Monday, October 29, 2007

The stuff of childhood

Finally, all of my parents' boxes have arrived. They are stacked neatly in their basement, smaller boxes on top of taller ones, with cryptic signage on the outside, like L/R for living room and "mixed" for well... Mixed stuff.

There are also a bunch of boxes that belong to me. Or rather, they belong to the me that used to live in an apartment in Budapest more than a decade ago. As my parents opened the boxes and my stuff surfaced, they handed things to me as if I should know what to do with it all.

I am grateful, that they brought all my childhood belongings, because let's admit it, the stuff needs to be dealt with at some point in life.

But I am still trying to digest the fact that my parents are here and what that all means in my life, so Barbie dolls and diaries and letters and grandma's evening purse that I used play dress-up with are a bit too much.

I think my parents feel the same way about their kitchen utensils and towels and bedding and picture frames: this stuff doesn't belong in a new life, but yet here they are, taking up space, asking to be dealt with. Things that had a place and purpose in their lives just a few short weeks ago, are now out of place, too clumsy and big for cabinets, not to mention for their non-existing furniture. Nothing has a place - or not enough space - and things that once seemed absolutely necessary for normalcy, for a real life, now seem like a waste of space.

I feel their pain. But as much as I want to help them, I can't. This is their and their stuff's journey. I realize that I was lucky: I had to rearrange the stuff of my life when I was 18, when it all still fit into two suitcases, when it was still easy to leave the stuff behind. Nothing seems important or sentimental when you are 18.

So I am not sure why, but I am certain that despite the depressing sight of all that cardboard in the basement, everything will find its place. Maybe this is just youthful optimism, but stuff just has a way of doing that - flowing in an out of boxes, finding meaning that wasn't there before, and finding hidden nooks and crannies and hidden closet space as time goes on. It just does.

Until then, I think I will help my parents by removing my things from their apartment and making space in my life for my childhood stuff again. For all these years, I've had the luxury if knowing that they were safely tucked away with my parents, so it's time to take them back and take responsibility for them.

I am not sure yet, where my things will all fit, but I am certain that they will.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I like to stand at the foot of the bed and throw myself on the bouncy mattress. My hair splashes around my face like water and I pretend that I am a weightless, powerless body, made out of straw. I turn my palms toward the sky and play dead.

That's what I was doing as he packed his suitcase. The big bed in the hotel room was wide and flexible, so I bounced for a long time. He neatly folded his clothes and placed them in his bag with care. He tucked his Christmas gift under a sweater and even folded my clothes that I left on the floor the night before.

He finally sat down next to me. I knew he wanted me to leave, but I was clinging to every minute with him. He said he'd rather see me leave, than watch me wave as he got on the airport shuttle bus by himself.

He didn't know what to say. He lay next to me and put his head on my shoulder. I touched his hair - so painfully soft- and cried.

"Please tell me that it's going to be all right," I sobbed.
"I can't promise you that; I can't promise you anything," he almost laughed.
"No, not just us - in general."
"Yeah, in general, everything will be all right."

That was the last time I saw him.

Monday, August 13, 2007

This is not my home

I've been feeling sorry for myself lately.

My parents are moving to the U.S. soon and while I can't wait to have them close by again, I can't help but think about all the things that I will miss about being able to go home, to Budapest.

I will not miss the expensive plane tickets and the fact that we only see each other once a year. But I will miss the excitement of planning to go home, the nervous wait for our luggage at the Budapest airport, the rush of seeing Mom, Dad, and Grandma waiting in the crowds. I will miss the cramped ride home in my parents' Skoda - my Mom playing with my ear - and I will miss seeing how much things have changed on the streets of Budapest and how things have stayed the same.

I will miss our old, cold, crumbling apartment building. I will miss going into my childhood room - the smell of the curtains that my Dad washed the day before, blowing in the wind and the sound of the trolley cars on the street below. I will miss feeling so big in a room that used to seem much larger when I was little. I will miss my Dad making a celebratory batch of Wiener schnitzel and my Grandma's hands uncovering a plate of apple pie. I will miss the fact that we barely fit into our kitchen and that I have to sit on the little red stool, shoved between my Dad and brother.

In the larger scheme of life, all of this seems petty of course. I know that. But as I am getting ready to make great, new memories with my parents here, in Maine, I can't help but finally grieve for what I've left behind. Even though I left Budapest more than 12 years ago now, this is the first time that I realize the magnitude of that step. And it sucks.

When I tell Drew that I want to go home, he always says "but this is your home," meaning our little apartment where we've made our nest for the past four years.

But he is wrong.

It's a house, it's a life, it might even be happiness. But this is not my home.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

My inheritance

There is an ongoing joke in my family about what my brother and I have inherited from our parents – all the “bad” stuff. I got my Mom’s big, crooked nose and big belly and butt, and my Dad’s thin hair. My brother also got the thin hair – along with thinning hair – and some of the indecisiveness that is prevalent in my family. Although he takes it to whole new levels – but that is another story.

My parents often say that when they die, we will not inherit a house, or cash, or valuable antiques. So we should appreciate the nose and the belly and the hair.

Growing up, I was not grateful for this sort of inheritance – I wanted a graceful, small nose, a slender figure and lush hair. I had a boyfriend who would tell me that I could never be his wife if I ended up looking like my Mom in my old age.

He need not worry about that.

What I worried about as a teenager was becoming like my Mom on the inside – she was strict and no-nonsense and she had a weird talent of knowing exactly what I was thinking and doing at all times. By the time I came home from school, she already knew that I bombed on my history exam. It was all very uncool.

But of course, life has its funny ways, and I find myself becoming more and more like my parents. I cry during commercials, I tell Drew to put his hat and gloves on when it’s cold outside, and I always cook way too much food. I can only imagine what else I will say and do when I have kids that will make me stop in my tracks and realize that I am just like my Mom.

The nose, the butt, and the belly are still in place but I have a friendlier relationship with them these days. Looking at some old family photos recently, I noticed a picture of my great-grandmother as a young woman wearing a fabulous hat, and she had the exact same profile as mine and my Mom’s. My Mom’s soft hug makes me hopeful that one day my curves will provide the same comfort.

I am more aware of other resemblances too and I treasure them more than I used to. I have my Dad’s warm, melancholic eyes, his sarcastic humor, his long fingers – so does my brother. I also inherited my Mom’s go–getter attitude and strength and ability to do 20 things at the same time. I also have her impatience and my Dad’s ability to laugh at the same impatience.

