On a Saturday afternoon Frank Máriás was
washing his car on the driveway beside the house. It was a warm, sunny
day in early October, the horse chestnuts lining the street on both
sides were turning fiery red while the northern side of the tree tops
assumed a vivid yellowish colour.
The street was deserted, except for the postman who drew a loud bark
from the neighborhood’s spirited dogs. Máriás was energetically rinsing
the large sponge in a blue pail. The soapy water ran in rivulets down on
the pavement forming small ponds of murky water at the edge of the curb,
where two blue jays were playfully fluttering about. Máriás took a
cursory glance at them, pushed the cap back on his protruding forehead
and continued with his work.
He had never paid much attention to his car before. To him it
represented an unnecessary preoccupation with private property. And
Frank Máriás was by conviction a sworn enemy of all private property. He
subscribed to the Munkás weekly, frequented the Hungarian Workers’
Lodge, and always felt somewhat guilty about his two mortgage-free
houses. He made it a matter of principle to neglect their care. Whenever
his wife, Elizabeth, started to nag him, asking him to make some
improvement on the hallway because the tenants complained, he would
answer in no uncertain terms as to where he wished the tenants should
go. And when she pleaded with him to put up a new eaves-trough, Máriás
would retort angrily: “You just shut up. There’s roof over your head,
bread on your table. That should keep you satisfied.”
Since last summer, however, his attitude to life and private property
had undergone a change in many respects. Ever since his visit to the old
country he had come to appreciate home ownership, notwithstanding his
faith in the labour movement.
The postman had now reached the driveway and was coming towards the
house. Máriás stepped forward, wiping his hands in his trousers. “Just
hand them over, Maestro,” he said to the postman. He had picked up this
Maestro appellation when he was still an apprentice at home in the
village cartwright shop.
He looked at his mail which at closer examination consisted of a
detergent ad, an official-looking envelope, and a letter from home. He
crumpled the detergent coupon and threw it alongside the wall. He then
opened the large envelope which came from the Wawanesa car insurance
company. He read through the tortuous legal text which seemed to inform
the policy holder that his annual premium had been reduced by five
dollars due to excellent record. “Not bad, not bad at all,” Máriás
mumbled, slipping the folded sheet of paper into his shirt pocket. Then
he reached for the air mail envelope that came from Jani, his younger
brother, opened it and began reading the letter.
He skimmed through the quaint opening lines quickly as they had always
been the same for the last thirty odd years: “With greetings of love to
you, Dear Feri and Erzsike. We sincerely hope this letter will find you
in the best of health, just as we have been lately…” Turning to the
second page he followed more intently the handwriting that revealed a
trembling hand. The thoughts were here less clearly expressed, some of
the sentences were left unfinished. The letter rambled on to say how
grateful they were to have lived to see the day of his homecoming. Since
his visit not a day passed, not an hour spent without his name being
mentioned in gratitude. What a pity that the time he spent among them
was so short. Of course Ferenc had not come just to sit around with
plain folks, but to see the country… As to what the village folks are
saying he should not care a farthing. People are always prone to gossip
anyway, although, we can see it now, they completely misunderstood you,
dear brother. Which is no wonder, some of them are as green in the
affairs of the world as a new born babe. It’s not that all this village
talk caused the slightest concern to us, the letter went on to say, but
we all know how fast bad news spreads, and it would be better to put a
stop to all this nonsense, before things got any worse…
“Well, they must be out of their minds,” Máriás said as he finished
reading the letter.
He looked up at the window to see whether Elizabeth was watching him.
Then he proceeded to read the letter again, this time with even greater
care, finding it difficult to believe that those lines had actually been
written to him by his brother. The meaning of Jani’s letter, however,
remained the same after the second reading; it seemed he had made a
pretty bad name for himself during his stay back home. He felt as if he
had been slapped on his face. Mind you, he sensed it all along that his
visit had not entirely enraptured people, but this wolfish image he felt
he did not deserve. That’s true, he gave them a scolding at times but he
had done it so out of love for his own kind.
He recalled the first week at home. It all appeared to him now as a
beautiful dream. He roamed the country with enthusiasm, wanting to
absorb everything at once. He wanted to see all those wonderful things
that had taken place at home, all the progress he had read so much about
on the pages of the Munkás. He toured the factories and agricultural
cooperatives from the cities of Szentgotthárd to Zajta, through
Mezőhegyes and Hegyeshalom. He talked to workers at the plants, asked
questions with youthful curiosity, gave fatherly advice with zest.
