Photo: Józsa Péter
Photo: Györffy Gabriella
"Memi néni velünk van"
I first became acquainted with Memi Néni some forty-five years ago here in the Hungarian House "kisterem" under somewhat embarrassing circumstances. For a well-bred 14 year-old boy at the time it was customary upon presentation not to shake, but to kiss the hand of a lady in society . I vaguely recall the event as the reception, with coffee being served, following a lecture in the "nagyterem." The highly regarded Ferenc Chorin was present (Memi Néni's uncle, and the pillar of the remarkable family responsible in large part for making this Hungarian House possible). After shaking hands with him, he gestured to an elderly lady in a wheelchair, who I learned later was Memi Néni's mother, Elsa Mauthner, one of the six children of the legendary Manfred Weiss, the brilliant industrialist, once the wealthiest man in Hungary. I stood before the wheelchair for what seemed an eternity as the frail Elsa Mauthner struggled through excruciating pain, with her hands pressed down hard on the wheelchair arms, to rise from her seat to insist on accepting my greeting in a standing position. My concern for her safety turned to utter confusion as I extended my hand to the distinguished elderly lady, who remained before me bent at the waist at practically a ninety degree angle. Not knowing what to do with my outstretched hand, I froze, and remained so, in utter bewilderment, red as a beet, for what seemed like another eternity. Finally, I caught a glimpse of a radiant young lady smiling at me from behind the wheelchair, and making toward me a discreet, furtive gesture with her hand to bend down and take her Mother's hand already -- as soon as possible!
This was my first chance encounter with Memi Néni, the first of the literally countless, never intrusive, mostly silent and always incredibly supportive and loving words and actions she lavished upon me throughout the past half-century.
I am speaking here in the first person singular, in the sure knowledge that those of you present today and the many thousands around the world who are with us in spirit, all of you, in one way or another personally shared in the gifts radiating from this wholly exceptional individual, who, like Mother Theresa, was herself the definition of boundless love and affection.
"Boundless love and affection" is an understatement compared to Memi Néni. For her, to give freely to others meant not simply acts of kindness or charity, but a fundamental necessity, her driving motive force. She needed the perpetual motion of serving others just as much as she needed air and water itself. Without it she felt disoriented, lost and confused. Nothing frustrated her more than any objection or obstacle to her desire to help. I sometimes experienced challenging moments in this regard: when she would turn to me for advice, I would suggest that this or that person may be taking advantage of you, perhaps Memi Néni you should think of a more modest service or contribution. After acknowledging my point, so much was she compelled to act that she would go behind my back and find the secret passage to giving twice what was originally asked of her. On the other hand, Memi Néni felt no greater private sense of fulfillment than when she could learn that her service reached its intended purpose, that it provided genuine comfort. She neither expected or wanted thanks in return, rather it was she who gave thanks for the opportunity to give. I, as perhaps some of you, was initially perplexed by this paradox - someone thanking me for doing me a favor - and it took some time to understand that her gratitude was genuine, the possibility is what gave her life real meaning. She often thanked me for "adopting" her after her spiritual leader and my mentor Béla Teleki passed away in 1990, yet it was I, my family, our Foundation, and the many who came into contact with HHRF who were the clear beneficiaries.
Memi Néni's love was blind, but never mindless. She was quite clear about what she was doing, and why. It was this unique combination in her that sustained me in maintaining a balance of compassion and a clearness of thought and expression in both my professional and personal pursuits. I benefited from her bedrock presence and inspiring personality in most of my waking and even some sleeping moments over the past 25 years, in more ways than I can possibly articulate.
Is there life after Memi Néni? Who will bring me soup and a sandwich from the Hot 'n Crusty ten blocks away, and carefully unwrap it, neatly placing it on a platter with plate, spoon, and butter for my bread, to bring it with faltering steps (barely functioning legs) to serve me at my desk? Who will satisfy my every secret spiritual and emotional need before I even have a chance to utter a single word? And what will become of those serene visits to our home every Sunday, leisurely conversing or reading the newspaper until she thought we did not notice her sneak away to make one of her furtive phone calls to any one of the dozens of intimate friends who relied on her moral and often financial assistance? How miraculous was the sparkle lighting her eyes as she marveled at my wife Zsuzsa's successes and grilled me for every detail in the lives of her favorite grandchildren, Júlia and Dániel? How I already miss the many rides back to Manhattan, for her the punctuation point to these weekend visits, where she exploited the ride (as she said "for selfish purposes") to hear every new detail of my last week's comings and goings. She was too modest to offer advice, her questions and the innocent way she phrased them were the clues I searched for to give me invaluable guidance to my actions.
Is there life after Memi Néni? The very last thing she wanted was to ever be a burden to us, that we dwell upon sadness. We were privileged (graced and blessed) beyond measure to have walking among us in our everyday lives, the brilliant, shining example of selfless love. We miss her presence terribly, without consolation. But is her presence truly absent? Have we learned maybe a tiny fragment to apply in our own lives of the love she gave? I believe that if we can let go for a moment and grasp her true essence, and live even a fraction of our coming days and years in her spirit, then we will glimpse her sparkling, tired eyes peering upon us, to say with the smile lighting up her face, "köszönöm, köszönöm..."
I would be remiss and fail to honor Memi Néni's spirit if I did not call your attention to the precarious financial condition of her greatest passion, the work of the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation. This is the work we shared, she was never embarrassed to say it and always helped me to do the same. What we would like to accomplish is to expand and thoroughly rebuild the Library, to accommodate the growing book collection and active programs, and also one day to house the new offices of the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation. These were her two primary passions, and our concept is to combine the two and to name the finished result the Elisabeth Mauthner Memorial Room in her honor. The necessary resources can be accomplished through contributions to the HHRF Mauthner Memorial fund we have designated for this purpose. Please donate to this fund, with the generosity which so characterized Memi Néni, as a lasting tribute to her living memory.