The dark sky spit rain as Gwyn and I rolled into the parking lot of Millbrook CRC. The Saturday evening wind chilled us as we stepped out of our car and shielded our eyes from the rain. We walked through the parking lot toward the church entrance alongside a Hungarian family: mom, dad, and young daughter. The wind and the rain were making too much noise to have a conversation, so we nodded at one another as we made our way inside. The father opened the door for us to go in.
Inside, we reached a respite from the weather outside. We bundled down the steps into the church basement, where incandescent light illuminated a room straight out of the 1980s. It was warm and inviting, and the intense but comforting aroma of pork paprikash filled the space. Eight foot tables were set up in rows, and at the middle row sat nearly twenty of my mom’s side of the family.
This was Gwyn’s first Hungarian dinner, and my first since college. My grandmother (we call her Nagymama, Hungarian for “grandma”) was born in Hungary and sailed to this country in her teens after living the majority of her life in European refugee camps. Her family arrived here together, sponsored by a local Grand Rapids church and cared for by that community.
Since then, slivers of Hungarian culture have nestled their way into our family life, primarily taking the form of delicious food: paprikash (chicken, pork, beef), gulyas (goulash), lesco, Hungarian crepes (called palacsinta), and langos bread. And each year, the West Michigan Hungarian Care Club hosts two dinners: one in October with paprikash as the main dish, and another in February when they serve mouthwatering Hungarian sausage.
This year’s paprikash dinner was Shakespearean—brutal in its unintentional comedy and not without its tragedy. For example, after a board member abruptly quit the care club in the middle of the dinner, a woman named Julie followed up by rattling off a laundry list of club member injuries. Hip replacements, knee surgeries, arthritis, heart problems, and—to cap it off—two broken wrists suffered while setting up the tables for the dinner itself. Everyone looked over at Tom. He lifted up both casted arms with a hopeless shrug.
Most of us at the table were stifling laughter, but it was impossible not to find this melodrama funny. Taken individually, each injury was a sad thing, but listed off together, the sheer number of injuries became hilariously absurd. Added to that was the throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air disgust so visible in Julie’s voice, no doubt directed at the board member who resigned. It was a surreal moment all too similar to a Coen brothers scene.
But that’s not all we took away from the evening, because it ended like this: the young girl we saw in the parking lot recited a poem she wrote about the 1956 Hungarian revolution against Soviet-imposed power. She read the poem in Hungarian. And though we couldn’t understand anything, we caught enough to know she was repeating a refrain in each stanza. She finished and stepped away from the podium.
We saw Nagymama weeping in her chair, and she turned to whisper something in my cousin’s ear. Then slowly, like an ocean liner making its way across the Atlantic, the translation of the poem’s refrain reached our ears.
“The streets were soaked in blood.”