Please don’t be put off by the length of this. I’m not sure how long it will roll on; but I’ve lost a dear friend so here goes.
It was October of 2007 when I first met Zsolt Megai. My husband had died in 2005 and The Ct Autism Pilot Project was looking for ways that I could enrich my life. And so it was that my daughter Kerry (who was 10) and I (I was in my early 40s) started woodcarving lessons with Zsolt.
He had an accent. Scandinavian? Russian? I didn’t know, and was too inhibited to ask but in time I would discover he was Hungarian and fluent in that language. I drew up a sketch to make a gnome from wood.
Zsolt said “Make it wise because they are spiritual. No caricature sketches!”
The leaves were changing and the dogs would run and bark when I first started carving sessions with Zsolt. They were held on the back porch surrounded by a very tall 25 year old cactus and other succulent varieties all around us. Curls of shavings piled up at our feet and on our clothes. Later we would move our lessons to the garage and for the next few years that’s where they would remain. I was so busy painting at this time (I was doing murals at this time and gallery paintings) so my hands were a fun speckled white, smeared up with light blue, and some pinkish red hues too.
Zsolt showed us the work in his garage and said to Kerry and me, “Look around you at my carvings here. What is the difference you see between my carvings here in comparison to mass produced twelve dollar WalMart stuff that comes off assembly lines?”
He was smiling as he asked the question.
“Of course they are better,”
He answered his own question. He had everything from a large rough hewn chain- sawed bear holding a salmon to tiny birds on stilt-legs.
I worked at first with a small knob of wood, just getting a feel for the knife, for the wood, and Kerry worked on hers. Zsolt said, “Hey, Kimberly, you might get nicked with the knife, remember that as we go along. But I do stained glass too. I will show you sometime. And when I work with the glass or when I work with the knife sometimes too-sometimes even Zsolt will nick himself with the knife. But you know what to remember, Kimberly?” I paused the knife to look up at him. He went on. “That’s when you add your DNA to the piece and hey that’s why it beats the WalMart one, eh?” I imagined his blood dripping into the wood, adding his “DNA” to the piece and I had to smile.
Since I was a non-driver, Zsolt was kind enough to pick Kerry and I up at our house; we would carve at Zsolt’s house, then after the lesson he would drive us home. Zsolt told me that he was going to teach big classes. In Maine. He had always taught painting before, but carving was his love. He had three dogs then. One was an old lady. I think her name was Maddy. She had sore hips and a hoarse bark. One day, when our two hour session was over, Zsolt brought us homemade chocolate mousse with whipped cream and slivered almonds. Then he gave Kerry and I a tour of the house where he showed us various carvings and a beautiful stained glass lamp he made for his wife Trish. She was a pretty woman, petite, seven or eight years his junior. I didn’t think they had children, but they spoke lovingly of family near and far-all of the time.
Zsolt delighted me with a carved marionette and I said I would love to try and carve one myself. He said someday maybe I would, with his help of course! But first things first. I was working on a small Chinese man. As I carved, he told me a story about glass. Zsolt would end up taking me on trips to glass factories but on this day he was giving me a history of how he obtained some of his oldest glass – glass Zsolt would one day teach me to cut myself and use in a project.
“There were a couple of brothers. They smoked big fat cigars. matter of fact, the two of them were big fat guys! Oh they had tobaccy drool going down their chins and all. And they loved glass! They had a factory. By the railroad in Derby. Well they rode around doing their own recycling of sorts. They collected Noxema jars and the like, and beer bottles.”
I was fascinated.
Zsolt went on. “Of course the brothers and the factory, they are long gone now. I have the glass they collected and melted down. I have the very glass. The brown from the beer bottles and the blue from the Noxema jars and also white cold cream jars; that is a beautiful milky color. The brothers melted it see, and they swirled it…”
Zsolt’s attention turned to Kerry. He said, “Young lady, we will be cutting glass together; you and I!”
As it turned out, he and I cut glass too!
Mr. Zsolt Megai continued to amaze me. One day, when he arrived at my house to pick Kerry and I up for a lesson, he immediately started bringing in my garbage pails. He dragged both of them over to their places by the side of the house by the rail. Then he even opened both doors for us. He kicked away some large snow chunks for us too.
I was really getting the hang of my knife. Worked till the sun set. I was getting the detail down on my gnome’s suit, carving like butter while Kerry burned details into her lighthouse roof.
