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Monica Porter

Keeping Mum

Reader’s Digest, March 2012

Vera was kind and liberal – the sort of parent you’d always wished you’d had. Or was she? A cautionary Mother’s Day tale from Monica Porter

As mothers go, mine was definitely at the tough end of the scale. She was a control freak long before the term had been invented. Having been brought up herself in a strict, authoritarian household in Central Europe, she didn’t believe in youngsters having too much ‘fun’. For me, growing up in the America of the 1960s – the ‘permissive society’ – this culture clash made for a troubled adolescence.

How I envied my friends their easygoing mums and liberal upbringing. They were allowed out on dates and to pyjama parties, they spent hours gabbing on the phone and ‘hanging out’. I was usually holed up in my room writing angst-ridden poems. If I was allowed to attend a party I’d always be the first to leave, in order to be home by my 10pm curfew, whilst the others raved well into the night. And if some brave boy phoned me up of an evening, my suspicious mother wasn’t beyond listening in on the extension in another room.

I was in my late teens when we moved to London, and soon afterwards I made a new friend, Kati. We were both from Hungarian émigré families which had escaped at the time of the 1956 Uprising, and our fathers – both journalists working in Budapest – knew each other from the old country. Whilst my family had emigrated to America and settled in New York City, later moving here, Kati’s went to Paris.

Kati and I met when my father took me along on a brief trip to Paris, and we hit it off right away. I liked her parents, too. Especially her sweet-natured mother Vera, the epitome of the relaxed and lenient mum.

Kati occasionally invited me to stay at their little Left Bank flat and I loved these little visits sans my parents, who had no idea what I was up to. Kati and I embarked on freewheeling adventures around Gay Paree, partying with the bohemian student crowd, sampling cocktails and smoking lethal French cigarettes and roaring down the Champs Elysees in a sports car driven by the flashy playboy from the flat downstairs.

Once her parents went off to their country cottage and left the place to us. Vera smiled knowingly and said ‘I know you girls would prefer not to have us oldies around.’ What bliss! That woman really understood about giving young people space and freedom. My own mother was always breathing down my neck. (Marriage at the unconscionably tender age of 22 was my chosen means of escape.)

When Kati stayed with me in London, we shared rather less exciting times. My mother was not about to let two girls out on the razzle. Our biggest adventure was being chatted up by a dodgy bearded man while out strolling in Kensington Gardens.

Kati told me her mother was ‘like a girlfriend’ and that she could talk to her about anything. Well, there were plenty of things I couldn’t talk to my mother about. Like sex and relationships and men.

True, my mother had had a more colourful past than Kati’s. In her youth she’d been a glamorous nightclub singer and recording star in Budapest, as well as appearing in numerous films. Vera, as far as I knew, had only been a housewife. But I would have gladly swapped their histories in exchange for a more relaxed upbringing and less grief…

Kati and I lost touch eventually, as friends often do. My life moved on, I married, started a career, had children, got divorced, re-started my career…and so the decades passed. Kati and her family had not entered my thoughts for a long time, until one day, a few years ago, that distant connection suddenly flew back at me in the most unexpected and shocking way.

I was on a trip to Budapest and decided to visit the Terror House, the imposing building on Andrassy Avenue in which the communist political police, the AVO, had been headquartered. Like its Soviet counterpart, the NKVD (later the KGB), the AVO enforced a reign of terror. Countless victims were imprisoned and tortured in the building’s vast, dank basement, for even mildly opposing Moscow’s rule over Hungary. Many died there. It was because of this climate of fear and the complete lack freedom that my parents chose to flee Hungary.

The Terror House is now a museum. After viewing the exhibits on the upper floors, I went down to the basement and saw the labyrinth of dingy, cramped cells. There were instruments of torture – chains, rubber truncheons, pliers, electrical cables for delivering shocks – and the gallows. The final room one enters on this tour of horrors is devoted to the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity. It has a gallery displaying the mug-shots of AVO officers in their military-style uniforms – both men and women. I glanced around at some of the photos.

Suddenly I froze. Amongst the sea of faces was one I remembered well. She was much younger in the photo than when I knew her, but the familiar smile and kindly eyes were the same. The name underneath the picture confirmed it: it was Vera, Kati’s mum. Below her name was stated simply, ‘2nd Lieutenant, AVO’ Of all the people I’d ever known, she was the last I would have associated with that dreaded organisation.

