on his Hungarian roots
In our household growing up, we had strong connections with the various places to which we could trace our heritage, among them France, England, Ireland and Italy. Yet with a name like "Pataki," proud as we were of those other parts of our past, we couldn't help but to relate first and foremost to anything other than Magyar.
My Hungarian grandfather, Louis Pataki Sr., was a man I admired, respected and feared for all of the years that he and I shared on this earth. He never dropped his identity as a farmer, and to the day when he finally left the farm, he wore the same outdoor work clothes, mesh hat and farm boots every single day of the year. He drank his coffee black before the sun came up, always carried cookies in his cargo pants for the dogs, and patted my head whenever he walked past me, saying hoarsely, "you're a good boy." And to the day he died, he had muscles in his arms and shoulders like a twenty-year old man who spent considerable time in the gym. This is how I will remember him, along with the sight of him roasting bacon over an outdoor fire, sitting on the grass drinking homemade wine and telling stories with his family all around him.
Our clan of Patakis is all over the country today, from coast to coast and north to south. Some of the senior members of the family still try to maintain their Hungarian speech, though with none of the younger generation being able to understand a single word, there is no way for any of us to know what is legitimate and what is pretend. Many have never had the opportunity to travel to Hungary, and I worry that as the years go by, we may lose touch with the land and nation from which our ancestors came.
I was fortunate, however, to have been able to take an exceptional visit to Hungary when I was an adolescent. With my Father having become a fairly accomplished and recognizable American elected-official of Hungarian descent, we were afforded the opportunity to participate in an official "state-visit" back to Hungary in the mid-1990s. We visited of course the many beautiful sights in Budapest, but were also able to travel across the serene countryside, and even visit the tiny rural village on the Tisza River where the Patakis had originally come from.
Not every stop was heart-warming or light-hearted. We visited a refugee camp for children near the Ukrainian border, a memorial for Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust, and most memorable of all, a mass gravesite just outside of Budapest. Here there were anonymous wooden crosses as far as the eye could see, where political prisoners were buried after being executed for their part in the 1956 uprising. Some of those killed were eighteen years old to the day, having been held in prison as minors until their eighteenth birthday and then executed as adults by the Soviet communists. It was a powerful lesson in the cost of freedom and peace that we as Americans often take for granted. Years later, when I was applying to college, I made this visit to the mass grave the subject of my application essay.
Yet I think my most memorable trip to Hungary was the one where I never even got off the airplane. In the summer of 2007, I was travelling to Iraq with the 1st Marine Division for a combat deployment. The plane which carried my unit had left from the West Coast of the United States and stopped to refuel in the Midwest, in Newfoundland, in Ireland, and yes, finally in Budapest. We were allowed to get off the plane to stretch in Canada and in Ireland, but not in Budapest. Our next stop would be Kuwait, followed by Iraq, and there was no more time for fun.
I remember looking out the window over Budapest that afternoon when we approached the runway, taking in the beautiful Hungarian city once more. The sun was sinking low, approaching sunset. I saw the rugged hills of Buda and the rolling plains of Pest, the unmistakable architecture of the ancient buildings, the winding Danube, and of course the astonishing Parliament. I couldn't help but get sentimental, looking out the window but forbidden to step off the plane, remembering my trip years earlier as a teenager. Memories raced through my mind of the farms along the Tisza, the anonymous crosses outside of Budapest, and the time uncovering my past while bonding with my family in the land where the Patakis had come from. I thought it was fitting that I should get to catch a quick glimpse of all this one final time, however fleeting the moment.
Today, my wife and I live in Central Texas with our two children. Our oldest son bears the name of Stephen, the great Hungarian Patron Saint. My Father sometimes calls him István, and someday I will tell him stories about his heritage, his family, and take him back to the ancestral homeland, hopefully through the ReConnect Hungary program. I look forward to one day hunting the legendary Hungarian wild game across the countryside, to visiting the fort where the siege of Eger took place, to finally taking one of the mineral baths at Széchenyi Baths, and to telling my wife and children why all of this is so important to our family both now and in the foreseeable future.
As the years and generations pass by, the actual percentage of Hungarian blood in future American Patakis will be smaller and smaller. Yet the name will continue to be unmistakably Hungarian, and speaking at least for the "Texas Patakis," we will not forget this piece of our identity. We couldn't be more grateful for the ReConnect Hungary program and what it means to every American who calls himself or herself a Magyar.