People were fascinated by this lean and forceful man. His Nyírség
dialect that he spoke after thirty years was somewhat tainted with a
foreign accent. He was accompanied by officials from Budapest and driven
around in the Kossuth Radio’s car. He was made guest of honour in plant
cafeterias, his hosts indignantly protesting when he reached for his
valet to pay for his meals. To make it short, the entire visit was
simply fantastic; the neon lit capital city, the prospering
cooperatives, the magnificent SZOT resort, the Tisza hydro plant, the
fish ponds of the Hortobágy…
Upon his arrival at the Budapest Airport he was received by a reporter,
István Fazekas, representing the Kossuth Radio. The Editor-in-Chief of
the Munkás had notified the authorities in Hungary of his coming. The
bespectacled young man was urging him to say a few words for the
listeners of the Radio. Máriás had anticipated such eventuality and in
secret he prepared a moving speech. But now with a shiny microphone
under his nose he got stage fright and forgot all the carefully selected
words and phrases. Pushing the microphone aside with a joke he patted
the reporter on the back, saying: “You didn’t think I could come up with
a speech just like that, did you?”
Young Fazekas encouraged him. “Tell us something about yourself. How do
you live in Canada.”
“How do we live? Well, what do you think? We’re toiling like slaves,
naturally. And we are badly exploited at that.”
The reporter interjected: “Tell us what you are doing for a living?”
“I’m a grave digger,” answered Máriás jokingly. “I’m, with my dear
comrades, digging the grave of imperialism, ha-ha-ha.” He was the only
one to laugh at that.
And then the reception he was given at his own village! Half of the
town’s population was out at the railway station, with all the fanfare
appropriate for a great occasion.
“O Feri, how we have lived to see this day,” cried Esther, his younger
sister, throwing her arms around his neck and sobbing on his shoulder.
All his old pals were there, but the younger generation in school
uniform with red ties was also represented. He was embraced, kissed and
patted. With a hundred hands he could not have reciprocated the embraces
and handshakes that reached towards him. Surrounded by such an admiring
crowd Máriás marched down on the high street like a minister of foreign
affaires on a state mission.
And now he is the object of gossip and ill will.
Juliska, his daughter appeared now comming home after her piano lesson,
with books and loose-leaf notes stacked under her arms. Juliska was a
long-legged high-school student. In English her name was pronounced
Judy, although she could have been called by any other name because she
had never been baptized. Her father decided to enroll her in a separate
school, along with students of Arab, Indian and Jewish origin, in order
not to expose her to compulsory religious education. His wife
incessantly yammered about christening the child and sending her to a
regular school, fearing the disapproval of their fellow countrymen and
their staying away from the Máriás household. “They can all go to hell,”
her husband would snarl at her.
Before Juliska had turned onto the driveway Máriás put the letter into
“Hi. You’ll catch cold, standing in shirtsleeves on this drafty
driveway, Daddy,” she said, kissing her father on the cheek. Juliska was
an attractive girl, her long, stylish hair half covered her intelligent
“Guess what the teacher told me today, Daddy.”
“That’s easy,” answered Máriás. “Do, re, me, fa so, la, ti, do”, running
it off with a well known humorous rhyme in Hungarian.
“O, you’re always joking with me,” she laughed.
Mrs. Máriás appeared on the porch. She would always wait until Juliska
was also around. Smiling at her daughter she turned to her husband.
“Have you finished yet, Frank?”
“Of course not. Can’t you see?”
“The teacher finished marking the papers and I got 86 percent on my
test” said Juliska with a curious mixture of English and Hungarian
words. “She also said that my application to the Conservatory has been
“That’s good,” said Máriás. “Has he mentioned anything about a
“I just might get that as well,” the girl said hopefully.
“That would be a great help,” sighed Mrs. Máriás. After a short pause
she asked her man: “Has the postman been around yet?”
Máriás showed her the letter from the insurance company. “That’s all we
got,” he lied. “And an unsolicited leaflet,” pointing at the crumpled
paper ball near the house.
“They don’t seem to write us very often from the old country,” she
“Of course not,” replied her husband. “They’re busy with tobacco
harvesting.” His reference to picking tobacco was made out of
self-mockery. Twenty years before Frank and Elizabeth had also got
involved in growing tobacco. At the time it was not yet the labour
movement that he was worried about, but rather striking it rich and
quick. They moved to the Rodney, Ontario, leased a large farm, bought
machinery and chemicals, hired farm hands, all this on loaned money. The
whole adventure turned out to be a failure. Ever since then Máriás had
been blaming not the hail storms, nor the early August frost that ruined
their crop but his wife.