I can just look in the mirror and know exactly where I came from. In the end, that’s a pretty good inheritance.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dear Diary: What was I Thinking?

This is one of the classic stories from my childhood: I got a new bike when I was about eight or nine years old. The neighboring apartment building had a large yard with some grass and trees and a parking lot where all of the neighboring children and their parents would gather in the afternoons for play dates and gossip.

My friend, Kata, really wanted my new bike. So she would say to me: “Hey, Zsofi, come here! I want to show you something!” Curiosity got the best of me and I got off my bike, walked over to her and she ran to my bike, got on, and rode away happily.

I don’t quite remember this incident, but apparently she did this to me about 10 times that afternoon and I fell for it every single time. My mom watched from the bench, along with Kata’s mom, hoping that I would catch on.

I didn’t.

How many times have I heard this story? Way too many, in my opinion. Kata is perfectly nice and we are still friends and really, she did what every other kid would have done. But the story still embarrasses me today, every time I hear it.

In fact, a lot of things from my childhood and young adulthood still embarrass me for some reason.

A couple of evenings ago I had a glass of wine and decided to read some old diaries. I shouldn’t have… The diaries were from my junior and senior years in high school and from college and after reading them I couldn’t look in the mirror for a couple of days from sheer horror and embarrassment.

As a teenager, I was SO stupid. I was so gullible and naïve and emotional, not to mention irrational and needy and clingy. What was I thinking? It’s not that I made too many bad choices; it’s that everything was such a BIG DEAL. A wink from a boy sent me over the edge, or an innocent word from my parents enraged me for days. Where did my cool go? Did I have any dignity at all? Was I all hormones and no reason? What was I doing kissing a 28-year-old French saxophone player? And even worse, how did I ever think that he would fall in love with a 17-year-old high school girl?

My current self was – and still is – mortified. I had to stop reading after a while and lock the diaries away for at least another ten years. Hopefully by then all of the pink ink I used will have faded into eternity.

When Drew got home that evening, I told him about my findings and he reassured me that no, I wasn’t a hormone-crazed, irrational, emotional wreck anymore. He also wanted to read the diaries, but I’d rather swallow the keys before I let that happen!

I am not sure why I was so embarrassed about my younger self. After all, everyone goes through awkward years, bad boyfriends, bad fashion choices, and arguments with parents and siblings.

I guess part of me was horrified for putting my poor parents through this. It must have been no picnic for them to live with me and to keep me out of trouble. And another part of me was – is – afraid that there is still a side of me that can easily revert to a crazy 17-year-old or 22-year-old at any moment. And I am not so sure that I wouldn’t still fall for Kata’s trick at let her ride off with my bike.

I haven’t kept a diary since college. It seems that once all of the drama of my life was over and I had to get up at 5 a.m. for my job at a newspaper – no more parties, no more international romance – life got a little too mundane for words. I do remember that as I was writing my diaries, I kept thinking how great it will be to read them a couple of years down the road and relive all of my misadventures.

Instead, the diaries turned into a cautionary tale and they made me realize a couple of things:
1. It is a wonder any of us survive our teenage years.
2. It is a wonder our parents still talk to us after our teenage years.
3. My future daughter better watch out because she will not be able to get away with anything. I’ve literally been there, done that, and I have the diary to prove it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

You are what your spouse eats

We are all familiar with “Freshman 15” — those extra couple of pounds new college students pile on during the first year of school. But a lesser-known phenomenon is the “Newlywed 20” — or 30, or 40 — that pile on during the first couple of years of newlywed bliss.

I admit that I don’t have the healthiest eating habits. I grew up on chicken paprika and Wiener schnitzel and lots of other pork parts with potatoes or gnocchi. At home, my parents cooked with lard, or if they wanted to be “healthier” they used goose fat. While delicious, it was certainly not the American Heart Association approved diet.

But when Drew bought Steak-Ums for one of our first dinners together as a married couple, I knew that we were going to have to do some negotiating about what goes into the fridge and into our bellies. Thankfully, we have similar tastes and no food allergies, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what the other can or can’t eat. I try to avoid hard-boiled eggs and tuna because Drew doesn’t like them, and Drew tries to dial down the hot pepper flakes in his cooking, but other than that, everything else is fair game.

Over the years, I branched out in my cooking away from Hungarian cuisine and into seafood and Italian dishes. Drew is staying away from the processed meat-like products and experiments with more fresh and low-fat ingredients. His staple seasoning is still beer — but once you try his burgers steamed in beer, you’ll understand that that’s not a bad thing.

Unfortunately, all this negotiating paid off a little too well, because five years later we are still carrying around that “newlywed 20.” We love to cook and eat together every night. We like to nosh on some hummus and pita while there is a nice pork chop in the skillet with some couscous in the pot. We love to sit and talk for hours at the dinner table over a glass of wine. We enjoy a $200 meal as much as we do burgers from Rapid Ray’s in Saco.

While we don’t want to weigh 600 pounds each on our 10th anniversary, I don’t think we’d ever want to change the basics of the way we enjoy food. Everything just tastes so much better when we eat it together. Food is something we bond over, just another part of our lives that we want to share. Cooking and eating involves all of our senses — the sizzle of the grill, the smell of the wine hitting the pan, the smooth skin of a fresh mushroom, the crisp crunch of an asparagus on the tongue — and watching Drew cook is incredibly endearing and fun. He is a very messy cook with lots of spices flying and sauces splashing around the kitchen, but I never mind the clean-up.
Sitting down together every night opens up lots of opportunities to talk and share things that happened during the day, to talk about things that might be uncomfortable under other circumstances, or just have a spirited discussion about politics or religion. Sometimes I think some of our dinner guests might think that we are crazy — but we really do debate and argue serious issues over dinner. It helps our digestion.

Realizing that getting so much pleasure out of eating might cause problems down the road, we’ve made some changes in our habits; we walk more, instituted salad days, banned canned or boxed meats a long time ago, and, weather permitting, we walk a few miles to Rapid Ray’s when the craving hits.

I don’t know if we’ll ever lose our “newlywed 20.” But I hope that we will never lose our need to spend our evenings together over a plate of good — and somewhat healthy — food.

And of course, dessert.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Make up, don't break up

Everyone is breaking up.

The past couple of weeks I’ve heard about at least three couples who broke up in my small circle of friends and acquaintances. Some were married, some not, but the results ended up to be the same.

What’s going on? Is there something in the air or the water?

