“Mother, did it need to be so high?”

personal essay

Joe Váradi 🇭🇺

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artist: Raphael Soyer — “The Artist’s Parents” (1932)

Outside was summer.

Musical notes hung in the air.

Our eyes darted around, from the plastic covering stretched across the kitchen table, to the wallpaper, to the coffee percolator on the stovetop, to a basket of home-baked biscuits, then back, occasionally meeting another set of eyes, another blank stare.

The arc of the song’s narrative slowly took shape, line by haunting line, amid the strumming acoustic guitar and the reed organ’s sustained notes.

We were guests, in this sleepy provincial capital town which we had called home several years before. Visitors, now — from overseas, no less — the streets, the sounds, the smells were all familiar to us. But we were playing catchup, on the lives that continued in our absence, on the events that had unfolded.

The family hosting us were friends of my parents. I was in my early teenage years, my sister not quite yet. They had two older boys. One of them, the younger one, sat at the table with us.

They were all morose.

I turned my attention to the repetitive clang of metal on metal and the hissing noise of spinning pulleys, emanating from the backyard of their modest suburban home. A neighbor had come by to use their impressive assortment of weightlifting equipment, which otherwise lay unused.

I cradled my glass of apricot nectar, and my thoughts wandered. Past the wooden fence enclosing the backyard. Beyond the huddle of six- and eight-story prefabricated buildings of a nearby Socialist-era housing bloc. Over the wide boulevard that formed a ring — perhaps five kilometers in circumference — around the inner core of the town Nyíregyháza.

Inside that ring were the birthplaces of some of my earliest memories. My first pre-school. My first elementary school. The park where I learned to ride my bike. The bus stop where I took my first bus ride on my own, to get to swim practice after school, while both my parents were still at work.

At one point, the mother got up.

She loaded the CD player, selected the track, hit Play, and took her seat back at the table.

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Joe Váradi 🇭🇺

Editor of No Crime in Rhymin' | Award-Winning Translator | ..."come for the sarcasm, stay for my soft side"