Meanwhile, Zsolt told us a story of his marine friends who were shipwrecked in a dingy in the war. There were three of them adrift fifteen days at sea in the Pacific? And each morning they divided the little boat in three. Then each man licked the dew from the small portion of the interior. They survived.
Sometimes he would just burst into stories like that. He said to me once, “I don’t know what all the hubbub is about ghosts is these days. People are wondering, do they exist, do they not exist? When I was a boy growing up, this was not a question. It was a given. Sometimes something is in a different place than where you put it the day before. You hear the noises. Every house had a house ghost. That was the way. My mother, she would just set an extra place at the table for the house ghost. That’s it.”
The weather was cooler now and it was winter. We had a small heater in place inside the garage. Zsolt was telling had all kinds of stories about glass. “This one you are going to cut for your lighthouse, Kerry. This glass came from an actual church.”
I was humbled by the gift. You see, Kerry and I were going through a tough time at home. We were having trouble asserting ourselves to a difficult family member and we didn’t know how to draw boundary lines. Somehow Zsolt “picked up” on our troubles. Suddenly he was telling us a story about some advice his Hungarian father had given him that he had never forgotten. It went something like this: “You know how a dog puts its tail between its legs?” Kerry and I paused and looked up at him. Carving was intense work. You could really work up a sweat. We set our knives on our knees and nodded.
Zsolt went on. When he talked to you, it was if you were the only one in the world who mattered. “My father used to say this to me, in Hungarian of course, but it translates to English just as well, he used to say, ‘Zsolt, when you are wrong, pull your tail in, but when you are right-tip over the table!”
My teacher did not know it but he helped me tip over a table, metaphorically speaking. I didn’t literally tip one over but I had the courage to deal with a negative issue in a healthy way in my personal life. He was teaching me more than how to carve wood.
That summer my daughter came inside the house carrying something. She put the thing in my hand. It was grey and solid, a misshapen rock, which fit in my palm. She’d found a keen rock-ball. Almost all-round. Across the street from me are natural caves.
I had a feeling what she found was part of a mortar and pestle. Kerry was 12 at this point and working on a Gryphon. I was working on two crows with their heads together, passing a berry in their beaks. . . I whipped the rock-ball out of my pocket and Zsolt paused. He’d been arranging a tool, which had a foot pedal, up on a suspension cord, so I could make faux lines into the wood to make it appear as if my crows were sitting on real rocks. Then Zsolt said I should follow the slices with my sharp knife, to carve out nice realistic rockface.
Zsolt wanted to study the rock-ball in my hand but he was distracted by the huge tangle of cord and wires at his feet… He nudged the jumble of wires with his foot and grinned. “Lots of spaghetti on the floor,” he said. I smiled because he had called the wires “spaghetti.” I loved the way he used words. Then he pulled a plastic white chair closer. His attention was on that rock in my hand. “Let me get my seat here and I will discuss this,” he said.
I could see his interest was piqued. The exchange was interrupted when his wife, Trish, a teacher on vacation for the summer, entered the garage. She’d been outside doing yard work and had just dumped a wheelbarrow full of brush. She offered us drinks. We’d been working with the garage door open. Prior to me extracting the rock-ball from my pocket, Zsolt had been telling me that the day before, his wife was trimming hedges when she accidentally cut through a live wire! Trish had seen some sparks! But she was fine!
Zsolt handed my rock-ball to me and rose from the plastic seat to greet her. “Hi honey,” he said.
Then he pointed at the jumbled up ‘spaghetti’ of wires near his big saw that stood on a handmade table-bench. “Hey honey don’t go away just yet. I have some wires I would like for you to cut for me.” he joked.
Hands on her hips, Trish smiled. She said “Zsolt!”
But back to the mortar/pestle. Zsolt said, “I have one like this in my collection as well.” He told Kerry and I all about the mountain and stream where he had found his. I had hiked there many times myself in the past. I was familiar with the place. It seemed Zsolt and I had trekked common pathways and not known it. “Where did you find this one?” he asked Kerry. She told him.
