My Remarks at the Memorial Service Held for My Father

photograph by the author

I made these remarks on the evening of Saturday, July 16, in Hungarian to relatives and close family friends in attendance. Below is the English translation.

I’d like to welcome all of you. Thank you for being part of this memorial gathering, to celebrate the life and memory of my Father, József Váradi.

A special thanks to my cousin Balázs Fiala, who helped to arrange the musical accompaniment. We chose songs that were either my Dad’s favorites, or ones that reminded us — me, my Mom, my sister Nora — of various periods of his life. Hence there are plenty of Hungarian and English songs, but also a few German and even French songs in the mix.

Thanks is due also to Aunt Nelli, Aunt Kati and Gizi for the lovely pastries that they prepared for us, and which we will be enjoying after the main course.

Let me begin by reciting a poem. Afterwards, I will tell you what the significance of this selection is. The title is Valse Triste, or “Sad Waltz”. It goes like this:

Valse Triste

Cool and decrepit, the evening.
Trembling and tattered, a weakling.
Songs of the harvest have faded.
Elders hide, ramshackle, jaded.

ㅤㅤTwo steeples rising from mist,
ㅤㅤchurch tower bells are aglist,
ㅤㅤevening skies to dark clouds yield,
ㅤㅤdownpours race across the field.
ㅤㅤSongs of the summer, faded,
ㅤㅤelders, huddled and jaded,
ㅤㅤcool is the shadow, the eve,
ㅤㅤbranches snap, without reprieve.

Joys of the heart, dispossessed.
Each summer, just like the rest.
Who knows how many years follow.
Memories frozen and hollow.

Strange vibrations run through the dell.
Autumn cowbells toll their last knell.
Frostbitten currants, still reeling.
Cool and decrepit, the evening.

~~~

These words were written by Sándor Weöres. Yes, the author of so many beloved children’s rhymes. This isn’t one of his more cheerful compositions. You will not find it on a classic Judit Halász children’s album. But I should mention, the Hungarian rock band Zaporozsec did do a bluesy cover, they did a great job, it’s worth a search and a listen.

Now … why did I choose these lines in particular.

I came across this poem in September of 2020. In the same month when we learned of my Father’s illness. In the same month when he was operated on, twice within the span of a few days.

During those days, I had no mind for literary topics, but when a friend pointed out Valse Triste to me, I was inspired to translate it to English. My Dad always encouraged me and followed with interest my hobby, the pursuit of penning poems and doing literary translations. In early October, when he read my translation, he took note of a few lines in particular, probably these:

ㅤㅤWho knows how many years follow / Memories frozen and hollow

And he made a brief comment, which is now preserved online for all posterity. He said simply:

ㅤㅤ”this …is like the current situation.”

To be sure, there were hardly any noticeable signs of change in him, yet. At that time, my Dad was as we all remember him — he had a quick wit, with broad general knowledge, he could engage you in conversation on virtually any topic. But he had started to notice changes in himself, and he brought this to our attention by complaining about intermittent lapses in his memory, and the irritation of forgetting a word here and there. I tried to lessen the tension with a joke, telling him: “Dad, you’re sixty-nine, and you have to search for a word here and there? Now you know what it’s like to be, like, an average person!” I recall he reacted with a faint smile.

~~~

Twenty Months

And this was followed by a drawn-out, twenty-month-long slow deterioration. Mainly in terms of mental capacity, and toward the end, physical. Looking back on that time now, it was his desire all along to not be a burden to anyone, especially for my Mom. He encouraged her, while he was able to fend for himself, that she should travel and visit her grandkids, in Switzerland, or in America — of course, my Mom never did, not during those twenty months. A long, merciless illness like this can leave its mark on a family, and cause extreme hardship in the lives of close relatives. But my dad was determined — with strong will, heroically — to do everything for himself, as long a she could. He did not expect others to dress him, to feed him, to bathe him …

During this time, there were hopeful moments, periods of apparent improvement, and there were low points.

This year, on April 3rd — nineteen months into his illness, and by this time not having much control of his hands, and his movements around the house limited to a slow shuffle — it was election day, so my Mom ordered a portable ballot box to our apartment, my Dad sat down at our dining table, and he filled out the ballot form, just as he intended. It took him a long time, but he did it. He probably knew, what the rest of us didn’t want to acknowledge yet, that he was very near the end.

He was unable to speak, by then.

