My Third Birthday
THE SEARCHLIGHTS were like white lines being drawn on the cloudy evening sky. They moved back and forth, crossing, uncrossing, and crisscrossing again. People around me had their faces turned up to the sky, their eyes anxiously following the motion of the white lines. My mother said that they were practicing looking for planes.
I paid no attention to them. I was taking my new car out for its first drive.
My car was a tiny version of a real sports car. I could sit in it and drive it around by pushing up and down on foot pedals and steering with a real steering wheel. It looked exactly like my uncle Jozsi's sports car, except that his was white and mine was red. Red was a lot more fun.
Jozsi and I had taken our sports cars to a promenade on the banks of the Danube River. I drove my car up and down, weaving between the legs of the people out for a stroll. It seemed more crowded than usual. Jozsi kept encouraging me to go faster and faster, then ran after me to keep me from bumping into people. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes he didn't. But people didn't seem to mind. They barely paid any attention to me. They were mesmerized by those white lines in the sky.
My parents had come along, too. We often walked along the promenade on summer evenings. It was a popular thing to do in Budapest. Summer was over, but it was a warm evening, so I wasn't surprised that we were celebrating my birthday by the Danube. I was now three. It was September 2, 1939.
My parents had moved to Budapest the year before. My father, George Grof, whom everyone called by his nickname, Gyurka, was a partner in a medium-size dairy business that he owned jointly with several friends. They bought raw milk from the farmers in the area, processed the milk into cottage cheese, yogurt, and especially butter (they were particularly proud of the quality of their butter), and sold the dairy products to stores in Budapest. My father was a pragmatic, down-to-earth businessman, energetic and quick. He knew how life worked.
My father had dropped out of school at age eleven. My mother, Maria, had finished gymnasium, the Hungarian equivalent of a college preparatory academy. It was an unusual accomplishment for a woman at that time and even more unusual for a Jewish woman. Her heart had been set on becoming a concert pianist, but because she was a Jew she was not admitted to the music academy. Instead, she went to work in her parents' small grocery store. That's how she met my father.
The dairy business was located in Bacsalmas, a small town about one hundred miles south of Budapest, near the Yugoslav border. My father often traveled to Budapest to call on customers, the butter, milk, and cottage cheese distributors.
One day, my father called on my mother's parents' store to peddle his dairy products. He introduced himself to my mother. When they were done with their business, they stood in the doorway and talked until it was time for my mother to close up shop. Then they went for a walk through the streets of Budapest and talked and talked and talked some more.
They were different, but their differences complemented each other. My mother was cultured without being snobbish. My father was smart and energetic, with a quick sense of humor. My mother tended to be shy and reserved with strangers, but somehow she was not at all like that with my father. His energy and inquisitiveness brought out the best in her. They liked each other a lot.
The fact that my father was also Jewish helped further their relationship. It gave them a common background and a common understanding. Neither of my parents was religious. They didn't attend synagogue, and although most of their friends were Jewish, they didn't consider themselves to be part of the Jewish community. Aside from the religious affiliation that identified them on official documents, there was nothing to differentiate them from other Hungarians. When they met, my mother was twenty-five and my father was twenty-seven, an age at which a man was expected to have found a way to make a living good enough to support a family. They married a year later and moved to Bacsalmas. It was 1932.
Copyright © 2001 by Andrew S. Grove
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