I had fallen in love with the newsness of Ville d'Anjou. I loved the shape of the houses, spare and oblique. I loved their bright colours. I loved the playground and its futuristic apparatus. The painted bars of the rocket ship that, last summer, I was still afraid to climb to the top. The clean sand. The amoeba-shaped wading pool painted aqua like the sky. I adopted this landscape, having come from a world that history had disfavoured. Like a false start, it shouldn't have happened. My place now was among the split-levels, bungalows, and duplexes of Ville d'Anjou - a world without war or want or fear - on the eastern edge of Montreal. The last inhabitable outpost before the island's desert stretch of refineries. A glimpse of the future sliced from farmers' fields, and nestled like a spareedged brilliant inside a baroque setting. The East End's characteristically dark brick facades were heavily curtained with evergreens. Spiral two-storey staircases, curling with black grillwork, twined up the fronts of pre-war walk-ups. We had to negotiate those dark streets like a journey through the past before breathing a lighter ether once we turned north from Sherbrooke Street and climbed - not uphill, there was no grade, though I could feel myself lift - into a largesse of land and air, yes more air, the homes hardly impinged on the sky. I exhaled once we reached Chenier Street after the march of duplexes from Sherbrooke. On Chenier the bungalows began, and the ranch-styles low and sprawling.
In those tidy, self-contained domiciles, children knelt on wall-to-wall carpeting, watching electric trains rock around a track. Little girls hauled about blond-haired dolls as tall as themselves, pulling a ring on the neck to hear words in English. Their dinners, absurdly premature, were at four in the afternoon when my mother was lying exhausted, feet up in the lazy-boy. Their bedtimes were punishingly early when in our house we were still eating - eating well - not from a box. I didn't envy them. But there was something certain in the heavy hang of a thick and perfect ringlet suspended from a plaid ribbon. A location in time and place. A privilege in knowing trends, and a luxury in caring about them. I hankered for the sureness of these gestures. Inside picture windows young-looking mothers stayed home and dangled legs beside telephone tables. I loved this vision of ease and belonging. Livingrooms were off limits when you stepped in after school. A glimpse of perfect composure like an unblemished face. My family's duplex was new, but branded with economic expedience, a paying tenant and the proximities of shared walls. It set me apart, as did my older parents, and working mother, and empty garage.
On winter mornings my father was long gone on his trek by public transport to a downtown office, our front walk a crisp scar in the white expanse that had filled overnight, and the sidewalk in front a smooth swath to the neighbour's invisible border. He wouldn't let my mother risk climbing over snow banks to the street where, he hoped, at least a car or two would have left a track for her to walk in, for my mother, like me, had to make it in time for the school-yard bell. She'd leave before me, giving herself extra minutes because the snowfall would slow her down, to be ready to greet her class at the kindergarten entrance. I noticed her pointy-toed bootprints and made my blunt-nosed marks beside them.
Dire threats of penicillin injections had impressed me with the need to dress properly for the cold: not only hat but scarf, not just jacket, also sweater. Two pairs of mittens, for one was bound to get wet. Sometimes, during her exams, my sister would be home to lock the door behind me. More often she left early with my father for her classes at McGill. I locked the door with the key that hung like a charm under my cotton school blouse, and went out with the other children, into the snow.
My over-swaddled burliness made each step an extra effort as I waded through the wet snow on Boulevard de la Loire. Rounding the corner onto Croissy Circle, I took in a sudden, frigid draft of air. Immediately, it was not my hand that I felt burrowed in the quilted lining of a nylon pocket; it was my hand grasped inside someone's larger woollen mitten. It came upon me like that. Like breath. Memory entered with cold air. I was working my way through the deep snow behind an early-century tenement. My sister's hand firmly clasping mine, and tugging me up the white hill looming largely ahead. My sister the school-going age I was now. My sister big to my small. Our woollen jackets heavy with wet snow. The prickly leggings bunched between our legs rubbed thickly together. My panting breath behind the scarf a wet, thready steam forming an icy crust that grazed my nostrils. Trudging up, up, plodding sweatily in the cold. I followed my sister anywhere. Going up. Hurtling down. I assumed unquestioningly some good reason for our labour in that whiteness.
I recalled this scene often and others that were too dear to let go, even though they put me out of step with my new, untarnished world that had razed what came before. Eventually time took the life from the remembrances and framed them. Shuffling them over and over until their edges frayed. I brought them with me everywhere. Through each move, I sorted and shuffled, losing some inevitably in all the handling, so I never again had a full set and ultimately there were just a handful left. I have few memories of Hungary.
