This essay was previously published in Meat For Tea: The Valley Review V.14 (2).
In loving memory of Martin Kish November 7, 1928-June 21, 2015.
My eighty-six-year-old father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, had gay porn hidden behind books he never read and buried in a hall closet whose shelves bowed under the weight of bottles of booze. The day I found his porn stash I was kneeling on the carpet in front of the closet, my hands dirty from dust, gazing at the cover of a VHS tape with two strapping men thrusting torpedo-sized hard-ons toward the viewer. My hand trembled. Pop was there, in the apartment he shared with my mother, shaving in the bathroom about a dozen feet away from where I sat back on my heels examining one item after another. Erotic novels with gay themes. One DVD. A thimble-sized vibrator nestled in tissue (clean).
My mind tumbled backwards into childhood, gathering up memories and experiences that could fit a narrative of closeted homosexuality.
Was this evidence of a latent curiosity brought to bear as his inhibitions declined with the advance of his disease or the fact of his preference throughout his life? Did my mother know?
Later, I met my older brother for dinner in a chain restaurant popular in Branford, where chicken wings are a specialty and patrons throw peanut shells on the floor and the house wine comes from a box. I ordered the house wine.
I told my brother what I’d found while cleaning out the closet in preparation for my parents’ upcoming move. Pop was going to a nursing home and Mom was moving in with my brother and his wife. Lucky me, living life on the west coast far away from home, was getting off easy.
What did he make of it?
“It’s possible,” he said. “It kind of makes sense now that I think about it.”
I told him about how the day before, during the late afternoon, while my mother was out getting some air and I was packing books, Pop, bald with thick glasses, thin and tilted from scoliosis, gazed at a black and white photo of a woman I didn’t know. It was a posed portrait. The paper had yellowed. She didn’t look like anyone from our family. She wore a turtleneck and sported a pixie cut popular in the 1960s. Young, in her twenties perhaps, she cast a squinty closed-mouthed smile that betrayed some measure of guile towards the photographer. The only thing she and I had in common was that we both looked Hungarian, a bit exotic with good bones.
I couldn’t make out the color of her eyes, they may have been hazel or deep blue, but not dark brown like mine. She had a better nose than me, more ski jump than beak. I have my father’s nose, which took a long time to grow into.
Who’s that? I asked.
That’s you. He said this with conviction and sentimentality all mixed up in his tone.
No, it’s not. He didn’t recognize me as his daughter, which terrified me.
Pop wasn’t terrified but happy. Alzheimer’s had in a weird way freed him. He could now live openly in the recesses of his mind that took him home to Hungary, where he was born in 1928. He immigrated to Canada in 1939 with his mother.
Pop was seated in the vinyl kitchen chair that first occupied our suburban Toronto home in the early 1970s, bought shortly after our family’s return to Canada from a five-year stint in Hungary. Now, in 2015, it served as a desk chair in the apartment he shared with Mother some sixty miles southwest of that chair’s original home. My parents, the chair, and I triangulated our way around Canada in the intervening years, landing in unfamiliar places with familiar furniture.
There is a word in Hungarian—elvágyódás—that has no English equivalent (Pronounce it phonetically – El-va-gee-o-dash). It refers to a melancholic feeling of missing something and not knowing where to find it, joined with a desire to be anywhere but here. Throughout his life my father embodied this feeling in words and deeds, and it has colored my life in ways I’m only now beginning to recognize. It’s a word I learned recently, a linguistic gift, as it makes my father more real to me now by giving his restlessness, the mystery of him, a name. The trouble with elvágyódás is that when immersed in it like a capelin swimming in the North Atlantic you don’t recognize water as your home. Too much elvágyódás and you are lost, unmoored, failing to flourish. Homeless.
Like my father, I have wandered. But I like to think it’s toward myself rather than further away. If he went to the grave a closeted homosexual, it then makes sense to think of his wanderings as flight. Also as repetitive attempts to fix something or find something and failing again and again.
Hungary has always been a homophobic place and remains so. Pop was a proud Hungarian. He couldn’t be both gay and Hungarian. The dissonance likely overwhelmed him and played out as elvágyódás. Surely when in the throes of elvágyódás, one is hardly aware of it as one tramps about without a destination or a home.
The burning question that has dogged me all of my life is: What was Pop up to when he convinced my mother that it was a good idea to move to Hungary in 1967 with their eleven-year-old son? To a country firmly entrenched in Soviet communism, with secret police and food shortages.
Over the years I asked my parents about this. The only answer they gave was that they wanted to make me. I was born there a year after their arrival. My father wanted Hungarian offspring. I was an ingredient in his recipe for personal happiness. I can only imagine what my brother thought of this.
