Tuesday, July 12, 2011


NOTE: in Hungarian, you say family names, first.  In Hungary I am Mikó Tamás [pronounced tuh-maash], so my mother, Susanna Dragon, was Dragon Zsuzsanna.

Today, July 12th, 2011 is the tenth anniversary of my mother's death

Máma van a 10.ik évfordulója anyám halálának.

San Pedro, California 1988

 I want to write a long,  articulate essay about her, and our relationship.  I want to repeat her stories of her childhood in rural Hungary.  That would turn into a 400 page book.  She was born in Makó, Hungary, the birthplace of Joseph Pulitzer, father of the Pulitzer Prize. 

When she was a kid, her family had the only telephone in Makó.  When she was 12 years old, she rode in an automobile for the first time, in her life. Her father was the vice-president of the local bank, and the bank's safe got stuck closed, so they talked the warden of the Star Prison (Csíllag Börtön) in Szeged into releasing a famous safecracker.  My grandfather, Dragon Kálmán , my mother, a prison guard, and the safecracker (in handcuffs and leg irons) rode 30 miles from Szeged to Mako, where it took the safecracker a few minutes to open the safe.

During the Depression, my family were the haves, as opposed to the have-nots.  My mother grew up with her mother directing the maids and cooks in their daily activities.  She used to tell funny stories of when they would catch a maid stealing silverware, socks, or underwear.  Then, World War II and all of its horrors came, and the next thing she knew, she was an 18 year old bride and mother in a country now occupied by Russian troops.  Ten years after that, she was a divorceé (being a divorced woman in the 1950s was scandalous) working as a lab tech in the Budapest Heim Pál childrens' hospital, when she and her 10 year old son were cowering in the basement while the Russians bombed Budapest to pieces for rising up against the Communist Hungarian dictatorship.  Buildings collapsed to the left and right of them.  The basement they were in filled with smoke from the fire, next door, and my grandfather had to decide whether to risk getting his family shot by Russian troops on the street, or being enveloped in flames.  When the shooting supposedly stopped, her brother, Dragon Béla, saw the Russians mow down a line of people standing in line for food  at a bakery, with the heavy machine gun mounted on the turret of a T-54 tank.

Despite losing the 1956 revolution, Stalinist hard-core Communism ended in Hungary, but my mother and my father (her second husband), Mikó Géza, left in 1964, eventually arriving in Los Angeles in 1967.  The Communists wouldn't let my brother leave Hungary, and they confiscated my father's condominium because he left Hungary illegally.
In Los Angeles, disaster struck.  We had been here a year, and my father suddenly died of a brain tumor.  Here she was in this big, strange country, alone with a 2 year-old kid.

To make matters worse, her heart--damaged when she was 12 years old by a bout of scarlet fever, worsened each year.  During her 15 year marriage to my stepfather, her heart grew weaker and weaker.  Walking up the 3 flights of stairs from the garage to our second story San Pedro apartment was the equivalent of climbing Everest.

One Friday day in June of 1995 I called her from LA County-USC Medical Center, to let her know that I was leaving work in 5 minutes, and would be home in San Pedro in time to take her to the bank (this was before the internet existed, and you did your banking on-line).  She said, "Okay.  See you when you get home."

When I got home, she was sprawled out on the bathroom floor, naked, bloody-mouthed, and paralyzed.   Her left leg was twisted underneath her body, at an impossible angle.  A tooth as missing where she had slammed her face into the counter.  She had a massive stroke.

She spent the next 6 years in convalescent homes.  That's ironic, because she had made me promise when I was a kid that I would never put her into a convalescent home.  Her first job in America--because she arrived not knowing a word of English--was as a nurse's aide in a convalescent home.  She told me horrible stories. For 6 years, strangers--other female immigrants with little-to-no English--rolled her in different directions every few hours, to avoid bed sores.  I spent at least half an hour visiting with her every day, without fail.  My visits were the highlight of her day.  I would hold her left hand while we watched Jeopardy, or the news, or tell her about what happened at work, today.

Her condition got worse, over the years.  During the hot summer of 2001 her doctor called my cell phone while I was at work, and discussed my mom's ever-worsening condition.  She had been in and out of the hospital with infections, with a breathing tube down her throat, and i.v. antibiotics trying to fight off the inevitable.  Septicemia wanted to take her away.  The doctor said that all we were doing was forcing my mom to continue to live, so that she could suffer. She suggested that we discontinue the antibiotics, and give her morphine.  In my heart, I knew she was right.

On July 12th, 2001 the phone rang at 04:00 in the morning.

I knew who was calling, and why.


"Mr Miko, this is Darlene at Huntington Memorial Hospital.  I'm sorry, you're mother passed away a few minutes ago."

"Thank you.  I'll be there in twenty minutes."

I put on my best suit, and leather shoes.  Why?  Why not just go in jeans and a t-shirt?  I don't know, but that's what I did.

I decided to take her ashes to Hungary. I figured that was where she would want to be.  To rub salt in my wounds, I was supposed to take her ashes home in the early fall, and September 11th happened.  That delayed everybody's plans, and I finally took her ashes to Budapest in February of 2002.  The mass was scheduled in a beautful church in downtown Budapest, that had a space for her in the crypt downstairs, and when the priest started, it all came pouring out of me.  I cried like a baby.

A lot has changed in my life in the last 10 years.  Wow.  Ten.  Such a big number.  Having no children, and no family at all in the U.S., I dovorced my Hungarian first wife, who was sticking to her pledge to never have children.  I moved to Claremont, got a dog, changed jobs, met my wife, and now there is a blond 6 year old and his 5 year old sister who want me to take them out to the pool.

When I look at my 5 year old daughter, sometimes she rolls her eyes with disdain in a certain way that so remarkably resembles my mother that the first time she did it, I realized something wonderful: I got my mom back.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,
That was a nice tribute. It's really nice to have family; to see and feel that continuing thread from past to present to future.
Take care!

Big John said...

Historical Note: The Prize was a posthumous birth.

I do not recall seeing them, but you should have numerous photographs of your mother around. Your children will treasure them in years to come.

JLM said...

Wow, Tom. Thank you for sharing this. Such a touching account. Your thoughts make me more greatly appreciate those important people in my life.