I recognized her instantly. It wasn't just that we shared some genetics and I could pick out various family resemblances. I knew her. I would have known her anywhere. She's been showing up in my dreams for the better part of two years now. Always she speaks to me in Hungarian, if she speaks at all. And I always respond in Hungarian, easily, fluidly. This is significant somehow, considering that in my waking life my knowledge of Hungarian is hardly what I'd call fluent.
But the thing is...
I've never seen her before in my life, not even a picture of her. She was dead decades before I came on the scene. And then... last Wednesday I trudged up to the mailbox and came back with a handful of mostly useless stuff - store circulars, bills, junk mail - among which was an envelope from my Mom. As soon as I got back to the house, I dropped everything on the coffee table, grabbed my cheater glasses (aging sucks swamp water!), and tore open the envelope from Mom. I pulled out the contents - a short note from Mom and two pictures. The pictures fell onto the table face down, so I read the note first.
"Dear Barbara Ann (Mom is the only one who gets away with calling me by my full given name), Here are the pictures I told you about. One is your Great great grandmother with your Great Uncle Kálmán. The other is Grandma Schmutzer as a baby with your Great Grandmother. I'll be anxious to hear what you think of them."
Mom knows I like family history(ies). I've always loved fitting pieces into puzzles. Plus, the old days and old ways always give me a sense of connection, of belonging, and an awareness that I owe those long gone generations of my antecedents a life extraordinary.
I picked up the first face-down picture. It was of my Great Great Grandmother and Great Uncle Kálmán (half brother to my Grandma Schmutzer). I smiled at the Hungarian-ness of them, at the obviousness that they were dressed in fancy clothes that they were normally unfamiliar with. Her skirt, while rather elegant and reserved, was wrinkled. Clearly it was kept in a trunk for only the very most special occasions. His little boy suit was a half size too small and the expression on his face was one of a boy wishing to kick off the pinching "good" shoes and change back into some worn knickers and to go play with the ball that he held in his hand. They both wore the solemn expressions seen in so many early 19th century photos. Family photos back then were serious, rare business.
Then I picked up the second picture, the picture of my Grandma and my Great Grandma Rozália. My eyes fell first on the baby, my Grandma. I delighted in seeing the baby who would become my Grandma. Even then, her eyes twinkled with kindness and love, and a sort of laid-back curiosity.
I moved my eyes from the baby's face to look at my Great Grandmother for the first time ever in my life. With a gasp, I nearly dropped the picture as I burst into tears. I recognized her, I knew her. I had seen her so many times in my dreams. I'm covered in goosebumps again just writing this. Some piece of my life, of understanding my life, suddenly fell into place. Something came full circle within me. I don't know any better way to describe it. It shook me to my core. I instantly knew her as the woman from my dreams - and this isn't some woowoo mind shift to try to validate the mystery woman in my dreams. It really was her. Why had she been haunting my dreams for so long? And how? Clearly she's been trying to reach out to me for a while now, and why just doesn't matter.
Picture in hand, I hauled ass up to my studio. I needed a deeper communion. I spent the better part of that afternoon with her, with that picture. I sketched her face, I made the above collage. The more I looked at her, the more familiar she became. Something inside me became whole.
I'm connected. I'm somebody. I am Teresa Pongrácz's great great granddaughter. I am Rozália Pongrácz's great granddaughter. I am Rose Nemes Schmutzer's granddaughter. I know the cadence of the songs these women sang. I know how their hands moved as they washed dishes and sewed. I know the nod of their heads as they spoke.
I'm looking at that picture now, and I can see myself in it. I'm standing just behind and in the middle of my grandma and great grandma. My right hand rests on Great Grandma Rozália's left shoulder, my left gently cradles Grandma Schmutzer's head.
I am following in some amazing footsteps.