Three Excerpts:


[Confess] Caress the Dragon: [Writhing] Writing Memoir

I am [riddling] struggling with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice-activated word processing system. I am jabbing at the telephone redial button to the Dragon help-line so I can [writhe] [right] write, this [hex] text. I am desperate for this to work, because my hands are [devested] devastated by computer-generated carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries too frustrating to [settle] [sell] spell into this program. How to [race] trace the roots of this injury? How to recover myself?

Inevitably, this [shames] shapes itself as memoir. Shame—nice typo—I am ashamed of my Hungarian family. So I try to superachieve: prove to the world that I am a writer and not my divorced mother off with a [oracular] Dracular boyfriend named “Béla”; prove that I am a [infest her] professor and not the Grandmother who concocted gypsy hair-and-chicken-heart potions in coconut shells to counteract menopause; [groove] prove that I am a computer wiz and not Uncle Frank, who, in religious self-flagellation, bearing and atoning for family guilt, walked the cold streets of Paterson—[hare foot] barefoot. A novel, dissertation, textbook, two thousand poems, and a stress management manual—I’ve been willing to write anything. Anything but [festering] (good one, Dragon) fessing up to my truth. The more I achieve—the more I have to achieve—the less worthy I feel—the harder I work—the more my hands hurt.

Things—bizarre and uncanny—are happening: I want to write “first we” and Dragon NaturallySpeaking records Father died. How did it know I was, just then, thinking about my father’s death? [Death.] When I first started to train Dragon NaturallySpeaking and paused to think, and forgot to turn the microphone off, the program made words from my breathing: death, death it wrote; death in lights; death and death. I started wondering, what [wounds] (there it goes) what words, what subterranean messages will be lost once the system is fully trained (or I actually read the instructions on how to position the mike). Someone should do a study of what it is that a voice-recognition computer can pick up from our breathing. What is it we say under our [breasts] (yes), under our [births] (do it), under our breaths when we are not articulating words that are safe to say?

. . .

From the manuscript of “Still Hungary: A Memoir”
First published in Fugue 29 (Summer 2005): 142-146.




My Grandmother Mumchi is stuffed when she dies, like the buck head snagging evil spirits by the door—see, there, the cobwebs in his antlers. Mumchi sits—or rather, is sat—on the couch, wearing white lace fingerless gloves, her eyes propped open, her lips shaped into a smile. She is behind me. I am sitting at the piano—an old black coffin-sized Shoninger with its too many teeth, and, on top, the lamp, like a single burning eye. I play Mumchi “Liebesträume” and “Moonlight Sonata.” We have trained me for this since I was ten years old—this scene she asks me to create—that she be stuffed when she dies. But first, go back.

“Three. I am three.” Fold my thumb toward my palm with my pinkie and work my middle three fingers from their bent bunny-ear curve to straight and proud. That is how old I am. Három a Magyar igazság—“Three is the truth of Hungary”the three of the Catholic Trinity, the three of the red/white/green of the flag. Someone would have asked me, Hány éves vagy? “How old are you?” Hány means “how many” in English. In Hungarian, hány can also mean “throw up.”

I am at the piano. I sit on a telephone book on the black bench, and Mumchi, her large breasts pressed into my back, grabs the sides of the bench and pushes me in. The layers of pages pinch at the backs of my knees, if I shift my weight. I press my feet hard enough onto a pile of books on the floor so that it will not topple. It would not do if I toppled the books Mumchi had to kneel on the floor to place. Just so. Now Mumchi is sitting next to me, to my right, on a separate chair. This is the dining room. Behind us is the long table covered with dusty lace. In front, beyond the wall, is the kitchen. I want to be in the kitchen. Not sitting by the piano.

This is not just the white keys—smooth, mysterious, perfectly next to each other, reaching so far to either side of me that even laying my chin on them and stretching out my arms, I cannot reach, reach those wonderful bong, bong notes at one end, reach on the other those ping pings of angels’ harps. This is not just the black keys—like steps to climb, like chocolate fingers. This is Grandmother sitting beside me, waiting. She is not happy.

The score for Brahms’s “Lullaby (Cradle Song)” is spread open on the narrow music shelf in front and above me. The paper is brownish and torn at the corner where it has been touched over and over to be turned. Here I will sit until I play it right, as if I were sitting in front of a plate of seared chicken livers I must eat before I can go play in the garden. I must sit by the keys until I can take those black notes on the page and, as if with the invisible spots of moisture from my fingertips, press them onto the keys. And then, in the magic that is the inside of a piano, a soft felt hammer will touch a string. And it will speak back to me as if I had done nothing to make the sound. Yet I must touch and touch the keys. I must begin.

In her hand, Mumchi has an orange stick, like a long wide pencil with no eraser and no point. It is one of my orange Tinkertoy sticks that I push into round Tinkertoy holes to make boxes and dogs and stars. Tinkertoys paint my hands red and yellow and blue and green if I play with them too long. She is slapping this one into her palm and counting in Hungarian—slap Egy, slap Kato, slap Három. Like a waltz. I can dance the waltz: step, step, step; step, step, step.

