Love is What You Make
Circa 1930s, a love story begins with a shy little girl who went to a local dance in a blue dress. Her mother thought she was too young to go but she insisted—a rare thing for her. She was so excited about the dress. Her father, a respected businessman in their hometown of Budapest, travelled a lot and brought it back for her one day. Her mother disapproved: it was shiny and elaborate, and where was Elsbeth going to wear it?
As my grandmother describes it to me in her broken English and rundown by early stages of Alzheimers, she did her hair “just so” (she beams as she touches her now thin grey hair), and went to the dance. She met a boy. She was too young to go on dates, so he would come over and bring books for her to read. They would talk about literature and small things, sitting on benches in the garden.
The sun is always shining in my grandmother’s youth. This is how I see it. These long, languid days, in the telling of the story, stretch into long moments, weeks into months. A relationship without word of a kiss, but with every promise of a future.
There was talk of marriage in living room chambers. My grandmother was the second oldest of three daughters. The eldest, Ergi (of the faded, soft-focused portrait I saw often on my grandmother’s wall), was married and had two baby daughters. One night news reached the family that Ergi was ill. And then, news of a terrible headache, Ergi was being taken to hospital. By morning, she was gone. Headaches one reads about in Victorian novels. The cancer of those times, unnamed, unknown.
According to custom, my grandmother was to marry Ergi’s husband but for her the priority was to care for the two baby girls (she still calls my elderly aunts ‘the children’ as she talks to me now). She didn’t want to marry, and neither did my grandfather, who loved his wife and was for a time inconsolable. My grandmother cared for the children while he suffered, and worked.
Her mournful reverie was either broken or contained when she saw her boyfriend soon after and told him that her future had been set, that without love, she would marry the father of her nieces.
The look in her eyes changes, becomes softer.
“I can still remember that blue dress …” my grandmother says.
“Bubby, what about your boyfriend? What happened to him?” He had left town, and they never saw each other again.
I’m almost afraid to ask. This whole story is new to me.
“Did you ever fall in love with Zayde?”
She looks surprised.
“Of course I did. He was a beautiful man, such a good man. We made your father together.”
“Love … “ She struggles with her words. “Love is big … it is what you make.”
* Note: This piece was first published on CBC’s Canada Writes website, as part of its Valentine’s week series, on February 13, 2014.