Daniel – Part One
Daniel – Part One
20 minute read
Daniel had never owned a passport. While everyone was heading to London or Rome for school semesters, he was quite happy with his feet planted firmly on his home turf in Chicago. So, imagine everyone’s surprise when 38-year-old Daniel exclaimed, “I’m getting a passport.” There were befuddled faces, and confused looks of amusement from friends but he knew that if he didn’t go he would regret the decision the rest of his life. “Last call for Budapest”, the electronic voice boomed through the loud speaker. He tucked his boarding pass into his newly minted passport, patted his grandmother’s old cocoa tin and boarded the plane.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
“But you’re an artist,” his friends would wail, “Don’t you want to see the Michelangelo at the Uffizi or the Mona Lisa at the Louvre?” He would always shrug.
“I have seen them. In books. If I need to conjure up inspiration I can simply go online.” This wasn’t the first time his friends had argued with him. It was a losing battle. The thing they didn’t realize was that Daniel was deathly afraid of planes. The last travel memory he had was of a flight from Washington D.C. to Chicago when he was a child. It was the dead of winter, snow was falling in generous clumps and despite the sky’s wintry protest the pilot declared that they were ready for takeoff.
In mid-air the sky had turned the flight into a game of volleyball, as the aircraft trembled and hurled off clouds. Six-year-old Daniel was sure he had met his demise; fortunately, he was nestled between the two most formidable women he knew: his mother and his grandmother, Anna. His mother’s face had not one ounce of concern, but he could see the way she gripped the armrest—the veins popping from her hands—that inside she was a flutter of butterflies. His grandmother, on the other hand, was perfectly stoic. She sat still, facing straight ahead. No tension in her body. No flinching. She looked at peace.
“Grandma, aren’t you scared?” She turned to him, a smile growing across her face.
“No, my darling. I have had to fly long distances and experience far worse to get home before. This is but a short blimp of bad luck; that is all. Then we will be home.” The way she said “home” comforted him and he closed his eyes, gripping the armrest in fearful silence just like his mother.
At six, Daniel hadn’t fully grasped what she had meant that day on that flight home, but at thirty-eight he was about to.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
The phone rang and rang as he wrestled with himself whether or not he should pick up. He was staring at a blank canvas, his pool of inspiration dry and barren. Of course, the looming art gallery opening in two months only added to the pressure. At the moment, the only thing he had to show was some untouched canvases, stiff joints and dry eyes.
“The theme is heritage,” announced the art curator over coffee at another newly minted hipster café in Logan Square.
Growing up, Daniel had been fiercely close to his family; therefore, the term heritage should have conjured up all the images he needed to create masterpieces, and yet here he sat listening to the electronic crooning of his cell phone. He adjusted his glasses, a streak of turquoise paint shooting across his cheek.
“Damn it.” He rushed for the phone, painting it in turquoise. He had already procrastinated this long, another minute couldn’t hurt. “Hello, Daniel? It’s Mrs. Thompson, dear. I rented your grandmother’s flat a few months ago.” She took Daniel’s silence as a nudge to continue. “My husband, Norm noticed that one of the floorboards in the bedroom was loose. You know how old apartments can get. Well, we figured we would pull it up and just replace it since the wood was pretty badly splintered anyway. But when we pulled up the floorboard we found an old tin. We hate to snoop but we opened it and found some old photos and what looks like a note or recipe inside. We think it might have been your grandmother’s?”
Daniel breaks his silence. “Do you know what the letter says?”
“No, dear. It’s not in English.”
“My grandmother was Hungarian.”
“Right, right. I remember you saying that, I believe. Well if you want it…”
“I want it!” He glanced at his bookshelf where his grandmother’s book of recipes had sat for years. Regaining his composure, “When could I come by and pick it up?”
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Leaves crunched beneath his boots as Daniel approached his grandmother’s brownstone, the crisp fall breeze tousling his already shaggy, sable hair. The air was ripe with the scent of roaring fireplaces and the faint blaring of car horns. A woman jogged by holding a coffee cup and pushing a stroller. A dog barked in the distance.
He couldn’t tell you how many times he had come to his grandmother’s home throughout the years, but he swore that every time he got off the Armitage “L” stop he could smell freshly baked dough and the syrupy sweetness of pastries warm from the oven. Her cozy brownstone was tucked away on a quiet side street within the hustle and bustle of Lincoln Park. The sea of brownstones, one right after another looking not unlike the one before it: the large picture window on the left, the front door on the right.