“Mortar and Pestle. I can show you in the dictionary if you like.” I said I’d like that. He pulled out a dictionary. After we were through reading the facts about mortar and pestles, Zsolt stood up and closed his eyes. He squeezed the rock-ball in his fist and talked about it in his Hungarian accent…
“This churned, if you can imagine, for perhaps thousands of years. It may have started as a big rock. A jagged rock, we don’t know originally how big or how jagged. But it churned and churned by water against another big rock until it is like this. The pestle of the mortar. Don’t lose this. When I hold this, when I close my eyes like this I feel it. I feel good.”
“I do too,” I agreed. “Like feeling the years,” I said. “It was turning and turning.” I looked at Kerry. “It’s true. Rocks have energy.”
Our discussions often turned to digging. My son, a young man on the spectrum, was a digger at heart who found many an interesting old bottle and relic. Zsolt liked to dig too. He had shown me a coffee can full of arrowheads. I wanted to touch every one. He’d even found a hand carved sailor once, which was signed on the bottom indistinguishably. I told him it was meant for a carver to find another carver’s piece. He paused and looked into my eyes. Just briefly. Just for a nano-second. And he sucked his teeth. He always sucked his teeth. Then he said he was sure he would never know who took such time to carve that sailor but that I was right- a carver WAS meant to find it.
The wood I was using to carve my crows was cherry. “This wood you are using has a story, Kimberly. As you work on the crow’s wing there, I will tell you how I got that piece of wood and the other slabs of cherry wood you saw. A friend and I drove to New York because my friend had the truck, you see. There was a fallen tree in a woman’s yard and I asked if I could have the logs. This was many years ago…”
Zsolt was neatening up the garage. Sweeping, brushing shavings from a cluttered table. He had students’ projects half finished everywhere; he would often show me them, his eyes filled with pride. He had sketches everywhere. Books, old cans, tools, expensive carving tools, properly wrapped in leather cases, cans with chisels, knives, and whatnots I forget the names of….He had his motorcycle and kayak in the garage and lots of shavings, stacks of wood, glass, shelves with glue and paints and stain and projects…..
He went on. Kerry was painting her Gryphon. “When we got back to Connecticut we were faced with bringing the logs to a lumberyard to have them sliced into long thick sheets. The sheets you see now are seasoned and stacked in my shed. So this is where Rum Hill comes in.”
Zsolt had a big grin. I paused and looked up, smiling, knowing I would like this story. Then I went back to my carving. “My friend and I, we went to Rum Hill. This was an old saw mill run by a guy who was drunk most of the time. Now you can see how it got its name, huh?” I smiled without looking away from my crows. Cherry wood was so fun to carve compared to the knottier woods. It was beautiful. The knife went through, while not exactly like butter, it was smooth. And this story was about the very wood I had in my hands. I nodded. He went on.
“This man at Rum Hill, he would cut things for you in exchange for a bottle of rum, in fact he always saved the bottles, thus the term, Rum Hill. There was a mighty stack of bottles beside this character, all rum bottles.” Zsolt spoke fondly of the wood cutter; carefully avoiding the term “drunk.”
“So this guy, this character, he took the cherry logs from the lady’s fallen tree from New York and in exchange for bottles of rum he ran off the wood for me in nice even slabs.”
Before I started my crows I had tremendous fun scraping the seasoned “skin” from my wood with a chisel.
And so it was later in the lesson, when I was really enjoying the way the sharp knife was cutting through the warm cherry wood with ease, the way I was making wood look like real rockface, that we discussed my daughter’s next project, for her gryphon was almost complete. I would not be painting my crows. Cherry is too pretty to paint, the grain is lovely. I would stain it.
Zsolt wanted us to think up new designs so we could begin our next projects together. Kerry wanted to make a handmade ukelele. I couldn’t decide on my next project. “Maybe a Buddha…” I said. I don’t remember where the conversation led from there but it ended with Zsolt saying something like this… He said something to the effect that “you and Kerry are guests after all…no I mean family.”
We were in the midst of a heatwave. On the way home from carving, Zsolt brought us to a lake. On the way there he slowed and pointed to a wooded overhang of trees whereby a Buddha statue not unlike the one in my front yard could be seen, sitting crosslegged on the boulder overlooking a waterfall. He said, “You are a spiritual person. I thought you would like to see that scene. Look through the trees at that sight. do you see?”?
He couldn’t have known, I’d been there many times before when my husband was alive but the Buddha was not there before. It was a scene my middle son Jeremy, a very spiritual person, would’ve enjoyed seeing and I thought of him. Kerry, Zsolt and and I watched the serenity for a few moments and then went on to the lake. I didn’t know it but my beloved beagle Pralphdog was gravely ill. He would not be alive much longer. It would be Zsolt (weeks later) who would carry his body into the vets for me.
