My Reminiscences of a Great Lady
káposztás-szentmiklósi Nagy Zsuzsanna (née Vicenty)
(7/01/1924 – 7/24/2020)
Charles Bálintitt Jr.
One of the last crown jewels of our family has left this world. She was the widow of the late káposztás-szentmiklósi Nagy Tibor, who preceded her to the Pearly Gates over 23 years ago. The enduring legacy of this “grande dame” lives on in her three children, nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Grandma Zsuzsi (Zsuzsi nagymama), as she was known since the birth of her first grandchild over 45 years ago, was the matriarch of a wonderful family.
Vicenty Zsuzsanna was born and raised in Budapest, married Nagy Tibor, my mother’s first cousin, in February of 1946, a few years after she graduated from the Notre Dame de Sion boarding school. They first met in 1940, when Tibor came to Budapest from Transylvania.
Grandma Zsuzsi worked for many years as a translator of German and French. Many of her translations had to do with exceedingly difficult technical subjects. She would always say: “Ahány nyelvet tudsz, annyi ember vagy” (as many languages as you know, that is how many persons you are). Her love of languages was instilled in her children and grandchildren, all of whom speak Hungarian, English and German; some of them speak other languages as well. Zsuzsi and Tibor’s love of knowledge was also passed on to all of them, with everyone having college degrees; many of them with doctorates.
Her cooking was also legendary. In 1964, as a Christmas present, she gave her daughters typed cookbooks with her favorite recipes. Two of them still use this cookbook. She also left her entire family with a treasure trove, writing six cookbooks, in the last 20 years, all entitled “Zsuzsi Nagymama Szakács Könyve” (Grandma Zsuzsi’s Cookbook), with numerous subtitles (just to mention one: “Delicious small pastries, Sweet Puddings, Crèmes, Fruity Desserts, Ice Creams, Parfaits and Special Sweets”), 200 to over 300 pages each. These are not only the standard type of recipes that list the ingredients and how to assemble them, but many also have historical information on how they came about and some even mention quick fixes if something goes wrong.
Even with well over a thousand pages done, she interrupted her gastronomic bequest to her family to undertake another project. She wrote separate biographies of all four of her grandparents. In addition to all the typed computerized manuscripts, she also hand-wrote separate address books with details about all family members and close friends and gave them to each of her children and grandchildren.
Having lived through Communism, she would always say: “Minden elvehető az embertöl, csak a tudás nem” (Everything can be taken from a person, except knowledge), so she did her best to pass her knowledge on to the next generations.
Her final project, which she was unable to complete, was her own autobiography, entitled “Örök Szerelem” (Eternal Love). The book roughly ends with her meeting my father and with my parents’ wedding on September 1, 1956. Ironically, we tried for many years to get my father to write his memoirs, but he never did. When he was in his 90s, he finally admitted to me the reason why: He was afraid that when he finished, his life would end.
I first met Grandma Zsuzsi in 1991 at her home in Budapest. When I arrived, it was the beginning of a big family reunion. In addition to the wonderful company, the thing I remember most is the great food. It is utterly amazing how much Grandma Zsuzsi could produce in a rather small kitchen. You would think it was one of the top restaurants in the world.
We also had a second, smaller gathering set up as a buffet. The food was presented so beautifully that no one wanted to start first, we all had to just stand there and admire the elegance for just a little longer.
My wife, Lily, met Grandma Zsuzsi in 2007, and the love was instant. Even with a language barrier (Lily speaks English and Serbian and Grandma Zsuzsi spoke Hungarian, German and French) they tried their best to communicate.
In 2007, when we returned from an excursion to Transylvania, it was almost midnight on our second anniversary. When we walked into Grandma Zsuzsi’s house, the 82-year old was still up, waiting for us with some tea, coffee and a homemade anniversary cake that looked as good as if it had come from the finest bakery in Budapest.
I will never forget the wonderful conversations we had during our visits and the couple of times that she came to New York, as well as numerous phone calls over the years.
She was a true lady. She was elegant, sophisticated, a linguist and a historian, with a tremendous interest in genealogy and family history. By the time I knew her, she was only 4 feet 9 inches tall, but cast the shadow of a true giant.
My father once told me, when he was in his 80s, that in his life he was proudest of the fact that he kept his family together. Grandma Zsuzsi must have been proud too for doing the same and for also inspiring her thirst for culture in all her family as well.
One time when she came to New York, I took her to Manhattan and, among other places, we went to the Museum of Natural History. As soon as we arrived at the ticket counter, she pulled out her Hungarian Press ID card (I believe that she received it for doing some translations for Hungarian TV) and flashed it at anyone who was looking. Of course, I told them that she was here from Hungary and that I was her translator. We both got in for free. While there, we were about to go into the balcony area of the room with the great blue whale hanging from the ceiling. The guard at the door told us that the exhibit was being closed and everyone was being escorted out because they were about to begin a reception on the floor below. Again, she pulled out her Press credentials and we were given five minutes to go in alone and look around. She accomplished quite a bit without uttering a word of English.
When I was in Budapest in October of 2018, I stayed for four days at Grandma Zsuzsi’s home. In that time, we must have spent over 20 hours just sitting and talking about family, culture, history and life; and of course, eating as well.
One thing I am certain of is that all our relatives in heaven are sampling some culinary delights they have not had in a while. She was fond of saying “A szeretet minden, minden más az semmi” (Love is everything, everything else is nothing). She has left her enduring love in the hearts of her entire family (each of whom, even all the spouses, have always been kind and generous to me during every visit), and she is continuing her own love story that was interrupted with the passing of her beloved husband, Tibor, in early 1997. As I mentioned earlier, the title of her autobiography is “Örök Szerelem” (Eternal Love) and for her, that eternity is now!
May she rest in peace!
Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.