Presently he got up, indicating he had nothing more to add to the
general conversation. The two women went inside, while he continued on
with his work. He poured clean water into the pail, added some Comet
detergent, and rinsed his car for the second time. He kept on rubbing
the chrome bumpers and door fixtures until they shone. He then wiped
clean the headlights, the door trims, finally the windows and the seats
* * * * *
The whole trouble started one afternoon in the Emke local in Budapest,
he remembered. That pale-blond waitress was the cause of all that
subsequently happened. Granted, the guy did pinch the lady in the
thighs, everybody could see that. But why make such a big fuss over it?
Why didn’t she avoid the table where the robust fellows were sitting?
Máriás had the suspicion that the blond was having fun teasing the guest
on purpose. She was walking up and down between the tables, swaying her
hips. But when the fellow reached after her skirt again she placed the
tray on an empty table, turned around and slapped him across the face
hard rather unceremoniously. “Bugger you good old auntie, you no good
Ivan,” she shrieked at him.
There followed a general commotion and rattling of chairs. The
headwaiter rushed in excitedly, gesticulating with his hands, mixing
Russian words with Hungarian, nyet, nyet pinching barishna… Please to
put on jacket, to button up shirt… This is a first-class place and not
the lowly Three Hussars.
Máriás was rather amused by the incident. He kept nodding in approval of
the way the spirited waitress had handled herself. When it turned out,
however, that the humiliated guest with the hairy arms was a Soviet
citizen, Máriás flared up. He jumped to his feet, turning the chair over
and fell upon the unsuspecting headwaiter.
“Hey Mister, what the hell do you think you’re doing? You must apologize
immediately to our gracious fraternal guest!” he shouted. He was
convinced that the customers would close ranks behind him in a minute
and rout this rude management.
The headwaiter stood there frowning at this boorish peasant who was
facing him defiantly like a cock on the fence with feathers bristled,
ready to jump. “You just better stay out of this, grand dad,” he sad
That did it! Máriás flared up. “You no good hoodlum, kivel beszélsz te
így? Do you know who I am?” In his agitation he mixed Hungarian with
English, threatening that majd ő megmutatja, “If that’s the last thing
I’ll ever do.” He threatened them by reporting the incident to the World
Federation of Hungarians and that he was rich enough to buy out the
goddam hotel minden pereputtyostul…
Whereupon two husky fellows took him by the arms and walked him to the
Upset and furious Máriás wanted to go to the World Federation of
Hungarians. On his way he changed his mind, walked down the busy
boulevard passing through a couple of red lights, until he reached the
Fazekas, the young reporter, shook his head more than once as he was
listening to the unfortunate incident. “It takes all kinds to make the
world,” he said, trying to comfort Máriás. “As for the general state of
public education, yes, there is still much to be desired. We must teach
people to be polite, to show consideration for others.”
“Knock it off, Comrade Fazekas, don’t give me that crap,” Máriás said
trembling with anger. What is this country coming to if after twenty
years you’re still preaching about the shortcomings of public
“Don’t go overboard on this incident, Uncle Feri,” the reporter tried to
calm him down. “Yes, it was rude the way the Soviet guest was treated.
But let’s face it, there are certain conventions which we should
“I’ve had enough of this, István” Máriás said waving his hand
impatiently. “I’m fed up with everything. I have come home to exchange
my views on class struggle; to give some advice along the lines of
industrial production. But nobody gives a damn.”
“Of course we do,” interjected Fazekas. “People do care. We’re
interested in what you have got to say.”
“Interested my foot! You were there at the Áron Gábor plant the other
day,” Máriás retorted. “The workers were listening all right while it
was still working hours. The moment it was quitting time, they all
dashed to wash up and change, swarming through the factory gates like an
army of heavy-booted, stooping lumpen-proletariats.”
Fazekas looked at Máriás pensively, with his hands folded. The reporter
wanted the older gentleman to realize that this struggle taking place
within him was an inevitable process. For decades he, and his kind in
Canada, had been living suspended, as it were, in a vacuum; their
homeland, where the building of socialism was underway, evolved in their
imaginations in terms of some theoretical illusions.
He got up, turned towards his companion and put his hand on Máriás’
shoulder. “Come on, Uncle Feri, let’s have a cup of coffee. After a good
night’s rest you’ll be as good as new. Tomorrow you’ll be the real Frank
Máriás again. In the morning I’ll be going to Nyíregyháza and we’ll drop
you off at your hometown. You have hardly spent any time with your
folks. Don’t forget, as the saying goes, one can discover the whole only
through its parts.
