Dead Hungarians

Staring at the monument raised the hair on our arms.

A bleached statue of a Hungarian soldier, stoic and bundled for his long European winter, stood atop a list of those claimed by the Great War. Our American fingers first pointed at, then reached out to feel the ridges of the name Scheibelhoffer, inscribed in the stone.

We’d come to Hungary with my wife’s family in hopes of reestablishing a connection with the past. Kim’s great-grandfather, Joseph Scheibelhoffer, had left his home in the early 1900’s and the only trace of this rejected life was a photograph of his large family. The photo, creased and sepia toned, rescued a single moment from time, capturing the family as they stood in front of their home, shoulder to Hungarian shoulder. The image was an heirloom, a single thread tying ahistorical Americans to the fabric of their history. Scrawled on the bottom of the picture was the town’s name, Szerecseny.

Coat of arms of Szerecseny, Hungary

Coat of arms of Szerecseny, Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a geopolitical scale, Hungary’s borders have been notoriously mobile. And although towns like Szerecseny may have paid taxes and tribute to various capitals, their soldiers fighting for various armies, the land and the homes built upon them remain, their roots deeply planted.

Our monument stood just across the small, barely paved road from the Scheibelhoffer home depicted in our photo. The progress and destruction of the last century had seemingly ignored Szerecseny, which looked exactly as it did in the fading picture of its past. Time had replaced the tiny village, its silence, and its humble, stucco homes with an exact replica of itself. I felt that our disintegrating brown photo would vanish before the place it was desperately trying to save from time’s cruelty. But this is an intolerably American form of fancy.

As we snapped our own pictures, of the family name memorialized by Szerecseny’s only piece of monumental art, we decided to seek out the town cemetery. The names of the dead suggested their bodies lay near.

A comical series of tourists’ loops finally brought us to the graveyard. A dirt road leading from this town to some distant other was where Szerecseny’s dead slept.

On the way to the graves of Scheibelhoffers past, a very tall, thin man stood at the road. Silent as the town, he simply stood there as if to usher us forward into the past. He wore black slacks and no shirt, only a tight black leather vest. He had a type of cowboy hat on, also black, and stood proudly, his thumbs in his belt loops, head cocked back. He looked like a large crow and he nodded at us as we drove past.

The cemetery was circled by a large, black, wrought-iron fence, like a thousand little crow-men keeping watch over it. We walked through the corner gate and felt the silence giving rest to the dead as we read their names. All this as excitement and somberness wrestled within us.

Tony, Kim’s father and the American heir to the Scheibelhoffer name, reverted to his suburban instinct for pulling weeds, for which we scolded him. How could one distinguish the weeds and flowers here? And can the weeds be removed from a place like this without setting in motion the decay of progress? An image of the town finally decaying into the wilting sepia of its photo after our visit haunts me.

As we ambled through this silent, restful place, the care lavished upon each plot was overwhelming. Unlike American graves, where a single field grows over and through all the plots, overwhelming them with cruel patience and time and, except perhaps on Memorial Day, erasing the absent person, here, each bed rested under its own garden, beautiful and simple, like the town itself. Covering the dead were stone boxes, carved with ornate designs, that held fresh flower arrangements.

It was the freshness of the flowers that took me. These were not plastic flowers, fading and cracking under the sun year after year between visits from distant, busy relatives. These were flowers that radiated beauty, aged, dropped petals, and withered. These were flowers which required human care.

This was common to nearly every grave in the cemetery; graves of the recently deceased as well as those of people who died in 1960, 1950, 1920… All were memories cherished by the town, and the natural devotion to this place united the living and the dead. The slowness of time in this small Hungarian village extended to, or perhaps from, its cemetery.

Tozer’s Grave

Tozer's grave

Aiden Wilson Tozer was one of the Twentieth Century’s great Christian writers. A major figure in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Tozer wrote scores of influential devotional books, including the classic The Pursuit of God, happily available as a free kindle book here. A couple of years ago, someone recommended I read it and I must say I was rather blown away by Tozer’s eloquence and insight into the struggle that faith not only is, but should be. The book has chapter titles like “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing,” and cleverly insightful sentences like, “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word.” What an Arnoldian aesthetic. I was hooked.