Two black keys wait right in the middle of the keyboard, right in front of me. On the left is middle C—Tsay. Between is D—Day. To the left is E—Aee. I hold my fingers over the keys. Spread them so they will reach toward the first notes. Lower my hands to just touch the cool slippery surface of the keys. Begin. For now, it’s la lah—la la lah—la la. I will later sing it in English: Lullaby, and good night, little oopsMy finger slips. Start again. La lah, lalalah—La, la, Ow. Again. Start all over again. At the beginning. Lullaby, and good, little Stop. Look at it. Again. To the top of the page. Slap goes the stick in Mumchi’s hand. Lullaby, and good Not. This time I don’t even get to the little. Pock! Rap! says the stick on the score. Mumchi is hammering my stick on the score. She is leaving orange half moons on the page. Pock! Rap! Get it right. This time. Lullabyan-dgoodni— “Too fast,” she says, “Slow down. NOW.”

It will be a very long time before I work through the notes on this first line of this song. Get them right. If I get to the end of the first line, I must come back to the beginning of the next. If I get any note wrong, I must begin again with Lullaby at the top of this page. And forever, until I get to the end—those ghost half notes with no black centers, only stems trailing up like smoke on the upper staff, or down on the lower like a walking stick, and the two eyes with their arched eyebrows stacked above them, not side by side as they should—they will, all unchanging, wait.

. . .

From the manuscript of “Still Hungary: A Memoir”
First Place Essay: 2003 Personal Essay Contest. Fugue
First published in Fugue 25 (Summer 2003): 12-22.
Cited as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays: 2004.




At the worst times, when you encounter someone
aggressively unwilling to share, you dream of being
dismembered, cut up to meet competing demands.

—Mary Bateson, Composing a Life

My first experience with writing is drawing. I am in that vast present which is the experience of childhood. Instead of suns, and dogs, and houses, Mumchi, my mother’s mother, is teaching me how to draw the map of Hungary. The yellow hexagonal pencil rests in the circle of my right thumb and first finger, as I rest in the C made by her lap and ample breasts. She squeezes her hand around mine, and, so possessed, I draw the old motherland in one unbroken pencil line moved by a will that has memorized every curve and wriggle of the borders, and of the two rivers—the Danube, the Tisza—running down the middle like two raindrops on glass. I want to pull away from her hand, and that other hand—my own—so fused with hers.

Almost fifty years later, I pull Mumchi’s scrolled map out of a cardboard tube long abandoned in the basements of many moves. The border of Hungarian family crests curled innermost is stained with mouse droppings almost indecipherable from oily fragments of sunflower seed. From this perspective, pre-1920 Hungary looks like a headless and legless torso with a fingerless hand toward the lower left corner and, at the top, an indentation like that in a priest’s Roman collar. The rivers Danube and Tisza cascading down the center seem to form, variously, a bib, a coral necklace, or boiled shirt front.

Although Mumchi lived for forty years in the United States, she barely spoke English, could never seem to leave Hungary, to stop believing it to be this spread, before World War I, from the Carpathian Mountains to the Adriatic Sea. But in 1918, on what would be my birthday in 1951—October 17—Kálmán Tisza, then Premier of Hungary, had announced “We have lost the war.” In 1920, according to the subsequent Treaty of Trianon, the settlement with the Allies, Czechoslovakia took the Roman collar and the collarbone; Romania took the large amorphous lobe to the east; Yugoslavia, the belly and the fingerless hand. Hungarians refer to the Trianon variously as “The Crucifixion” and “The Dismemberment.” What remained was, literally, the heart—Budapest—bisected by its aortal river, the Danube. Hungarians, globally, still yearn for reunion and deliverance. But I am four years old. It is 1955, Passaic, New Jersey. Through me, Mumchi is reconstructing her Hungary freehand. When the line journeys back to its starting point, I—her hand curled over mine—trace its borders with a waxy-smelling green Crayola in its fraying paper sleeve. Next, I zigzag the red crayon at the left third, the center leave blank (for white), and the right third scribble green—the colors scratching through the borders we traced. Together, Mumchi and I chant Piros, Fehér, Zold—ez a Magyar fold . . . . what I will later know in English as “Red, White, Green—this is Hungary.” At four, I cannot know that what I am feeling is Mumchi’s nostalgia and pride in so resurrecting the homeland. Nonetheless, I feel important for the heavy feeling in my throat and chest as we boast: Magyar vagyok, MAGYAR: “Hungarian—I am HUNGARIAN.” I am someone. The stutter and the stress ennoble the despair. . .

From the manuscript of “Still Hungary: A Memoir”
First published in Nimrod: International Journal 46.2 Spring/Summer (2003): 194-203.

Copyright 2007