Even though Daniel’s grandmother called this Lincoln Park residence her home in later years, when she first arrived in Chicago she settled on the South Side with many Hungarians who had also fled the country right after WWII. Once her children were grown and had moved out of the house she and her husband had decided it best to move closer to them. They made the trek to Lincoln Park, bringing their whole lives with them once more and creating a new home for themselves. Anna used to say, “You can make anywhere your home.” And just like that she did.
He rang the doorbell and pulled his jacket tight around him. Practically overnight the oppressive summer heat had given way to a brisk autumn chill and pretty soon he knew he would be wearing wool sweaters and seeing festive holiday lights bespeckling the city. That was always his grandmother’s favorite time of the year.
The door opened and Mrs. Thompson appeared; her Cheshire-cat grin revealed a splaying of crow’s feet and laugh lines. She welcomed Daniel inside, her delicate frame looking as if it might topple over at any minute under the weight of her thick salt-and-pepper hair. It might have looked like his grandmother’s house from the outside but inside his grandmother’s humble furnishings had been replaced with velvet settees, gold chandeliers and peacock feathers. Clearly Mrs. Thompson’s taste won out over Mr. Thompson’s, who was often hiding in his study.
“It’s so good to see you. Can I get you anything to drink?”
“No, thank you. I can’t stay long. I must get back to the studio.”
“Oh, working on something new?”
“I have an an art exhibition coming up at the end of November. I’m simply swamped.” What he didn’t want to tell her was that he wasn’t swamped with inspiration.
“Well, I won’t keep you. Norm is in the study. He likes to read in the afternoon with a glass of whiskey. You know how men are. I was going to get him, but if you have to leave soon…”
“I don’t want you to trouble him. It’s okay. Let him enjoy some solitude. We get so little of it these days.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” She smiled, flaunting those laugh lines again.
Sticking out like a sore thumb on the crystalline granite kitchen island sat a nearly rusted, hydrant-red cocoa tin; the words Stühmer quite visible despite the dents and scratches. He never remembered seeing this in his grandmother’s possession before but no doubt this was hers.
Carefully he removed the contents; four pictures freed from the tin, photos he didn’t recognize. They were old black-and-white photos of a couple in a city that Daniel was only assuming was Budapest, Anna’s hometown. No doubt his grandparents; He took one photo out of the tin and while he immediately recognized his grandmother’s young, cherub-cheeked face smiling in the photos, the man planting kisses on her was most certainly not his grandfather. They are having a picnic in the park under the shade of a large tree. Anna has a ribbon tied around her tender tufts of curls, her dress splayed out across the grass. The young man, in glasses and a striped tweed vest looking smitten as he’s planting a kiss on her, both of them radiant and happy. It was clear that the happiness had not been influenced by shots of pálinka. They were clearly a couple deep in the heart-throbbing throes of budding romance. On the back of the photo in his grandmother’s distinct handwriting it read: Margitsziget, Anna és Dániel, 1940.
1940. That would have made his grandmother sixteen, practically a child; however, not in those days. But if this was just puppy love or a young romance then why hide a recipe to him under the floorboards of the home she shared with her husband for over three decades?
Out of the stack of photos fell a single sheet of paper. He peeled back the folded paper with a delicate touch. Mrs. Thompson watched a deep furrow develop between his brows as they stood in silence. His eyes scanned and rescanned the contents.
“Is everything okay, dear?” her voice snapped him back to reality as he scurried to put everything back in the tin as if it were incriminating evidence.
“Yes, it’s fine. Thank you again Mrs. Thompson for saving this. It really means a lot.” He was already making his way toward the front door.
“Of course. If you don’t mind me prying, what was it?”
“It’s a recipe, but it’s completely in Hungarian.”
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Truth be told, Daniel had never learned Hungarian. He had picked up a few words here and there from his grandparents but that was the closest he came to speaking any other language outside of his native tongue; however, he certainly new the Hungarian word for “my love”, as it was a term of endearment she used to bestow on Daniel’s grandfather, János. So, sufficed to say Daniel was quite perplexed that this recipe was dedicated to her “szerelmem, Dániel”. Could it have been for him? She had never called him “szerelmem” in his almost four decades of being on the planet. Plus, szerelmem wasn’t a term of endearment bestowed on family or friends, but rather, a word reserved only for a romantic partner, a lover. The cogs began turning in his mind. Who was this Dániel?