Hearing about the demise of these relationships made me worry. These couples seemed to be so solid, so happy, so normal. Did they know it was coming? Does anyone ever know that it’s coming?

It is so hard to see into relationships. Couples that seem to be well-matched on the surface could be struggling to stay together, and some odd couples that I would never put together are thriving. I often wonder what people think of me and Drew. Do we make sense to the outside observer? Someone who doesn’t know Drew might think that he’s large and loud and a little arrogant. I’m flighty and moody and somewhat neurotic. I know that we have a great time together, but I doubt that we make sense to those around us.

Hearing of all these breakups, my first instinct is to feel superior: this would never happen to us. But then I start to worry — if it happened to these other, normal couples, could it happen to us? Is this a monster waiting under our bed?

So I turned to Drew with the questions: “Are we OK? Is there anything we need to talk about?” Maybe our calm, quiet relationship is about to implode and I just don’t know it. Maybe the next time I argue with him about the temperature of the dryer will be the last drop in his glass and that will be the end of it.

I’d like to think that we know each other better, that if we had really serious problems we would talk to each other and we wouldn’t let things get out of hand. But these breakups also reminded me that the trust and respect we built over the years are fragile and we can’t take them for granted. We can’t assume that just because we’re married our spouse is going to put up with hurtful comments or annoying habits forever and that the cup will never overflow. Even though we’re settled down in a stable relationship, we have to keep changing and growing to maintain and strengthen our bond.

We reassured each other that neither of us has any unspoken hurts or issues that can bubble to the surface unexpectedly. We usually nip things in the bud before they become big problems or big resentments. Yes, he finds it annoying that I think that my clothes can shrink even after 200 washes, and yes I think it’s ridiculous that all of our magnets have to align perfectly on our fridge, but these are surely no reasons for divorce.

“We are doing just fine,” Drew told me last night after we spent the evening listening to one of his friends who is on the receiving end of a break-up.

And that’s all I need to know.

Keeping the family ties

I am very lucky.

I am very close to my family. We email each other every day and we talk a couple of times on the phone every week. We discuss everything, make big decisions together, ask for each other’s opinion before making personal decisions, and we are always looking out for each other. We have little inside jokes, stories that only we find funny — like the time our car started smoking on a trip to Austria and in the confusion my mom yelled for my brother to stay in the car while we all scurried to the side of the road.

We’ve always been like this, ever since I can remember. Sure, we live far apart right now, but that hasn’t changed these dynamics so far. I might have gigantic phone bills, but I still call my parents first when something big happens, or if I am having a bad day, or if I need advice on anything.

And that is a problem now that I’m married. Well, it’s not a problem for me, but it is a problem for Drew. And so it is a problem for me.

But how do I stop? My parents have known me since, well, birth, and my brother and I shared a room well into our teenage years. We tell each other the stuff that we can’t tell our parents and we are the keepers of each other’s childhood memories. It’s hard for anyone to compete with that.

So, the first step was to realize that I was doing this. It’s so natural for me to pick up the phone and talk to my parents — I don’t even have to think about it. Don’t know if I should take that job offer? Call Mom. Can’t decide what to cook for dinner? Call Mom. Having a really bad day? Call my parents. And my brother too, while I’m at it. Sometimes, I’ll be talking to Mom on her cell phone, while my brother will be talking to my Dad on their land line. That way, all four of us are connected. It’s weird, I know.

But I never looked at it from Drew’s perspective. After I’ve discussed everything with my family, I didn’t have to say anything to Drew about my crisis. It was solved, after all. But that just made him feel like his opinion didn’t matter, as if he didn’t have a say in my life. And he’s not the only one who was bothered by this: my brother’s wife, Jenny, is also uncomfortable with our closeness. Neither of their families are like mine — sure, they might get along and talk a few times a month, but if something big is going down, Drew’s first call is to me.

It’s a tricky balancing act, letting Drew in and showing him that his opinion matters, while also maintaining the bond I have with my family. He is slowly beginning to understand that my family’s relationship — while weird and unnatural to him — is what makes me, me. At times, I think he might even be a little jealous of what we share and he enjoys being a part of our crazy clan.

I’m learning to share more with him and involve him more in every dilemma I face, big or small. He’s turning out to be a patient listener with his own twist on every situation, and I must admit that I enjoy the variety of opinions I get from all sides.

In the next couple of months, my parents will be moving to Maine. It will be a time of adjustment for all of us — they will be getting used to a new country, town, apartment, jobs and grocery store. I’ll be getting used to lower cell phone bills and having them close by again and also balancing my time between them and Drew.

I’m really looking forward to their move, even though I’m aware that it’s not going to be easy for any of us in the beginning. But at least I have lots of places to turn for advice.

Friday, July 6, 2007

A girl's best friends

I was thinking about friends and friendships recently after I had dinner with my best friend, Abby. I realized that she is currently my only good friend, or friend in general — one that I actually meet up with and go shoe shopping or have long discussions with about life in general.

Once “real life” starts it is so hard to find new friends — everyone has jobs and families and it’s not like you can pick up a friend at a bar. Nobody has time to sit over a glass of wine and figure out the meaning of the world anymore. And suddenly the meaning of the world doesn’t even seem that important. Abby and I struggle just to understand our husbands, let alone the world!
I am not ashamed to say that Abby is my only true close friend. I feel like I can talk to her about anything and she will know exactly where I’m coming from and won’t judge me or think that I’m crazy. And she will also tell me when I really am crazy — a sign of a true friend.

At times I think that maybe it’s weird to have just one such close friend, but then I realize that she follows three other best friends in line, who have been with me during various times in life.

There was Dius — we went to elementary school together and her Mom happens to be my Mom’s best friend even today. Dius and I played “office” where we were employees of an imaginary travel agency, serving the growing demands of a certain “Mrs. Wagner,” played by my Mom. I am still in touch with Dius (she has two kids and is divorced). When I saw her last fall for the first time in about 15 years, I was still expecting to see her as a 15-year-old. It was shocking to talk to her about childbirth and divorce and dating, and not about Mrs. Wagner’s upcoming trip to Paris.

In college, there was Myt, who introduced me to bar life. We charted our lives on napkins according to the teachings of our philosophy professor. I still have the chart and, strangely, when I look at the lines leading from “Magic Fingers” (code name for a German exchange student), to Coach’s (the local college bar), to “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” (one of our philosophy professor’s many famous sayings), it all makes sense. The chart represents a great time in my life and I know that even though Myt and I live far apart and we might lose touch from time to time, I will always keep the chart and miss her.

