYC

In my youth, there were two Clevelands. First there was Buckeye Road, which was my world between the ages of one and six. (There had been a brief interlude in Florida, which I will describe in a later post.) Then, when I was sent home from kindergarten with a note from my teacher pinned to my shirt asking what language I was speaking (it was, of course, Hungarian), my parents planned for a move to the suburbs. That happened in 1951, shortly after my brother Dan was born. I will describe the Harvard-Lee Area tomorrow.

Buckeye Road was after World War Two the most vital Hungarian neighborhood in the United States. I have never been able to figure out why, unless my people had an affinity for hot, humid summers and dark, icy winters.

An Exhibit About Buckeye Road at Cleveland’s Hungarian Heritage Museum

We lived at 2814 East 120th Street, a short block from the main drag and only a short walk from ritzy Shaker Square—not for us penny-pinching Hunkies. There were two movie theaters within walking distance: the Moreland and the Regent. On nearby East 116th Street were Harvey Rice School, where I was to be a problem to the non-Hungarian teachers; the local library, the College Inn, whose French Fries I adored; the Boulevard Lanes where my Dad bowled (he was pretty good); and a very tasty doughnut shop not far from St. Luke’s Hospital. The residential streets were filled with two-story duplexes, on the second floor of one of which we lived.

Just before we moved out to the ’burbs, the city built a nice playground on nearby Williams Avenue, which I had just begun to enjoy.

There was a Hungarian Reformed Church on Buckeye, where the Reverend Alex Csutoros preached. His services were broadcast—in Hungarian—each Sunday on a local radio station to which my Mom listened. Dad didn’t, because he was a Catholic, like his two sons. The deal was that any girls born into the family would be Protestant; the boys, Roman Catholic.

My earliest memory was listen to my parents argue about money, while I lay anxiously in my crib. Both Dad and Mom worked, and my great grandmother Lidia Toth took care of us during the day. She spoke not a word of English her whole life long.

Still, my memories of Buckeye Road are probably seen mostly through rose-tinted glasses. There were hard times, but they didn’t leave me with many bad memories.

 

Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Zsófi, Elek and the Two Boys

Our Family Around 1962

Our Family Around 1962

All the blog posts in this series are based on Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland, Patagonia, Quebec, Scotland, Yucatán), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, Borges, and Shakespeare); locales associated with my past life (Cleveland, Dartmouth College, and UCLA), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), foods I love (Olives and Tea), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This is my last entry in the series, having gone through the entire alphabet from A to Z, including even the difficult letters like J, Q, and X.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the series, which you can review by hitting the tag ABC’s at the bottom of this post.

Above you can see a picture of our little family taken around 1962. I was about to enter college, while my brother was in the 6th grade at Saint Henry School on Harvard Avenue in Cleveland, from which I graduated in 1958. My mother is Sophie—Zsófi in Hungarian—and my father is Alex—Elek in Slovak and Hungarian.

This was a difficult time for the family, as my father was under suspicion of conducting an extramarital affair with a married woman. With the tense atmosphere at home, I was eager to attend college in New Hampshire, some 600 miles east, where I would be out of the fray. Although there were some bad times around then, my mother and father stayed together. They loved Dan and me, and in the end that kept them together.

For the next twenty years, Mom had few good words to say about Dad. Except, when Alex died in 1985 at the age of of 74, he became a saint. I went along with that, because all my life I tried to please him.

Dad never understood where I was going in life. I wanted to be a professor of film history in criticism at the university level. One day, I made the mistake of calling the profession “cinematology.” Ever afterward, Dad pronounced it as if I had said “cosmetology.”

Although Dan was more like Dad in being an athlete, Dad was harder on him. When Dan was at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he took some time off to travel around Europe and North Africa, thus delaying getting his college diploma. (He did eventually, but Dad kept riding him for his gap year.)

I like the above picture. It shows a normal family in which all the stresses are carefully kept hidden. But the fold lines over time come out as if they were fault lines along which our family could fracture.

Fortunately, it never did.