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
“Oh hunny, there was no other man.” His mother hooted over the phone. It was clear Daniel’s mother thought this was akin to a practical joke or a bad reality show. “Your grandmother led a very simple life. Difficult, but simple. She never once mentioned any other Daniel apart from you.”
“Did she ever call me szerelmem, though?”
“No. That word only refers to a romantic love.”
“That’s what I thought.” He rubbed his temples. This made no sense.
“Oh, before I forget. Are you coming over for dinner on Saturday? Claire is bringing the kids.”
“Of course I’ll be there. As always.”
“Would you bring the recipe with you? I’m sure everyone would love to see it.”
“I’ll do one better and bring you the photos. Maybe you can make heads or tails of who this other Dániel is.”
His mother stifled a girlish giggle as she hung up the phone. While his mother might have treated this like it was just a silly juvenile rumor he knew there was something more to this story. Was it possible that his grandmother had hidden a part of her life from them? And if so, why had she hidden it? He inspected the photos. Who was this man Dániel with his plaid cap and boyish features that was running all over Budapest with his grandmother? He thought if he stared hard enough the photos would somehow form the missing jigsaw pieces that would complete the puzzle.
He looked around his apartment. Only a sea of blank canvases stared back.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
He kicked up piles of leaves, which crunched in protest as he ascended the stairs of his parent’s home. Saturday was, without fail, their traditional family dinner. In the past, there were many potentially raucous Saturday evenings Daniel had planned with friends in the city that had been foiled by these tame and not-to-be-missed family dinners. It was one of the many traditions they had. Family dinner was a must, barring illness or an alien abduction, and since Daniel was experiencing neither of these things he found himself on the same stoop that he had every Saturday of his adult life.
The heavy, brass knocker thudded against the door with a cavernous echo. The door swung open.
“I lost a tooth!” Shouted his five-year-old niece, Lily, the proof visible in the large front gap in her smile.
“So you did. Did the tooth fairy come yet?” She giggled, wrapping her arms around both her stomach and the fuzzy teddy bear stitched onto her sweater.
“No, silly. Tooth fairies come at night when you’re asleep!” Then, like a tooth fairy, she flitted away down the hall and disappeared, her lilting voice announcing Daniel’s arrival to the family.
Daniel placed the cocoa tin on the kitchen counter before hanging his coat in the mudroom. He kicked off his shoes, which had a nice residue of pulverized leaves on the soles, by the front door with the rows of other shoes. The enticing aromas of roast beef and salted potatoes from the oven already seemed to warm his chilled bones. Almost every light was on in the house, designed to keep the kids from running around and stubbing their toes.
Despite the stark brightness, the warm beige and earth-blue décor hugged him with its warmth. Pictures of the family surrounded him: over the mantelpiece, along the staircase, in the living room—a sea of faces, both familiar and unfamiliar, from which he shared his ancestry, his dimples and his name. He spied the family photo album on the fireplace and a mental light bulb turned on.
He had scanned these photos so many times, taking painstaking time to understand who everyone was and to visualize himself there with them, but this time he sifted through the album like a detective hard on the trail. And yet he couldn’t find any trace of this “szerelmem, Dániel”. Perhaps mom was right. Instead, his grandparents’ smiling faces were all he found. Their wedding day. Their honeymoon. The bakery they owned together. It was all there, recorded exactly as it had been told to him so many times before by his grandmother and his mom. He had recited this same history to his own sister, Marianna when she was old enough to grasp its significance, and yet he couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that something just didn’t add up.
“Daniel, is that you?” His mother called, bounding through the hallway. “What are you doing in here?” As she turned the corner she felt like she had caught a child with his hand in the cookie jar. “What’s the matter?” He let out a long heavy sigh.
“Nothing, mom. I guess I just thought I would find something about this Dániel character in here.”
“You’ve looked at that album I don’t know how many times. Do you really think you would have missed that?”
“You’re right.” He placed the book back on the shelf feeling a bit defeated. “Okay, time for some food; I’m starving.”
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Food was being shuffled around the dinner table like a game of ice hockey. Stomachs growled in protest but Daniel’s head had taken over all of his senses. Flashes of his grandmother with some man left him with so many unanswered questions.
