Nonfiction by Deborah McBride
The Memoirs of Every Woman Who Came Before Me
My earliest known relative on my father’s side was a man named George Pearson. George distinguished himself in business. I know this because since I was born (and before I was born) there was and is a clock in the hallway that no longer works, with a plaque on it that reads “In recognition of George Pearson For Distinguishing Himself In Business.” I am not sure what kind of business George distinguished himself in, and why or who gave him a clock as recognition. I have been told, point blank, that I will not inherit this clock. It will go to my brother, the first-born boy. It is his inheritance, as it was my father’s inheritance, and his father’s and perhaps his father’s father’s. Although I’m not sure—maybe his father’s father was the same George who distinguished himself in business? I once saw a photo of this George. He had a broad bald grey head and was standing next to a woman named Clara (my great grandmother) who looked like she could have been a friend of mine. Clara was clearly much younger than George. I felt sorry for her, but also not because without this inter-generational marriage I never would have been born to see the clock. Clara wore little glasses. She looked like a librarian. She was the kind of woman who would have had a crush on the milkman (if they had milkmen at the time) and I suspect the milkman would have shyly reciprocated. She looked like the kind of woman who never would have won or even started an argument. A friend who I would tell to stand-up for herself a little bit more often. She looked like she was smarter than George. Although I suppose that could have just been the glasses.
Zsuzanna was a florist. I’m not sure how she met her husband and I’m not sure what his name was. Something like Bukoli? I’m also not sure what he did for a living. But I know that they had a horrible divorce and that he got remarried and that Zsuzanna would never visit her daughter if her ex-husband was also visiting.
When Zsuzanna met her husband (before they got divorced. Maybe he was also a florist?) she was around 19. She was very aware of how men and boys noticed her and she was hungry for their attention, without quite knowing why. She was a great beauty. She’d sit in the mirror and comb her black or blonde or red hair, and she would look into her own blue or brown or hazel eyes, and she would imagine what kind of man she might marry. Perhaps it was a surprise—or maybe no surprise—when she married the Mr. Bukoli of unknown lineage. Descended from some Romanian royalty somewhere along the way maybe—it wasn’t a common name in Budapest. They were both good with money, and it hurt her feelings when he began sleeping around. She had a brief affair to get back at him, but it was ultimately unsatisfying. Then after she and the Bukoli man divorced, she began to resent her two children, the boy and the girl. There might have been another boy. I just don’t know.
But what of Zsuzanna? She was hit by a trolley while running across the road. By then she was an old woman who was still selling flowers, a kerchief tied around her hair. Someone laughed when they told me the story, though I didn’t see just how it was funny.
3) Auntie Alice
This part is hazy. I think it’s to do with a woman who lived in Bristol who ran away with a sailor. I don’t know who her father was, but I know that she left her children (whose father was dead, perhaps? Or disappeared? Or never existed? Either way his last name was Davies). Her children were raised by the eldest of the siblings, the oldest daughter was named Alice. My father called her Auntie Alice. But I don’t know how many children there were, and until recently I thought everyone was Welsh. The woman from Bristol didn’t meet her children again until years later, and by then she was also meeting her grandchildren. They all agreed that she and the sailor were a disgrace, “ A low sort,” my father said.
The man’s last name was Krolling and his wife’s last name was Bukoli. He was German and she was Austrian and I believe they lived in Vienna. They had a daughter named Ana. I’m not sure if they had any other children.
Mr Krolling refused to speak to Ana after she got married and moved to Budapest with the man he called “the kike.” Once his wife said she was going to visit her sister in Germany. When she returned, he knew she had really gone to visit Ana and her kike. He could tell she had been to see them because she was more tired than usual, even after a long trip, and there were sweetie wrappers in her bag. He knew she had spent several days in Budapest with their daughter’s small, half Jewish children. He turned his back on them and he was surprised at how easy it was to forget all about those people. He was surprised at how far he was from even curious. Politics can be like an eraser that will wipe out your own daughter.
It was only this year that I learned this man was my great grandfather. He never met his grandchildren or any of their descendants. For him they did not exist.
