We all know you can never home again, but sometimes home pays us a visit far away from the place we inhabited during our childhood. And so it was at a family wedding in Mississippi where I saw my father for the final time, ten years before he would drop dead in a supermarket checkout line. When I learned of his death I did not cry. I probably never will. Some situations can never be saved, just as some are never worth saving. My relationship with my father was one of them. That did not keep me from subconsciously trying to recover some semblance of what had been lost or recreate what had never existed between the two of us. I did not haunt cemeteries, read obituaries, or call distant relatives to learn more about my father. There was no use. Our life was over before it had really begun. The calls never came, apologies never made, and both side laid blame.
My father was a distant figure who made extremely infrequent appearances in my life. I could count on one hand over a twenty-five-year period how many times I saw him. Those times were fraught with tension and anxiety. In each case, I tried to obey the parental advice “don’t talk to strangers.” The few times we met I was overwhelmed by a sense of disbelief that we might be even distantly related. I was only six years old when he left and my memories of him faded fast. What never did fade was the feeling of abandonment. This only became apparent to me as I grew older. That abandonment sent me wandering through the world. It took me years to realize that my travels, most prominently in Eastern Europe, were part of the search for something irretrievably lost. Ironically, the further I journeyed from home, the closer I got to finding it.
Walking into history – Esterhaza
Restoration Without Recovery – A Partial Existence
He was a multimillionaire and an absentee father who left me, my mother and two siblings in what amounted to a mansion in the foothills of western North Carolina, one that we could barely afford to keep up. He retired in his forties to a yacht. He was living proof that money may not buy happiness, but it can buy you distance from your deepest fears. In the absence of my father, our family led a strange small-town existence. We lived in what looked too many like an idyllic existence, but it took everything we had just to keep the lights on. In so many ways this reminds me of those grand palaces in Hungary, such as Esterhaza, also known as the Hungarian Versailles. Esterhaza is found deep in the countryside of western Hungary, not far from the Austrian border in the village of Ferto. The palace’s exterior is a stunningly elegant example of Baroque architecture. The interior is a much different story.
History finally caught up with Esterhaza during the first half of the 20th century. When the Red Army swept through in 1945, the palace was pilfered. The family fled westward. The Esterhazy name, once the most elite in Hungary was suddenly a death sentence. During the communist era, Esterhaza suffered from serious neglect before a restoration began. One which is in perpetual progress. Some rooms are immaculately restored, others in a state of partial restoration, while still others lay vacant. The restoration will never be fully complete because the splendor that once inhabited the halls of Esterhaza, now haunts them. The palace can never quite live up to its past. A way of life has been lost forever. The restoration may eventually be completed, the recovery never will.
A way we will never be – Inside Esterhaza
Life Expectancy – Equaling The Eternal
In its current form, Esterhaza has been partially put back together to provide a rough approximation of its glorious past, but there is no mistaking the fact that life left Esterhaza long ago. No matter how many square meters of marble still cover the floors, they will never replace what was lost. The palace’s value does not come from priceless material treasures, that is an illusion. Instead, the palace’s true value derives from aesthetic pleasures such as standing in the room where court musician Joseph Haydn led the performance of his string quartets. No amount of sparkling chandeliers can equal the eternal. Haydn physically left the palace over two hundred years ago, but the love and inspiration of his creative endeavors can be felt in the room where some of classical music’s greatest works were performed for Miklos Esterhazy (also known as Miklos the Magnificent) and his guests.
A semblance of that genius still exists in those gilded chambers. The ambience is nothing short of spectacular and yet a sense of loss still permeates the palace. Life has left the building. The question of “What if?” hangs heavily in the air. What if the war had not happened? What if Hungary had not been overrun by the Red Army? It is cliché to say that “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.” Well in the case of Esterhaza most are unaware of what Esterhaza really had to offer. It was less about lavish furnishings and more about life. Searching for the human side of Esterhaza today, is akin to chasing ghosts. I should know, since the search for them inadvertently brought me there and brought me back home.
Waiting for guests – Place setting at Esterhaza
Catching Up – Ghosts of a Possible Past
I have come to realize that the relationship with my father is akin to all that is missing at Esterhaza. By finding my way there, I was chasing ghosts of a possible past that existed deep inside of me. What my life would have been like with him is a “What if?” that will never be answered. That part of my life left long ago. Trying to find it would be painful and futile. I disowned the memory of my father long ago. Little did I know that it still lurked inside of me. Now I can see that it led me to Esterhaza as well as many other remote or abandoned sites in Eastern Europe. There is a reason I keep finding my way to these past their prime places. Some might say it is a love of history. That might be true. But it is not for the love of Hungarian history as much as it is my own personal history. That is something which I cannot escape. At Esterhaza my past caught up with me, my father almost did.
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