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.


The Storyteller

How to Raise a Literate Child

How to Raise a Literate Child

This is my mother within a year or two of my birth. When I see her wave at the camera, I almost feel as if it were a cheery wave at me from another world. There are many things that went into the making of a strange person such as myself. What my mother contributed, other than unstinting love over five decades. were all the stories.

First, as I was a little toddler lying in my crib at 2814 East 120th Street were the stories she made up herself. They were wonderful stories, and they were all in Hungarian. They all took place in a sötét erdö (a dark forest) and featured a tündérlány (fairy princess) who helped a little boy overcome all manner of ogres and other baddies.

When Mom was tired or her inventiveness wasn’t sufficient to satisfy my little inquiring mind, she picked up some children’s books at the library on East 116th Street and read them to me, first translating them into Hungarian. One of the first stories was a book that is still available today: The King’s Stilts by Dr. Seuss. I will never forget the picture of the king’s realm surrounded on all sides by tall levees and the encroaching water. (I still have a copy of the book, which I found on eBay and treasure.)

Then, when I started going to school, and my parents realized that Mrs. Idell and her colleagues had no idea how to teach a little Hungarian boy the English language, my parents decided to buy a house on East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area of Cleveland. Also, by that time, I had a little brother; and our apartment on East 120th Street just wasn’t big enough any more.

Sophie Paris was gifted with a fertile imagination. When she wanted to get a job as an Occupational Therapy Assistant (O.T.A.), she had to provide the name of the college she attended. Without any hesitation, she declared herself an alumna of the University of Hakapeszik in Budapest. A rough translation of Hakapeszik would be, “If s/he can get his/her hands on any food, he/she’ll eat.”

You see, Hungarian doesn’t have any gender-specific pronouns. Other than context, there is no way of telling whether he, she, or it is intended.

But that is a story for another day.