A family story of a gift’s predicament

By John Toth

Last Christmas, I sent my cousin Sanyi in Hungary a Christmas card and stuck in it a $20 bill.

I thought he and his wife could go to the movies or eat out somewhere. Maybe they could go to the confectionery near their house and get some of that delicious Hungarian torta or ice cream. I took them there when I visited last summer.

He is the only surviving cousin on my father’s side. He has always been somewhat headstrong, but as children we got along great. We played together for days at a time in my grandmother’s yard in the summer.

My mother and I escaped from Communist Hungary in1966, when I was 10 years old. We lived in Austria for a year and a half, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1967. Sanyi and I grew up in different worlds. We didn’t write or even know where the other lived for decades.

We got back together in 1989, when I first visited Hungary. I found him at my grandmother’s old address, and for the next five years, we reunited annually.

Each time, we would pick up from where we left off many decades ago. Sanyi likes to drink, but after a few beers, he turns on the humor and sarcasm even more. I escaped into a world I left as a child with my good buddy and cousin.

Instead of being just crazy after getting juiced up, Sanyi cornered me during one of my visits to his house last summer and started talking about my father.

“After you left, your dad was devastated. He never stopped talking about you. Why didn’t you come back earlier?”

“You don’t know the full story,” I replied.

“ He told me several times he would do anything to get you back. You leaving destroyed him,” he continued.

My dad died in 1986 in Hungary, three years before I felt like I could go back without risking being detained and not allowed to return to my family in the U.S. By then, the moderate socialists were in power, and I flew into Budapest.

I tried to explain all of these concerns to him when he sobered up.

“I came back as soon as I felt I could. “My mother and father were not close. He was abusive to us. I don’t know what my mother was really escaping from – Communism, or my dad?”

He put the guilt trip on me. Maybe it’s deserved. Even if it is, I can’t redo the past.

When I checked my mail recently, I found a letter from Sanyi. I thought that was unusual. He does not like to write, and he never emails. If you want to talk to him, you have to go see him or call him.

“You don’t understand our customs. You are not a Hungarian anymore,” the letter stated in part.

Folded inside the pages was a $20 bill – the same one I sent him for Christmas.

His reason for returning it: It’s not enough.

Was that the real reason? Should I have sent more?