About ten years ago, there was an episode of Australian Story about my grandfather. He was a master tailor, who made suits for some of the most respected men in the country, and he was also a Holocaust survivor and an immigrant. They touched on the fact that he learned how to speak English primarily by listening to the radio.
I remember watching that part of the story once and asking my Dad, “how did Nagyi learn English?” Nagyi was my grandmother. And, according to my dad, she learned from the radio too.
My grandparents’ story sometimes reminds me of that old cliché about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; everything my grandfather had do to, Nagyi had to do backwards, in heels, whilst raising four sons and cooking dinner. It feels like telling her story too often involves the word also. She also worked hard at her own business. She also struggled with the trials of being an immigrant. She also picked herself up and moved from country to country after the war.
As a young girl, she lost nearly all of the family she had ever known. By the time the war ended, Nagyi was fifteen. Of her family in the town of Balassagyarmat, in northern Hungary, which stretched to around a hundred people, only three survived. Nagyi, her mother, and her brother. The story my family often tells of the Holocaust is that of my grandfather, nursing a broken arm in secret in a concentration camp, trading sewing jobs for favours, eating the grass to the roots to survive – as we should. But the world that Nagyi grew up in also disappeared when she was too young. She also lost nearly everyone she held dear. She also survived.
The feminist in me is probably too attached to this idea that we overlooked Nagyi’s story, that we valued my grandfather’s story in a way that we never did hers. It’s most certainly not that simple. I think we mythologised Popi in a way that we never did to Nagyi. We treated Popi as though he was a larger than life figure, in no small part because that’s exactly what he was.
Nagyi was the one I told stories to. With Popi I smiled wide, played up my wit, let myself laugh just that little bit too hard. Every time we saw each other, Nagyi would ask me, “Joshy, how is school?” The same inflection in the words, the same cadence. And something about it put me at ease. Something about her put me at ease. Eating Friday night dinner at her house, there was a sense that she had put care into ensuring that there was always something on the table that I would enjoy. (This was probably in no small part because I was a fussy eater, and so a point had to be made that there was something specific that was intended expressly for my consumption.)
Or perhaps I’m desperately seeking a frame to remember her by. We’ve had a few deaths in the family recently, and after each one, I sat down to either write some kind of speech, or eulogy, even a poem or two. Something that captured the essence of not just the loved one I lost, but the relationship that we shared. I’ve tended to linger more on personal anecdotes than big existential questions. This time it seems that finding those anecdotes is harder than usual.
Nagyi began to develop dementia six years ago. In that time, I slowly lost another person that I loved. This time was different. There were smaller losses along the road to today. I lost the feeling of seeing her in the home she and Popi built, the world they created together, when they had to move somewhere with care facilities. I lost the fond way that the two of them bickered, when she became a widow. I lost the feeling of communicating with her, as English slipped from her grasp – and then sentences, the thread of conversation entirely. I lost our Friday night dinners, and then our Sunday night dinners. I lost her. Somewhere along the way, there was a moment like all the other moments I’ve had, where there was enough to remember to set it all down. But in amongst hoping beyond hope that we could settle into a status quo where she was lucid, finishing high school, starting university, and losing so many other relatives, I forgot to notice it.
I lost my grandmother. My grandmother died. For me, the two are not the same. I can tell you the exact moment that my grandmother died, but it was a long time ago that I lost my grandmother, and I could not point to exactly when. It is a curious feeling to know that you are now supposed to miss a person you have already missed for years.
It could be that this is the source of my confusion. It could be that this is why I feel like we forgot to tell Nagyi’s story; because I forgot to make note of when it ended, forgot to give it definition. It could also be that we made Popi’s story so mythic that Nagyi’s was relegated to the sidelines, the alsos. Something tells me that it’s a little of both.
Whatever the case, my Nagyi was elegant, loving, wise, beautiful, stubborn, tenacious, gentle, giving, cried at the drop of a hat, and laughed like there was nothing she would rather be doing. And whilst as a girl she lost almost all of the family she had known, as a young woman she built a family – by blood and by the steadfastness of her friendship – that is just as loud, loving and hardworking as she was. She leaves behind not just four sons, not just nine grandchildren, but also four great-grandchildren.
Our story is sometimes the life that we lead. Our story is sometimes the world that we helped build. My Nagyi’s is both. I am proud to be a line in that story.