A. W. Tozer

A. W. Tozer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, as it turned out, I had lived right down the street from Tozer’s grave for most of my youth and hadn’t had any idea. So, the Romantic that I am, I decided to take a trip down Interstate 77 to visit my old haunts and to gain some perspective on my life that I hoped would steady me for the upcoming move to Georgia. With the goal of ending my day meditating about my own fallible pursuit of God over the grave of the man who wrote the book, I drove around my old neighborhood.

I had been by the old house every so often already, so there wasn’t much to see there. Instead, I drove my car through the streets my bicycle had once carried me over. Lost memories of course returned, as in a Proust novel, and I felt the return of a heretofore absent emotional attachment to the place. I was both filled with nostalgia and excited: I sensed, I could build on these emotions and surely come to some meaningful epiphany at Tozer’s grave.

My swoon took me to the beauty parlor my mother had owned and I walked in, only to find that it was now a mom and pop computer repair shop. Stupefied, I explained to the lone repairman what I was doing and, with some embarrassment, pointed to where my mom’s row of hairdryers once stood, then clumsily left. Fortunately, it just so happened that Tozer’s graveyard was just around the corner from the corpse of my mother’s beauty shop. I sensed that my emotional state was intense enough to make a memorable and profound experience out of my visit to the Great Man’s ghostly remains.

The graveyard rested behind an old church in the middle of a busy part of town, so peacefulness had been replaced by a bit too much bustle, but I eagerly approached it, desperate to cash my emotions in for a Profound Experience. I had no idea that Tozer’s grave was near the back of the lot, so I began in the front, momentarily visiting the remains of dozens of anonymous people. Then, suddenly, profundity arrived. I came to it.

Not Tozer’s grave, but the final resting place of Hazel Lain. I had known Hazel since I was a child and the sight of her grave reminded me that I had indeed heard that she’d died sometime back. Her passing was apparently not impressive enough for me to remember it, but the sight of her grave was quickly, and forever, seared on my memory.

Though the cemetery was beautiful, Hazel’s place in it was not. She was pushed off to the side, away from the others, right next to a chain link fence that separated the graveyard from what I believe was an auto repair shop, or something of the sort. The noise was irritating, and there were no trees to offer Hazel’s visitors any shade. But I suppose there aren’t going to be many visitors anyway.

What stopped me on my quest to associate with Tozer’s celebrity was the cruel realization that Hazel’s life, as I had known it, seemed to point toward the indignity of this final resting place. She was a quiet, shy old woman who was, to my knowledge, never married. She cackled like a cartoon witch when she laughed. One of her eyes (the fact that I can’t remember which one should tell you something) had gone pale and glassy as she went blind in it. To those who did not know her, she could have seemed frightening. Those of us who did know her entrusted her with the church’s babies each Sunday. With inhuman vigilance, she spent her Sundays in the back, with the children, in the nursery. While we sang, she changed diapers. While we listened to the pastors’ sermons, she wiped noses. While we socialized afterward, discussing football games and other important matters, who knows what she did. There were, admittedly, the occasional “lets bring Hazel up and let her know how much we appreciate her” love fests, but I should have been in her life without that prompting.

The guilt I felt was profound.

As with my earlier drive, another lost memory had crystallized before my eyes. I saw the loneliness of Hazel’s life when I saw her shabby grave, pushed off to the side. Not only could I see it, I could feel it. Pushed off to the margins in life, pushed off to the margins in death.

I pulled away from Hazel’s grave, shamed and full of bitter regret. I stumbled past other graves that were shepherded into tight communities, then I came to Tozer’s grave. It was lovely, but there was nothing special about it for me. I was spent. I looked at the headstone for a few minutes, then walked back to Hazel’s grave. I mumbled my regrets, turned, and left.

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