Along for the Ride

I love a good old-fashioned card and I treasure those I receive these days, hoping to prove to my daughter that ‘once upon a time,’ we actual wrote letters to our friends. Imagine that? I will show her one card that sits on my desk that sums up the spirit of Aggie Hoff, a silver-haired, 74-year-old, woman I met a decade ago riding her bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge.

These are the stages of life: You ride alone or with a dog in the basket (referring to the picture on the card). Then you ride with Gracelyn on the back of your bike. Next Gracelyn is on a trike. Then she’s loose in the world on two wheels going who knows where. Then you are riding alone again. Then comes my phase, back on a tricycle any day now. Meanwhile, I managed 35 miles yesterday,” she wrote in January, her code language telling me she’s back on her bike.

Aggie does not ride a tricycle. She rides a thirty-four speed titanium Seven and has probably put about 5000 miles per year on the bike since I’ve known her. She rides every week with a group of retired friends in Santa Rosa and crashed last fall, breaking her femur and ankle in four parts.

Despite the admonishment of her husband and family, she vowed to get back and ride. I applaud her but feel like I’m encouraging an addict. You see, Aggie actually needs to ride for ‘sanity’s sake’ she says, and I know I can always lure her to ride over the bridge to our house for waffles and stories. “Lots to tell you,” she writes in her card. I smile and fire up the waffle maker.

With Agatha Hoff, there is always lots to share. It seems like her whole life was meant to be a story and it is no surprise that Aggie herself has become quite a storyteller. Last summer, at the age of 73, she published her first book Burning Horses: A Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down (Sweet Earth Flying Press) a beautiful, hypnotic and haunting memoir told in her mother’s voice.

author Agatha Hoff

WWII survivor Agatha Hoff published her first book at age 73. She rides 5000 miles per year on her bicycle.

Aggie told me she was working on a book the morning we met on the Golden Gate Bridge where we learned we had more in common than a passion for bike riding: a love of writing and a history in Hungary. I spent a year teaching English in the country of her childhood.

I told her I would love to read her book someday and paused in the Presidio to exchange information then said good-bye. But like most friendships that begin on a bike, our conversation never ended. In November, 2001, after six months of editing, Aggie handed me her manuscript.

Aggie had been a retired attorney for years and was a stickler for details. She didn’t tell me much about the story other than it was true. I sat on my Clayton Street couch in a post 9-11 funk, read her words and wept. My bike-riding writer friend had a lot to share about courage.

Aggie had survived a war. She had escaped Nazi-Hungary as a child with a teddy bear stuffed with 10 gold Krugerrands that paid her family’s way to the United States in 1949. Along the journey, Aggie would lose her beloved family estate, her city, her father and her country; however, she would not lose her sense of humor, her belief in the goodness of people or her love for adventure.

Each year on her birthday, Aggie rides as many miles as her age. She’s the only 70-something person I know who rides ‘double metric centuries.’ Approximately 122 miles on her bicycle. Even if she wanted to tell tall tales about her bike rides, she can’t. They’re all true.

Unlike most storytellers, Aggie is not one to embellish. Her nature as a skeptic refuses to indulge exaggeration. She sticks to the facts, and yet in recreating the arc of her family – from aristocrats to refugees in Nazi-occupied Budapest, she masterfully expresses sentiment without risking sentimentality. In so doing, she captures the tenacity, courage and strength in her mother’s will to survive, traits she has inevitably inherited.

Like her mother, Eva, Aggie is a survivor. It takes the strength of a survivor to finish a book because writing one is like surviving another kind of war – waged in a writer’s head and heart. Am I good enough to write this book? Will anyone read this book? Is what I’m trying to say of value to anyone but myself? And the Devil’s favorite, Should I be writing another book instead?

Burning Horses: A Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down made the Chronicle's "Top Shelf" selection for Editor's Choice

Aggie never set out to write a book when she arrived in San Francisco at the age of 13 with her older sister and mother. She also never imagined she’d leave her country and become a refugee. The story; however, was always there, waiting for her to write it. She just needed time and perspective to do it right. So she lived her life, worked as an attorney, raised four children, and became the grandmother of three granddaughters, now juniors at UC Santa Cruz, Harvard and Yale. Between the days and seasons and years, she wrote and rode her bicycle thousands of miles, never forgetting the past and everything that had brought her here.

After her mother passed away in 1992, Aggie read through the hundred or so pages her mother had written over the years and realized she needed to finish her mother’s story. She wove together the events of her mother’s life, recreating Eva’s voice and her beauty. From the time Aggie handed me the manuscript, she would spend another nine years rewriting it through various workshops until she arrived at a draft that was ready for submission. Call it a lesson from a wartime childhood. Aggie had as much perseverance as her mother. Critical for the path of a writer.

It was during a bike ride, of course, that she shared the good news that she finally found a publisher after several rounds of rejections. That was the summer of 2007 when she was 70. Most people would have given up. Most people would have never even started down this path. Aggie started and finished, and when she told me about Sweet Earth Flying Press, her blue eyes lit up against the Pacific sun and we pedaled down the bike path saying, “Agatha Hoff, author.”

Two years later, her book remained in manuscript form on a desk in Texas. She kept getting the run-around from the publisher – talk of a review in the New York Times, a book tour, etc. But no set publication date. I started to worry. Aggie did too, but she didn’t let on that she was disappointed. Frustrated, yes. She dealt with it by riding her bicycle, rain or shine.

Then finally, last July, I joined Aggie, her family and two hundred of her friends at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco for her first book launch. I held Gracelyn in my arms and stood in awe listening to my bicycle-riding author friend, read from Burning Horses for the first time in public.

Gracelyn and I waited in line for her to sign a few books. On the title page, Aggie wrote, Minden Jol, looked up and smiled. I had come to learn a few phrases teaching in Hungary, minden jol was among them and meant ‘everything is fine. Everything works out.’ Indeed it had for Agatha Hoff who’s found a way to turn tragedy into triumph with the help of a book, and a bike.