For Mother’s Day.
Several years ago while briefly visiting in the states, I sat down with my parents and recorded their stories of the trials and tears of living under Stalin’s oppression in Hungary and their eventual escape to the United States.
Two different and frayed threads that ended up tying the knot in Cleveland, Ohio.
The following is a re-post of a free writing exercise I did in my mom’s voice. Free writing has no clarity or eloquence – it’s not supposed to. It is simply words tumbling out without concern for order or correctness. I sat down and let my fingers do the tapping. Forty minutes and 1,000 words later, this is what I ended up with:
“I was little then, don’t remember much. Life passed by so quickly yet slowly. Quick like popping corn because I moved from place to place. Slow because the pain during each stop was intense and seemed as if it would never let up.
When my dad left who knew why? we were little . Mom didn’t say much. She did look very sad for those first few days. Then we woke up one day and she was gone too. My three sisters and I left alone. Who would feed baby Edith? She was only three months old and we didn’t have any baby bottles or milk to give her.
It didn’t take long for word to pass to a relative and they came for us. We were farmed out to four different homes. Most weren’t so bad. I didn’t like being away from my sisters. When would mom return?
That was so long ago. I can’t remember my dad anymore. People ask me about him. I say, “I don’t know”. Because I really don’t. I don’t remember much about him at all. Not his voice, not his touch, not anything.
Mom did come back after a few months. I think three months she was gone. She never talks about those months. Something happened. She was different.
Our life was different. And somehow I knew the Russian soldiers had something to do with it. We were hungry because my mom wasn’t allowed to work anymore. Again we were sent away to different homes. To survive. One place after another.
I hated being separated from my family. Living with a different relative every year was hard. Then I ended up in a foster home. I don’t know why and I can’t remember who. I do remember feeling like Cinderella. Doing the work no one else wanted, since I was the most dispensable. Like sending me down the street to get water several times a day. By then I was 12, but still not very strong and the bucket was so heavy. Every time I opened the large front gate I wondered if I’d be shot, since the Russian soldiers, at times with their tanks rolling down the street, were a bit trigger happy.
I left that place and don’t remember why; a short time later I was back with my mother and my sisters. Then one night we packed up as she kept telling us we had to be very quiet on the trip she was taking us on.
We had to do what she said exactly when she said it. Be quiet. Drop. Don’t move. Run! Drop again.
But I didn’t want to drop because I didn’t want to get muddy. I think it’s a miracle we escaped alive. I was sure the footsteps we heard and sudden flash light shining on us would take my mother away again.
But the voices were kind. We had made it across the field and across the border. We were in Austria. They helped us, sending us to Salzburg.
We lived in a small room in a refugee camp. For two years we lived there –along with thousands of others scattered in the same kind of camps throughout Austria. It was a beautiful country. I remember when I saw the Sound of Music for the first time and recognized the mountains and the tree lined boulevard where the kids were hanging out of the trees in their curtain-clothes.
But for me it was a different kind of beauty. The kind that comes with both fear and contentment. The kind that makes you glad you’re alive but wishes you dead when thinking of soon you’ll have to leave again without knowing where or when.
My mother put our names on many different lists: Costa Rica, Australia, Sweden, the United States. We did finally leave, to a country that sounded strange and distant.
On a plane, my first one. We flew to France, then Ireland, then over the Atlantic Ocean. Our plane lost an engine and we made an emergency landing in Newfoundland. Never heard of such a place in my life. I was cold because it was cold there. We did not have winter clothes. That didn’t matter, we had to get off the plane. At least we had a warm bed to sleep in at the hotel they provided.
From there we ended up in Rochester, New York. United States was the “where” our names fell on the list. A Catholic charity sponsored us and we blindly went. Beggars certainly cannot be choosers. Destiny was not in our own hands. Nothing is when oppressive regimes overtake your country.
Even our dignity was taken. That was one of the things we would have to build again, besides our life.
We stayed only briefly in Rochester. Again I don’t know why. Have you ever been frustrated because you can’t remember things? This is worse than not finding your car keys. This is fragments of a life, lost forever. Or are they buried somewhere? I don’t even know how to find out.
We ended up in Cleveland, Ohio. Many other Hungarians lived there at the time. Perhaps that’s why my mother took us there. To be around like people with like stories and like pain. There’s comfort in communal suffering.
Another start, more houses. Moving moving moving. Would I ever know what it is to again have a home and actually live in it? My life consisted of packing our few belongings, moving, unpacking. Then the cycle would begin anew.
Until I met him. He saw me washing dishes at the restaurant. He tells people it was love at first site of the young, reddish-blonde 16 yr. old bending over the sink with her sleeves rolled up and sweat pouring down her face.
We married a few months later. We must have done something right. Soon it is 50 years; we have five kids, and fourteen grandchildren. I finally had my own home, and when we moved it was because we wanted to, not because we had to.
That’s what I like to remember.”
The serious girl is my mom. This was a propaganda photo, staged to show the world how three sisters and a crowd anticipated visitors at the train depot. In lieu of my mom’s story, the cruelty behind it is jarring.
This draft is skeletal at best. Hours of detail are yet to come.
I will share here some info about my grandfather, Karl Stadler, who left. He was a Hungarian officer, opposed to Communism, who patrolled the passenger train. He was marked even before he began helping others escape. It is believed that he was notified secretly of his pending demise, forcing him to escape to Austria. This was why he left.
One report was given that while walking down a street in Austria, a car pulled up, men jumped out, and grabbed and threw my grandfather in the car. It was the last time anyone saw him alive. A death certificate was seen years later by another relative in Budapest.
The Communists came for my grandmother in the middle of the night. We eventually learned that during her time in prison she was beaten, tortured, and abused in every way as they tried forcing information from her regarding her husband’s activities. Her name was Ilona.
My mom carries her name.
As do I.