5) The Daughter or My Great Aunt
The girl’s name we do not know. Here’s what we do know: That one day, let’s say around 1930, the 17-year old girl, feeling vulnerable maybe as a result of the pretty-much-unheard-of-divorce between her parents (after her father was caught sleeping around and her mother had a brief but unsatisfying affair). She was aware of how men and boys noticed her, hungry for their attention, but didn’t quite knowing why. This girl loved to sing and dance, and she wanted to be a singer and a dancer. Let’s say she was walking in their apartment building singing to herself when she passed a handsome young man in the hallway. He was dark featured, tall with poet’s eyes, and when he smiled at her, she felt something more than hunger: It was a kind of certainty—as certain as clay by the side of a river—and it swept over her heart and said yes yes yes yes yes. This.
We do not know how far this went, but we do know that she and the boy (who she may have met in the hallway?) fell in love. And based on the time period, which was around 1930, we can only assume this was not a safe or opportune time to fall in love with a Jewish boy in Hungary. So we can assume that she knew it wouldn’t be easy, but that perhaps she felt a wonderful hope. She would tell her mother and her father and this—This Could Be Her Life. We can assume she may have walked down a hallway in her own home, and that she may have decided to tell her mother first, her father and his new wife she would tell later. We can assume that the 17-year-old girl sat anxiously across the dining room table, explaining, and expecting her mother to understand. That maybe she felt her mother understood love, because her father had so clearly broken her mother’s heart. We may also assume that the daughter was not expecting for her divorced mother and father to have their first ever conversation after the divorce, and for that conversation to be about their 17-year-old daughter. And the girl was certainly not expecting her parents to meet and agree that under no circumstance was their daughter to marry this Jewish boy in 1930. This handshake (which conspired against their daughter’s happiness) was the the first time they touched since the very last and very traumatic time they had touched five years ago before he disappeared down the hallway carrying all his bags and kicking a wall with the side of his foot.
The daughter would have not thought that her mother and father would go even further than forbidding the marriage. That they would secure insurance against it. By putting word out about their eligible young daughter of marrying age and by finding a wealthy old man who owned a restaurant where the girl and her mother sometimes ate—the mother who was once a great beauty, her daughter whom he’d always admired, even before she was old enough for that to be the done thing. The girl could not have known that her mother, a florist, always good with money, would accept a small dowry from this older man in return for a promise that her 17-year-old daughter, who had recently taken on the still and sudden calm of a hope that comes with a certain love—would be given away as a wife to an old man whom she barely knew or recognized.
We do not know:
What their wedding was like.
If she cried.
How her parents got her to do it.
If the boy stood outside of the church where he never felt welcome and tried to imagine what horrible betrayal was happening inside.
What happened to this same Jewish boy in Hungary after 1930.
If she stayed in touch with him.
If she wondered.
If she felt relief or guilt or sadness in 1938 when she saw his sister wearing a yellow piece of fabric shaped like a star pinned to her sleeve.
What we do know is that the 17-year-old married girl who once dreamed of being a dancer and a singer began to drink and sing and dance on the tables of the restaurant her rich old husband owned. We know that by 1944 over 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported by freight train and only 15,000 of those were not sent to Auschwitz. We know that the arranged marriage between the girl and the old restaurateur did not last long. And we know (I think) that the girl died of cancer around the age of 40 with no children. And that she deeply resented her brother (my grandfather, the actor) who, after the war was over married a girl (my grandmother) that everybody could tell was trying to hide the fact that she used to be Jewish. We know this much of my great aunt, whose name I do not know.
6) The Woman on The Train
There was once this woman I met on the train. I think I was around 19-years-old, and taking the train from Cambridge to London, or maybe from Polegate to London. Back then I was still very much the Canadian traveller on an extended holiday, and thought that public transportation in a foreign country was like an orchestra full of interesting accents with whom I could strike up a conversation like a violinist picking up a bow. I can’t quite remember how I got into conversation with the older woman sitting across from me, but I did, and I can’t quite remember what she looked like. I remember thinking she could have been pretty when she was younger. And I remember her mentioning at some point, in that blue 1980s style train carriage crammed full of people, that she was from the north. And then Morpeth came up. She was from Morpeth. Which was when I got excited because somehow I had learned that she was the same age as my dad. So I said, “Did you ever run into an Alan Stevenson or maybe his brother, David Stevenson when you were in Morpeth?” I’ve probably retrospectively invented the look on her face when I said these names, but I do know she said no, she never met either of them. I remember I kept going. “Alan Stevenson is my father,” I said. “He grew up in Morpeth too. He went to this very pretty grammar school there. He said it’s been torn down now. It’s a parking lot now.” The woman looked out the window. Her face was ashen. “You don’t even know his brother?” I asked. “David Stevenson? I think he went to the same grammar school?