“Daniel” his sister’s voice woke him from his obsessive daydream. A plate of food hovered right under his nose. Marianna tilted her head like a confused puppy. “What’s up with you?” She mouthed. He shrugged and grabbed the plate of potatoes from her, piling them onto his plate like a man who was ravenous with hunger and not with questions.
It seems that all Marianna could talk about over dinner was this costume she barely had time to piece together for Lily’s upcoming kindergarten recital. She was to be a snowflake. “Don’t they realize snowflake costumes are much more difficult to make then a sheep? You could put cotton balls on a black leotard and call it a day. Of course, Lily had to be a snowflake. So, here I am trying to figure out how to make each point of the snowflake perfectly even. It’s a nightmare.” She laughed. So, it came as no surprise that Marianna was going to head home early to start on Lily’s costume, which meant that Daniel had dishwashing duty with his mother.
“Hunny, I don’t know what to tell you. This all just doesn’t make sense,” his mother said elbow-deep in sudsy water. He grabbed the dishes from her and dried them off.
“You haven’t seen all the photos that Mrs. Thompson’s found under the floorboard. The floorboard, mom. That doesn’t make sense. If grandmom had wanted us to know don’t you think she would have shared this with us?”
“Perhaps some things are better left unknown.” She raised an eyebrow in his direction.
After some coaxing Daniel finally got his mother to oblige him. She sat down and looked through the old Stühmer tin. She poured over each picture and Daniel couldn’t tell if she was actually forming some interest in the subject or merely placating him. The first photo was of the couple holding each other tight in front of an old building with large box windows. They stood in front of a glass door with large flowing metal lines that looked like they manifested outward from their heads. “There is some information on the back,” he revealed. She flipped over the first photo: “Honvéd Utca, Anna és Dániel, 1940”. She tapped the photo. “This could be the Art Nouveau building.”
The next photo was of the happy couple standing on a street, lined with beautiful buildings and trees swaying in the breeze. He had his arm around her waist, a plaid cap on his head. Anna’s face is scrunched up with girlish giddiness as he’s placing a light kissing on her forehead; her dimples making their appearance known. “Falk Miksa utca, Anna és Dániel, 1940”.
The third photo was the first one Daniel had pulled out of the tin that day at the Thompson’s. It looked like the couple was enjoying a picnic, his grandmother’s dress covering the grass around her as Dániel is kissing her. Behind them is a towering oak tree. “Margitsziget, Anna és Dániel, 1940”.
“This is on Margaret Island,” his mother broke the silence.
“Is that in Budapest?”
She shook her head. “Yes, it’s actually between Buda and Pest, you can get there from a bridge but I can’t remember the name at the moment.”
The fourth and final photo was not of the couple stealing yet another kiss in the city, but rather the two love birds sitting side-by-side in a cafe sharing a slice of cake. “Pozsonyi út, Anna és Dániel, 1940”.
As she came to the recipe her eyes light up.
“Oh wow! The Krémes recipe.” She knew the recipe. Hearing this made his heart flutter.
“So, you know it?”
“Oh yes. She used to make it a long time ago. It was one of her regular recipes and it actually kind of put her little bakery on the map here in the city. I think she had stopped making it when you were still just a boy, but I remember you having it and liking it a lot.”
“Why did she stop making it?” She placed the photos on her lap, her eyes searched for an explanation. She looked at him.
“You know, I really don’t know.” They both sat in silence staring at the recipe as if it might finally reveal the answers to all their burning questions.
“Mom? Why did you name me Daniel?” His eyes grew large.
“Your grandmother told me she always loved that name. I guess when she said it, it just sort of stuck.” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Could he really have been named after his grandmother’s first love? It seemed like his brain might explode.
“Is that all you know? Is there anything else?” His heart raced and he felt parched. If he could have untethered himself from that spot he would have chugged a pitcher of water. She turned her body in his direction, her eyes swimming with tenderness.
“Honey, I can’t tell you any more than what I already know but all I can tell you is that your grandmother loved your grandfather fiercely. She loved her life and her family. I don’t think she would have changed a thing.”
“Mom, I’m not worried about that. I know that,” he rested his hand on hers. “I just thought I knew everything about her and now I’m realizing I don’t. Maybe these places still hold some answers to who my grandmother was and who this Dániel was. I also wouldn’t mind trying this krémes recipe either.”
“So what are you saying, dear?”
“I think it’s finally time for me to go to Budapest.”
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