'I serve the goddess Flora ...' - From language to dance Clarissa Szabados-Mish has cultivated many gardens

Toward the end of World War II, a couple and their two young sons fled Budapest, Hungary. The woman was very pregnant. They found haven in Szombathely, a town near the Austrian border where a relative lived. Shortly after their arrival, on Jan. 26, 1945, bombs falling around them, Clarissa Szabados was born.

When Clarissa (pronounced "Cla-ree-sa") was six months old, the family moved to the small town of Marano d'Isera in northern Italy. Szabados-Mish grew up there, surrounded by the rugged Dolomite Mountains.

From sixth grade on, she attended school in nearby Rovereto, a city much loved by the poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote "The Divine Comedy" in 1306. Buildings in Rovereto are unusually shaped, curved to follow the contours of the roads, which follow the contours of the hills.

Castles abound in the hills, as do trenches, sad vestiges of the many conflicts in the region. Through the centuries many cultures intermingled there, battling for sovereignty.

"History rearranges the world," Szabados-Mish says, "but people don't rearrange themselves." In other words, cultures don't change nationality overnight.

Szabados-Mish's father was a dentist. Although he died when she was only 10 years old, his words have guided her throughout her life. "Follow your bliss," he advised.

Her mother, a homemaker, "was a serious lifelong student of history," says Szabados-Mish, "a walking encyclopedia."

The Szabados (pronounced Sa-ba-dosh) family spent their summers camping on the shores of Lago di Garda. Warm water collects among large boulders in the lake. Young Clarissa would clean out the pebbles from the shallow pools, turning them into moats for her make-believe castles.

When Szabados-Mish was a teenager, the music of Elvis Presley and the Platters hit the charts. "American pop music was so different - novel, foreign," she says, "and 'Only You' was so melodic." She didn't understand a word, but she sang the songs without inhibition.

In 1959, Szabados-Mish's mother decided to move to America. For a variety of reasons - including the fact that she had only one year left of high school - Szabados-Mish did not want to move, but she had no choice in the matter.

They flew west at the beginning of the summer. The journey was uneventful, save an unexpected stop in Newfoundland because the plane had mechanical problems.

The family settled in Yonkers, N.Y., where Szabados-Mish learned English by watching soap operas on TV all summer.

Many voices, many gardens

After finishing high school in Yonkers, Szabados-Mish enrolled part-time at City College of New York. Then her mother moved to St. Louis, Mo. Szabados-Mish followed and attended Washington University there, graduating with a bachelor's degree in art history and comparative literature.

She went on to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Mich., where she earned a master of fine arts in metalsmithing. She made jewelry and small metal sculptures.

Throughout college and graduate school, Szabados-Mish taught Italian through Berlitz Language Centers.

Near the end of her studies at Cranbrook, she saw a travelogue about Seattle on TV and decided to move here. She has had several professions since she arrived in this area, and has always had at least one or two Italian-language students. "You have to do a couple of things to keep going," Szabados-Mish says.

In the 1970s she taught jewelry-making at Highline Community College. She sang in operettas and church choirs. She taught dance and gymnastics in the Seattle Publics Schools. In the 1980s she founded her own dance company, New Age Rhythms, to promote environmental education.

Furthering that endeavor, she directed two recycling programs: the City of Bellevue's, from 1988 to 1990, and the University of Washington's, from 1990 to 2000.

About the time of her transition from one recycling position to the next, in 1990, she married Charles Mish. The two met when Charles studied Italian with her. Charles is an English teacher at Edmonds Community College. He has two grown sons who are in the well-known Seattle rock band, Left Hand Smoke.

Now Szabados-Mish has 20 private students and is writing a textbook entitled "Italiano Vivo" (Living Italian). Her teaching approach differs from usual methods. If nouns and verbs are the foundation of a house, "prepositional contractions are curtains on a window," Szabados-Mish explains. She does not stress their usage with beginning students.

Szabados-Mish speaks several languages besides Italian and English. She speaks fluent Hungarian, decent French, fair Spanish, a dab of German and has begun to study Turkish.

She reads both Italian and American publications, from classics to historical novels to the Harry Potter books. She also subscribes to a variety of magazines, including Archaeological Odyssey and Tricycle, a Buddhist review (both American), as well as Gardenia (Italian).

Szabados-Mish is an avid gardener. "I serve the goddess Flora," she says. "Seattle is a garden. It's why I continue to live here."

The house she and Charles inhabit on north Queen Anne could be in a picture book. A gate opens into a small but lush garden, the realm of their two cats, Mumu and Ninian. Flower beds and lawn undulate around the house, a short walkway winds toward the front door and herbs grow in containers on the porch.

Fuchsia is Szabados-Mish's favorite color. "It has the vibrancy of red without being loud," she says. She gestures toward boxes filled with fuchsia blossoms that look like shooting stars. "It is the color of my cyclamens."

At their other house on Lopez Island, Szabados-Mish grows mostly vegetables.

Ideas and ideals

In 1965 Szabados-Mish became a U.S. citizen. One reason is that she wanted to travel more safely than she could as a Hungarian refugee (she never was an Italian citizen). More significantly, however, is the fact that she was grateful for being welcome in America, and felt it was only right to reciprocate by becoming a citizen.

"When I arrived," she says, "I saw America as a land of new ideas and ideals. Idealism was mainstream in the 1960s."

She no longer has family in Italy (both her brothers live in Seattle), but she has the "equivalent of family" there - childhood friends and an adopted aunt. She visits them every two years or so. She hopes to take some of her students there someday and see the gardens. Italian gardens are formal, with geometrically shaped flowerbeds, fountains and statuary.

When she retires Szabados-Mish would like to split her time more equally between Seattle, Italy and her birthplace, Hungary.

A higher truth

Clarissa sits on her porch in the sunshine, sipping tea from a fine china cup, wearing floral beaded Chinese slippers, a gift from a student. "I am a seeker," she says. "I take on practices that help me be receptive to a higher truth."

She has danced for years, exploring many forms. Recently she has discovered a new dance form called "Interplay," a blend of movement improvisation and spirituality. "It's not just about the body and me, me, me," she says. "There is the possibility of a message."

She is joyous doing mundane things, too. "Sometimes peals of opera-quality singing escape her kitchen," a neighbor reports. Clarissa follows her bliss.[[In-content Ad]]