Relationships

Zsa Zsa, Ila and Me

People said my mother sounded like Zsa Zsa Gabor, but the weird thing was that I never heard the accent

Zsa Zsa and Ila were different to be sure.

It seemed fitting that Zsa Zsa Gabor and my mother died just a few weeks apart.

They were both Hungarian, born a year apart, left Budapest because of World War II, had to start a new life in a new country and never lost their thick Hungarian accents.

Zsa Zsa and Ila were different to be sure.

Zsa Zsa was a beauty queen in Hungary, an actress who lived in Beverly Hills and was married eight times. Ila was born a countess in Transylvania, went to school in Budapest, became a social worker in Syracuse, N.Y., and was married to the same man for 42 years.

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But the accent. Oh that delicious, unmistakable accent. In addition to her good looks, the accent was Zsa Zsa's calling card. People would tell me: your mother sounds like Zsa Zsa Gabor.

But here's the weird thing—I never heard the accent. If I was in a crowded room, and someone at the other end was speaking with a Hungarian accent, I could identify it in a second. But my mother, to me, sounded like, well, my mother.

I've been baffled by this phenomenon for years. It's mysterious, but now that my mother is dead, I think that maybe it's part of another, larger puzzle—how much about my parents I didn't know.

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They came to the United States after the war as adults, my mother in her late 20s, my father in his early 40s. They didn't teach me Hungarian when I was a child in the 1950s because they didn't see any way Hungary was going to escape the grasp of the Soviet Union and they wanted me to be an American.

I'm glad they did, because I do feel fully American, but I also didn't really know who they were, not the way my daughter knows who my wife and I are.

I didn't know what they said when they argued or when they thought they were alone but I could eavesdrop on them. Or what they said after a few drinks and their guard was down when their Hungarian friends were over. Or when they spoke Hungarian specifically so I wouldn't know what they were talking about.

So there was always something incomplete about the relationship, something not fully formed. Did I not hear my mother's accent because I didn't want to acknowledge that absence?

I don't know, but I was with her as she lay dying and she could still speak clearly and I never did hear it.

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