Sopron

Mother gave dinner parties. She was the perfect wife. She knew her duty, in the nineteen- fifties sense of the marriage contract. She didn’t work outside the home. She brought up four very well behaved children – if outsiders were commenting. Internal to the family unit, we all thought we were the worst misbehaved children in the universe.
When we thought we had it all right, she could still find something that we did not do right.

“Sit up straight. Pull your tummy in.” I was a terrible slouch.

“Keep your hands in your lap when you are no longer eating, at the table”

“Ladies sit first. Otto, help your grandmother into her chair and wait until all the women are seated before you sit.” He argued that we sisters were not women. He was set straight.

” The right way to use your soup spoon is to dip it towards the far side of the bowl. It allows drips to fall off back into the soup before the soup spoon gets to your mouth so that you don’t drip soup on yourself. And don’t slurp. Tip the soup into your mouth.”

Otto said that even though she was deaf and could not hear you speak to her unless you spoke directly to her face and she could read your lips, she could still hear when you slurped at the table.

I had a similar observation, but not regarding hearing. With her macular degeneration, she was legally blind. Where the family was concerned, however, she could still spot a spill stain on one’s clothing or a single hair, unchecked, flaunting it’s ill-bred-ness on one’s shoulder. A tiny thread, a single dot – despite her blindness, she could see these with eagle like clarity.

“The fork on the outside is the fork that should be used first. If one is having salad, the salad fork is on the outer left, then progressively to the center, towards the plate, the dinner fork and then the dessert fork, should you need it for cake or pie. We only had dinner forks and salad forks, so this information was important. The salad fork doubled as both and could be confused. The dinner knife has the blade turned towards the plate.” Butter knives for everyone were only set out on high holidays and it sat interior to the dinner knife. Bread had to broken not cut.

We had to set the table for dinner, daily, as if company were coming so that we would be used to eating properly wherever we might go. Her training paid off, and we truly were able to fit in anywhere.

Dressing the table for a formal dinner was a strict observational rite. Mother loved to entertain. It was part of her duty towards her husband to promote his career by carefully selecting a guest list that would foster his promotion within his department.

She spent hours considering matching serviettes to the table cloth and finding flowers for the centre piece that would coordinate with them. Silver was polished and inventoried, plates inspected, serving dishes planned along with their corresponding serving cutlery. It took a week of special cleaning to prepare. When Uncle Keith, who was tall, came to dinner, we had to check all the high places in case there were specks of dust he might detect loftily escaping Mother’s careful housekeeping.

When we moved to the Twenty-fifth Avenue house, Mother was especially pleased to have increased space and, after renovations, a living room and dining room beautiful enough to make the Jones envious and desirous of an upgrade to Mother’s decorating style.

The year we moved was 1956. Canada was settling down into downright prosperity after the Second World War which, after all, had never really touched our shores. But that was not so for European countries, who continued adjusting to the changes wrought by the great war.

In Hungary, there was revolution. In 1957, the University of British Columbia accepted the entire Forestry department of the University of Sopron – faculty and students – to continue on teaching and granting degrees until all their students had graduated. In time, the University of Sopron Forestry department integrated and became part of UBC.

In those first tumultuous days of arrival, the Sopron people were taken under wing by the Faculty of UBC,  my father being one.

I wish Mother were still here to provide details. I did ask, but she was weary and just nodded her head, saying “Yes, Yes, that’s how we met the Szabos. They were a fine family and we kept in touch with them always.” So my memories are those of a young girl just turned eleven, kept in the dark about the forces of anguish and evil that had forced these refugees to flee.

I remember so many people in the main floor of our big house that there was a crowd in each of our “public” rooms – Father’s den, the living room and the dining room. It was standing room only, filled with people who spoke in a babble of language I could not understand or in an English with a delightfully crisp foreign accent.

I know she worried about using all her “good” things, wondering if it would be offensive to refugees who had left everything behind; but philosophically, we talked about this much later, and I proposed a positive approach.  The refugees were probably glad to see order and beauty provided for them while they struggled with re-establishing their lives.

In time, the Szabos were our special family connection. They came for dinner with all their many children and I remember these as being formal affairs with all the polished silver and porcelain the Mother could muster.

The Szabos told stories of their brushes with border guards as they walked out of Hungary, their babies and smallest children drugged to keep them quiet and how they were witness to those who did not manage their escape as well, shot before their horrified eyes; how they all had to ford a river on foot to avoid authorities; how one of authorities was kind and helped them to hurry along to their destination. Doctor Szabo was an eminent engineer, his wife a writer.

Later, after the great escape, when revolution calmed, their efforts to bring their parents to Canada were successful. I remember a very distinguished looking, aesthetic couple. He was tall and elegant. When he arrived at the house and when he departed, he always took Mother’s hand in his, bowed slightly to lift her fingers to his lips in greeting, then clicked his heels. He greeted me this way once. I was young and giggled; I smile to this day, at the thought of it.