After college I lived with Rose for a summer and she came home with me to Hungary a couple of times for Christmas and for my wedding. She wore lots of black and was mysterious and very smart and we smoked together and talked about love and life and the meaning of it all. I lost touch with her a couple of years ago and I haven’t been able to track her down. I am sometimes afraid that I’ve done something to offend her, although I can’t think of what it might be. When I’m having a bad day, I still get out the “drink alone” wine glass that she bought me for a birthday and think of her.

When I was growing up, I always thought that my Mom was a little obsessive about keeping in touch with her friends, remembering birthdays, planning special surprises for her best friend, hunting for days for the perfect gift, anticipating meeting her friends almost like it was a date. There was probably lots of eye-rolling going on from my part. Friends weren’t that crucial to me when I was 14.

But I’ve noticed that as I’ve grown older, my friendships have become just as important as they were to my Mom and suddenly I understand her efforts in maintaining these relationships. I especially noticed that when I turned 30, suddenly Dius and Myt and Rose were not just old buddies, but they were the people who were witnesses to my life and I was a witness to theirs. Even if we are not as close as we used to be, even if we don’t talk daily, even if I don’t know every intimate detail of their lives like I used to, I know that we could pick up right where we left off.

And if you would leave Abby and me alone with a bottle of wine for a long time, we might just solve the world’s problems.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Money Talks

A few weeks ago Drew and I made a significant payment on a credit card that will take us a step closer to being completely debt free before we venture into buying a house. We high-fived each other after we wrote the check and congratulated ourselves for being so mature and organized about handling our finances. Our Tuesday night bill-paying and financial planning powwows were finally paying off - literally.

It was not always so.

I admit: I am the spender of the family. I love to shop. Drew, on the other hand, does not admit that he is a shopper or a spender, even though he is. He might not be spending on clothes or shoes, but his are bigger ticket items: A digital camera here, a set of bagpipes there, or lunch for his entire staff. And when he does shop for clothes or shoes, he is not the kind who will wait for a sale or scour the aisles at TJ Maxx for a bargain.

This is not a problem now that we are both making pretty good salaries, but at the start of our marriage, we had issues. Not only did we not have a lot of money, we were somehow ashamed to talk about the fact that we had to budget. I think he was feeling pressure to “provide” for me and I didn’t want to adjust to being accountable with my money to someone else. This lead to many fights and some nasty surprises on our bank statements at the end of the month.
Talking to my friends, I was relieved to find out that our past arguments about money and our continuing struggles to come to terms with how to handle finances are the norm.

What still shocks me is that fights about money always get so personal. There is always so much guilt and emotion during these fights, even though they are about “just money.” Money, which technically should not be making us happy or unhappy, yet the way we handle money can come to exemplify childhood hurts and reflect our upbringing and our values. These arguments bring to surface our expectations of what we want our lives to be, and brings us face to face with what our lives are not.

And that’s even before the checkbook is balanced.

Drew and I still struggle to define how we communicate about money. How do I ask for his ATM receipts without sounding like I am nagging or checking up on his spending? How does he tell me that I should put off a purchase in favor of paying a bill without sounding like he is trying to control me? How do I fit something simple like a pedicure into our budget, without feeling like I have to ask for an allowance?

There is no one answer that will work for every couple. Even though we have our financial routines down to a science now, Drew still gets frustrated from time to time and I still get emotional and defensive. But we are sitting together every Tuesday night, checkbook and bills in hand, and we are talking about what we hope to achieve together, as a couple – a house, a baby, maybe, finally, a honeymoon.

And that’s hard to get defensive about.

Spousal support

I spent this past Saturday night in a very crowded and warm church, sitting on an impossibly uncomfortable pew. It wasn’t some religious fervor that drove me there and, trust me, I do have better ways of spending a lovely summer evening. But my husband, Drew, is a member of a community chorus that held its concert this weekend and, as his wife, I felt like I had to be there.

I wanted to be there.

As I sat there, trying to ignore the spasm that was forming in my back, I thought of all the events I attended to show my support for him. There were the firefighter conventions in Pennsylvania, where he participated in the “battle of the barrel” with his fellow firefighters (two opposing teams try to keep a barrel in the air by aiming high-powered fire hoses at it). While he was engaged in some manly bonding time, I spent the day fighting mosquitoes, trying to find some shade and a not-too-revolting bathroom.

Lately, since he’s taken up bagpiping and joined a Highland band, I spent plenty of time helping him get dressed in his Scottish warrior outfit: shirt, kilt, knee socks, the funny white socks that go over his shoes and have several tiny buttons, the sporran that goes under the huge belt and buckle, little tassels that go under the socks just so, and a hat. It takes about 30 minutes to get ready. For his first parade, we had to get up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to drive to New Hampshire. I spent the day carrying various pieces of bagpiping equipment, marching along with the band (uphill for miles) and taking pictures. The day ended at a pub in Portsmouth, with about 20 men in kilts, drinking Guinness. I was in need of a drink by then as well.

I can’t say that none of these little adventures are fun. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy men in skirts? And I have seen places and met people that I otherwise would not have. But sometimes I wonder if husbands show the same devotion to their spouse’s hobbies as wives do. Or am I overdoing it by supporting Drew and going to all these events without complaint?
It might also be that my hobbies are more solitary pursuits. They don’t require a special dressing routine or long drives — pottery and writing are not exactly spectator sports. Drew dutifully encourages me to continue with my pottery and my writing, but I don’t know for sure that he has read all of these columns, for example. I can’t really say that this bothers me — I like to write, it’s my “thing” that I do for me, not for any other reason. And I assume that he wouldn’t really care if I skipped a concert or stayed in bed for a parade.

But there is something about being there for him so that when he looks out in the crowd, he sees a familiar face that is rooting just for him. He usually gives me a little wink to let me know that he has spotted me in the crowd and then it feels like it’s just the two of us there and he is singing or playing just for me.

I suppose all this will change once we have a Baby Drew to take to soccer games or band concerts. Then it will be the two of us on the sidelines and I think I’m going to let Drew figure out the soccer uniform. That’s only fair, don’t you think?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A trip down memory lane

Last weekend I returned to my alma mater for alumni weekend. It was the first time since I graduated nine years ago that I returned for any organized event or spent any time on campus. My husband, Drew, was a member of the college choir that celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, so it was in a way really his reunion. I went along for the ride, expecting to maybe run into a couple of old classmates, but not expecting much else.