Máriás did not wait for the staff car. Early in the morning he took the
streetcar to the Western railway station, bought a ticket to Debrecen,
and went straight home to Nyírbéltek. He felt tired. Lying last night on
his bed in the hotel room, he recounted the events of the last two
weeks. The fast pace, the traveling to and fro, the constant visiting
totally exhausted him. He simply was not used to this kind of life. At
the Harvester factory where he worked as a mould-maker there were few
occasions for lengthy conversations. Besides, his English was limited,
and he could never quite free himself from a certain feeling of
inferiority which only grows in a strange land.
He got out of bed, looked out the window of the magnificent Gellért
Hotel. A myriad of lights reflected from the calm surface of the Danube.
Gazing at this enchanting city Budapest, Máriás felt lonely. His
thoughts traveled back to Toronto, to his family, to his two
mortgage-free houses and, above all, to the Workers’ Lodge. That’s where
his home was, that’s where he really belonged. Its members were people
sharing the same background, the same attitude to life. Yes, they were a
small island to themselves where time stood still for thirty-odd years
and where the paper Munkás provided the only line of communication with
the outside world. The Workers’ Lodge had in fact become the umbilical
cord that tied them to the old country. In the summer seasons they
organized picnics, boisterous parties at New Year’s eve when they joined
in to sing the Internationale at midnight. They felt like heroes in
their world of fantasy.
Next morning the railway car slowly heading homeward was thick with
smoke, crowded with bundled up women and greasy workers in their padded
overalls, the offspring of the new industrial revolution – the
commuters. The travelers were drifting in and out, huddling on the
platforms, playing cards, eating, drinking, and generally just
blustering. Máriás was getting some firsthand experience of real life,
as it really was. And life has many facets, as he began to discover. He
had realized only now the different shapes and forms and smells of life
can take. Up to now he had been fed the stock phrases concerning life.
In the old country, the Munkás went on to inform, Nature is forced to
change course… Workers and diligent peasants join hands in brotherly
unity to build socialism… Factories, mines, hydro plants were popping up
where there was nothing before. All this was true, as he had experienced
during his stay at home. But somehow he found this sweaty, plum-brandy
breathing commuter generation, this elemental force breaking up all
tradition, not so attractive and hard to reconcile with the simple
phrases that poured forth from the pages of Munkás. In Budapest he felt
disappointment at the sight of youngsters with their guitars, portable
radios and unkempt hair, young boys and girls, just like their Canadian
counterparts, only too happy to bury for good physical or any kind of
work. No small wonder he became so irritated after the first few days in
his native land. Jani and the villagers should try to understand that.
For how can socialism be built with such irresponsible reserves?
After his return to Jani’s from Budapest he fretted and fumed for a few
days. His relatives simply couldn’t understand what had got into him,
why was he nagging them. “Why don’t you fix that front gate?” he sad
giving them instructions. “Why can’t you build a decent backhouse?” He
was whimsical and hard to please.
After a few days of rest, though, he had completely recovered. So much
so that the following Sunday he even went to church with the rest of the
family. Not that he entertained any ideas of returning to the faith, he
was too advanced for that. He decided to go to appease the village
folks. He realized now that he had hurt their feelings; he was
unreceptive to their complaints.
As it had turned out, people came to welcome him, and expected him to
share their problems. They were complaining about the bad weather, the
summer draught, the hard life they had and in general, getting old. It
is much to the Hungarian character to exaggerate his troubles whether
real or imaginary. But Máriás felt he had not come to home just to
listen to people’s lamentations. If it came to talking about grievances
he could tell them a thing or two of his own that would surely silence
this whimpering and whining crowd. But he was a proud man, not much
given to complaining. Should he tell them about the great depression in
Canada that he had to live through? Or tell them about his crouching on
top of railway cars, picking up cigarette butts, visiting charity
kitchens, and spending one’s nights in deserted hay stacks? What
difference would it make? What good could be expected from a decadent,
imperialist society anyway? “Just stop wailing,” he would bawl at them
irritably. “You’ve never had it so good, not even in your mother’s
He couldn’t get it through his head that twenty years of patriotic
public education and honest to god propaganda had made so little
influence on their mentality.
In the church it all began well. People nodded at him in a friendly way.
They allowed him to pass through the door first. Somebody even directed
him to the first seat, right in front of the iconostasis.
