Samples of Brad's Writing
Return of the Prodigal Father and Son

They say you really get to know someone when you travel together.

I guess I never really understood my own father, until the vacation we took together to Eastern Europe, climaxing with a trip to Hungary, to Budapest, to the very building in which he was born. He was returning home, for the first time, sixty-four years later.

Upon entering the country, my father seemed strangely unexcited. But I reminded myself where the man had come from--a Hungary besieged by the virulently anti-Semitic, nationalist movement the Nyilas (nee-loash) or Arrow Cross. His father, a wine merchant, had to become an Orthodox rabbi to get an entry visa from the U.S. State department, so as not to be a burden to the economy.

And my father and the rest of his family arrived on Christmas Eve, 1929, just in time for the Depression. Yet the colorful holiday lights of New York harbor provided such a thrill, he turned to his mother and seriously remarked, in his native tongue, "I'm impressed. Look at all the trouble they went to for us."

Now, I'm the one who is impressed by the man who, as a boy, had to use his soccer skills to kick his way out of attacks by anti-Semitic Hungarian toughs. My father is a man grounded in accomplishment, from getting into the prestigious Art Students League at City College of New York in his teens, to winding up in "Who's Who in the World," having started the Special Education program for schools in the state of California.

But a previously unseen awe came over my father as we first entered Budapest from its southern border. He took immediate note of my comment that the district was most ironically named Rubin. It was the maiden name of my dear mother, to whom he had been married for thirty-five years, until lung cancer took her in 1985.

It seemed everything about being in his birthplace was laden with meaning. The minute I turned on the t.v. in the Hotel Helia, MTV was playing a song by the group The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Sometimes Always," containing the lyrics: "You are a lucky son...You went away but you came back."

And that feeling of luck--or fate or really a collision of feelings--overwhelmed my father as we stood in front of 43 Acacia Street, in the ruined inner city of Budapest. We sadly surveyed the crumbling facade of his former residence, the exposed wires, chunks of missing sidewalk, the "czarnok" or market where he and his best friend Sandor ran from the bullies who meant to break open their heads. I asked if he wanted to go up to the third floor, to ring the bell of the apartment where he'd lived.

"If I go in there," he shook his head, "It'll break my heart."

I gently guided him to a restaurant across the street, where we composed ourselves over some tea. But on the walk back to the Elizabeth Street Metro station, he ruminated on the graffiti, the abandoned buildings and the certainty that most of his childhood acquaintances must have perished in the Holocaust. Even stopping by the New York Kavehaz, its elegant, dark-wood, fin de siecle interior still used as a period film location, did not sway my father from his own conscience, his own doubts.

"How is it," he asked me with totally uncharacteristic vulnerability, surprising me with the tears in his eyes, "that I survived? Why was my father the one in our neighborhood who decided to go to America? I don't understand why I wasn't one of the ones who died."

"You can't question fate, Dad." I put my arm around his strong but now bowed shoulders. "You can only be thankful." I smiled at the gentle joke that came to mind. "And believe me, I sure am thankful."

Wisely, we saved something positive for the end: a side trip of our own to the quaint, artists' colony of Szentendre, or Saint Andrew, on the outskirts of Budapest.

Andor was not only Dad's Hungarian name, it was the name of the cabbie who drove us in search of the summer home in which my father had lived. There were no street names in those days, and all Dad had as a guidepost was the memory of the Catholic church that had been down the street. He'd created an oil painting of it as a boy.

Andor said there were three churches in town, but only one was Catholic and, sure enough, after walking up the road from the house of worship, my father stopped in front of a little white cottage with green trim and a chicken coop. Someone had stenciled a heart on one of its stucco walls.

"Brad, this is it. This is my house."

As I took pictures, a wizened old man emerged from the house and I told Dad to talk to him in Hungarian. He refused, but I was adamant. "We've found your home and the guy who lives here is staring at us. How many chances are we going to get to do this?"

They traded stories and information with gusto for a half hour. There was elation on the part of my father when kindly Bela Panisz confirmed there used to be a walnut tree on the ridge above the house.

As Andor drove us back to the village to shop and dine, I immediately asked my father about the walnut tree.

"Gypsies camped out under that tree." His eyes were happy, distant. "I'd sit outside at night and watch them sing and dance and play violins around their campfire."

The positive memories of his youth came back with my prodding--starting with that missing tree, those gypsies, the artesian well with Roman inscriptions, the cherry, apple and peach trees, Liska, the family goat. And as we sat in an outdoor cafe, on a charming, curved, cobblestone street in Szentendre, listening to church bells chime in the distance, my father whisked away, with one sentence, the lack of sleep, the hills he couldn't walk, his devastated Acacia Street, the guilt of surviving.

"I wouldn't trade this experience for anything I have."

I think my father went with me to his birthplace, not so much as a vacation, but as a reconciliation with his past. And we wound up attaining something considerably more than both of those ends.

I am a lucky son.