Stephen and Cattie Pesty

My grandparents had servants, in fact they had a house on their property for them. I have only the vaguest memories of a Dutch couple, whose names were Pere and Otto, when I was very small.

In 1957, however, shortly after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, my grandparents took in and employed a Hungarian refugee family, Stephen and Caterina Pesty and their 11-year-old daughter, also named Caterina. Both mother and daughter were called Cattie. At 13, I understood nothing of the Uprising and was told simply that my grandparents were helping the Pestys, since they had had to flee from Hungary. We kids heard stories that Stephen had shot a couple of Soviets and was shot himself as he was swimming across a river to safety. He was said to have scars from his wounds on one side or the other of his stomach, but I never saw them. If the stories are true, it is remarkable that he and his family got out safely, so all I really know is that they were refugees, and they became my grandparents’ servants and lived for many years in the other house on their property.

The family story goes that my grandparents were just leaving for a month-long stay in Maine (or possibly Florida), when the Pestys drove up the drive to their house. They introduced themselves in halting English and explained that they were refugies from Hungary and said they hoped to work for my grandparents. My grandfather said that would be fine and that they should move into the smaller house and that they, my grandparents, would be back in a month. And they left.
(I believe there must have been some sort of previous communication with or about the Pestys, but that is not part of the family story.)

I think it turned out satisfactorily for both the Pestys and my grandparents. Cattie senior (“Big Cattie”) was cook and housekeeper. Stephen was butler and gardener and handyman. Both had some English and learned more fairly quickly, and Little Cattie learned even faster.

Stephen, as I think of him, was a classic Hungarian. He was about 45 years old when he arrived. He stood 5’9” and was stocky, very muscular. He had dark hair brushed straight back, with the beginnings of male-pattern baldness, dark moustache and eyebrows, and white skin. His manner conveyed solidity and self-respect. He always called my grandfather Sir and my grandmother Ma’am, and I never saw a trace of resistance or annoyance when either of them asked him to do anything, no matter how well-occupied he was already. (This was true of Big Cattie, too.) Though my grandfather was probably something of a soft touch, I was never aware of anything that might have hinted at taking advantage. It is possible that the Pestys were grateful. Years later they showed genuine Hungarian grief when my grandparents died.

To come back to Christmas, we children, my three siblings and our three cousins, all liked both Stephen and Cattie, and Little Cattie, and of course we were a swarm in the house on Christmas. We were out, and then we were in again, and out and in, always with snowy boots, and coats and gloves all over the front hall. Stephen was on our side, a little mischievous. He was the bartender on such holidays and indulged us with maraschino cherries and olives and peanuts, and he would pour a little Dubonnet, a sweet red aperitif wine, in our Cokes. (My brothers and one of my cousins say it was rum, but I don’t think so, and I am the oldest.) It may have been Hungarian tradition. He managed us pretty well; we were happy, but not too happy, and the grownups, if they knew, never objected.

I think of Stephen and Cattie and Little Cattie every Christmas, and I wish I knew how to find Little Cattie, wherever and whoever she is now, and ask her all the questions I didn’t ask back then.