Monday, November 23, 2015

Dad's Dad

my father, Ernest Varga
My father just told me a story about his father, and how on this day in 1956 he died. My mother added details to the story that my father no longer remembered and hearing their combined recollection only cemented my understanding that death is just a transitive stage, a moment that leads us from this life to the next. It holds no more importance than that because it is the constant in all of our lives, the end which we should be prepared for, the final act that instills in us the necessary human characteristic of compassion.

It was a cerebral hemorrhage.Dad remembers that while he was at his bedside, his father's breathing was shallow and he could not speak or open his eyes. He did, however, do one thing that meant the world to my dad. It was there in that moment that dad's dad squeezed his son's hand for the last time. A hand squeeze can mean so much, but in this particular moment, as the 56 year old dying father touched the hand of his 28 year old son, he fulfilled my father's greatest desire.

My grandmother and grandfather, on my father's side, met in Chicago, having both emigrated from Austria to escape the stifling economic recession brought about in Europe after the end of the First World War. He, a day laborer, and she, a chamber maid, set out to earn their American dream, or at least I'd like to think that's what they did. The truth is I don't know. Neither does my dad, who now at age 87 has few warm memories of his family at that time to share. Listening to him talk about his childhood in the States is like listening to a timeline being read aloud. July 13, 1928, he is born, followed by his sister two-and-one-half years later. A half year after that, his mother took her children back to Austria, without their father who remained in Chicago for reasons unknown but based on the story my father told me today, it was in all probability so he could live the life of a bachelor again without a wife complaining about his drinking.

After leaving Chicago, dad had no contact with his father, a man whom his mother constantly reminded was very close with his son for the three years of his life before they left. As strange as it seems to consider a father who is very close to his son letting him slip away like that, another three years later my father would be abandoned by his mother as well when she returned to Chicago, leaving her two children to be raised by their aunt and uncle in a land that would soon host the Second World War. My father still cries when he remembers going to the train station with his mother and aunt and sister, and pleading with her to let him come along. He is six years old in that moment, has had to learn two languages, and both parents have said goodbye to him. Seeing how withdrawn he becomes from the relating of these events, I can only conclude they come from an empty place within him where he keeps his indescribable pain.

It is here that his life ceases to be the annotations of hash marks on a time line and becomes warm and rich with memories he shares. He and his cousin were very close, almost like brothers, and enjoyed the benefits of life. As they grew, they not only ran and played and challenged and fought as all boys do, but they also watched changes that would redefine human history. With chalk they would mark with crude swastikas the siding of houses where secret meetings of the burgeoning Nazi party members in their village met. They waved goodbye to the Gypsy families from outside their village as they were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. They hurried home from school on the eve of the Anschluss to help make the requisite red flag with white circle and black swastika that all houses were required to display the next morning.

As an American citizen he could not join the Hitler Youth along with his friends, but he did receive a Red Cross care package every month which contained useful items in a country starved by a two-front war. He was forced at gunpoint to dig graves for Russian soldiers killed in fighting around his village, and was sent to live with other family members in Vienna when his citizenship status and proximity to ground fighting brought suspicions about his loyalty. While in the capitol city, he cowered one evening in the basement of an apartment building whose walls were shaken by the thunderous drone of Allied bombers, right before one of their bombs struck the building abutted to the one he was in. Through the darkened and dusty air, he assisted evacuating survivors from that other building through a hole was broken out of the shared foundation wall, pausing briefly to take note of a medic on the other side euthanizing a man who was too badly injured to be saved. And all of these things over all those years took place without a mother or father to rely on for comfort.

After the Second World War ended, my father and his sister returned to the United States to live with their parents together for the first time in 14 years. At age 17, my father was not only excited about going to America, he was especially keen to see his father, the man whom he was told once shared a close relationship with him. He did  meet the man, but not the father he dreamed of meeting. He was not close to him at all and their relationship never recovered. His father remained simply a working man. And with that perspective, to have this man on the last day of his life in 1956, reach out to his son whom he was reunited with eleven years previous, and finally squeeze his hand, was nothing short of a miracle.

Last night I had my mother and father over for an early thanksgiving supper with my family. This pre-festival is our tradition as my son from my first marriage spends the holiday with his mom. He is now 17, as was my father was when he came back to America. Diner was warm and cheerful, my wife was beautiful, our youngest son drew a picture for his grandparents. Mom corrected dad and dad watched over a portion of his family. The evening was wonderful and afterward my son and I talked about a good number of things, from American history, to dating girls, and whether or not his truck's brakes needed work. So simple, yet so satisfying.

What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? I think you already know.