100 Years Old Today

The Paris Family in the Early 1960s

If my mother were alive, today would be her 100th birthday. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it to her 80th birthday. In August 1998, shortly after she hung up after my usual Saturday morning call to her, she pitched forward upon getting up from her phoneside chair, hemorrhaged, and died immediately. Within a couple of hours, my brother and I both knew what had happened. Dan was living only a few miles west of Kings Beach, CA on the north shore of Lake Tahoe at the time. She didn’t answer the phone when he called her, so he sent a neighbor to investigate, and he found her body.

Sophie (or Zsófi) Paris born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised by her grandparents, Daniel and Lidia Toth, who gave up on the United States and took her back to their farm in Felcsut, Hungary. But when the specter of Hitler was beginning to loom, they returned to Cleveland in 1937 on the Queen Mary. There, she met my father, Alex (or Elek) around 1943. Despite the opposition of her grandparents, she married him in 1944 and became pregnant with me. My brother Dan came along in April 1951.

My mother wise incredibly street savvy. She applied for jobs for which she was not qualified, stating on the applications that she was a graduate of the University of Hakapeszik in Budapest, Hungary. Now “Hakapeszik” is another way of saying “The School of Hard Knocks,” or “If one gets his hands on some food, one eats” in literal translation.

She worked as a supermarket checker, a woolen mill, a manufacturer of earphones for pilots (the Rola Company), and eventually an assistant occupational therapist working in a hospital for the terminally ill. She was a wonderful cook and a good-hearted person. She did, however, break a number of wooden spoons on my recalcitrant butt when necessary. At the same time, she was incredibly kind and made friends easily. She was also wise. To this day, I consult her usual practice before making any big decisions. If Sophie wouldn’t have gone for it, neither would I.

 

Zsofi Sebek Returns to Cleveland

My Mother Before She Married

My Mother Before She Married

My mother was actually born in Cleveland, Ohio, but was raised by her grandparents, Daniel and Lidia Toth. Her own mother and father were too feckless to be trusted with the care of a child, and the mother eventually became an alcoholic and ended up at the State Mental Hospital in Pontiac, Michigan. Daniel and Lidia decided that it would be best to bring up their little Zsofi in the Old Country, so they went back to their little farmstead in Felcsut, just southwest of Budapest.

It was not until 1937, when Zsofi was nineteen, that the three returned to Cleveland. Hitler was threatening, and Austria had already fallen. So the Toths and Zsofi sailed on the Queen Mary from Cherbourg to Southampton, England, and from thence to New York. Below is the cover of the passenger list for that sailing:

The Title Page of the Passenger List

The Title Page of the Passenger List

And here, below, is my mother’s name on the passenger list:

Not Quite Spelled Right

Not Quite Spelled Right

The Cunard Lines people who signed her in misspelled her name, as if she were German. In Hungarian, the letter “s” by itself is pronounced as if it were “sh” or “sch” if you’re of the German persuasion.

One would think that my Mom was able to hit the ground running, inasmuch as she was born here. Not quite. She didn’t speak a word of English, and neither did my great grandparents Daniel and Lidia. She had to work as a maid and take night school classes in English before she was able to get hired for a better job. Years later, Mom got a professional certification by a humorous white lie on her application. When asked about her college education, she penciled in, “University of Hakapeszik.” That’s Magyar for “School of Hard Knocks.” P.S.: She got the job.