“No.” She said.
“But it’s such a small place? I said.”
“Yes, it’s a very small place.”
“How many schools were there in Morpeth back then?”
“Only two,” she said. One for the boys and one for the girls. But I don’t know either of those men.”
She kept looking out the window and it was made very clear to me that our conversation was over. I asked my uncle about it from a payphone later and he said, “I don’t know what your father was up to, Debbie.” I picture this 68-year-old woman with short dark grey hair, looking out the train window, a persistent young Canadian girl wanting to find the connection.
“I don’t know him.”
And for some reason, eleven years later, I still feel somehow sure that she was lying. Or maybe I just hope she was lying. I’m not sure why I would hope that.
7) My Grandmother
He is a tall question mark. What is written on his Wikipedia page, what I try to find by sifting through Google translate, are the tiny film clips. He dances like a jumping bean, trying to woo some woman while a man in another shot plays the clarinet. Imre has a silly face. You might call it a mug. He looks like he could fall over in a strong wind. He moves awkwardly. He reminds me of myself, though I’m not sure why.
It is 1956 and something in him decides to take the leap to leave his career as an actor and to come to Canada with his wife, to leave Hungary where he is so close to famous he can taste it, to try and learn English, to try and do it all again somewhere incredibly foreign. But people didn’t move around a lot back then. Everything he knew of English he’d learned from when they used to get the American movies.
He brings home a convict from the bar once to meet his children. He often comes home drunk. His wife is furious, and can’t yet complain. It was the 50s then. You’ve seen Madmen. The men are always coming home drunk. The women are always holding it all together. It was the era of men behaving badly, although it sounds sometimes like he was behaving slightly worse than most. I don’t know how, or why I have a picture in my mind of my grandmother in her 40s buying groceries, the grocery store clerk asking her about some gossip about my grandfather and my grandmother leaving, walking out, upset. He was a hopeful man with a playful heart. And he knew what it was like to love something.
He knew what it was like to make a room of people laugh.
Always and still the question mark. Representing a fictional character, playing out a story, even to his grandchildren. He deserves better than this, and we’ll get there. But not for now.
8) Ana (Again)
Across a card table their eyes met. Shuffling. The room has a couple of prints, and everyone’s cup of tea has scales. He knows it’s not conventional, per se, to socialize with him, but he’s not a conventional person. This man he has taken to inviting over is one of the brightest students at his medical school, and he sees their blossoming friendship as his own quiet revolt against the way people have begun talking in Vienna. He invites his pretty cousin Ana as an extra draw. He feels proud and charitable about his friendship with this young Jewish student.
Ana is an incredibly good card player. It is a knack and comes to her early. The moment she learns the rules of the game she is winning. She and her cousin’s guest bet minimal amounts of money against each other in that parlour—sometimes only biscuits. But she and the blonde boy with the huge blue eyes are always specifically targeting each other. He likes how tall she is. Beneath the table she once put her foot against his. It was accidental, but this is what started everything. He knew she wasn’t Jewish, but some part of him didn’t care.
An accidental touch of the foot, and they had already ruined everything: Her relationship with her family; even with the same cousin who invited Wilhelm over for cards; Wilhelm’s Judaic line. Nothing would continue as it had been. Of course very little would continue, as it had been anywhere anyway. But they didn’t know that. Neither of them cared who they fell in love with. The touch of the foot was accidental, yet it created everything.
9) My Mother
It was my sixteenth birthday and we were in the car. She was driving to the bank. I’d come along to keep her company. I will always associate this memory with the parking lot of that bank –where the other cars were legally and illegally parked (at the back of the lot, next to a wooden fence) – sitting in the driver’s seat while she was inside because she could not technically park there. How I couldn’t drive, and would ready myself to pretend I knew how, if a security guard asked me to move. How my mother would rush in and out of the bank, like running in and out of the bathroom at a drive through, always coming back to the car slightly out of breath, somewhat thrilled, as though she’d just gotten away with something.
In the car, on the way to the bank, she told me that she and my father argued about whether or not tell me what she wanted to tell me. She told me that what she wanted to tell me was something I needed to be old enough to handle. My mother would often build up information I wasn’t sure I wanted with similar pre-amble. I would always feel curious and wary – an impulse to walk towards her while turning away. She said that she wanted to tell me because she felt it was important that I knew. She felt it was important that I knew that, since I’d been born, she’d always felt she knew that the world had conspired to get me here.
