Esterházy Torte 1957 (excerpt)

The photograph has yellowed. Risking more fissures, handling it gingerly, I gaze at the fragile document—a glimpse conjures my younger self and my elegant mom. The scene is tranquil. My face inclined lightly grazes Mama’s right arm as she lights the candles—not your typical American frosted cake. This torte is home baked, ornately decorated, and Hungarian of course—with a creamy chocolate buttercream, sandwiched between layers of sponge cake, glazed with apricot jam (my father’s favorite) and garnished with melted chocolate. There are pretty little puffs of whipped cream encircling each of the five birthday candles. It floats on the exquisite white lace tablecloth. 

I remember the navy-blue dress my mother is wearing, the one with tiny white polka dots, a crisscross bodice and deep V neckline, which accentuates her curvaceous figure. Mama’s raven hair is swept up so we can see her pearlescent skin, the white beaded choker and matching earrings. This, for a fifth birthday gathering at home.

My dress is all satin and tulle. A too wide collar drifts off my shoulders. My hair is cut short, haphazardly, with home scissors, and my arms are awkwardly hanging by my sides. I wonder if I’m trying to lean closer into my mother or had my father barked, “Janetkém. Put your hands down.” 

We are looking intently at the candles, seemingly unaware of anything but each other. The delicate beauty of the photo belies my mother’s resilience and the deeper meaning, which I am aware of now from my present-day perspective. 

What must it have meant to her to be able to celebrate with an Esterházy Torte—named after a 19th century Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—in Canada, her new home, with her daughter—the daughter she might never have had, the daughter she hadn’t dared envision just a few years ago, seventeen and alone, desperate to survive, starving, emaciated, cowering in deserted tunnels and bombed buildings barely daring to breathe lest she be discovered by the Nazis. 

I scrutinize the photo, searching for clues. With pursed lips, and suddenly clammy hands I undress, slip on the navy-blue polka dot dress and wonder: How can she look so unscathed? How did she start anew, never looking back, never remembering, never alluding to those harrowing years?

My mother’s overprotectiveness makes sense now. I sensed a deep wound that only my impeccable behavior could salve. As the living, breathing embodiment of survival, I tried not to cause them further pain, resolved to become what they couldn’t be, make up for their losses, fulfill their dreams.

As the years passed, it became more and more difficult to live up to expectations. It was never enough. I had become an accomplished professional musician, married well, had a beautiful son. But I had left them by moving away. Life had become a perpetual farewell.

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