In my child-mind everything was alive, vivid and concurrent. To remember was actually to feel it. In Ville d'Anjou, on the fifteenminute walk to school through snow up to my kneecaps, hot with effort under my nylon and zippers, snot crystallizing on the scarf over my mouth, and snow stinging, not yet wet, as it bit over my boot tops, I remembered. Not in pictures, nor snapshots, nor narrative, but through the physical fact of being in two worlds at once.
THE Budapest flat was long and sprawling. For a little one, it was endless. Along the floorboards worn so smooth I had only to watch out for the rugs with rough naps. If I slipped and slid on them, I'd get something red and sore. Some of the rugs were soft, though, and thin with age. They'd turn up and bunch and trip me if I wasn't careful. The rugs were islands with their own landmarks. The raised bristly whorls at the centre of the one by the kitchen. I liked to sit on it in my warm felt pants and pat the horsehair surface gingerly. See how I could tame it? Along that brown river of a hall-way, there were archipelagoes of throw-about worlds. I saw my mother take them and shake them, and hang them out the window sometimes. She would try to rearrange them, but I made sure they found their right spots at last. The thick woolly tassles combed neat and flat.
The brown river parted for doorways, some always closed to me. "Karcsi's room. Stay out," said my mother, then to my sister: "Close Karcsi's door, before the baby finds his fiddle." And doors I wouldn't want to open, ever. The one with the great roaring thing that shook and rattled while it regurgitated water with a terrible rushing force.
On weekends Apu came home. His tread on the landing was our mother's cue to pull off her apron and tug her sweater smooth. There would be sweets if I foraged deep enough into the big coat's pockets. And the coarse rub of thick arms around me. Skin loose and tender as he held my face to his. I thought I smelled the animals on his coat. He talked about cattle, pigs, but it was just the soft musky fur of its lining, sweetened by the smell of him. Karcsi would come out of his room to shake hands, and would be asked to join us for dinner although in any case he ate with us most nights as part of his lodging, and his place was always set on the diningroom table.
We celebrated Christmas like everyone else so we wouldn't seem too different being Jews. The big flat surprisingly close with warm aromas and flickering lights. Evening lamps glowing. Up on the deep ledge above the diningroom doorframe three small fir trees glistened with pink marzipan bells. I was allowed to finger them lightly when someone held me up. If it was a visitor, we were given a taste. The hard sugar coating grazed before it melted on my tongue. Pink, soundless bells, though their sugar hard like crystal made me imagine a little tinkling. I would gaze up from the floor, feeling sated.
The clapping made me startle. Who was this? Who was coming? The grownup voices knowing and festive. Mikulas. Look. Look. Like a big brown bear. His great coat turned inside out to show the furry lining, and a white pillowcase over his shoulder. What? Who is it? Mikulas. Your Apuka. Look, silly, what is there in his sack?
My first memory was heat. I saw it. Waves of heat dancing. Later I imagined a small room with a black stove. I put red flames into the picture, flickering behind a grill. But I knew the image first through my pores. A pulsing reddish glow I ingested with each breath and sigh of my tiny, gorging body. The long rambling flat was difficult to heat during the coal shortage in 1954. Karcsi the boarder had a separate stove in his room, so that was the room my mother took for the new baby. Karcsi moved out on the divan. At dawn he met the coal cars pulling into the freightyard and paid the black market prices for which my father had left him money. His musician's fingers clasped on a sack of coal that by breakfast he let slide beside the nursery furnace.
My sister came in to warm up. She stood first by the stove, and looked into the cradle at me. If my mother was lying nursing me on the bed, she nestled her brief length along the curve of our mother's spine, and took strands of our mother's long hair, twisting them around her finger. I remember heat, a dance of gold shadows.
Out in the country, on the state farms, my father trudged over crusty fields to inspect livestock. Wide hands thrust into the deep pockets of his great fur-lined coat, he spun dreams of spring crops and fall yields. Trusting implicitly that his family was safe and warm and unbeholden. How did he do that? Assume decency. My father anticipated decency in others before he would suspect anything else. Decency in others when, after he had had to leave his first wife and their child for labour service in 1945, they disappeared with every other member of his family, in smoke. When I was born, Karcsi the lodger gave up his bed, and my father entrusted him with all that he had.
We have a photo taken in Canada when Karcsi came on tour with the Budapest Symphony. He looks young in the picture. I am six and spilling leggily from my father's lap. We're all sitting together on the sofa smiling into Karcsi's tripod-mounted camera.
FROM behind there came a shattering of glass. It was a sound like day, clear and explosive. In the halls, apartment doors swung open, and from all of them people ran, spilling into the stairwell. My heart thrilled hopefully. Such excitement. My little blue double-breasted coat had been buttoned on me; there must have been time for that, but not time enough to lead me by the hand. I was tucked like a loaf under my father's arm while we bounced down urgently. My sister's able legs just a flick of white ankle socks in leather lace-ups as they flew away below me. My mother wearing her warm coat that flapped open as she hurried, suitcases in both hands. Sun poured down with us right to the basement.
