On April 6, 1917, when my grandmother was three weeks short of her fifth birthday, the United States entered World War I. Her father, Erno, who had arrived from Budapest around 1910, went to the store and bought four little American flags. Then they all went down to Cleveland’s Lorain Avenue—the Hungarian father, the Hungarian mother, and two little Hungarian-American children—to wave their flags in support of the war against, among others, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Erno’s parents still lived in Szeged; he worried for their safety. He never saw them again.
Back home, Erno had been an actor; he had dreamed of making it to Los Angeles, of starring in pictures. In Cleveland, he was a tailor. But he loved his new country. As a little girl, my grandmother spoke Hungarian fluently and English somewhat less so. At 5, she accidentally started a small fire in her upstairs bedroom. She ran down to her father. “Oh, my upstars!” she shouted. Upstars? Her father put the fire out, sure, but what stuck with him was that his little girl had better get a grasp on English. No more Hungarian, he told her.
Ninety-four years later, she can still speak Hungarian. She is celebrating her 100th American Independence Day. We are at the Cheesecake Factory in Henderson. It’s a week since my son and I watched Night at the Museum, featuring Robin Williams as a waxwork Teddy Roosevelt. When my grandmother was born, Teddy was pulling together his Bull Moose Party for a second run at the presidency. Grandma has sharper memories of Teddy’s cousin, Franklin. In 1932, her father, a proud man already broken by the Great Depression, had contracted an untreatable stomach infection. As he was dying, he had one piece of political advice for my grandmother: “Vote for Roosevelt.”
We go to my house; she sits down at the piano and plays a song, “Whispering,” which was first recorded in 1920. Whispering while you cuddle near me/Whispering while no one can hear me/Each little whisper seems to cheer me/I know it’s true/There’s no one, dear, but you. She used to play and sing this for her Russian-born, Canadian-raised, all-American husband. Then, when I was a child, they would come to Las Vegas, and she would play and sing it for me. Now she plays it for my wife, who was born and raised in Moscow, and our son, who understands Russian but in spite of all our efforts refuses to speak it. Outside, the sun is fading in a hazy thunderstorm sky. We can hear the first bursts of sidewalk firecrackers. My grandmother finishes the song and smiles a big American smile.