Loving hands hold my father’s face.
They are my great-aunt’s hands, refined and beautiful, bearing heavy rings and blush-polished nails.
Three generations of Hungarian-Americans sit in a Thai restaurant in suburban Chicago. The oldest and youngest at the table, my great-aunt Mimi and myself, have never met before. Yet, we share a precious strand of family history: We have both lived in Budapest.
In fact, I only recently returned from Hungary. On the heels of my return, the fates arrange this little family reunion.
I tell Mimi a bit about my time in Budapest, but mostly I listen. I know only two important facts about this woman with perfect poise and style, her hair set in airy-blond waves:
She held my grandfather, Andor, my father’s father, in high esteem.
During World War II, her brother was shot and killed while she was standing next to him, peering out of a doorway.
“Do you miss Budapest?” I ask.
“No.” Her answer is decisive. In fact, she is more grateful that I returned to America, than excited by my eighteen months in her birthplace.
“Here, you are free, you have choices. There, I have only my parents’ and brother’s graves. What family I have left in Hungary tends these graves. I used to go visit. But it is too much for me now” – she is already 95 – “This is my home.”
She tells me of their escape, during the Revolution in ’56. She describes how they left, with ‘gold sewn into the lining of our coats…’
We, the younger generations, often treat these tales like clichés or worn parables:
We walked three miles to school each day in the snow…
We ate cabbage soup for breakfast, lunch, and supper …
We left all our possessions behind and crossed the border on a starless night…
But when you sit, forehead to forehead, with a woman whose slender frame has borne these myths into our collective consciousness, there is a feeling of complete originality:
I’ve reached the source of all those immigrant tales of loss and perseverance. And she’s dressed in a buttercream suit, with a Chanel handbag in her lap, a crisp voice that still replaces W’s with V’s…
I never knew my father’s family. His father, Andor, died when Dad was just 10. I met his mother Irene only twice before she too passed away. And a mysterious family feud – to this day no one fully understands it – prevented me from knowing the rest of the Lefton clan.
Yet, I always felt more connected to my father’s Hungarian bloodline than to my mother’s German-Russian roots. Perhaps this is due to Hungarians’ blazing patriotism (which runs the gamut between irony, tenderness, and chauvinism), which was certainly passed on to me. Whatever the cause, when the chance arose to take a job in Budapest, I was absolutely certain that I must circle back.
In Hungarian legend, a raven carried a gold ring to Matyas, heir to the throne, to signal that his time had come.
Crossing the Danube on my first night in Budapest, I felt like a raven with a golden thread in its beak.
This thread is my ancestral songline: It is the path my grandparents travelled across the face of the earth. When I returned to the ‘old country,’ I carried the bright tip of this thread with me.
If I could sum up my time in Budapest in a single image, it would be this:
A stitch binding an old wound.
I don’t know how or why, but a single golden thread of our family’s journey was entrusted to me – as they are entrusted to all who come after – to bear a measure of this binding force.
Something unfinished in our collective past needed to be honored. At the same time, something undiscovered in me needed to be found.
The wounds of loss and homelessness are multi-generational. They grow deeper and more unconscious with the passage of time, but they endure.
To continue my own story, I first needed to bring these wounds to light. Then I could bind them, or better yet, I could discover the light within them.
Like the raven in the legend, third- and fourth-generation children who return ‘home’ also bear a sign of some future destiny.
So often, the reason our ancestors left was painful – war, famine, poverty, persecution. The fact that we, the young ones, have the freedom and desire to return, even for a short time, is a sign of healing.
It is also a sign to the leaders and citizens of our countries of origin that they must not sink back into old habits and structures. They must not cede moral responsibility to the new players.
Countries with long histories and memories – motherlands with children scattered all over the globe – have an important role in guiding our united evolution.
Neither Mimi nor I eat very much. Our forks remain poised over our plates as the stories flow.
Her memories of my grandfather, Andor, her husband’s brother, are especially sweet. I never met him, and his death from a heart-attack forever marked my father’s life.
And yet…I’ve always felt a golden thread weaving between us, my grandfather and I.
I feel I know him. But how could that be?
Migration and death trick us into a false perception. We see relationships as bound by time and space. Once we leave a location or a lifetime, that’s it, right? Bonds are severed. The candle is snuffed out.
In truth, relationship itself is the deeper dimension. Relationship is the field that contains and defines time and space.
Once we grasp this, it is no longer magical that our wounding and healing continue down the generations.
It is no longer magical when we sense our ancestors around us, or feel connected to a person not physically present.
We are just experiencing a facet of reality that requires us to lean deeper into the question Who am I? which plunges us into the ocean of Who are we?
We are sitting around a table, sharing food and stories. It’s time to leave. We take a few last photos, say our goodbyes.
Mimi lingers with my father, Andrew.
She does not miss the old country, but she cherishes the lost relationships – her husband who survived the concentration camps; her brother, killed in WWII; my grandfather, whom she glimpses in my father’s face.
In the end, that’s what genes and lineage and history amount to – golden threads that need not tie us down, but rather guide us, preventing us from getting too isolated or lost.
As long as we don’t get tangled up in these threads, but see their faint gleams as an invitation to self-knowledge and service to others, the old wounds have some hope of healing. But instead of scarring over, these tender spots can become ground for communal maturation.
In the legend, it is Matyas’s mother who sends the raven with the gold ring to alert her son of his royal destiny.
What mothers, grandfathers, or long-lost aunts are sending their bright omens to you?
What is your geography of reunion?
As you venture out, keep close watch on what’s happening within.
You may just find your homeland.