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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Relatives Found in Hungary

Instructions To A Stranger

November 1

At the train station, leaving the city,
buy two long-stem roses.
Get to the graveyard about noon.
Look first for the grave of your grandfather's family.
You found it last year,
when you arrived,
found two graves,
and left —speaking to nobody.
Search for 15 minutes
(watched by curious eyes).
Search, but fail to find.
Then walk to the grave that you know you can find,
the grave of your grandmother's family.
In a crack next to the headstone
leave one rose.
Write a message on your business card;
attach it to the rose.

“ Messe élün. Közel érzünk.”

(We live afar; we feel close.)
From the headstone write down
names, dates of birth, dates of death.
Write them in the notebook
where you carefully copied someone else's research:
your connections
to the residents of both graves,
your possible connections
to unknown, unnamed people
who might reside in town today.
(So many had gone to America.)
Your notebook has what you have copied
but cannot remember.
Hold the notebook and second rose in your left hand
as you walk again to find the other grave.
By now you are much noticed in the graveyard.
It is alive with people tending to graves
—praying over them.
You cannot help but stand out.
Your walking in lost circles
adds to whatever else makes you different.
First one man, then another, tries to help you.
They do not know the grave.
Two women ask if they can help.
After some discussion
(patient with your poor speech)
they cannot.
Walk on.
Walk around.
Now, stop.
Look down
to your left hand.
It holds the rose
—only the rose.
Not only have you lost the grave,
but you have lost your notebook,
and, with it,
all the facts
that connect you to this graveyard
—to this town.
Feel the weight of your heart.
Yet, pause.
Left with no ulterior motive,
look up;
accept, for a moment,
the aesthetic and emotional beauty
of this scene that surrounds you.
You must walk again past those who tried to help.
Feel as incompetent as you are conspicuous.
Confess your loss to them
in words they may or may not understand.
Stop, alone,
to gather your thought.
Feel a tug at your sleeve.
Look down
to your left.
A woman stands there.
She says,

           “ You are looking for the Péterné grave? I can help you. Follow me.”
She walks to where the grave should have been.
How did you miss it?
At the Péterné grave
the woman excuses herself.
She goes to work on one of her family graves.
Make polite introductions to three other women
working at the grave just to the north.
Kneel down
to find the ground freshly tilled,
new flowers planted,
votive candles interspersed.
Stick the rose into the earth
—again, with your card
—again with your message.
The women at the grave to the north speak to you.
They say they know your family.
Go to number 24
on the road to the north.
Talk to Anna.
At least, you think that is what they said.
Why not go?
You have no other plans.

Stop briefly at the town church.
(Your grandparents must have been baptized here.)
As you cross the Ikva River bridge
and turn to walk the road to the north,
notice the house numbers.
They go up one side and down the other
—as if to say,

“ Town will grow no further in this direction!”
Ring the bell at number 24.
The house has no front door.
Through a slot in the iron gate
see a solid woman step onto the side porch
—fifteen feet beyond.
Hear her solid voice ask what you want.
Try to say,

“ I am from America, people in the graveyard say we may be relatives.”
She opens the gate and invites you in.
Sit at her kitchen table to talk.
Without your notebook
you cannot figure out how you might be family,
but you both feel that you must be.
She knows things that you had forgotten
about your grandfather and great uncles in America.
Anna is probably of your father's generation.
Talk, as she bakes cookies and other sweet things.
You understand little of what she says.
Strain to connect bits and pieces
to keep up the pretense of conversation.
She says you should talk with Zoli,
but you are not sure why.
He comes from Budapest tomorrow.
When László appears,
(Anna's husband)
snap a picture.
After ninety minutes,
leave pleased and exhausted.
Leave with their smiles and well-wishes
—a stranger leaving a welcoming home.

From Anna's home
walk back across the Ikva,
past the church,
back to the graveyard.
Try again;
fail again to find your notebook.
Revisit your family graves.
pause on a walled embankment.
Pause for twenty minutes of reverent silence.
Appreciate the scene before you.
Lighted candles,
they subordinate in beauty to the flowers
as dusk begins;
they dominate the beauty
as night descends.
People become shadows,
walking among graves.
How did you earn the privilege to be here?
What fortune
that life leads you to this place
for these moments!
Your loss of a notebook,
your loss of facts
seems fair trade
for silent participation in this evening.

