The inheritance

ONE lovely sunlit day the campus was celebrating a famous man. During the morning in the amphitheater his swirling academic robe was draped with a silken cowl blazed scarlet with velvet trim. Words of praise scattered from the podium dropping in a pitter-patter of dry rain on the nodding heads of thousands. The afternoon was dotted with teas festooned in glittering small cakes and frosted mints and tiny, iced sandwiches of watercress. In my sojourn through these invitations, I stole a shortcut through a pasture and saw an elderly man walking slowly, carefully.

Not young myself, I approached him and after walking silently together step by step, we fell to talking, at first tentatively, checking each other, then gradually to an ease of recognition -- he with an accent thick in ancient memories from another land; I in a craving for the friendliness of his sudden smile.

``Is this your first time here?'' I asked.

``Oh no!'' He spoke emphatically, looking all around, ``I am an American citizen. Since 1913 I am here -- only 18 I was -- and I never went back -- never!''

We walked on. ``Where did you come from?'' I ventured finally.

``Hungary -- a scrap of farm -- my father, not his own man -- a peasant -- a serf. His soul belonged elsewhere -- how you say? -- to the manor lord. He determined -- never for me.''

I wished we could sit down and talk like children. A tea with its formalities waited just beyond the far fence.

``So -- what did your father do?''

``When I was 13, he wrapped my clothes in a handkerchief at the end of a stick and he gave me a one-way train ticket to the city.

`` `Go,' he said, `and don't come back. Apprentice yourself -- make a life -- a new life -- your life. Don't come back -- ever!' ''

``Thirteen,'' I mused and shivered, remembering my own boys at 13 -- skylarking, buoyed with baseball mitts and dreams -- wondering when was dinner, as their only brush with reality. ``And did you go?''

``Yup.'' His mouth closed tight over the thought. ``I walked pavements -- and my feet wanted ground. I apprenticed myself -- night and day -- they had only to feed me, but I ate. Ach! I was always hungry. In three years I was journeyman mechanic. I went to Germany. I learned to speak -- I worked hard -- always hard. I never stinted. My father whipped that into me. In two years I left for America.''

``Did you know English?''

``Not a drop -- but I studied -- I listened -- word by word. And I stayed on my feet -- I scrambled. My first job -- five dollars a week -- six days' work -- loading on the docks. And I thought I was saving the world. Heavens! My head was in the stars! Such plans -- such meetings -- such visions. I was a Wobbly -- remember?'' His smile flashed and dimmed, and he sighed.

``I thought I knew it all then. Now the sureness's gone. Forty years I've been on my farm -- working in the hot sun and through the rain. Always I'm learning.''

``And do you own the farm -- is it yours?'' I said, not wanting to ask, but hoping -- remembering his father.

His eyes burned and he held out his hand. ``I earned it -- by this fist I made it mine.'' Then he relaxed. ``You must come see it sometime -- when the head aches with the world, then you stop by, yes? I have a field by a lake and when the night is floating in, you'll feel the peace I came over for.'' His smile was a benediction.

We started walking, hastening our steps as we approached the house and its waiting tea.

``And you had no children?'' I said as we went through the gate in the fence.

``Oh yes -- yes -- but only one -- a son. My wife, bless her soul -- now gone so long. But I have him, it's enough. He helped me hill my first potatoes last week.'' He squinted at the crowd of arrivals dallying round the garden of the house.

``There he is now -- you remember him from this morning.'' He pointed with his cane at the man celebrated, the famous man who had been on the platform.

``My son,'' he said proudly. ``Very good with the hoe, he is.''

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