From “Inside Stories,” an essay published in the Winter 2021 issue of Five Points.
I used to visit an elderly woman who lived in a single room in an apartment hotel on Broadway and 85th Street. Mrs. Palatschinke, so nicknamed because of the crepes she invariably fed her guests with a glass of tea, was my maternal grandfather’s cousin’s widow, largely alone in the world, though with a few distant relatives who pitched in to support her. She also had a clutch of gin rummy, gossip, and strolling companions who congregated in the hotel lobby and dining room. Still, family was family, and alone could be alleviated: two good reasons for the monthly Sunday afternoon visits my mother made to her. Mrs. P and my mother chatted in German, a language I couldn’t follow at the gallop they spoke it, so I tuned out their talk, which gave me time to wonder about Mrs. P’s room and its puzzling contradictions. Even as I was cramming jam-filled crepes into my mouth, I could taste the acid of loss in that place, the sharp and drastic difference between full and empty that Hitler had forced on Mrs. Palatschinke’s life. Yet despite its meager and lonely reality, Mrs. P’s room seemed lively to me, crowded and exciting in ways I couldn’t see, hear, or touch. Its true contents were intangible.
These things were apparent: a narrow bed with a plaid coverlet; a single window looking onto Broadway; a sink in a corner with a mirrored cabinet on the wall above it; a bureau with a brown-and-yellow Bakelite Philco radio on top of it, flanked by two brass candlesticks; a small table and wooden kitchen chair; a gooseneck lamp next to a Hebrew-Hungarian prayer book on the nightstand; an armchair with a blue slipcover; a picture of New York City in the horse-and-carriage days; an electric hot plate and a kettle on a metal cabinet beside the sink. The bathroom was in the public corridor, as was the telephone. Of her prewar life with its abundance of relatives, friends, and belongings, Mrs. P managed to save only one thing: her own skin. Fortunately, she never had children, she once said to my mother, her speech slowed by a sigh so deep that it caught my attention, and I understood her German and her meaning. Lost people aside, the rest—her home, her possessions, her urbane doings—seemed to be present in that room, but not actually there. I could feel that, believe it, though I couldn’t explain it.
What I sensed in Mrs. P’s little room was the effect of the brave and magical synecdoche she practiced in it, making a part stand for the whole, a gesture for an event, enhancing herself now with the fullness of herself then. With her characteristic resolve, manner, hospitality, her charm, she made that small room evoke a house on a hill overlooking the Danube in Budapest. One blue chair was an elegant salon, one closet a dressing room full of outfits, a plateful of palatschinken was a soup-to-nuts dinner party, the Philco a box in the opera house on Andrássy Avenue, one hotel-supplied reproduction of a lithograph was a collection of Jugendstil paintings, one window a terrace with a panoramic view of a beautiful city. Details about Mrs. P’s former home and well-to-do circumstances were supplied by my mother many years later, when I asked her about the elderly woman we used to visit, whom she had visited several times in Budapest when she was in her teens. Those vivid particulars were the stuff of Mrs. Palatschinke’s fictive magic, the sheer pluck and verve that conjured up a complete world out of absences, an easier world to dwell on.