I struggled with the discovery…and with its extraordinary irony. Because in the intervening years since my friendship with Kati, I’d made a major discovery about my mother, too. I was already thirty and a mother myself before I learned that she had risked her life to rescue a group of Jewish friends during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. She had been a genuine hero, sheltering the fugitives in her home for eight months. They slept in the basement and in the event of a police raid, had a specially-created hiding place behind a false wall in a wardrobe. As well as compassion and simple human decency, my mother possessed remarkable courage.

When the dreaded raid finally did take place, the Jews hid in their secret compartment and managed to avoid detection. My mother was nevertheless arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo, but she faced them down. With no evidence against her, and through the intervention of an influential friend, after a fortnight she was grudgingly released. She was, after all, a musical star, and that helped her to survive. Her Jewish fugitives, too, all survived the war.

Finding out what she had done filled me with pride and gave me a new respect for her – all the more so because she had never spoken about it. I wrote a book about her wartime exploits – Deadly Carousel: A Singer’s Story of the Second World War, first published in 1990, and the process of researching it together brought us closer than we had ever been. It was like a bridge which finally connected us.

While Kati’s mother makes an ignominious appearance on the ‘wall of the perpetrators’ at the Terror House, my mother features on another wall – her name, Vali Racz, is engraved in marble on the Honour Wall at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where she is revered as a Righteous Among the Nations. Which daughter would swap Vali for Vera now?

My tale of two mothers has struck me as having an Aesop’s fable quality to it. The clear moral is that, while we rarely know a person’s whole story, it is all too easy to misjudge their character based on only part of it. At some point, whatever grievances we may have against them, we must try to see the whole person. It could really alter our perspective. If we wait too long to do this, one day it will be too late – a particularly sad eventuality if the person in question is our parent.

Kati’s mother had a shameful past, but finally saw the error of her ways. After all, in 1956 she abandoned the dictatorship she had loyally served. And the way I see it, once she was freed from its poisonous grip, her more genial side could take over. That was the good-natured Vera I later knew.

I sometimes wonder whether Kati ever learned about the AVO background. Maybe she too made a trip to that museum at some point, studied the rogues’ gallery in the basement and spotted her mother smiling back at her. Her shock would have been a lot worse than mine.

But after the shock wore off, she would think of all the lovely times with her mother, and how she’d been the best mother anyone could have, so supportive and understanding, ‘like a girlfriend with whom you can talk about anything’…and before long all that secret-police stuff would be explained away, somehow. I believe you can forgive your mother all kinds of sins, if she gave you a happy childhood.

As parents, few of us are perfect. We just hope that our virtues outweigh our failings, and that our children think so. With Kati’s mother and mine, the virtues and failings were in unusually striking counterpoint to each other. But in our own less dramatic ways, we too are generally a mixed bag of pluses and minuses.

I realise that my own peculiar failing – no doubt a reaction to my mother’s strict regime – was to be determinedly laissez-faire with my own children. Perhaps I went too far with my doctrine of ‘benign neglect’. If I’d been tougher with them they would have done better at school, for a start. But with luck, one can make up for these mistakes through one’s grandchildren. My mother certainly did and I think I am too, by being as helpful as I can be.

There’s a question I have teased myself with, from time to time: would I rather have had a carefree adolescence of dancin’, datin’ and goin’ steady, like something out of Happy Days, which left me with blandly pleasant and stereotypical memories? Or my own painful upbringing, leaving me with some doleful recollections but also with a wealth of experience in complex family relationships and cultural dislocation which has been invaluable to me as a writer? The answer has to be the latter…although if I’d pondered such an issue at 16, I might well have concluded the opposite.

And would I rather have had a sweet, laid-back mum with an ignoble past I wouldn’t want anyone to know about, or a martinet who gave me a hard time as a kid but heroically saved lives and is ultimately a role model to be proud of? Again, I have to admit I’d stick with the mother I had.

Most reassuringly, perhaps, this tale has instilled in me the sense that, however unevenly Life deals us our cards, it has a remarkable ability to balance things out in the end. Thus, our trials can one day turn into our treasures.

I think of my mother often, although she died 15 years ago. So many memories. But these days, when I think of her, I tend to remember the good ones. And that’s how it should be with all mothers.