On a sunny August mid-morning Dedike and I sat alone on the threadbare fauteuil in the salon. On her way out to go shopping with Ildiko, Anyu reminded me to be polite and careful while keeping Dedike company. She really didn’t need to remind me to behave as I hung on every word uttered by Dedike and always felt privileged to spend time with her. It made me feel special to keep company with her, to witness her strange manner and customs.
This time the novel way Dedike ate grapes was to be the treat for me. Anyu had brought a bowlful of reddish grapes from the kitchen, and placed them to warm up on the opened window’s sill outside the softly billowing ecru lace curtains. Two plates with two small sharp knives and forks sat on the table in front of us. This table was covered in a fine cut-work and lace cloth that Dedike had made by hand during the time she was pregnant with Nagyanyu (grandmother) before the last decade of the 19th century. We basked in companionate silence, dappled light shifted across this table and made patterns on her face and hands and alternately caused her marcelled silver hair to gleam or tarnish as we waited for the grapes to warm to the temperature she considered perfect before she deigned to begin the eating ritual.
“Gabi, bring me the grapes, please”, she requested. I jumped up, carefully eased the curtain aside,retrieved the bowl and held it near her. With fingers trembling she felt the grapes to test their warmth, then imperiously gestured for me to place them in front of her. I sat down and waited. She picked up her knife, plucked a grape and began to peel it slowly, carefully piling the peelings to one side of her plate. I picked up my knife, plucked a grape, popped it into my mouth and started chewing. I swallowed my grape before she even had hers peeled. She glanced at me, lowered her eyes as she speared with a fork and placed the naked grape into her mouth. She chewed with barely a motion of her jaws. To me it seemed like she was taking a communion wafer, what with the ceremony and care with which she went about eating. No-one else I had ever met ate in such a decorous fashion. I tried to copy how she prepared a grape, and didn’t much care for the process. The knife slipped and took messy gouges out of my grape. The grape was slippery and slimy in texture as it’s skin came off. When I popped it into my mouth it seemed that I had the sensation of eating an eyeball. Peeling grapes also seemed like a huge waste of time, but because I did not dare to continue to consume one undressed grape after another in front of Dedike, I just stopped and watched her, utterly fascinated.
I asked her if she had insisted Nagyanyu and Anyu always eat grapes this way in her presence, She admitted that she tried to instill this habit in both of them, however they reverted to modern manners when not in her company. “Such a pity, the old ways of doing things was much more graceful” she stated.
As we talked, while fingering the table-cloth I asked her if she had taught Anyu to make all kinds of clothwork. (Anyu had no patience to show me how to do crocheting or lace-making and always sent me on my way whenever I asked her to show how she did certain things with needles and thread). I admired the pattern of the cutwork on the table-cloth and asked if she might show me more of her handywork.
When she had her fill of the grapes, she led me to the bathroom where we washed and dried our hands. On the way back to the salon, she stopped in front of the large cupboard and that housed all the linens. ” Come see”, she said as she took down a stack of folded fancywork, carried it into the salon and placed on the old leather sofa under the front window. She had me take each folded piece in turn from the top of the pile, and hand them to her. She carefully unfolded, smoothed them out and talked about how she, Nagyanyu or Anyu had worked each piece and how long ago. These were beautiful treasures, elaborate, delicate and varied.
There was a framed picture in the stack, and I turned it over to look at before handing it to Dedike. It was an old photograph portrait of an unprepossessing man with a black mustache much like the short bristles of a nail-brush and slicked-down short dark hair. His jacket was a uniform of some sort, but rather than looking like some kind of general he looked like a boring old school-master. As I passed this over to Dedike, I remarked “So this is what great-grandfather looked like.”
“Oh, no”,she said gazing at the portrait with a soft smile on her lips. “This is the man I thought to be the ideal husband for Erzsike. (Erzsike was Nagyanyu’s name) He would have made a wonderful grandfather for you.”
To me, he looked decidedly unapproachable and uninteresting, not anyone I would care to have as a grandfather. I asked who he was.
“He was a great man – Hitler – and I adored him” whispered Dedike, pursed her lips, brought the frame up to her face and tenderly kissed the picture. “This is my big secret. And, now I have told you, it is our big secret.” She placed the frame face down on the pile of handwork we had already looked over, patted it and picket up another piece of worked linen.
I suddenly lost interest in looking at the rest of the hand-made treasures and wanted to know more about this Hitler character. Why did she not put his picture up on the wall beside her bed if she liked him so much? What was it about him that might have made him the perfect husband for Nagyanyu? Where was he now, what happened to him? Was he a Catholic? Because if he was would he ever have married Nagyanyu – she had been divorced and was now excommunicated? I badgered her with this series of questions and she answered them with skilled evasions and reiterations of his greatness. She told me he was a great leader of men, a gentleman, a German who loved flowers, children, dogs and art and, that he had died near the end of the Second World War. She was obviously soft about this man, and her answers to me lacked the detail I might have found believable or convincing.
Dedike didn’t realize that Apu had told us some things about this Hitler. What he had detailed countered her admiring description. Apu had described Hitler as an embodiment of the devil. How could Dedike believe someone so obviously evil deserved her love and adoration, or her regret that he never married Nagyanyu?
To have her love of Hitler become a shared secret with me I resolved not to accept. I needed to know and understand why this ought to be hidden, locked not only in her linen cupboard but in a recess of my mind. This was something that wanted discussion and airing with Apu and Anyu. a mystery that must be studied.
When Dedike returned her treasured handywork collection to the linen cupboard, the picture of Hitler was hidden among layers of cloth. She shut the cupboard door upon all this, little realizing she had nudged the door of my mind open and left it ajar.