By Alexandra Skultety
The earliest memories I have of my grandma are best described through smells and sounds. Paprika: both the aroma of the spice emanating from the kitchen and the sound of the word in her sharp Hungarian accent. She added it to every soup, meat, and noodle dish that bubbled on the stove. But besides the tangible aspects, I remained clueless about this place called Hungary and what it meant to be Hungarian. I knew it was in my blood and in her blood, but otherwise I did not see how we related.
She would shuffle down the hallway from the kitchen, a heavy foot tripping on the rug. After centering herself, she opened the closet. It was over stacked full of expired crackers, pastas, cookies, dried mushrooms, and spices. A long sigh spoke to the chaos of it all. Every day she opens that closet and announces, “This needs to be re-organized.” My 22-year-old mind did not understand it. Years of struggle with the closet, where boxes and boxes of stale food were so troubling.
Every time we sit down for dinner, chicken paprika and cucumber salad on the table, she told me about Hungary and the pain, sadness, violence, and loneliness of the war torn country. Running as bombs came down around her, having to whisper in her own living room because even your own home did not offer privacy during the Soviet occupation. Any criticism of the regime was enough to get you arrested and there were always spies who would report you to the authorities. Those “spies”, in many cases, were your neighbors. After fleeing to Italy where she was married in a work camp, she came to a Canada that could not understand a word she said. There was very little form of human exchange except putting her hands into hot, soapy water and washing dishes at White Spot for a few dollars. When my 5 year old dad was in kindergarten she tried to put milk on the table every day, but could not always afford it. This makes for very depressing dinner conversation, I know. The most traumatizing experience I ever had to discuss at the dinner table growing up was about old boyfriends whose faces I can barely remember.
Although she has rebuilt life in Canada, the experiences of Hungary are still boxed up inside. Now when I think back to her overloaded closet, I realize the struggle is not with shelves and shelves of cookies and pastas and could not be fixed by simply reorganizing. They are boxes of stale emotions. The fear, anger, and loss are still carried around – those years will always be a part of her.
Every week my grandma invites me over for dinner with Grandpa, my great auntie and uncle. She sighs on the phone with disappointment if I cannot attend a certain week. We do not share the same concept of human connection. A couple weekly chats on the phone with my mom and a few visits a year are acceptable in my view. I have never fought alongside my entire nation, willing to die for freedom, dignity, and peace.
Although I will never understand her experiences, I embrace the ways they have brought us together. This September I will be on my way to Hungary, my first time visiting the country. Not only am I looking forward to tasting the local wine, the beautiful beaches, and a farmer’s market that takes up a whole three story building, I am going to meet my grandma’s sisters and brothers and their children and grand children. Although the memories of the war are enduring, I am ready to experience the Hungary that is loving and stunning, and will teach me a hundred new things about my family and myself.