His wife was silver haired and slender, her tresses pulled in a classic ballerina’s coiffure to a bun at the nape of her neck. She loved me to play piano for her, and I complied in my childish and stumbling manner. I’ve never been comfortable playing piano for anyone and especially not when the atmosphere was formal. I always felt people were listening for mistakes since that’s what Mother did, as I practiced. But I had fallen in love, or at least in awe, of this elegant grandmotherly figure.

“I was training to be a concert pianist. I had already performed at many concerts,” she told me. “When I went out skating, I fell and cut tendons in my hand. Though they healed more or less, I was not able to play at a concert level anymore and I could no longer continue my career in music.” It was a romantic and tragic story. They had lost their large country estate to Communist reforms but the Reds could not take the education and aristocratic manner from these lovely people.

Politely, for conversation, Mother asked where they were living. Doctor Szabo senior described his apartment at the top of a house looking down upon the railway tracks – I imagine now that he must have been living on the steep slopes of Great Northern way, just above the Canadian National lines, looking north to Terminal Avenue. It was not a satisfactory part of town for educated people, thought Mother. Nothing east of Cambie Street was. She must have schooled herself not to make a grimace, a telltale sign of disapproval.

“It is smaller than we are used to, ” said Doctor Szabo senior philosphically, “but we have our freedom and that is more important than anything.” What a come down, from a country estate to lodging in rooms in a poorer part of town, I thought. How could they get used to it? But they were with family and there was freedom.

Thirty years later, 1986 it was, as I returned from a seven year stay in France from my art studies and then some, I came home with hardly a sou to my name. When I found a job, I also found an apartment on Great Northern Way, a new building with much to recommend it for its views. On a clear day, one could see from Burnaby Mountain and Simon Fraser University right across 180 degrees to Point Grey, the westernmost part of the city. In between, there was the downtown core of the city with its ever changing, ever growing skyline, the North Shore mountains of Hollyburn, Grouse and Seymour. On nights of the Fireworks celebrations, we could stand on the balcony and watch the sky fill with explosions of colour. This small, glassed in balcony was on the third floor of the building. It was here that I painted. The views were spectacular. The changing weather added or subtracted colour from everything before us. I was living with Franc then and we wedded not long after he immigrated from Paris.

I thought of the senior Szabos and their perch at the top of an old Vancouver turn of century home, stripped of many of their most valued possessions – piano, books, painting, furnishings – living frugally and restrainedly. They were refugees but they were happy being near their young family.

As I watched the trains moving, shunting back and forth, coming and going from the train yards below the slopes of Great Northern Way, I thought that the Szabos probably had spent pleasurable hours watching the landscape before them. Perhaps they even thought, as did I, that when those trains were active and their noises reached our third floor balcony, that all was well with the world. Commerce was active. Imports and exports were travelling via the rails. It was when those sounds stopped that you needed to worry.

Well, for straying from the subject, for digressing, I’ve done a fabulous job. What was the point of all this telling, anyway? I started to tell you about Mother and her insistence upon good manners and protocol. It stood us in good stead wherever we went in our adult years, whether here in Canada, in the best of places, or in Europe where we quickly adapted to variations from our British inspired rules and regs.

I also wanted to tell you that Mother was so proud to support Father in his career. In her generous, kind and welcoming spirit, she met these wonderful Hungarian people who became a part of our lives. I was awed by them. They seemed to be the epitome of the romantic books I had read of the aristocracy. And yet, they were hard working people driven to succeed in their activities in science and literature.

I’ll add just a few more redolent memories from this time. We were invited to the Szabo’s house for dinner with everyone from both families, so their must have been about sixteen or twenty of us in all, ranging from a babe in arms to the parents age of about forty five. They had had time to settle, to establish their children at school and to lodge themselves in a modest three or four bedroom house in Kerrisdale. For such a gathering, I don’t remember the dinner. I don’t remember the protocol. I see in my mind’s eye a long dining table which must have been central to their daily family doings, and surrounding, piles of papers stacked a foot high, on every available surface, including corners of the floor. This was an intellectual family. They were learning. All of them. Housekeeping took second priority. It must have inspired me. I do as little housework as I can, and I have stacks and stacks of papers waiting for the time I can “deal” with them.

And then: On their first Christmas in Canada, Mother wanted to find some little gift to give this family she had adopted. She found Swedish Chimes, four tiny cut-out brass angels suspended above candles that heated the metal and made the angels turn, rang a central bell with a tiny tinkling sound. We have a matching one. Mrs. Szabo said they brought them out every Christmas in remembrance of our family. Every year at Christmas we think of the Szabos. Every year we have a family letter from them, recounting the success of their large family and all the successive progeny, and they mention the Swedish chimes.

Mother has been gone just over three months. I must write and let the Szabos know.

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