Well, well, well…
In the good old days the landowner Elek Jaczko used to occupy that
carved wooden chair with an elongated back, sitting there stiff and
proud like a king in court. It never occurred to Máriás, not in his
wildest dreams, that one day this very chair would be offered to him.
Although such naďve conventions meant little to him, for a moment he
appeared satisfied with life, he was at peace with the world and with
himself. Taking a close look around in the little church he felt a
distinct pleasure at the calmness and seeming order that he saw around
him. He shuddered to think of the chaotic city life, the rushing, the
nerve-racking, light-minded way of life. Yes, sir, this is where his
heart was, in the village. He knew the ways, remembered the centuries
old traditions. Yet it went unnoticed by him that those very customs and
social conventions in which he grew up were on their way of dying out.
One only had to look around to realize that the young people who were
meant to carry on with the social order he was so familiar with were
noticeably absent from church gatherings.
Yet after the disappointments of the last few days he seemed to have
recovered his jealously guarded illusions that could retain their purity
only in his embroidered imagination. He joined in with the others in
When the theme of the sermon touched upon the relationship of state and
family, however, it was not to his liking at all. The priest should
stick to his own bloody business, he thought to himself. He became
fidgety and uncomfortable on his seat. “Nonsense,” he said in an
undertone. “He talks pure rubbish.” People looked at each other with
roused indignation. They were shocked not so much because Máriás had
assumed to know more than the minister about the relationship of state
and family, but because apparently he had not grown up yet. They
remembered of him as an arrogant jerk even as a teenage kid. Ever since
this incident in the church people avoided him ostentatiously, they
would not even want to talk to him.
From then on he spent his remaining few days in quiet resignation. He
helped Jani fix the garden gates, he would give a friendly pat on the
head to the children standing by, and if someone happened to come by the
house he tried to show sympathy to whatever was said. He praised
everything in the village, not forgetting to add that all that progress
was achieved by the collective efforts of the population. “Yes, sir,
Jani was telling me just the other day that the new railway station, the
community centre and even the football field were built by voluntary
labour.” He spoke in words of appreciation about Canada too, about his
two mortgage-free houses, and his four-door sedan with tail fins and V8
automatic transmission. “I’ll bring’er along next time I come,” he
promised. As he was convinced that he would come home for a visit again
soon. For living in isolation, surrounded by memories during that last
thirty odd years it was always like homecoming.
* * * * *
He finished polishing his car. He closed the Speedy-Rub kit, wiped his
hands in a dirty cloth, and sat down on the stairway. The stars were
beginning to light up one by one, as if to show the way for the
approaching night. How often he sat here with his friends, looking at
them with piercing eyes and repeatedly affirming the victory of the
working class. “It’s an historical fact, if there ever was one,” he told
And now he was sitting there dejected, staring into the void. For many
years he had been preparing for this visit, as if for a pilgrimage. He
felt he was one of the select few with a mission to fly home on a lovely
summer day, when a visit no longer entailed any risk, and to tell those
stubborn people that the system under which they lived was the best in
the world. Sure, there’re problems. There are encroachments,
commandeering and show trials. But there are also political
rehabilitations. My goodness gracious, how many times do we have to
bathe a child until he grows up into an adult. “It’s an historical fact,
if there ever was one!”
He intended to say something to this effect on his arrival at the
Budapest Airport. He regretted that he had made such a mess of it all.
He was too rude to people, he could see it now. He fired abruptly
instructions at them. He did all this for their benefit. But he was
misunderstood. He had never met Mátyás Rákosi. The old dictator had not
even bothered to answer his letter conveying him a happy and prosperous
birthday. And yet his old pals at home looked at him askance as if the
two of them had been bosom buddies. So what should he do next? Should he
just sit around idly and helplessly, while people have a field day with
He got up, started the car and drove it into the garage. It’s about time
he came to his senses, he thought. He should realize by now that the
regime he used to worship was a thing of the past. It existed now in
horror tales and prison anecdotes. One should find in life something
more enduring to believe in than dubious political systems. If one does
not try to detach oneself too far from life-giving earth, one will end
up with fewer disappointments.
Despite everything it was worthwhile to make that visit home.
Self-realization had come a bit late but it was welcome nonetheless.
Because one can discover the whole only through the parts, as young
Fazekas suggested it.
Suddenly he backed up his car and decided to go for a short ride. As he
turned in front of the house he sounded the horn twice, waving at his
wife, who was just then looking out through the window, wondering what’s
got into that stubborn man of hers.
(Translated from Hungarian by George Payerle
and Maxim Tabory)