She said that the night they’d conceived me she and my father had had a bit too much to drink. They already had a six year old son and were happy with just one child, but for that night only, one of them had suggested they try for another. As soon as they woke up, they realised that they did not want another child – that this had been the alcohol and the moment and the impulse, nothing more. They hoped that nothing would come of it.
She was driving again, and I remember the homes in Forest Hill, looking out the window at those beautiful homes – their faux Tudor exteriors, their manicured lawns.
They were at a friend’s cottage when they found out my mom was pregnant. They booked a doctor’s appointment to drive into the city, to terminate it. They argued and cried and my mother told me she prayed for a sign. (I imagine her by a lake. I imagine her alone in a room.) As they drove to the doctor’s, on the roads of rural Ontario, she told me that she got the sign she was looking for –a series of signs I’d rather not go into here – they came to her all at once on that drive through rural Ontario, and she decided not to do it. She said she’d felt it was important I knew about those signs, because for her she had always felt like the world pulled out all the stops to get me here, and for that reason my existence felt particularly special to her.
In the car, on the way to the bank, on the way back from the bank, looking out the window at the wealthy homes of Forest Hill. The parking lot, forever etched into my mind.
Years later, my mom and I were in Prague and had both had a few drinks. We began talking about the abortion I had as a young woman. How vital that was to me, to my well being, to my future life. We talked about the abortion my grandmother had had, the abortions my great aunt had had, how they saw these as such minor and pragmatic occurrences in their lives. I then asked my mom about her decision to have me. She looked reflective for a moment, shifting her body on the couch where she was lounging, softened by the wine. She said that if I had never have been born, she would have missed out on so much, but that she would not have even known what she was missing out on. That was what was scary, she said. She would not have even known what she was missing out on.
There was something terrifyingly philosophical in her tone. In that moment I realised that my entire existence was part of a path, a decision. First an impulse, then a moment and finally a choice. A choice which was not set. My mother’s life plan seemed huge, wonderful and incomprehensible. It stretched out in front of me like a constellation of stars. Her choice seemed like the most powerful and quietly cataclysmic element in the world. That little prayer for a sign at that cottage in the 1980s(a prayer to God, to the world, to herself) – it was a whisper that would resonate through my entire life, and that contained my everything.
10) Charlotte Rampling
I don’t even want to write this bit. I had to stop watching The Night Porter last night. Well it wasn’t my decision to stop watching. I was watching with two friends, and once they got to the bit where the Nazi officer seems like he is going to (consensually? It’s so hard to tell back then) rape Charlotte Ramping as a young woman, they just said it was time to stop watching. And I agreed, although I also felt like if I’d watched that film with any men in the room I would have sat through the whole thing. I would have shrugged desensitised eyes onto my shoulder like a blanket round my shoulders, and kept watching, because it’s a very good movie.
I don’t want to write this. But I will write it. The thing that was difficult for me was the thought: My grandmother was around the same age as Charlotte Ramping in 1939. My grandmother who had the nose job after the war that I only know about because my great aunt told my mom who told me. My grandmother who gave a single spoon from a special set of silverware that she keeps to my brother and his wife when my nephew Eli was born—because Eli was born on the same day as her father Wilhelm died. My brother and his wife who didn’t understand why Nana was so careful and deliberate when she handed them the single spoon. Until I told them, “I think that spoon is from the silverware they used at Shabbat dinners.” And then we all went quiet and decided it was a good present.
My grandmother has so many interesting stories, but if you ask her about them she will go quiet. Like the time we asked her why she changed her last name after the war and she said, “I never wanted my children or my grandchildren to go through what I went through. You don’t know what I went through.”
I didn’t respond and she didn’t keep speaking. One of us said something eventually I guess. She said Canada was the best country in the world. She said that was why no matter what happened she could never live in Hungary again. When you’ve seen things like that somewhere you can never get them out of your head, she said.
We hold her trauma delicately and pass it from person to person, like the silver spoon.
Deborah McBride is choosing to use a (slight) pseudonym for this particular piece of writing as so many of these presumably true stories are not strictly hers to tell. She usually writes and performs experimental theatre, frequently if not exclusively using autobiographical material. She is based in London, UK.