When we got to the Lake, (Swan Lake) he stood at the water’s edge, and told me this was where he trained. He was a double gold medal winner in the senior olympics. He told me this, humbly, as if it was something people did all the time! I knew that he swam at the YMCA in the winter and that he bicycled there or rode his motorcycle to the YMCA, then swam laps, (he was 70 then) but I didn’t know he swam across the lake after every carving session. I knew he was an avid kayaker too.
“Its a big lake! “I said. “You swim ALL the way across? Beyond the ropes?” I had a fear of water.
“Back and forth. One side to the next. Shore to shore. I have been coming here 25 yrs. You need a special permit. But I know the guy in that cabin here.”
He knows guys everywhere! I thought to myself. London. Maine. Romania. Arizona….He was going to dive in I thought. In fact he said, as we stood at the water’s edge, “I won’t subject you to watching an old guy swim. Don’t be alarmed.”
I should’ve said, ‘you go ahead, do your training, dive in.’ But I did not. It was about 6:45 p.m. —a tad later than usual, I needed dinner.
Knowing him kind of made up for the nasty stuff that was going on in my life then.
Since my mother had passed away I took to spending a week here and there with my father in Vermont. I went into a real hair salon for the first time in a decade. As I sat in a chair awaiting my turn, I looked up and there across from me on the wall was a poem (by anonymous) that I had heard before but hadn’t heard in some time:
Be careful of your thoughts
for they become your words
Be careful of your words
for they become your actions
Be careful of your actions
for they become your character
Be careful of your character
for it becomes your destiny
When I got back to Connecticut a week later, it was time to resume mine and Kerry’s woodcarving sessions. Zsolt was ten minutes late picking us up for he had had car trouble as it turned out.
“Thought I wasn’t coming?”Zsolt grinned.
“No I didn’t think that.”I said. But this was a lie. Many thoughts were churning through my head as he drove us to his house. I thought I had forgotten to email him that I was back from Vermont. Or perhaps he’d forgotten?
“Be careful of your thoughts, for they become your words….” he said suddenly, taking me off guard. He then recited the whole poem! The one I’d seen on the hair salon wall. My eyebrows raised up as he pulled into his driveway. As we settled into our plastic seats and resumed our carving projects, he told me that he’d been playing internet chess with an English gentlemen and that the Englishman had told him the poem. I told him what a coincidence this was as I’d just read the poem! More than once, Kerry and I thought that Zsolt had a twinkle about him, a shine, a “knowing” that we couldn’t explain.
Some of Zsolt’s stories are gone to me. They are wisps in my mind; I remember pieces of them, as I did not write every one of them down and they are gone to me. I have shared the ones I had the sense to record. Here is one of them. He told me what an effect reading “Our Town” had had upon him.
He said, “I am struck by the simplicity of the characters, Kimberly. The milkman and so forth. And I am inspired by a book like this that can be complex and also simple. I want to write a play but include actors with disabilities.”
I knew at the time that he had me in mind for the play. Zsolt expanded on the idea as Kerry and I carved. “I will come on stage as the narrator, and it will be a reflection of how times have changed since I was a boy.”
I told him how brilliant I thought this was, because I could see this, I really could. Someone like Zsolt would be a commanding stage presence, a favorite professor, a winning playwright. Usually quiet, I told him all of this.
He talked of living in New York for ten years and going to something called ‘’Liquid Theatre” which taught people to trust; those were his actual words.
“Was it called Improv?’’ I asked?
‘’Yes,’’ he replied. “People were blindfolded, led through mazes…told to dance right on the spot. Told to sing. Grapes were popped in their mouths, they were told to fall blindfolded into strangers’ arms. At the end of the evening everyone was singing and dancing.”
There was a companionable silence as I turned over my piece and smoothed edges with my knife.
He asked if I had material for the play, regarding technology and changing times. Why yes! “My daughter gets a school supplies list every year!” I told him. ” You must buy all these things to attend middle school. Erasers, Three ring binder.” That year one of the items on her required purchase list was a 2 GB flash drive. I told Zsolt that I happened to have a computer, but some of her friends didn’t. This was enough to make some kids feel “less than.” Some parents were worried about putting sneakers on their kids —nevermind buying flash drives as part of a required supplies list.