On April 22nd — Earth Day — my Father passed away. His wish was not to be buried, but to be cremated. Earlier today, my Mom and I, accompanied by a circle of close relatives and two high-school friends, went out on the Danube River on a weather-beaten vessel, and we scattered his ashes on the water, in accordance with his wishes.

It wasn’t my Dad’s specific ask to be scattered on the Danube, but once we started brainstorming, it was a simple, natural decision for us. As is the case for most Hungarian families, numerous dear memories bound our family to the Danube.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

~~~

Memories on the Danube

My parents grew up on opposite sides of the Danube. My Mom, with her sister Zsuzsa, their mother and grandmother, one block west from the riverbank, on Szépvölgyi Road in District III. My Dad, with his parents and brother János, on Jászai Mari Square, East of the river in District XIII.

My Mom has joked that they could have passed each other on the street, or crossing Margaret Bridge, or while splashing around in Danube at a summer resort north of the city.

They first met at the language school on Rigó Street toward the end of their high school years, as both of them had won prestigious scholarships to study abroad, in two different cities in East Germany. Their relationship blossomed abroad, and after they moved back to Budapest, they got married, right here at City Hall on the opposite side of the square, in August of 1973. Afterwards, in the company of close family members, they crossed the bridge over the Danube, and celebrated at the Grand Hotel on Margaret Island.

August, 1973

In 1976, when I was born, they moved to an apartment in the town of Dunakeszi. My first personal memories are from these early years. I recall that my parents would put me in the high chair in the kitchen. Since we were on the seventh floor, through the windows facing west I could see the roofs of family houses, and a wide band of trees beyond that, with hills and mountains off in the distance. And someone explained to me (I think it was my slightly older friend who lived next door) that that band of trees was where the Danube ran, with the hills of Szentendre on the far side of the river.

I also recall that on weekends, we would walk down to the Danube — the walk was only a few hundred yards. We had a bright orange inflatable raft, which we’d inflate with a foot-operated pump, my Dad and I would get in, facing each other, and paddle along the shore of the river.

~~~

Nyíregyháza

I was four years old when we moved out east to the town of Nyíregyháza. Mom told me recently that this was one of the most trying periods of my Dad’s life. Not everyone was welcoming of a young man from the big capital city, named to be chief engineer of a large manufacturing facility in a provincial town. Often he would work through the night, to prove and establish himself. I didn’t take note of this as a four-year-old, but by the time I grew to be elementary school age, my parents had achieved a comfortable life and a supportive circle of friends.

On weekends, we no longer visited the Danube, but instead headed to the popular “Salt Lake” resort, and here we made use of the same orange inflatable raft. One time, my Dad and I paddled away from the swimming area, to the far side of the lake bound by thick reeds and tall grass. In a careless moment, one of the oars slipped from my hands and quickly submerged. My Dad carefully got out of the raft, and lowered himself into the water. He told me to move to the center of the raft, placed the remaining oar inside the raft, and ducked under the water.

I suddenly looked around and felt like a castaway, adrift in the middle of the ocean. Terrifying thoughts entered my mind — what if my Dad gets caught among the reeds at the bottom of the lake? Or what if his feet get trapped in the mud? Or what if a water snake comes along and bites him? I was seven or eight at the time, quite squeamish about nature and wildlife.

It seemed like forever that he was down there — in reality it was probably 6–7 seconds, perhaps as much as 10. And finally he did burst forth from the water, grasping the recovered oar victoriously. To me he looked like some kind of amphibious superhero — Aquaman perhaps — equally at home on land and underwater. And I finally relaxed, realizing that we would survive this catastrophe.

~~~

Looking Ahead

It was soon after that my parents sat my sister and I down on our bed, on a sunny Spring afternoon, and told us about my Dad’s next assignment. That was the year 1985. In a year, we would be moving again, this time to America.

Many years passed. In 2003 the family gathered again by the Danube, to celebrate my and my wife Jenny’s wedding. My Dad gave a speech then, in Hungarian and again in English for the benefit of our Taiwanese relatives.

Fast forward again — last year it was the youngest generation, my niece Sophia, my nephew Adam, and my son Jozsef who spent a summer on the Danube, in rowing camp, where their Grandpa sometimes came out to pick them up.

And with this hopeful, forward-looking snapshot in time, I will wrap up my speech, I’ll mingle among you and hope to hear some of your cherished memories of my Dad.

Thanks for your attention.

that cover of Valse Triste as I mentioned above

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Joe Váradi

Joe Váradi

Editor of No Crime in Rhymin' and Language Lab | ..."come for the sarcasm, stay for my soft side"