You are sleepy,
sure that you walked ten miles today
by the time you get back to your room
in the pensión of the neighboring village.
You neglected to buy food.
After a glass of wine in the bar below the pensión,
go to bed early—
satisfied that you have spent well
the best day you may ever spend
in the town of your grandparents. 

November 2

Morning is cool and overcast
—a good day for a walk.

Walk north.
Trucks come by in the opposite direction
taking sugar beets to the plant near the pensión.
A farmer drives his team into a field,
two beautiful horses,
a load of manure.
After three miles of farm land
see new houses,
the old village,
and finally the Eszterházy palace.
Follow the palace's curved wall to the top of the curve.
See the main gate
and, beyond,
the oval entry yard and grand stairway.
A group of people head into a door near the stairway.
This has to be a tour group,
so hurry forward to join it.
Notice, as you pay for your ticket;
this is a group of very senior citizens.
Some have difficulty walking.
One young woman is along to manage the group.
Tie cloth slippers over your shoes
and shuffle off with your group when a guide appears.
The guide cracks little jokes that make them laugh,
but you do not understand.
A sheet of English-language notes
helps you understand what you see:
old furniture,
ceramic stoves,
Franz Joseph Haydn did much of his work here.
Think that you hear the guide tell a story
about the Nazis who took away a fortune of gold
by removing gilding from walls and ornament.

After the tour,
near the gate,
the young woman stands outside the restrooms
weighted down by purses given to her safekeeping.
Trade smiles with her.
Almost stop to attempt a chat,
but go on.

Turn west out of the palace
—away from whence you came.
Then turn south
on the road to your grandparent's town.
When you get to the railroad line,
do not continue past Anna's house;
walk west to the depot
—one stop away from your pensión.
You arrived here last year
and want to walk again from the depot into town.
Last year that walk took you into the heart of a festival
—into the crowd at the mass behind the chapel.
Today at the chapel,
see just one woman raking leaves.
A new pensión-restaurant has opened across the street.
Go in to ask about the prices.
It is almost noon.
Tired and hungry,
be tempted to stay and eat,
but go on.

Want to eat at the little cafe up the road.
You ate a warm sandwich there last year.
Walk in.
It is open, but empty
—no customer, no attendant.
Want to sit down and wait,
but go on.

Walk past the chapel and new pensión
toward the center of town.
Cross the Ikva
toward the church and the turn to the graveyard.
But, notice a house along the way.
See the coffee and pastry shop in its basement.
Remember that you have walked by before
—this year and last.
Amico is the name on the sign.
Go slowly on by
—along the railing to the stairway down.
Feel a little sorry for yourself
after this morning's long walk.
Say to yourself,

“ I should eat some good food,
but, after this much exercise,
coffee and sweets won't hurt me.”
The window to the Amico has curtains.
You cannot see
to tell if it is open, or full, or empty,
or what the people inside are like.
You seldom go down into such places;
there is no graceful way to exit
when you find yourself where you do not want to be.
Walk some steps back.
Go down the stairs.
Open the door.
There are only two tables,
each with a young man drinking coffee.
The place looks pleasant.
Pleasant smiles come from women behind the counter
—mother and daughter.
Out loud, remark,

“ There is no free table!”
But go on in.

You are committed
—also tired and hungry.
Order a dobos torta (layered cake) and a coffee.
The two men have moved now to one table.
Thank them kindly and sit at the other.
The older woman leaves into the back room.
The younger woman quickly serves the torta and coffee.
Start to enjoy your treat
when a man appears behind the counter.
He asks,

           “ Do you have something to ask me?”
Quite puzzled, say,
“ No, I am just here to enjoy a torta and coffee.”
He then says,
           “ Well, I have something to ask you. Is this yours?”
He holds up your lost notebook. 

Sit dumbfounded.
He asks if someone sent you to them
and is surprised when you manage to say, no.
At a loss for words and ideas, just say,

“ I don't believe this! I am so fortunate.”
He says,
           “ It is a small world.”
“ I don't believe this! I am so fortunate.”
           “ It is a small world.”
“ I don't believe this! I am so fortunate.”

They found the notebook
while you were still in the graveyard.
They debated;
should they approach you as likely owner?
Now they joke;
the women had been right.
His eighty-year-old widowed mother-in-law appears.
She sits down,
tries to help,
but does not remember your family.
Meanwhile, the man,
his name is Pál,
has called an acquaintance, Gyula.