Inside was a camp. Bundles. Families spread on blankets. Food unwrapped, passed from hand to hand. From outside a deep rumble and vibration, distant and stirring. "Boom-boom!" I clapped gleefully. But my sister's hands covered her ears, and her face froze yellow as she hissed, "Shut up, idiot."
Later I learned a name for the campout in the basement. It was the Revolution. That was still all right. A revolution, I was assured, wasn't a real war. War was when Jews were pulled from their homes and burned in ovens. This was only a revolution; we weren't the targets. Everyone in the tenement, Catholics, Jews, regular Hungarians called Communists, seemed equally afraid.
How long did we stay in the dim, densely-bodied basement? Three days? Two weeks? I took it in, learned it, and absorbed it like everything new. It became part of me. It must have had its rhythms that I turned into rituals. It must have been assimilable.
I remember most the closeness among bodies, having to step over and through the personal effects of strangers. A general mistrust between neighbours. Faces swivelling at unexpected sounds, apprehension their common feature.
In the mid-morning hush of a city that had been punctuated by bursts of gunfire and shattering glass, my father slipped through a slice of light admitted by the basement entrance. They went out that day for the first time, men mostly, slipping tentatively through the fragment of light to forage a few facts that might let us know what had happened. No one knew who was the enemy. Hungarian troops had in their ranks some of the old Arrow Cross who had murdered Jews in the War. And the Russians might mistake anyone for an insurgent. Russians were always feared. But that day it seemed quiet enough, possibly safe to investigate.
It felt strange, the grownup men gone. Almost like an everyday when the men went to work. We were left as usual, the children with the women, only they seemed uncertain. My mother had held Apu back for a moment before he left, as though she had changed her mind about letting him go.
When the door flung inwards throwing in the harsh daylight, when the light burst in on us, it was as much an assault, that brilliant flare, as the bereted silhouette that followed. The severe light seemed to radiate from the khaki-clad figure who had booted in the door and held his rifle out front. He waved his rifle at us as though we might hurt him. A sudden stillness seized all of us in that basement. Still, like when confronted with an animal in the wild, don't move, must not alarm it. Ha! I would have laughed another time; maybe before the basement, it would have been funny. Afraid of us children and our mothers cowering in the dark.
"Jolvan it minden?" Hungarian. Someone dared to answer, so perhaps a Hungarian soldier was not so bad. "Yes," a woman close to the door whispered, "Yes, all right. Everything here is fine." He tipped his beret - a peacetime courtesy - and, relieved to withdraw without incident, ducked back-first through the door, his rifle the last thing out.
I remember my mother's voice still shrill many months later during my parents' arguments and endless speculations. Insisting she wasn't going to cringe like that again. When that soldier had burst in and we didn't know who or what he was, which would be better, Hungarian or Russian, neither was good if he carried a weapon. All we were aware of was our own pitiful dread. She wasn't going to cringe like that again. Enough! She had been through Auschwitz, now this! She wasn't going to raise her children in fear. She'd had enough cringing and hiding and hoping against the worst that would - inevitably - come. She wanted to hope for something better. Milk her children could swallow without gagging. Voice rising: she was thirty-seven years old ...!
When we finally emerged from the basement it was like blinking at a miracle. In my father's arms, ascending the stairs slowly, squinting into the light with every footfall. I remember stepping into our flat with the two men, my father and our tenant violinist. The windows splayed open. Before leaving they had released the latches on the windows to minimize the impact of explosions. My father held me to keep me away from shards of broken glass. Wind gusted through the open windows. It seemed to me that the wind was sweeping in the very sky, there was so much cold light. It brought an emptiness into the unlived rooms. A purity. As if all had been swept clean, sterilized by the light and blue air. Rooms that had lived something we had been spared - or denied - a life of their own. The men's voices boomed. The flat felt so empty. There were our things, the horsehair recamier and sturdy credenza, the framed photographs, and fringed lampshades, and even the throw rugs Apu stepped over as he hurried eagerly down the hall, checking over everything. But they seemed insubstantial, almost transparent to me in that windy light. They had lost their solidity. Everything was light and airy as though even the thick oak table could be swept away in a breath of wind. The men's shoes resounded on the hardwood that skirted the carpets. It was as if we'd never lived there. As though in our absence someone had cleared out our personal claim to these belongings, leaving frames, merely, that had filled with light. The outline of a sofa, the shadow of an armchair. All had filled with a light that was blue, clear, and so jagged it might slice you if you dared move. I was taken aback when my father laughed and our violinist put his head outside and waved. Human gestures that were incongruous to me, and risky in that rare ether.
