Monday, May 21, 2018

Mária, the secret sister who was sent away

Titkos Testvér (The Secret Sister who was sent away)
Almost 100 years ago, in a land three lifetimes away, my dad was born in the Hungarian village of Maglód. With his birth, the Takács family of three became a family of four.

Though she only had an eighth grade education, his mother…my grandmother… recognized my dad’s extreme propensity for mathematics early on. She did all she could to encourage the education of her young and budding genius son. 

This was not an easy feat in a land where it would have been quite reasonable and expected for him to end his education at age 14 and work repairing cars with his father or helping his mother with the general store she ran in this rural village. 

His older sister, Mária, being only a girl…sigh…would have been the logical choice to stop her education and work for the family in order that her brother be allowed to continue his. 

Mária, however, had larger issues. Her epilepsy required constant care and her seizures prevented her from leading a meaningful life…even for a girl…sigh.

She required constant care at home, with, presumably, my grandmother bearing the entire burden. 

The situation became even more difficult when my grandfathers’ health worsened … his lungs were declining rapidly.  He could no longer work, and my grandmother had to spend her days running the family General Store. My dad, at age 12 had just started commuting by train to a competitive school in Budapest, and his sister, Mária could not be left alone to care for herself while my grandmother managed the store. 

My grandmother, completely devoted to her brilliant son, would have sooner cut off her own arm than pull my dad out of his schooling to care for his sister.

Mária needed to be sent away so my grandmother could continue to work to support the family…and continue to fund my dad’s education. The story told to my dad as a young boy was that his sister, Mária went to live with relatives in another village. It is unclear if he ever saw her again. It is also unclear how long she lived after she was sent away, or at what age she was sent away, but she died at the age of 21.  My grandfather passed away around the same time and left my grandmother a widow, with one son on his way to becoming a brilliant mathematician. 

There is no mention in family documents or folklore as to when Mária was born, or how much older she was than my dad. There are no photos of her as a child or young woman…there are only a few of my dad, but they were professional formal photos. Why were none taken of his sister?

My dad never spoke of the person his sister Mária was. Did she read books? Did she draw? Was she funny? Did they play together? Did he know her well? Surely between the debilitating seizures there was a human being who lived for a time, was loved by her family and made some marks on her small world. 

And, as for the “sent away to live with relatives” part of the story… could that have been a euphemism to soften the shame of her being institutionalized? And in 1930s rural Hungary, I can only imagine the horrors of being institutionalized for a misunderstood disease where constant seizures may have looked like insanity and have been treated with constant sedation and restraints. At the time there also existed experimental surgery for epilepsy, and also some experimentation inexplicably linking it with psychosis and using electro shock therapy. I have no idea if this these treatments touched Mária’s life. I am imagining botched brain surgery on par with lobotomies, but very much hoping that was not the case. The true story of her short life will never be known, nor will the actual cause of her death…we have no death certificates.

I do not judge my grandmother for her agonizing Sophie’s Choice decision to send her daughter away so her son’s education and genius could thrive. 

And, selfishly, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my grandmother for essentially betting on the winning pony in the family and making the painful decision that benefited all the relatives yet to come… but sacrificed one. 

My dad’s education, and subsequent success as a Mathematician and Pioneer of Queueing Theory was his ticket out of communist war-torn Hungary. His coming with my mother to Columbia University as an invited distinguished professor ensured that my sister and I would be born as citizens in the United States…which, despite opinions to the contrary…is already great. 

I am ever-mindful of this privilege of birth I got for free; a privilege paid for by my parents, grandparents…and my only aunt.

So, I paint my gratitude to honor my mysterious Aunt Mária. Titkos Testvér. Secret Sister.

Full of symbolic details, I chose for my model, a young woman who looked like a photo of my dad at age 18…I figured there would be a family resemblance. My model, Jordan Serpentini is actually a talented singer, skateboarder, artist and all around beautiful soul…check out her music video…its a lovely peaceful protest song for our times!

I wrapped her in a shawl that my grandmother had crocheted for me as a young girl…thinking she may have done the same for her own daughter Mária.

Because my grandmother was a good Catholic, I figured she would have sent Mária off with accessories of the faith to keep her company; a bible, a rosary and the Infant Jesus prayer card. These are all items which had belonged to my grandmother and were brought with her when she emigrated to the United States in 1963, five years after my dad left in 1958. 

Hanging behind Mária are toddler mittens my grandmother had knitted for me as a child…I can only assume she would have done the same with her own daughter. And the black purse, heavy with Hungarian forints and fillérs, may have been pocket money sent along to keep her caregivers happy.

And there is a letter hanging in the background. It begins, “Édes Mária…Dear Mária.” I collaged pieces of my grandmother’s handwriting to form these words since I have no actual letters from mother to daughter in exile.

There’s an old Jewish saying, sometimes attributed to Banksy, and also to Herman Taube…

“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

I’m starting the clock again on my mysterious secret aunt, Mária Takács. 

Titkos Testvér, Secret Sister Aunt Mária…
the one who was sent away.

Titkos Testvér made her debut at my Two-Artist Inaugural Exhibit with the late Marilyn Szalay at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve in the summer of 2018.

Now, I'm thrilled to announce that my painting has been awarded the


Ridgewood Art Institute
Award for Painting Excellence
at the
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe
122nd Annual Open Exhibition

at the
National Arts Club, NYC
January 2019