“What is next?” I asked Zsolt. “No more pencils, paper, pens, on these lists. It’s very high tech now. Instead of ‘the dog ate my homework’, it will be ‘The dog ate my memory stick.’ These memory sticks are so small that Kerry is bound to lose them.”
Zsolt was quiet a moment and then he took my knife to show me a better way to control a tough curve. He was grinning. “I like that material,” he said. “I like this real life. I will use this in my play.”
The last project I was working on with Zsolt was a dream come true. It had the Green Man of nature on one side of a totem pole of life and Medusa on the other side, with bands of Hungarian inspired traditional carvings all around encircling it. Sadly, I had a gallbladder operation in the midst of this carving, a slow recovery, and ended up with three grandchildren, lots of babysitting duties, lifestuff, more invitations to show my work in galleries, the publication of a book (Under the Banana Moon), and a part time job. I drifted away from Zsolt but it was never intentional.
I’ve been reflecting on trees because they are made of wood and Zsolt has taught me so much about it; but also because I notice trees so much. When I study, I perseverate. Take for example a tree in my father’s yard with a weird growth that looks like a hand. A ‘helping’ hand. This is the the tree that sums up WHO my father is. Well, that makes sense. A lovely 82 year old lady with whom I keep company has four ‘sister trees’ (as she calls them) in her yard that each have outspread hugging arms. These trees have long outspread arms as if they embrace you. Like this lady. Like the feeling one has inside her home. This suits her. I noticed the first time I set foot in Zsolt’s driveway, that he has a tree alongside it with a knot in it that is in the shape of an all seeing eye. That’s just right. Isn’t it, though?
I’m told that Zsolt Megai left this world at the age of 74 with dignity on Valentine’s day 2014 surrounded by family and friends. I knew but a small facet of who he really was. It’s cliche, but if anyone I’ve ever known was an ‘old’ soul, he surely was. As I said earlier, some of Zsolt Megai’s stories have fizzled away from me but he left behind something I can’t name; something like mercury, so hard to put your finger on, something rare. He left more than “just” the DNA of himself in all those wooden creations of his, he left some of himself in all of us who knew him.
Kerry and I could not have created the carvings pictured here without the hands of Zsolt, taking the piece from us, showing us how to think three dimensionally, guiding his skilled hand over the rough spots…this is my gnome, which Zsolt named Rudolph, probably because his chipped nose stood out. How i loved painting his garment. I carved a hand painted behind his back with a magic ball glued in place. Zsolt used a special ‘walking stick’ for Rudolph, acquired from some exotic place in his travels, I wish I had written down where.
My daughter Kerry was inspired to do the above two pieces by the movie Pan’s Labyrinth and also Silent Hill. She in turn inspired Zsolt to watch the movie Pans Labyrnth. He coaxed a lot of talent out of that pre-teen. In the above pictures, Zsolt is seen attending a show where Kerry is standing in front of her carving on display. Sometimes when Zsolt would mention things like “Our Town” I didn’t have the heart to say that I never read Shakespeare, never read Our Town or read the classics, never went to college. Whatever I know I taught myself. Although I know he wouldn’t have judged me.
my first carving
Kerry’s first carving
Kerry’s lighthouse. The glass came from a special place. Did I mention that her Pan’s Labyrinth headpiece on that guy is all wood, save for a little wire? She has a knack for painting things to look like rocks or metal.
If you watch The Price is Right, then you might call this a four foot high PLINKO machine. Zsolt and Kerry built this machine. We have a can of marbles to run through it. It’s based on the Heisenberg principle and it was tremendous fun listening to Zsolt explain that to us.
Aaaah my crows. My attempt at carving and assembling a frame from that beloved cherry wood with that wonderful story… then staining it. And I cut the glass myself. I don’t like my design but I love the piece anyway. The glass comes from those tobaccy brothers after all. Zsolt said the light blue glass is so flattering I will always look young when I look into it.
A close up. One crow is passing the other one a pearl, which is a hat pin that belonged to my mother.
Zsolt himself etched this into the back of my crows piece for me…the day I started it!. When it still wasn’t finished in 2009, he looked at the date and said, “Aaah it has history already doesn’t it Kimberly?”
I cannot (will not) imagine his hands idle.