The crucifix, Anyu (Mother) had brought out of Hungary in 1956 by hiding it inside the folds of a Turkish prayer rug, now hangs in a little shrine in my hallway. It is a well-crafted marquetry cross, with a detailed bronze sculpture of crucified Jesus attached by little nails through the hands and crossed feet. Festooned with two rosaries, it had hung from a very visible wall in the dining rooms of all the homes our family had lived. Today, I took it down. It needed polishing, and while applying wax to the fine woods my thoughts turned toward how it came to be in my possession and why I value it, not only for the belief it represents, but also as an aide memoire to prompt remembrances of Anyu.
Margaret, our younger sister born and raised in Canada, who had cared for Anyu during her last five years, had invited Ildiko and me to come and claim items left behind when Anyu died. Ildiko declined to come to this occasion for dispersing Anyu’s earthly possessions; she held to a policy of non-attachment to worldly goods.
By the time my husband, our son and I arrived at Margaret’s house, she had already made a claim on items of her own choosing – a Limoges dinner set, some antique pottery of historic and collectible value, art work of certain valuation and books which she wanted in her own collection. She had begun dismantling Anyu’s room and had removed the objects which she claimed for herself. The room was in complete disarray, some bureau drawers open and spilling out contents, the bed loaded with piled books, linens, correspondence in tied bundles and boxes of photographs from her hiking adventures. Margaret suggested to me to select and take home whatever items I wanted for memories of Anyu; she directed my husband and son to the half-empty bookshelves to take any books they desired.
The bed with piles of stuff seemed the appropriate place for me to begin, and I looked through a stack of crocheted doilies. Many of these Anyu had created out of balls of fine ecru thread during the long evenings after our arrival in Canada. To me, these represented a concrete trace of her creativity at a time when she might have been lonely for old friends, her family of origin and for familiar well-loved places. These lacy roundels contained her energy, hopes, regrets and trepidations. Their delicate interlocked meshings of thread were her private script, in her undecipherable journal of a life disrupted.
I laid them out in rows on the rug, and while doing this it occurred to me that some of these might find an extended life through the works of two woman artist friends who both worked in found fabrics. One friend, young Anna, was working on a project which involved making a huge dome of other, anonymous, women’s round doilies through which, in final installation, would project a tracery of light and shadow on observers inside. For her, I set aside a collection of the most beautiful and intricate ecru crochetings – these would find continued existence as an integral part of an artwork that would be experienced by many people – it seemed to me that Anyu might have approved this use of her handywork. For my older artist friend Paula, I gathered all the white doilies. These she would make into lined purses which she would embellish with crystal beads, or with handmade shell scrap buttons. For myself, I selected a small rectangular ecru confection which seemed so fine that a sudden puff of breath could rearrange it. This perfectly represented Anyu’s delicacy, complexity, fraility and love of beauty to me. This piece of memorabilia started my pile at the side of the room.
The bundles of correspondence, lying casually tossed on the bed, invited closer inspection. They revealed Anyu’s close friendships maintained over nearly fifty years, long distance. Blue air-mail flimsies containing messages from friends in fine, individual and foreign script were neatly stacked, but too private to probe meaning from. To take and keep, I chose two with the most dense writing in Hungarian, but which was difficult to read and make sense of, no matter how I struggled to unlock the design of the words, phrases and sentences. I came upon a letter I had written to Anyu from Brittanny nearly forty years previously; in it was a description of the fishing port of Concarneau, of men in indigo work-clothes mending nets, of the fishing dories, of the arms of the breakwater embracing the little sheltered cove. Inside the envelope was a fading black and white snapshot, deckle-edged, of a pile of floats and nets under a stunted, windswept pine tree. Other letters, from Barcelona, Arenys del Mar, Perpignan, Nimes, Genoa, Rome, Pompeii, Venice, Vienna, Gyor, Belgrade and Rijeka had traced my youthful wanderings and shared them with her. Had this series of hasty scribblings prompted her later desire for peripatetic travels? I left these behind.
The box containing the photographs held a record of Anyu’s wanderings on foot in the mountains and on the islands of the Canadian West Coast. She appeared in most of the shots, smiling, looking contented, standing at the base of waterfalls, lounging on boulders beside mountain streams, sitting on fallen trees with her hiking cohorts and strolling through flower-strewn mountain meadows. The many pictures were her memories and held little interest for me; they remained on the bed, their eventual destination unknown to me.
The partially empty bookshelf beckoned with promises of shared memories. There were a series of plainly bound books, written in Hungarian by various writers. One in particular struck me as a perfect, apt keepsake. A red cloth-covered book, titled “Tanar ur, kerem” (Teacher, sir, please) by the Hungarian satirist Frigyes Karinthy leaned against a row of others. Obviously brought back to Canada from one of Anyu’s numerous visits to her Mother in Hungary, it was one which she had read from to Ildiko and me when we were children. It was a book she was very fond of, by an author she revered; it reflected her innate pleasure in satire and her mordant sense of humour. “This is a book I want to keep. Anyu read these short vignettes to us with such relish!” I called out to Margaret. She readily assented as she grew up not speaking, reading nor writing Hungarian. Ah, how much had she missed out on by happenstance of being born in Canada! She never had the opportunity to appreciate, truly, Anyu’s wonderful, witty command of her language of origin, her musical sense of the sounds of word combinations and permutations. Most pleased, I placed this book with the rest of my gleanings.
Face down on a small table next to the bookshelf was a haphazard stack of small framed photographs of members of our family. One, in an oval rosewood frame, an obvious modern reprint from an earlier portrait, showed Anyu as a young child of four years of age. In this photo, she has a tender, innocent and wondering expression much the same as she projected the day before she died and which I realized, now, was a profound yet seldom glimpsed aspect of her essence. Margaret has a copy of this picture, and thus consented to me taking it.
Above this table hung the crucifix, layered with rosaries, and pendant necklaces of varying provenance. While not overtly religious, Anyu had held onto this cross, those rosaries for almost sixty years. She had been given it by Dedike (Great-Grandmother) on the occasion of her marriage to Apu. Anyu had suddenly stopped attending church services when Ildiko was ten years old and I was eight. She refused to ever set foot inside a church afterward, and it was a great matter of conjecture and discussion between Ildiko and me as to what had prompted this decision. Over the years, Anyu had evaded our questions about her sudden lapse of overt faith, and yet here was a symbol of belief which she had kept near her, so obviously valued, for the greater part of her long life. I felt a strong connection between this crucifix and her; for me it represents the mystery of forever hidden aspects of human individuality. How much of the relationship of a mother with her child hinges on faith, because so much is revealed and so much is obscured during a shared lifetime of observation, telling and listening. I had to take this with me.
So, now, this crucifix, which I look at so often during my days, has again jostled memories. It is now polished, the wood and bronze gleaming; my fingers have tenderly explored the beautifully defined contours of the crucified Christ. And, during the carrying out of this small maintenance routine, the embers of my memories of Anyu have been rekindled.