All of this history,”my five-year-old sighs, “I am just not sure I believe it.”
“All of this history,” my five-year-old sighs, “I am just not sure I believe it.” We are standing on the walls of a medieval Hungarian castle on a rainy, gray day. The town has grown around the castle over the centuries and it looks very different from what I assume my son is expecting: dead Ottoman warriors on open fields, burned down walls, and scattered weapons and flags, all leftovers from the unexpected victory of a small Hungarian army against a vast Turkish force in 1552.
We climb steep stairs (new concrete) to the top of the tower (ancient rock), and follow our tour guide’s finger as he points to enemy cannon positions on the ground. We stand at the foot of the captain’s tomb (copy of the original) and wander past the sarcophagus holding the bones of those who perished during the battle (assumed real).
Sam is fascinated by history and I feed him small bits and pieces from books and movies as well as my own recollections. The years are all muddled in his mind—“a long time ago,” he says as he plays out battle scenes with his toy soldiers, “in the 1980s.” He imagines battles that never happened, between Indians and Hungarians, between American Civil War soldiers and his favorite Turkish warriors.
We’ve been looking forward to traveling to this particular castle for a while now, ever since he watched the movie about the battle and we read portions of the popular novel that is mandatory reading for all kids in Hungary. Every Hungarian child is brought here on a school trip at least once. Standing on the castle wall with the rain soaking our jackets, I am relieved to have been able to visit Hungary and give Sam this gift.
We drive back to Budapest later that afternoon. Sam and I spend the rest of the week wandering around my old turf. Budapest is my city and I am unexpectedly thrilled to show Sam a place I know so well. We ride the metro, the tram, the bus. We walk down the wide, tree-lined street where I grew up, where I went to school. I name the bridges spanning across the Danube and we stand in awe under the gilded dome of the Parliament. We get caught in a rain shower standing by the Chain Bridge’s lions. We shuffle onto a stuffed bus heading up to the castle in Buda. We giggle when we finally stand in front of the marble bust of King Matthias—we’ve seen the picture of the sculpture in books many times. I had promised Sam would get to see it in person someday and until this moment, I don’t think he believed it. But the sculpture is real. Right there in front of us. So close, we can almost touch it.
As we walk the endless halls of the National Gallery, we finally come to a darkened room where one of Sam’s favorite paintings hangs under a small spotlight. Sam has been studying the painting “Recovering the Body of Louis II” by Bertalan Szekely in books and online. Its morbid subject matter (finding the slightly green body of the young king in a battlefield swamp) is just as much a draw as its somber composition. The painting is even bigger than I remember and standing so close Sam finds new details—the king’s armour is in the mud and someone left a shovel on the ground.
We get caught in a rain shower standing by the Chain Bridge’s lions.
I walked to school on streets in Budapest where gun battles took place during World War II, where at one time the ghetto walls stood, where my grandfather hid for weeks in an attic, where he and my grandmother married hastily in-between bombings.
That night a huge thunderstorm rolls through the city and I lie awake for hours—from jet lag, from the rain beating on the metal windowsill. From history. From wanting to pass it on, from wanting it to be a part of Sam’s bones. From raising him in a country that, even after 20 years, feels so foreign to me. I feel disconnected from the past in America, like everything is replaceable and disposable around us. I think I will never get used to this feeling. I feel tied to my city and its past, the connection a constant, dull tug in my ribcage.
Where will Sam feel rooted? Where will he find his city? When will he know the story of buildings and castles? Where does history live among the strip malls and highways and streets with no sidewalks?
My own childhood was wrapped up in the past. I walked to school on streets in Budapest where gun battles took place during World War II, where at one time the ghetto walls stood, where my grandfather hid for weeks in an attic, where he and my grandmother married hastily in-between bombings. That same grandfather sat next to me at dinner every night—small and frail and elf-like. He was history himself, full of memories. At the time, I was quite aware he was passing something to me, something that would otherwise be lost.
I listened to him after every meal out of duty and curiosity. I wanted to know what came before me, what or who explained the way I was: my nose, my hair, my temper, my love of writing. I remember hearing about a distant aunt who owned a paper store in pre-war Budapest and I found it comforting when my grandfather said I probably inherited my love of stationery from her.
Now that I live so far from where I was born, it is this sense of the past that gives me answers to the big questions: Who are you? Where are you from? What are you? Who are your people? I know that to Sam, history is just about exciting battles. But someday, he will need history to answer his own questions.
The Civil War encampment in my husband’s Pennsylvania hometown is small this year, just a few groups of tents under a grove of trees. We swat away tiny gnats as we walk from tent to tent and stop to look at the treasures unearthed from battlefields around the country: bullets, hair combs, diaries, Bibles, pipes, pen tips, badges. I’ve been to one of these camps before and just as Sam was skeptical about the authenticity of the castle walls in Hungary, I am skeptical about grown men playing dress-up. I also wonder about the true origin of these battlefield treasures.
At one tent, an actor in full Union garb pulls Sam into his camp and sits on a small stool in front of Sam. He tells Sam how much he would have been paid as a Union soldier, what he would have carried in his bag, what type of weapon he would have used, what foods he would have eaten. Sam is fascinated, but too shy to say or ask anything. His grandmother nudges him to tell the soldier his story. “Go ahead,” she says. “Tell him why your name is Sam.” The soldier is an old friend, so he knows about my husband’s ancestor who fought in the Civil War, a relative who was captured and taken to Andersonville prison in Georgia where he later died. He leans down to Sam anyway waiting for his version of the story. “I am named after my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Samuel, who died in the Civil War,” he whispers, eyes to the ground.
The soldier stands up straight, pulls his weapon close to his body, and stands at attention. He raises his hand to salute my Sam. I am grateful for the sun and my sunglasses because tears flow without warning or permission. I am surprised by my reaction and its intensity, so I walk away from our small group to find some shade under the trees.
Later that weekend we drive Sam through the Gettysburg battlefield and stop at the Pennsylvania monument where Sam’s ancestral name is etched on a plaque. It’s a tradition in my husband’s family to take a photo and point at the name that is hard to find on the list with thousands of others. I listen to my husband explain the battle to Sam.
He comes from both the heroic warriors who defended the castle against the Turks and the brave soldiers who fought at Gettysburg.
He will find his answer—and his people—in Jewish ghettos, in European castles, in small country churches, on farm fields, in modern cities, and sleepy suburbs.
Until now, I never really considered Sam’s connection to his American side and its history. That history does not belong to me, does not form me or give me my identity. It doesn’t move or inspire me. Not because it’s not heroic or exciting, but because it’s not mine. It was—is—a story, a fairy tale, but not something that happened to my people. I knew that we named Sam after an ancestor, but to me the name was just a cute boy’s name, not a family tradition.
I realize my tears earlier had come from relief. Even though I might not feel like this country’s past is mine, Sam feels it’s his. He comes from both the heroic warriors who defended the castle against the Turks and the brave soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. He is both Old World and New World, both ancient stone and shiny skylines. He can take it all in, absorb it, battle by battle, and when he is old enough, when the questions and answers will matter to him, he will have double the past to dip into for answers.
He will find himself on cobblestoned streets in Budapest, in wheat fields in Pennsylvania, in castle ruins, and in the ruins of a stockade prison in the hot southern sun. He will find his answer—and his people—in Jewish ghettos, in European castles, in small country churches, on farm fields, in modern cities, and sleepy suburbs. History will give him roots, but it will not tie him down.