In the end, the weekend inspired a bit of soul searching and nostalgia. My former classmates all looked exactly like they did nine years ago. This disturbed me, because when I look in the mirror I see wrinkles and lines that were not there before. I am possibly chubbier, but maybe a little better dressed than in college — I wear a lot less flannel anyway. I was also worried that somehow I wouldn’t measure up. I imagined that they were onto bigger and better things than I am, that they were happier, more accomplished, more together than I am. That fear was quickly put to rest: The girl who has the high powered corporate job seemed very sad and lonely; those who have kids seemed way too happy to be away from them for a weekend; and most of my classmates thought that my job sounded “cool.”

I had some time while Drew was rehearsing with the choir to sit on the steps of the theater building on campus and reminisce about my time as a college student. I didn’t expect that seeing campus — the buildings, the lawn, the cafeteria — would evoke such vivid memories that I thought were long gone. I suddenly remembered people I haven’t even thought of in years. I had sharp flashbacks of small events: of saying good night to a boyfriend under the arches of Cloister Hall; of realizing that I really want to be an English major in the middle of accounting class; of learning to drive in the parking lot of Lesher Hall; of opening my mailbox, hoping to find a red package slip in it; of sitting in the cafeteria with all of the other international students, drinking tea for long hours. All of these memories were accompanied by not just the visuals, but all of the sounds and feelings of those moments now long gone. I had goose bumps all weekend.

What was the most disturbing was to watch students — the class of 2010! — live and learn and grow in the places where I used to live and learn and grow. They seemed incredibly young and free and careless, and I was jealous. I’d like to think that places change because they have transformed me; that just like I am never the same, they too are forever altered. But that is not the case. While there might be a couple of new buildings on campus, the mood, the smells, the sounds of the school are the same as in 1998, when I left. I was jealous to think that now a new crop of students is experiencing this without me; that they still have a journey in front of them and that Cloister Hall doesn’t care that I was kissed there or that Good Hall can’t really appreciate the fact that I found my life’s calling in one of its classrooms. The buildings have moved on and I am stuck with memories.

As I said, it was a complicated weekend. I know that I am who I am because of everything that happened there — good and bad. I do miss that old life, but at the end of the weekend, I was ready to come home. I was also grateful that I could tuck away all of these memories on a remote Pennsylvania college campus for safekeeping.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Big 3-1

Birthdays are always disappointing. I go to bed the night before thinking that the next morning I will wake up and feel different. I hope I will feel smarter and wiser and more confident; that I will instantly know what I want out of my life and what I don’t want and how to get there; and that there will be an unusual spring in my step.

The next morning the alarm goes off and it’s Wednesday. I have to get up, go to work, and instead of feeling new, I feel like my same old self — not wiser, not smarter, not knowing more about the world around me.

It happens this way every year and it’s been happening since I can remember my birthdays. The thing that I do enjoy about birthdays is when my parents call and recount the day I was born. It is always the same story, obviously, but in the story itself there is always so much hope and promise that it gives me hope that maybe this will be the year when it will all click.
I turned 31 last week and I think I’m having a harder time with this than with turning 30. Turning 30 was something to celebrate. It was a nice, round number. A rite of passage, if you will.

But turning 31 seems like a whole different era is about to begin — or maybe it’s already underway. It feels like everything important that is going to happen in my life will be determined in the next nine years: having children, figuring out my career, hitting the decade marker with my husband and helping my parents settle into their new life in the U.S. This is the first year when I really feel that I need to get my butt in gear, so to speak.

There is suddenly urgency to everything, every decision. When I turned 25, it wasn’t a big deal to think that “well, maybe I’ll have kids when I am 26 or 27.” But now it matters whether I’ll have kids at 32 or 36. At 25, it was OK to feel that my career was without direction, but I am not so sure that it’s still all right. At 25, I didn’t think about my parents getting older, or taking care of them. Even though they are still young and healthy, that thought crosses my mind more and more often these days. This is all important, grown-up stuff that I should feel ready for, right?

But the truth is, instead of feeling ready, I feel the same panic that I felt when I turned 18 or 20 or 29. I woke up on those birthdays with uncertainty and with questions swirling in my head — and it wasn’t any different last Wednesday. The answers are not clearer, the path doesn’t seem to be easier. It is the same old me — only now I am actually “older.”

So I wonder: If I feel the same year after year, is there some sort of cumulative knowledge and wisdom that happens throughout the years without my realization?

There must be, because I was ready to graduate from college when I turned 22; I was ready to get married when I turned 26; and I was ready to become a U.S. citizen when I turned 30.

I hope that the panic I feel is normal, that secretly I do know the answers. The real trick might be to trust the panic and to trust that I will know what to do next.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Free marriage advice available here!

Now that the official start of the wedding season is upon us, I’d like to share some marriage advice that I’ve accumulated over the last five years of my marriage. It might not work for everyone, but you can pick and choose the ones that have meaning for you. And as with all free advice – it’s only worth as much as you paid for it!

1. Speak up! If your spouse does something that annoys you – whether it’s something small like leaving socks in the middle of the living room; or something big, like not listening to you – you need to speak up early. Even if it sounds silly, even if you feel like you are nagging. If you don’t say something now, you will become resentful towards those socks and eventually towards your spouse. And the poor guy/girl won’t even know what hit her/him when you finally blow up after years of putting up and shutting up.

2. Be nice to your mother-in-law. And your brother-in-law. And your grandpa-in-law. It’s not important to like them, but it’s important to recognize that they are your spouse’s crazy family. You have yours, don’t you? So respect each other’s families and accept that everyone’s family is a little nuts.

3. Snuggle.

4. You will have fights. This is normal. It doesn’t mean that the marriage is over, or that you don’t love each other anymore. It just means, that well, you are humans. But don’t bring up past hurts or attack each other’s personalities or any of that other nasty stuff. Be fair. And never underestimate the healing power of a good fight, cry, a heavy door you can slam, and then open up to make up.

5. Leave something to the imagination – please. All right, so you can’t hide your hair removing devices for the rest of your life, and you can’t be lady-like when you have the stomach flu, or that nasty zit on your back. But it’s not going to kill you to take off your ex-boyfriend’s boxers and your high school T-shirt for a couple of nights, and slip into something cuter, right? This is true for guys too – contrary to popular belief, your high school mesh T-shirt isn’t attractive either.

