Our family doctor slammed the death certificate onto the table and threw his pen across the nurse’s desk. He couldn’t believe this good man, my father, had died of a brain aneurysm. The dangers this man had been through to escape being caught, tortured, and killed, was right out of a prison breakout movie; but it was a blood clot that ultimately killed him.
This doctor had enjoyed many talks with my dad. He too was from another country, he from India and my Dad from Hungary. One who came freely, and the other as an immigrant who escaped communist rule. Both men often compared notes of their assimilation into this free world.
Dad brought so much of his heritage and life in Budapest to the USA, to Pennsylvania, to Bradford. Hands that once held a tennis racket in Budapest did the same in the United States. Dad, a fan of József Asbóth and István Gulyás, both previous winners of the National Hungarian Championships, showed his love of the sport by starting a tennis league in our rural town. He organized teams and tournaments to be played at the local community park. Dad set up the advertising, brackets, and rules. Trophies were awarded to the best in singles and doubles in various age groups. He brought his expertise from his playing days in Hungary.
Hands that once held a paintbrush in Budapest continued to do so in America. Dad was an Impressionist painter and an admirer of sculptor and painter Michael Angelo. Dad expressed his love of painting by establishing an art center so that children and adults alike could learn the fundamentals of sculpting and painting. Several nights a week he taught drawing and painting classes, emphasizing how to work with edges, spaces, light and shadow, and perspective. He brought his knowledge from his education at the University of Budapest where he studied fine art. His artwork also appeared on many Zippo Lighters and in a booklet about industries in Bradford.
Hands that tended to grapevines back in the old country were the same hands which grew grapes in his yard. Dad grew Furmint, the most commonly grown grape in Hungary’s wine region, Tokaj. In Bradford, Dad planted Concord and Seyval Blanc grapevines. He gave vine clippings from his orchard to the townspeople so they too could produce grapes, which some turned into a winemaking project. Bradford had the perfect climate for grapes, but one had to follow dad’s rule of thumb: two nights of frost and then harvest. He brought his skill as a viticulturist in Budapest.
Hands that cooked lecso in his mother’s kitchen continued to do so in his American kitchen. Most people in town had eaten his beloved dish of sausage, hot peppers, and potatoes, swimming in a tomato sauce, to be sopped up with a thick slice of Italian bread. This dish could be served mild or spicy, enough to make one sweat. He brought his culinary recipes for others to taste.
Hands that held ski poles in the mountains of Hungary, in the Mátra and Bükk region, part of the Carpathian Mountains, held poles at the local ski slopes around our hometown. Dad brought his love of skiing to his family as we cross country skied at the Red House side of Allegany State Park or downhill skied at Bova, a tow rope slope half hour from home. No fancy clothes. No fancy boots or skis. We skied with simple clothing and rudimentary equipment as he did back in Hungary.
Hands that grew roses and vegetables in Budapest continued using those gardening skills in Pennsylvania. Morning glories wrapped around clothesline poles, sunflowers edged on fences, cucumbers and lettuce and tomatoes filled the rows allotted in the square garden. Onions, radishes and peppers, white, red and green, flaunted their colors like the Hungarian flag. Dad was a master gardener and many neighbors stopped by to admire his handiwork.
Hands that cradled a prayer card the night he escaped are the same hands that held that religious card every Christmas Eve Mass in remembrance of his escape to freedom, the anniversary of crossing into Austria and his eventual voyage to America. Our local newspaper interviewed Dad and printed several articles about his 1956 escape from Hungary. He frequently spoke at schools and community groups, describing his life in a communist country and his flight from it. His message: appreciate your freedom and democratic society.
The doctor flipped over the certificate and scribbled his signature on the document. A respectable man, now gone, who brought his Hungarian legacy with him and left a part of it in this small town, with his friends, colleagues, and family. A good person is someone who leaves this world a better place. And he did. Dad touched two worlds, two countries, combining his love of both. And though his hands were physically small, they held immense talent, love, strength, and respect which he shared with others.