           “ He expects you in twenty minutes. You must go see him.”
Finish your cake and coffee.

Still dumbfounded,
set off to Gyula's house.
Notice immediately
that you took a picture of this house
last year when you walked by.
Over another cup of coffee
meet two lively people,
now friends,
but, as best you can tell,
He has your last name.
Like you, his father is Péter.
Perhaps his great grandfather is Jozsef or Andras,
son of your ancestors, Péter and Agnes,
but, perhaps more likely, no.
What a pleasant hour!

Things are going so well,
feel strangely at home as you leave Gyula's.
Why not go look for old maps at the town hall?
It sits across from the church.
You won't find any maps,
but find there, by chance,
someone to open an office
to sell you the recently published town history.
He is patient with your stumbling language
and with your vague requests,
though he was obviously in a hurry
when he stopped to help you in the hallway.
Say goodbye,
but feel indebted.
Turn back to ask his name.
He takes your new book and points.
Of course,
today you should expect it;
he is the author.

Completely satisfied with your day,
head toward the store across the Ikva.
This evening you want some food and drink.
Passing the library,
feeling ever more at home,
stop for a haltingly pleasant chat with the librarian.
She happens to be reading her copy of the town history,
impressed that you just spoke with the author.

At the ABC store, buy:
      Villanyi merlot,
      kolbász sausage,
     and crackers.

Back across the Ikva,
past the Amico, the church, and graveyard,
your good-day's walk,
(far longer than yesterday's)
ends at the pensión.
The woman at the desk hands you a message.
Anna has called.
The people from Budapest have arrived.
Feel tired, ready to call it a day.
But it would be discourteous to not call back.
the woman at the desk shoves the phone at you.
As best you can (coached by the desk clerk),
explain your good day to Anna.
Tell her that you are too tired.
You cannot walk back to her house.

“ But, thanks very much for everything.”
She offers Zoli's phone number.
Hand the phone and your journal to the desk clerk
when she sees you struggle to understand.
When you get the phone back,
begin a final goodbye
—looking at the new name in your journal.
Little bells tingle in your head;
this name is quite different from your own,
yet seems familiar.
Feel neither
the energy to change your mind,
nor the will to open your notebook.

“ Goodbye.”

In your room,
take off your shoes,
open the wine and crackers,
cut the sausage,
sit back to enjoy the end of a good day.
Open your new book.
See what you can understand of the town history
—too lazy to open your dictionary.
Feel pleased with the little you understand
and the more you can guess.
Drink half the bottle of merlot.
Eat most of the salty sausage
and most of the salty crackers.
Take a nap.
It is 4:45.

A little before 6:00,
still sleepy,
open your eyes.
Wake to a strong thirst
and to a feeling that you must peek at your notebook.
Drink three glasses of water
and call Anna.
Say that after a short nap you feel more energetic. 

“ Could I come over now?”
           “ Certainly.”

After a fast walk through the darkness
along now-familiar roads,
by 6:35 be back at Anna's gate.
She takes you to her kitchen
where they are eating cold-cuts
and the goodies that Anna baked yesterday.
Anna introduces you to Zoli.
As you shake hands, you must ask,

“ Were you born October 24, 1923?”
          “ Yes,” he replies.

Respond as quickly as you smile:

“ I am very pleased to meet you. You are my father's cousin.”

They pore over your notebook,
understanding little more than names and dates.
Zoli remembers a visit by your aunt
twenty years ago.
Anna brings her diagram of her own family.
She knows she and Zoli must be related
but is not sure how.
Find the connection
—between her diagram and your notebook.
All the while,
drink glass after glass of water.
Ask one question that you forgot to ask yesterday.
Who takes such good care of the family grave?
It is Anna.
Zoli and his wife make this trip every year
around All Saints Day,
spend a few days with Anna,
and help decorate the grave.
They praise Anna.
She did not know how she is related,
yet she tends your family grave.
Wish also to give praise,
but say only,

“ Thank you!”
More than ever,
your minimal skill in their language
seems a dull pebble
in a river of emotion and experience.
Anna sends you off with a package of her cookies.
Zoli drives you to the pensión.
After a firm hand-to-hand, hand-to-shoulder handshake
your day is over.

November 3

As you wait in a cool morning's sun for the 7:10 train,
write instructions to a stranger,
a stranger who must come on the first of November,
who must, after a two-day walk, go on.

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