6. Put down the toilet seat. Really.

7. Get away from each other! Get a hobby! Go out with friends! Please, do not become one of those couples that only do things together. It’s really annoying to your friends and ultimately very bad for your relationship. You need to go out and have your own adventures so that you can keep coming home and have something new and fun to share.

8. Talk about money. All. The. Time. This sucks, but it’s the best way to make sure that you can achieve your financial goals and have enough left for lattes. One person always ends up being the spender and the other the saver. (If you are both spenders, good luck to you!) Respect each other’s money habits, but be flexible and compromise. Nobody should have to ask his/her spouse for spending money.

9. Stop blaming it on PMS! Both of you!

10. You will only know what “for richer for poorer; for sickness and in health” means when one of you gets sick or you struggle with money. They are both worth living through together – you will be the stronger for it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Parent Filter

There was a time when I told Mom everything. There was really nobody around me who understood me better, who was more compassionate and who had better advice. This lasted through high school and college, through friends, boyfriends and career choices. She’s a good listener, and while her advice didn’t always sound popular at first, it usually worked.

But lately, my brother and I have started many conversations by saying: “We really shouldn’t tell this to the parents.” It’s not that we’re doing anything illegal or shameful, but as we have become more “grown up” our issues have also grown more complicated. We’re finding it harder to talk about our problems without feeling like we’re letting our parents down or causing them to worry unnecessarily. They raised us to be able to take care of ourselves, so we don’t want to show when we waiver in our independence.

For example, if I have a fight with my husband, will they think that we’re having major marital problems? If I complain about my brother, will they worry that we’re not that close anymore? If I talk about my thoughts about having a baby, will they just think it’s silly and we should just get on with it? If I tell them what keeps me up at night, will I just give them something extra to worry about, without the power to be able to help? My brother and I already know not to complain too soon if we don’t feel well, or need to see a doctor, because then the worrying might go into overdrive.

My brother and I also run into this parent-filtering problem because we live half a world away from our parents. While they might remember what it was like to be 30, they really don’t know what it’s like to be 30 in the United States, in the 21st century. When they were 30, they had two kids and lived in communist Hungary. It was a very different world from the one my brother and I now inhabit and we sometimes find that while their advice is wise, it doesn’t always apply to our situation. I think it must be just as difficult for them to not be able to help us with problems because they’ve never experienced them.

Do parents want this kind of filtering? I assume they don’t — most parents want to know what’s going on with their children; they want to help and they want to worry. They think that they can always come to our rescue, even when the problems are the kinds they never had to deal with. And secretly, we do want them to come and help us.

But the reality is that they can’t. We’re the ones who have to stand our ground during a fight with a spouse or settle a disagreement with a sibling. We have to go to the doctor alone and deal with the poking by ourselves. We have to decide when and how to have a baby and whether we’re ready for it. We need to deal with difficult bosses and impossible in-laws and the mortgage company. There is nobody else to do it for us; we can only count on the fact that our parents have prepared us well for these battles.

It is good to know though, that if we REALLY need to, we can always pick up the phone in the middle of the night. Our parents really won’t mind a sleepless night.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What nobody tells you

My brother, Andras, recently had a sort of awakening about the facts of married life. He was married last October and he and his wife, Jenny, are still in the stage of newlywed bliss when couples call each other “honey” and “baby” and there is a lot of kissing and hugging going on.
A few weeks ago though, Jenny’s grandmother died. They made the drive to Virginia for the funeral and my brother hoped that he could sort of get lost in the crowd and just be there quietly to support Jenny.

It was not to be … Within a few hours of their arrival, he found himself as one of the pallbearers—probably not a very pleasant duty. I think he was still a bit shaken up by the experience when we talked a few days later.

“Nobody tells you this kind of stuff,” he said. “Nobody tells you before the wedding that in a couple of months you are going to be carrying your wife’s grandmother to her grave.”
Ah, yes. There are many things nobody talks about before the wedding. Usually everyone involved is very concerned about your gown or tux, the color of the napkins, the flowers, the cake and picking the right photographer. Nobody talks about the nitty-gritty details of everyday married life and the stuff you’ll have to go through for and because of your spouse.

My little after-wedding surprise was an early morning phone call from Drew on a sunny Saturday, just a month after our wedding. As a volunteer firefighter, he was on a practice burn with his fire company when his gear failed and he got burned from shoulder to elbow. A month before that day, when I was all decked out in a beautiful wedding gown and we danced the night away, the last thing I expected was bandaging third-degree burns on my beloved’s arm. I wouldn’t have even thought that I actually knew how to take care of burn injuries.

And that’s the thing about marriage. No matter how big your extended family might be, suddenly it’s just the 2 of you in this little cocooned unit. When your spouse is in trouble or pain, it’s you who is going to get the phone call, not his mom, or siblings or friends. You are the one who has to bandage the wounds, carry the casket, make the chicken soup or drive to the emergency room.

In the process, you realize that you have all these skills that you never thought you had—you suddenly become an expert nurse, a master chef and a therapist all in one. And what’s even better, is that in return, you suddenly have your own personal nurse, chef and therapist.
Of course, marriage is not all about injuries and death. You’ll also discover a lot of perks—like someone to warm your cold feet at night without much complaint. And somehow along the way, “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” will suddenly make a lot more sense than it did when you first uttered those words.

What's in a bag?

I am on a quest for the perfect purse.

Maybe only women will understand this, but that does not diminish the seriousness of the mission. The purse is an integral part of a woman’s life and I bet I would be hard-pressed to find any woman who hasn’t been on this quest before.

Some women will never find “The One.” Some will search for years until one rainy afternoon, on the bottom of a sales rack, their unsuspecting but hopeful hands will come upon the softest leather, the best little hidden pockets and the perfect length strap.

I have found my match once, and I am afraid that no such luck will ever come my way again. It was about 9 years ago when one of my friends gave me a very small, black, beaded purse. It was very dysfunctional, as far as purses go, but I couldn’t care less: it was love at first sight. It fit my wallet, lip balm and keys. On the inside there was a little coin purse — also beaded. The bag had a woven strap that was long enough that I could fling it across my shoulder. It was practical for day, but small and elegant enough for night. The purse and I went everywhere together. As the little bag gently bumped against my right hip, all was right with the world.

A woman’s relationship with a bag can start at an early age. I got my first purse when I was about 4 or 5: it was white with a red apple on the flap. My Dad brought me a marble every day from work and the little white bag was the best place to keep them.

