“Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.” – Mark Twain
Wow! What an year… I feel that I have gone through a transformation and that I have lived a lifetime in these 11 months. Each experience I’ve had, every person that I met, every single song that I’ve heard and the places that I’ve visited. All of them have inspired me. And I am grateful for each day when I can open my eyes, filled with a desire to achieve and accomplish. It finally feels good to be alive.
I am writing today about someone who I met at one of the most inconvenient times of my life. Earlier this year, I was briefly admitted to the hospital for a suspected appendicitis. It was almost midnight by the time I was given a room to sleep after all the tests were run and other formalities were completed. I sent back my husband and son home and settled down for the night. I was told that I will be taken into surgery early next morning so I didn’t pay much attention to the other occupants in my room. There were four of us in total. And by the next day I had made friends with two of them but it was wise old Annamarie who stole my heart.
At 6 a.m., the next morning, I was told that more tests had to be done so I won’t be taken into the surgery right away, as apparently I was not in enough pain (according to the doctors) to be operated and was to be monitored. It appeared that I was not to be given any food or water and was asked to chill. I was like, “What? I get to sleep my day away, uninterrupted? Where do I sign?” Seriously, I didn’t even care that I was hungry and my bowels were growling at me in protest. I was determined to sleep the day away. Eventually, I woke up at around noon and the other occupants of my room were having mid morning snacks. One of them was in recovery after her own surgery. That’s when Annamarie introduced herself and her friend to me. I like to think that it was her maternal instinct that made her talk to me. Maybe she sensed my wariness and that I was missing my own mum. She didn’t know a single word of English and I obviously didn’t know much of Hungarian either. I ended up teaching her how to use Google translate and we conversed through that.
She was boisterous and effervescent. She had very few teeth and a loud laugh that shook her whole body. Her face was full of wrinkles, each of them telling a different story. She told me that she was 75 years old and was in the hospital for a hernia repair surgery. I asked her who was there with her. She said she had come all alone. That her son was old and had some health issues, so she didn’t want to bother him. She showed me all the scars from the surgeries she’s had all through her life. A c-section scar right in the middle of her belly, her mastectomy scars, another one on her shoulder to remove “some other lump”. She imparted her valuable wisdom in rapid fire Hungarian, while I struggled to understand her. Needless to say I was absolutely enamored by her.
When I was leaving the hospital the next day, without getting an appendectomy, we hugged each other tightly. It was a good bye with such finality and we both knew it. Even though we had spent less than two days together we had tears in our eyes because we were certain that we will never see each other again.
So I dedicate this story to my friend Annamarie. I hope wherever she is, she is happy, and spreading her joy along to others with her infectious adorable laughter.
Annamarie was called the class clown. She was the one who always had a joke or a prank handy. You want a papier mache tail? She’s the girl you asked to make it for you. You want a funny quip to write on the blackboard? Ask Annamarie. She always came up with one. You want to prank the teacher? She had so many of those ideas that her head was always overflowing with them. She was the girl with all the tips and tricks. The one with the loudest laughter and the most artless disposition. A tomboy through and through. She was well loved by all in her class and school.
She was born when the war was just about to end in Europe and was brought up in communist Hungary. When freedom of movement and expression were limited, yet people made the most of a hopeless situation. She would help out her mother whenever required. She learnt how to fix a car from her father. As the only daughter, she was adored and spoiled to a fault. She was only 16 when she met Istvan. He was a 21 years old student. He came to the car shop, where she and her father worked, to fix a flat tire. As her father was unavailable, she offered to do it for him. He laughed at the preposterous idea and told her girls don’t fix flat tires. She laughed back at his naivete and showed him just how it is done. He was immediately smitten! Enchanted by her unremarkable yet exceptional beauty. Her unbridled laughter and joy won him over. He asked her parents for her hand in marriage, and they delightfully to complied.
So, Annamarie and Istvan were married on a typical fall day, in a traditional Christian ceremony. While Istvan was thinking that this was the beginning of the life he wanted, for Annamarie it was the end of hers. No one had asked her if she wanted to marry. No one wanted to know if she was ready for her own family. No one had even bothered to make sure if she loved her new husband. Yet there she was, a terrified 17 years old bride, clutching her white wedding gown in her fists, the satin of which kept slipping away from her sweaty palms, just like her life seemed to have.
In the first few days after their wedding, Istvan noticed how quite Annamarie had become. Gone was her infectious laughter, the light in her eyes had grown dim. What happened to the rambunctious girl he fell in love with? He was puzzled. He tried to win her over, by getting her flowers and gifts, or taking her to the movies. At one of their outings to lake Balaton, he broke down and asked her about her indifference. Annamarie, taken aback by his emotional outburst, confessed about her distress over getting married too early. Her concern about getting pregnant, having a baby, bringing up a family. Her anguish over not being in love with him. On hearing her tearful confession Istvan felt determined to make her fall as much in love with him as he was with her. All he had to do was figure out how to bring back her laughter, her joy for living.
So, he did just that. She enrolled into the university and he encouraged her through her studies. He nurtured her ambitions and reinforced her confidence. She wanted to work and earn, she wanted to be independent. He supported her and spurred her on. She started to work with her father once again, and would come home covered in grease, from head to toe. He would meet her at their door with a wet washcloth and a warm meal.
That’s how Annamarie fell in love with Istvan. It didn’t happen overnight. She gave herself to him, in bits and pieces. She realized that she was irrevocably in love with her husband one day, when he came with their car, which had stopped working, to the repair shop to get it fixed and just stood back, with a giant proud smile on his face, while she worked. As she was working on the car, a male customer made a snide comment about a woman doing a man’s job. She just glared at him and continued working, and fixed the car. Istvan chose not to intervene as he knew of her need for fighting her own battles. He got into the car, started it and it worked perfectly. Then he made a joke about how she is better at handling “tools” than him. She laughed out loud, the same raucous laughter that had him fall head over heels for her all those years ago. It might have taken her 4 years since their wedding, but yes she was finally there. Where she was no longer frightened of the future. In fact, she was eager to welcome it. He had won her over, with constant perseverance and unshakable loyalty.
I like to think that my Annamarie lived happily ever after with her “Istvan”. That she had a long and blissful married life with him. And that the numerous wrinkles on her face are a testimony of a well-lived life.
She did tell me that she had 4 children, and many grandchildren, whom (I like to imagine) she entertains with her dirty jokes and laughs along with theirs. I also like to imagine that she thinks of me as often as I think of her. She was an absolute stranger to me and yet gave me the warmth of a mother when I really needed it. I am eternally grateful for meeting her.