The official story my parents told was that they were going on an adventure to rediscover their heritage. My mother was born in Canada to Hungarian parents. They wanted to give their children first hand experience of it too. They didn’t talk about how Pop had lost his job, the one that supported a middle class lifestyle in an inner suburb of Toronto, exactly the thing my grandparents wanted for him and us. Pop figured that with the proceeds from the sale of their house combined with their savings they could live in Hungary for many years before the money ran out. Which it did. But having money in the beginning didn’t protect them.
When they arrived in Mátraballa, my father’s ancestral village and place of birth, there were shortages of basic food supplies including meat. Few people had cars, telephones, TVs or even indoor toilets. I was potty trained in an outhouse. It was different in Budapest, where indoor plumbing was the norm, but housing was in short supply and the government forced people to subdivide their apartments such that a family of six might have one or two room left for themselves. At least in the village we had a house to ourselves.
Pop would disappear from Mátraballa for months at a time. My brother expressed suspicion that he might have been in hiding or jail. The shiny new Opel he bought in Vienna and in which the family entered Hungary back in ’67 disappeared without explanation. This was a country where few people owned cars, and those who did were either Communist Party insiders or had waited a very long time before the Party allocated one, usually a Lada or Yugo, not a car produced in the West like the Opel. Had the money already run out? If so, what had he spent it on? Or, had someone blackmailed him for the car?
Sometime in 1974 or 1975, a couple of years after the four of us returned from Hungary, two Hungarian guys arrived at my grandmother’s backdoor in Branford looking for Pop. My brother was living at Grandma’s at the time and was home that day. They claimed to be brothers by the name of Nágy, and they wanted to thank my father. The reason they wanted to thank him is pure speculation on the part of my brother. He believes that Pop helped them escape to the West. They may not have been brothers but lovers.
My brother speaks Hungarian, while I do not. He arrived in Hungary a naive adolescent and left a jaundice-eyed teenager. He could read Hungarian mannerisms and cultural afflictions.
It would be just like Pop to give up his parents’ address through some misplaced sense of hospitality. He was also the type who’d want to know how it all turned out. He would have liked the idea of being some kind of secret agent on the side of what is morally right. And yet, he, himself remained closeted. And perhaps that was also morally right in his mind. He had people to protect. My mother for one. What would the neighbors think?
When we returned from Hungary, broke, and lived with my grandparents, the effects of those years began to take hold on the future. My future. I lost my brother, who moved out of the house when I was five. I’d already lost one home, like my father had, and I wouldn’t find one of my own in which I flourished until I was in my forties. My father rarely held a job longer than 2-5 years while I was growing up and we moved frequently, first from my grandmother’s to Oakville, then Nova Scotia, Yellowknife, back to Brantford, each move requiring him to live apart from my mother and me for weeks or months at a time as he took jobs in far flung places with high costs of relocation.
My father had no discernible goals that I can identify. He held his desires close. He tried to do his duty as a husband and a father, and also as a son. If he was a closeted homosexual had repression manifested as elvágyódás? Is this the source of my father’s unmooring from place and from each of us, his wife, his children, and his parents? Or, more powerfully, do the two taken together—the contradiction between Hungarian identity and homosexuality—account for my father’s inability to be at home anywhere? Had he chosen to identify as Canadian would everything have been different?
I have two pictures of my parents on a wall in my house in Seattle. One is a wedding picture and the other is an end-of-the-night photo snapped at a restaurant in the early 1950s. Mom was perfectly sober in a silky black dress, a little uptight looking, while Pop, his tie loosened, had his vodka glow on, the camera capturing his charismatic grin. He had his charms. He managed to move through the world because of them. It’s him not her the viewer’s gaze settles upon. He is the interesting one.
Elvágyódás gripped my father so strongly he ricocheted his way through life like a pinball.
Dad died in a nursing home less than a month after I discovered his closet. On Father’s Day. Confused about why he was in that place and railing against it until he had a stroke.
I want to tell him that I’d be okay with him coming out. I’ve outgrown the epithets he taught me as a child in the ‘70s, recognizing them as hateful: fruit, pervert, homo. But I cannot tell him these things because Pop died without any family surrounding him in a home that was never his.
And I miss him. He was my number one fan. I know that I was wanted, and that is enough.
2 Replies to “Neither Here Nor There: A Recipe for How Not To Be”
Wow. Just beautiful, and strong in a loving way.
Sent from my iPhone
I cry. Every. Single. Time. I read this. I’m grateful to Elizabeth MacDuffie for putting into print in Meat For Tea.