Once I started school, I entered the “I carry my entire life on my back” phase. For those next 14-15 years of elementary, middle, high school and college, there really was no need for frilly little purses. It was heavy-duty backpack time.

After graduating from college, I was more than happy to downsize to the little black beady bag, and for a while it served its purpose perfectly.

The first sign of trouble came when I purchased a car and later a cell phone. I had a hard time fitting both my keys and the phone. I knew that something had to change, but I was reluctant and, frankly, in denial about the limited abilities of my favorite bag.

But unfortunately, the little bag couldn’t take the stress and slowly started to fall apart — first just a couple of beads fell off, then the strap broke. Thus, the great search began.
First I tried the no-bag policy, but that just seemed plain silly. Next came a small, clutch-style bag, with a very short strap that tucked under my shoulder. It wasn’t much improvement from the favorite purse, because it was just as tiny. While living in a larger city, I also tried the messenger bag and the backpack, but they didn’t exactly scream city chic, not to mention the disapproving looks I got as I tried to navigate crowded buses. The straw bag looked like I got lost on my way to the beach, and I definitely was not hip enough for the red studded and fringed number I tried for a couple of days.

I’ve also been through professional-looking briefcases, leather backpacks, L.L. Bean totes, suede, embroidered bags — but honestly, they just weren’t me. They were either too serious, or not quite serious enough, too girly, too soft, too … something.

Then one day, Drew, my husband, finally shined a light on the whole purse issue for me. I think he was pretty sick of standing around department stores while I searched piles of bags like a mad woman.

“Could it be,” he said, “that this is not really about the purse, but where you are in life?”

Great. So now I am not only looking for a bag, I am trying to find the true meaning of my existence. I bet Macy’s doesn’t have a coupon for that.

But I had to admit that he was right. Maybe I just have to accept that I am stuck somewhere between the beaded party bag and a diaper bag. While the days of carrying just a lipstick and keys are over, I am also not ready for carrying around sewing kits, science projects, a week’s worth of groceries and baby wipes either.

So, while the quest continues and I never leave a store without checking out the bag section, I am a little less obsessed with my search. I trust that the right bag will come along when I am ready for it.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

For children, the answer to this question seems obvious: astronaut, firefighter, doctor or stewardess. Even though our parents are secretaries, car technicians, bankers, insurance salesmen or stay at home moms, as children we believe that something more exciting, fun and dangerous is out there for us. But what if our expectation of an amazing career in an exciting field doesn’t become reality?

I have to admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of a crisis lately when it comes to my professional life. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but one question has been nagging me for a while: Is this IT? The idea that for the rest of my life this is what I have to look forward to — get up, go to work, go home, eat dinner, go to bed — is daunting.

Let me start out by saying that I like my job. It is actually related to what I studied in college (writing and business) and what I do might actually make a difference in people’s lives — even if not directly. I work for a small publishing company with people I like, the pay is not bad, I get to travel a little bit and the work itself is creative and exciting. I do learn new things from my bosses and colleagues, there is a cute puppy in the office and even my cubicle is a luxurious, large model.

But let’s be honest — what I do is not extraordinary. It is not going to change the world or heal people, and if I got hit by a bus, another 20 people with the same skills would line up in my place. And while I am committed to doing a good job, this is not my life’s passion. Does anyone grow up wanting to be a marketing and editorial coordinator?

I have to wonder: Do most people feel this way about their jobs? Is it normal to feel this way? We are taught from an early age that picking a profession is serious business — from the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question to choosing a major in college, we are encouraged to examine what we are good at, what we love to do, what our unique talents are. We are also told that if we work hard enough, we can be anything we want to be and that every little girl and boy has the opportunity to grow up to be the President.

Unfortunately, we are not told exactly how we are supposed to figure out what brings us meaning, or that the search will be slow and painful and will probably not happen for a few decades. In the end, we might not find meaning at all, no matter how hard we work. Reality sets in pretty early in our careers: No matter what your dream job might be, sometimes you just have to take a job, any job, because you have to pay bills. How do you balance that with your search for meaningful work? And how do you deal with the realization that you might never become the astronaut you’ve always dreamed of becoming? Is it naïve to believe that it’s important to find meaning in a job? Maybe we should just suck it up and deal with the fact that this is life — getting up, going to work, going home.

As you can see, I have more questions than answers. I know that I am lucky. I know plenty of people who not only have no passion for their jobs, but dread getting up in the morning and facing their idiot boss. I am certainly not one of them, but I do think a lot about what else is out there and what is the best way to find my meaning. I don’t believe that I am extraordinary at any one thing, but I think I am pretty good at many things, so finding a passion is not so obvious.

Until then, the secret might be to find the small stuff that makes every day a little more enjoyable. I am personally grateful that I don’t have to crunch numbers, for example. I enjoy petting the puppy and chatting with my cubicle-mate and sometimes when I come up with an inspired design for a postcard or see my work in print, I do get a bit of a rush.
Of course, this is where my Mom would tell me that having kids will help me find meaning — but that is for another column.

Dating your hubby-mission possible?

“So, after you’re done with cleaning, do you want to go out and grab some Chinese?” Drew yells from the living room. I am wearing rubber gloves up to my elbows with my trusty disposable toilet brush in one hand (thank you, whoever invented that!) and a wad of paper towels in the other. I am wearing my old sweatpants from college and a T-shirt that has seen better days. It’s Saturday night: time to go on a date!

Once you’re married, dating is just never the same. There is no anticipation, no giddiness, no long hours of consultation with girlfriends about what to wear. And afterwards, there is no debriefing on the phone, no analysis of every word spoken or every move made. And it is really hard to feel sexy and desirable after your hubby’s just seen you with your hands in the toilet. Is it even considered a real date if you’re going out because the only food in the fridge is butter and pickles?

Of course, the relationship experts tell you how important it is to keep the romance alive in a marriage. They say that you should plan evenings alone and rediscover each other over candlelit dinners and long gazes into each other’s eyes, and that you should wear something new and risqué in bed every now and then to spice things up.

Yeah, right.

We don’t have kids yet, but I can already tell that even without kids this “keeping the romance alive” thing is hard. Between jobs, stress, in-laws, friends, hobbies and more work, I’m glad we remember each other’s names at the end of the day.

I do complain from time to time that I don’t get flowers that often anymore, that we don’t go on “real” dates and that we watch too much TV in the evenings instead of reconnecting after a long day or week. But then an unexpected connection in the middle of a bad day reminds me that what I thought was a romantic date in college or in my single days is no longer what I want romance to be.

