Bio Note: As the American-born daughter of Hungarian immigrants, I could not speak English until I was five, but was extremely fortunate to live a bi-cultural life. We spoke Hungarian and celebrated holidays as Hungarians at home, but as soon as I left the house, I was an American child speaking English. I started writing poetry in junior high school, had my first poem published at 15, and recently had six poems in the Silver Birch Press, three in a couple of POET anthologies (England), and two poems in Muddy River Review among others. I also write fiction and had a short story on the distinctive list of Best American Short Stories and am currently on the final draft of a novel about immigrants in a Pennsylvania steel mill town from 1910 to 1920.
Looking like Bergman’s characters, they grieve for the body in the coffin. In the forties, it was a tradition among Hungarian villagers to take a mourning portrait with relatives and close friends gathered behind the open casket. I have one of Papa’s mother, my grandmother Catherine, and relatives I never met, trapped in Transylvania, given to Romania after World War 1. I wrote her a letter every month translated for her by my parents. She would reply in Hungarian, thanking me for my letter, but she never got to rock me in her arms or kiss my cheek. When grandmother was seventy-six, a sepia-toned mourning photo arrived. A black babushka covered her hair amidst the mountain of white lace draped over her and the coffin. My father’s sister Elizabeth, all in black, and brother John, who most resembled Papa, sat in the front row, the only two left at home. John wore a suit that looked familiar and was the only male wearing a tie. I remembered all the boxes of used clothing hiding paper money Mama sewed into the thick linings, because they easily got through the stringent customs of Romania. I never met anyone in the photo but scoured all the faces for any resemblance to me. I found none in the expressions drooping with grief. Papa said I looked like his mother. Many, many years later, Papa died suddenly of a massive heart attack. I wrote to tell relatives in Transylvania, the ones who might still be alive, and now spoke only Romanian. They hired an interpreter to write to me and ask why I sent no mourning portrait. I wrote back, finding it hard to explain that we take no such photos in America, preferring to remember the dead as they lived. I never heard from my relatives again, making me feel as if I had robbed them of their due. Seventy years later, I stare at the aging photo of my grandmother and relatives I never met, and mourn the loss of my Hungarian family.
©2022 Margaret Duda
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