a world of his own illustration

A World of His Own

Searching for our family’s roots across two continents.

“All of this history,” my 5-year-old sighs, “I am just not sure I believe it.”

We are standing atop the walls of a medieval Hungarian castle on a rainy, gray morning, and the picturesque town sprawled around us looks very different from what I assume my son was expecting: fallen Ottoman warriors on open fields, stockpiles of stone walls burned to the ground, and scattered weapons and flags—leftovers from the great, unexpected victory of a small Hungarian army against a vast Turkish force in 1552.

We climb steep stairs (new concrete) to the top of watchtowers (ancient rock) and follow our tour guide’s finger as he points to enemy cannon positions on the ground. We stand at the foot of the tomb of the castle’s captain (a replica of the original) and wander past the sarcophagus harboring the bones of those who perished during the battle (assumed real).

Sam is fascinated by history, and I feed him small bits from books and movies and my own recollections. The years are all muddled in his mind. (“A long time ago,” he says as he plays out battle scenes with his toy soldiers, “in the 1980s.”) He imagines battles that never happened, between American Indians and Hungarians, or American Civil War soldiers and his favorite Turkish warriors.

We’ve been looking forward to seeing this particular castle for a while now, ever since he watched a movie about the battle and we read portions of a popular novel that’s mandatory reading for all kids in Hungary. Every Hungarian child is brought here on a school trip at least once. Standing on the castle wall with the rain soaking our jackets, I am relieved to be able to give Sam this gift.

We drive back to Budapest later that afternoon, and Sam and I spend the rest of the week wandering around my old turf. The thrill I feel showing him around my city is unexpected. We walk down the wide, tree-lined street where I grew up and went to school. I point out the bridges spanning the Danube, and we gaze in awe at the gilded dome of the Parliament. We get caught in a rain shower standing by the Chain Bridge’s lions, and we shuffle onto a stuffed bus heading up to the castle in Buda. We giggle when we finally reach the marble bust of King Matthias. We’ve seen the picture of the sculpture in books many, many times. I had promised Sam that he would get to see it in person, and I don’t think he believed me. But the sculpture is real, right there in front of us. We can almost touch it.

After walking the endless halls of the National Gallery, we come to the darkened room where one of Sam’s favorite historical paintings hangs under a spotlight. He’s been studying the painting in books and online, its morbid subject matter (recovering a king’s body from a battlefield swamp) impossible to resist for a little boy. The painting is even bigger than I remember, and Sam discovers new details—the king’s armor remains in the mud and someone forgot a shovel on the ground.

That night a thunderstorm rolls through the city, and I lie awake for hours—from jet lag, from the rain beating on the metal windowsill. From history. From wanting to pass it on and yearning for it to be a part of Sam’s bones. From raising him in a country that, even after 20 years, feels foreign to me. I feel disconnected from the past in America, as if everything is replaceable and disposable. I fear I will never get used to this feeling. I feel tied to my city and its past, the connection a constant, dull tug in my rib cage.

Where will Sam feel rooted? Where will he find his city and know the stories of buildings and castles? Where does history live among strip malls and highways and streets with no sidewalks?

My own childhood was wrapped up in the past. I walked to school on streets where World War II battles were fought, where at one time ghetto walls stood, near where my grandfather hid for weeks in an attic and where he and my grandmother married hastily in between bombings. That same grandfather sat next to me at dinner every night, small and frail and elflike. He was history himself, full of memories, and I was aware that he was passing something on to me, something that might otherwise be lost.

I listened to him after every meal out of duty and curiosity. I wanted to know what came before me, what or who explained my nose, my hair, my temper, my love of writing. I remember hearing about a distant aunt who owned a paper store in prewar Budapest and finding it comforting when my grandfather said that I inherited my love of stationery from her.

Now that I live so far away, it is this sense of the past that provides answers to the big questions: Who are you? Where are you from? Who are your people? To Sam, history is just about the exciting battles right now, but someday he will need history to answer his own questions.

The Civil War encampment in my husband’s Pennsylvania hometown is small this year, just a few groups of tents under a grove of trees. We swat away tiny gnats as we walk from tent to tent and stop to look at the treasures unearthed from battlefields around the country: bullets, combs, diaries, Bibles, pipes, pen tips, badges. I’ve been to one of these camps before. Just like Sam was skeptical about the authenticity of the castle walls in Hungary, I am skeptical about grown men playing dress-up and the true origin of these battlefield finds.

At one tent, a reenactor in full Union garb sits on a stool and tells Sam how much he would get paid as a soldier, what type of weapon he would use, and what foods he would eat. Sam is enthralled but too shy to say anything, so his grandmother nudges him. “Go ahead,” she says, “tell him why your name is Sam.” The soldier is an old friend, so he knows about my husband’s ancestor, but he leans down anyway, waiting for Sam’s version of the story. “I am named after my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Samuel, who died in the Civil War,” he whispers, eyes to the ground.

The soldier bolts up straight, pulls his weapon close to his body, and stands at attention. He raises his hand to salute my Sam. I am grateful for the sun and my sunglasses, because tears flow without warning or permission.

Later that weekend we drive through the Gettysburg battlefield and stop at the monument where Sam’s namesake is etched on a plaque amid thousands of others. It’s a tradition in my husband’s family to take a photo here, pointing at the name. My husband describes the battle to Sam while I try to make sense of my earlier emotional reaction.

Until now, I never really considered Sam’s connection to his American side. That history does not belong to me, does not form me or give me my identity. It doesn’t move me or inspire me. Not because it isn’t heroic or exciting but because it’s not mine. It was—is—a story, a fairy tale, not something that happened to my people. I knew that we named Sam after an ancestor, but to me it was just a cute boy’s name, not a family tradition.

I realize that the tears earlier came from relief. Because even though I might not feel like this country’s past is mine, Sam feels it is his. He comes from both the heroic warriors who defended the castle against the Turks and the brave soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. He is both Old World and New World, both ancient stone and shiny skyline. He can take it all in, and when he is old enough that the questions and answers will matter to him, he’ll have double the past to search for answers.

He will find himself on cobblestone streets in Budapest, in wheat fields in Pennsylvania, in castle ruins, and in the remains of a stockade prison baking in the hot Southern sun. He will find his people in Jewish ghettos, in European castles, in small country churches, on farm fields, in modern cities, and sleepy suburbs. History will give Sam roots, but it will not tie him down.


Zsofia McMullin lives in Connecticut and writes for The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Illustration by Sonia Roy/Colagene

Originally Published December 2015