During one of the recent winter storms, we were without electricity for a day. Neither of us slept well the night before because the power kept popping off and then on, we listened to the wind howl and were generally concerned about the violent weather outside our windows. Drew had to go to work in the morning and he was cranky because he couldn’t shave without his electric razor and he missed his energizing hot morning shower. I was cranky, because I was in a cold, dark house all day, alone, and a little scared. I felt dirty and stinky and just plain unattractive.
I drove to Drew’s office during his lunch hour and we went out to eat together. The streets were deserted and the restaurant was quiet too. We sat down, ordered, and talked and talked about all kinds of stuff, like we hadn’t seen each other in days — about the stupid weather, things going on at our offices, plans for the summer, about my parents, about his Mom and siblings, about what to do with the food in the freezer if we don’t get our power back soon.

Drew suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and said: “Zsozso, are we on a date?”

I only had to think for a second to realize that we were, indeed, on a date.

It’s true, I wasn’t wearing my lucky shoes, my hair wasn’t done and he didn’t bring me roses. But I was sitting across the table from a really cute guy, talking non-stop, laughing and playing footsie under the table. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was funny, whether there was food on my teeth or whether he might think that I’m a pig for finishing off that burger.
I knew that I was going to get a kiss in the end, no matter what.

Leaving Your Types Behind

Drew, my husband, is not my type.
Or, I should say, he wasn’t my type, because now we’re married and I am quite smitten with him. I honestly don’t know why I wasn’t head over heels in love with him the very first time we met. Life is strange that way.

And that is why I am dubious every time I hear someone describe their “type.” Tall, blond, blue-eyed and a doctor. Or tall, with a 6-pack, dark hair, blue eyes, rock star. Please … do people like that even exist? The problem with “having a type” is that it makes you blind to the actual person who is right next to you and who really fits you. Not the crazy dating you, but the you who wants to settle down in a solid relationship without games, without being “friends with benefits” or any of that other stuff we claim to constitute a real partnership for life.

I admit, 7 years ago my type was a certain blond, blue-eyed, cosmopolitan, rich, spontaneous, fun guy, with a great wardrobe, who would fly in from a different continent and show up at my door unannounced. Or we’d rendezvous at various major international airports as he crisscrossed the world. Did I mention he had a cute accent?

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t he?
Not so much. But I didn’t know that back then.

When I first met Drew, we hated each other. We worked together at a small newspaper — he as the photographer, I as the social page editor. I was there first, but Drew walked in and acted like he owned the place and was smarter than everyone. That didn’t go over well with me. We clashed over pretty much everything at work, but things really went downhill when during the course of an argument I told him that I would never date him.

We didn’t speak to each other for days, not even at work. Then came a period of “thaw,” when we spent time together outside of work and, during one memorable non-date, we shared the contents of our wallets. (Him: foreign currency, picture of his niece, volunteer firefighter membership card. Me: A quote reading “the map is not the terrain,” Hungarian currency, picture of above mentioned blond.) We talked for long hours after work, went to the movies, even held hands, but it never occurred to us that we had found what we’d been looking for. I was too busy pining for the blond to realize what was happening.

Then one day, something changed. I honestly can’t say what it was, but we looked at each other and we knew that this was IT. We were both ready — we didn’t want games, we didn’t want a pretend relationship. We wanted the real thing. Cosmopolitan, he wasn’t. Great dresser? If flannel is your definition of style, then yes. And his 6-pack was in the fridge, not on his stomach.
But he got me. He understood and enjoyed all my little quirks. He was — is — warm and funny, works hard, appreciates a good laugh and he doesn’t think it’s weird to make stuffed animals talk and dance in order to cheer me up. We both have our own little demons and traumas from life, but we aren’t afraid to talk to each other about them. He doesn’t judge or make fun of me or tell me that I am crazy or emotional, even when I am. These are not the qualities I ever thought were “my types.”

So all I am saying is that if you’re still out there, searching for Mr. or Mrs. Right, maybe you should forget your types. It sucks to be out there in the dating world, hoping that someone special will come along. Sometimes it doesn’t happen; sometimes it happens from one day to the next when you least expect it. Sometimes the constant waiting and hoping can make you crazy.
But take a look around you: Is there someone in your circle of friends or at work, who doesn’t have a chiseled face, isn’t tall, is maybe a little awkward around you? Do you know someone who is the complete opposite of your type? Even better: Can you be open to the possibility that your type, the way you imagine it, doesn’t exist? That thought might give you a lot of freedom to share the contents of your wallet with someone you’d least expect.

A different kind of spring cleaning

“Do you remember that wind-up doggie you had when you were little? What do you want me to do with it?”

Mom asked from thousands of miles away as she and Dad began the impossible task of cleaning out my childhood bedroom.

“Oh, just throw it out,” I responded immediately. “Are you sure? Maybe when you have children they will want it,” Mom said, full of hope.

My parents are contemplating moving to the U.S. from Hungary, but before they can do that they have to take stock of the contents of the apartment that’s been in the family for generations. There is stuff everywhere.

My room is just a small part of the problem for them, but the decision of what to keep and what to throw out is all my problem.

Some of the things my parents ask me about, I don’t even remember — like the wind-up dog. How am I supposed to know how I feel about toys I haven’t seen or played with in 15 years? How do I know what I’m going to feel sentimental about in another 15 years?

During a visit to my parents’ last fall, I did do some cleaning of my own. “The trip down amnesia lane,” as my husband likes to call it, lasted two full days and involved lots of garbage bags and dust. I resisted many “are you sure you want to throw that out” type of questions from my parents and managed to plow through the elementary, middle and high school years in record time. Diaries, old letters and photos were all keepers. Old hair clips, jingly plastic bracelets and pink pencil boxes had to go — with some exceptions, I admit.

In the end, the process was sad, but necessary. I haven’t lived in that apartment for 13 years and I probably never will again. I moved to the U.S. when I was 18 and this is where my adult life began. I carried some of my stuff with me when I first moved — letters from good friends, photos, my favorite books, pictures of my neighborhood — and that’s enough. I’m 30 now and I have an apartment full of new photos and mementos from a very different life in a very different place. Once my parents move here, everything and everyone I love will be near and I have a feeling that I am not quite done collecting memories.

As I stood in the middle of my messy room in Budapest, surrounded by my childhood stuff, I realized that I can’t be weighed down by the Barbie dolls and stuffed animals of the past. Some things, like the wind-up doggie, just have to go to make way for whatever comes next.