WE were in a little car, my sister, my father, and me, and we were hurtling past windbreaks on a highway. We were moving so fast, it was as strange and wild to me as would be the ride in a Canadian amusement park many years later. Blasting around and around so fast, your teeth ground together, and you couldn't think past the sensation of being propelled without will. That's how I felt sandwiched between my sister and my father, conveyed into the countryside away from everything familiar. My mother's food packets tucked inside his pockets. My mother in her apron on the street, waving goodbye.
Apu had told us many stories of his life before the war on his family's country estate. Even as a baby I knew about the tobacco plantation and horse-drawn carriage. I had heard about crop rotation and imagined the fields spinning like the arms of the windmill in one of my picture books - one year up, one year down. We had grown to imagine all that was good and beautiful to have risen out of his family's turf. The metre-long braided loaves of chalah from my grandmother's kitchen, and tables set for twelve, sometimes times twenty. The people had grown as rich and bountiful as the yields that fed and clothed them. The land they had lived on and nurtured as lovingly as their offspring for three generations. I no more remember hearing these stories for the first time than I do taking my first step. They were part of the climate my sister and I lived in, and we had absorbed them into our psyches - psyche as in soul, ethos, grasp of life. As the seasons bloomed and faded, so had my father's rural past.
Whizzing in a little car, away from my mother and from Budapest, we were going to the country. My father was taking us into the country. Being children, we didn't know what to expect, but we must have expected a great deal.
Spring, ushered by the stench of wet winter rot, assailed us on arrival. And the ground mushy under our feet as though it would suck us in. The sodden fetid air we could only marvel at when our father said with relish, "Smell it? That is the earth blowing out its winter breath." Our offended urban nostrils flared in distaste. Feeling chilly in the damp air, we tramped along the muddy furrows. I looked to my sister for some cue, something to help me interpret the unpleasant sensations made more confusing by my father's obviously happy stride. Her boots seemed to sink into the furrows. Each step, as she pulled it up stickily, was laborious. She was ahead of me by six years. She was my measure, my yardstick. Hers the first impression.
"There was a calf born just this week," my father told us. "Isn't that lucky?" His voice full with the pleasure of giving. But we weren't prepared for the stench in the barn and the rows of enormous beasts with their hot vaporous breaths. He went down the row, patting their sides, pulling up their eyelids. I was like a puppy beneath his feet. I wouldn't take a step away from him. I clung to his trousers until he was forced to pick me up. When he did, when I was up, oh, it was too late to look away. Something you wanted to hide from, but riveting. One by one he had pried their eyes open, but he wasn't expecting disease. Not anything as red, as rawly red as this, in every possible shade of red and plum unfolding like the layered petals of a giant bloom all blood and flesh and tissue. A festering bovine backside from whose center a black vermin seeped and crawled. My father sucked back his breath in disbelief, and turned quickly to divert my gaze. But my sister was already retching, a loud, raspy choke and surge.
She doesn't remember this, she claims. And all memory of a new-born calf we might have seen, or baby chicks, or new lambs has been expunged from my collection. But I retain the red gore of disease mirrored in my poor father's dismay. He who had grown from the earth, who loved the smell of horse shit and fodder. He could grow a forest in a bed of salt, and in our Ville d'Anjou garden he did grow a veritable arbour of fruit trees and flowering shrubs and beds that never wilted. To see his children repelled so virulently by the living earth, to see us severed from generations who had cultivated this land, people who had loved it and nourished it and built a dynasty from it. How it must have brought home to him all he had lost. Even as he held us in his arms and wiped my sister's streaming nose with his monogrammed handkerchief. As he stroked our soft hair and cradled our delicate bones, I could feel him remembering and holding along with us the other small daughter - the first one, our half-sister - lost in an Auschwitz oven. He remembered her in each caress he gave us; in each kiss on our foreheads and flip of a storybook page, she was beside us, loved just the same. As he held what was dear to him, how he must have felt the widening of the chasm that had split his life.
MY family left Hungary in 1957. The memory has become a family icon. My mother's hands locked into each child's. Her head has turned and is looking over her shoulder at our father. "With or without you," she is saying as she leads us down the front walk of the tenement, "we're going." My father stands indecisively at the building's entrance. He is a man of European height, small only by North American proportions. His arms hang by his sides, and his face is carved in loss over loss. As he watches us his face begins to break down along these creases until it is the face of our century, its features skewed and misaligned. When he leaves the portal of that building his figure diminishes with each step. By the time he reaches us his shoulders are round, his chest has sunk into his belly. He is the father I now recognize and the one I really knew. The man who never again trudged through fields of corn or patted the flanks of horses, who from that moment was always close by our sides, our Daddy. A man for whom borders opened, but whose world shrank around the members of his family.