THE SOUP GAME
BY DIANE AKERMAN
“No. I don’t want soup!”
“Eat the soup or I’m leaving.”
“You won’t leave.”
“Eat the soup.”
Here I was again, bitterly embroiled in a battle of principles. Sitting in my high chair, my chubby little arms folded in front of me, with my lips tightly clenched, avoiding the soup.
Magda Neini stared at me. I stared at her. She waved the spoon around maniacally.
Here we were, playing our daily lunchtime game. Madga Neini made me soup three times a week. From the moment I climbed into that high chair and saw that same familiar enormous blue pot, the game would begin.
“Nem! Nem! Ein nem okorok eni!” I answered her in Hungarian conveying my deep hatred for the soup.
“It’s not soup,” Magda would tell me, “It’s Goulash.”
Goulash, soup, stew, borscht, it was all the same to me - and I had decided that I didn’t like it. But Magda Neini was much wiser than I and as I sat there, yelling my little heart out, she would shove a spoonful of soup in my open mouth. Having waged a mini war for the last ten minutes, I knew I couldn’t give in no matter what. I would swallow the spoonful, in my head say “Yum” and then out loud say “EWWWWWWW!”
I was a good kid.
This was the game: If I didn’t eat the soup, my nanny would threaten to leave forever. I would throw tantrums at the thought. So, she would hold up yet another spoonful. The decision was mine: give in and eat the soup, or the woman I love would walk out on me, leaving me alone forever (if only decisions in my life now were pitted against soup; I really like soup). I would throw my little tantrum again and she would threaten to leave again. By the second spoon Magda had her coat on, a purse over her shoulder, and had started opening the front door. At which point I would frantically shove spoonfuls of soup into my mouth, while screaming “STAY STAY! I’m eating the soup!” She would turn around, come back, and we’d start back at the beginning again.
“So, you’re going to eat the soup?”
“Ein nem okorok eni.”My family hired Magda Neini (“Magda the Nanny” in Hungarian) when I was five to take care of me. My father and mother were off working; my sister was in the sixth grade and way too cool for me. Magda taught me to speak Hungarian - a feat my father, grandmother and various aunts, uncles and cousins from my father’s side of the family had been unsuccessful at, in spite of my obvious adeptness at learning languages. I was already fluent in English and Yiddish; my mother’s family had succeeded in teaching me the latter. Unfortunately, true to my stubborn nature, I would not utter a single word of Hungarian with anyone other than my father and Magda Neini. But, around Magda Neini, it was almost as though I’d never spoken anything but.
During infrequent family trips to my paternal grandmother’s house, my grandmother would attempt to communicate with me in the only language she knew: Hungarian. I would stare at her blankly, as though I didn’t understand that I was supposed to understand. My father would have to speak to stubborn little me -- who would later grow to be stubborn grown me -- in her stead, and I answered in grammatically perfect Hungarian every time.
I can imagine how disconcerting this was for my grandmother.
Often, my mother would return from work to find me sitting two feet from the old wooden Panasonic TV, engrossed in Woody Woodpecker or Popeye the Sailorman, and Madga Neini sitting on a chair in the kitchen, exhausted from our daily routine. My mother would prepare tea and cake for the two of them and they would sit and chat. Magda Neini was not a domestic worker -- she was a peer, a member of the family, and every one of us treated her as such.
During the first week of her tenure at the Akerman residence, my mother returned home to such a display. Over the tea and cake, Magda Neini explained to my mother that she just didn’t understand how to please me.
“I ask her what she wants, and she tells me nothing. So I search up and down, taking everything out of the cabinets, offering her everything I can find, but she doesn’t want any of it. She wants nothing. Where is this nothing?”
My mother still laughs when she relays this story. Even now, fourteen years later, when I want “nothing,” my mother will laugh and inevitably tell the story of Magda Neini’s search for “nothing.”
Magda Neini stayed with my family all year long, including summers at Aviv Gardens, our little Jewish Bungalow Colony in the Catskills. The only vivid memory of these summers I have is sitting on the grass next to the clothesline, watching Magda Neini hang laundry. Magda’s solid and robust body, showing only slight signs of succumbing to her age, dressed in an oversized t-shirt displaying some tourist attraction along the lines of Cancun, Mexico, or Miami, Florida, hanging my leopard print skirted bathing suit.
That leopard print bathing suit was the cause of the only animosity between Magda Neini and me. As my family packed up into our mini station wagon at the end of another pristine summer, waving goodbye to the Jamesway Movie Theater, and the Shoprite, I remembered that my favorite bathing suit was still hanging on the clothesline in the backyard.
Magda Neini had forgotten to pack my favorite bathing suit – the leopard print one with the skirt. Never again would I frolic carefree in the public pool like a small leopard cub.
September 1989. I am about to start Pre-1A; the year before first grade. It is time for Magda to go back to Hungary.
Once again, my family piled into the mini station wagon, and took the fifteen-minute drive to JFK International Airport.
After arriving, my family and I stand together, speaking in Hungarian, to the great dismay of my sister, who still does not speak it. We are sharing goodbyes with Magda Neini.
Magda Neini leans down to hug me. We exchange goodbyes in Hungarian, until the time finally comes for her to board her plane. Magda Neini walks away, bags in hand, and heads up an escalator in clear view of where we are standing.
I watch Magda Neini head up the escalator and out of view. I watch as her tuft of short curly dark auburn hair goes out of view for one last time. I’m not crying, and I don’t feel sad. This is the way things are supposed to be, I think silently.
There is a lengthy silence as we each silently reflect on the kindly older woman who has come and gone from our lives. My father turns to me, and in Hungarian asks me something.
I don’t understand him.
He repeats himself over and over again, and I just continue to stare at him with the blank look I give my grandmother when she tries to speak to me in Hungarian.
The last Hungarian word I ever spoke was “Sevroos,” – Goodbye, Magda Neini.
These days, I still don’t speak Hungarian, but remain fluent in Yiddish.
When I go home now and my mother has that enormous blue pot on the stove, I can’t help but recall the soup game and notice how my mother’s reddish, curly hair resembles Magda’s so closely. When she puts a bowl of goulash in front of me, I feign disappointment, but quickly dismiss it as I pick up the spoon and dig right in.
If only Magda Neini could see me now.