This photo arrived in the mail a month ago. This is an unexpected gift from afar; a gift of memories. A picture of Ildiko, me and Anna, taken a year before we left Hungary, forever. Anna sent it to me a month ago, with a letter she had a cousin, now living in Scotland, translate into English for her to send to me. It has been over fifty years we had last seen each other. We had run across the street to the park, to hang out and play. Ildiko had her “Kutya”, her stuffed dog, which had been the previous year’s Christmas present. She was really missing the family dog, Rex, a German Shepherd dog for whom Apu had to find a new home the previous fall. Rex had been overly friendly and ruined many lady patients’ stockings in the waiting room. Apu found it hard to keep up with expenses, at a time when stockings were greatly expensive, and women had to know how to mend them by themselves. Ildiko loved Rex, and was devastated when he no longer was in our house. Anyu gave her “Kutya” as a non-destructive stand-in she might cuddle and pet.
I am the one in the middle; the one ready to jump up and run off. I am holding “Elefant”, the gift Anyu and Apu had given me for the previous Christmas. I was wild about things African. I had asked Uncle Imre, who was in the French Foreign Legion serving in Africa (Algiers) to send me a live monkey for my previous birthday. Imagine my shock of opening the brown-paper wrapped birthday present, to find an inanimate stuffed toy monkey. I was heart-broken. How was I to be so ignorant as to not know there were no monkeys ranging wild in Algeria, wasn’t it in Africa after all? “Elefant” was Anyu and Apu’s nod to my obsession with Africa. It was unfortunate that he was a plush toy, and nothing like elephants I had seen in the zoo in Budapest – they had wrinkly parchment-like grey skin that shifted and looked like saggy leather clothing when they moved.
Anna is the relaxed girl with the soft smile, sans animal companion. She was close to Ildiko in age and they were close, to the point of excluding me from their play. Ildiko thought me a pest, and her tolerance for me only went so far as to allow me to tag along with whatever they were doing. Usually I went off by myself to find things to be nosy about and when I thought about what they might find fascinating, they would come along to see what was what.
The park across the street from our apartment building had wonderful paths and shrub and tree areas. Whenever I came across young couples kissing in the bushes, I would alert the rest of the gang, Ildiko and whoever else was hanging around with us, and we would hide in the shrubbery and throw pebbles at the canoodling couples, much to their dismay. Usually we drove them off, but not very quickly.
One day, Ildiko and Anna were lurking in the bushes. They came upon a vantage point from where we could watch the young men’s handball team playing on the court adjoining the park. “Come and see the beautiful young men,” called Ildiko. So, I took up my post in the shrubbery and watched the handsome young men playing. It was as good as seeing a performance of ballet, I thought. There was one young man who caught my eye. He was graceful and athletic, and moved with economic grace. He had blonde hair, tan skin and played forward on the hand-ball team. The other players called him “Kigyo”(snake), and sure enough he moved with the suppleness of a snake. He was beautiful.
These were summer evenings that we mucked around in the park, until it got so late that Anyu’s voice could be heard summoning us indoors at twilight. We were playing hide and go seek in the shrubbery, using a handkerchief to thoroughly blind the designated seeker. I was hiding, feeling very secure I would be hard to find. Some boy’s voices were raised in jovial banter behind me somewhere. I decided to investigate and crept around to find the source of these voices. The sounds seemed to be coming from a building next to the handball/soccer courts. I crept closer. Sure enough, soon I caught sight of boys naked and showering through a window. There was “Kigyo” in all his naked glory, gorgeous and trailing rivulets of water. I forgot I was hiding, and ran out of the shrubs, calling to Ildiko and Anna, “Quick, come see…. naked boys.” They found me right away, all curious. I led them a merry chase through the shrubbery, prolonging the first sight of these bathing boys. We lay on our stomachs, peering and looking. Anna was shocked. She had never seen boys naked before. Ildiko and I were not terribly surprised. We had gone to naturist beaches with Anyu and Apu many times before. No big deal on this particular sighting, except these boys did look a lot better than middle aged men with paunches.
“Say nothing of this to Anyu,” said Ildiko to Anna. “we will get into trouble. You don’t want to get us into trouble!” We made a pact to mention nothing of this to our parents.
As we walked home down the twilight path, Ildiko agonized over having to mention having looked at naked boys at the upcoming Friday night session in the confessional. Anna did not go to confession, coming from a good Communist family, as she did. She didn’t seem bothered by Ildiko’s ruminations about her desire and reluctance to confess. I was quite a pragmatist, I think, for I decided that nakedness was not a sin, nor was seeing other people naked. After all we ran around naked at the naturist camps; women moved about naked, dressing at the local outdoor swimming pool; and there were plenty of indulgences handed out after confessions which showed the baby Jesus totally naked. We also had that picture of Io, completely nude, being embraced by the cloud-formed Jupiter, on the wall above the dining room table at home. So, what was the big deal in looking at a bunch of naked youths? Ildiko kept insisting we had to tell mother.
So here we are in this picture, complete innocents, and remaining innocents. but what stories do pictures hide – those snapshots one receives after fifty odd years? Who could ever guess?