Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Grandma - the beginning

Grandma (2nd row, 1st person; left) & extended family in 1957
In telling stories from the past, I have neglected the wonderful, strong women who have shaped my life. This April there are 13 years since my grandma died. I loved her almost as much as love my mother. So, this post is about her. It offers me a brief respite from work on Easter. I can close my eyes and imagine that she is sitting near me and telling me these stories once again.

Grandma had a strong sense of duty and a wicked sense of humor; had she been here today, she would likely tell me to go back to work on my science and/or job applications.

traditional house from Curtisoara
She was born in the fall of 1912 in Curtisoara, a small village in the mountains that stretched on one long street.  Part of that village is now a museum that exemplifies life in the 19th century. I went to Curtisoara in the early 1990s. My great-grandfather's house was still there, and some of my grandma's friends were still alive. They were all living in houses that looked like the one in the picture and are now museum pieces.  They told us Grandma was the first woman in their village to attend university and study the hard sciences.  She obtained a degree in Mathematics with a secondary specialization in astronomy. So, I was not the first woman in the family with a scientific interest in stars.

She taught Mathematics at various levels throughout her life. In Lugoj she taught mathematics at the pedagogic highschool (after graduating the students became school teachers). She also taught a class of children from the local orphanage, and sometimes evening classes for people who worked and/or were not allowed to attend regular school due to their 'unhealthy origin' (children of intellectuals, of former officers in the army, of property owners, etc). She was a talented teacher who inspired her students through kindness, intelligence, quiet elegance and bravery. Her parents and siblings adored her, and she loved them back equally fiercely. Each went through their own struggles, and tried hard to make the most of their lives. Most had some innate talent and appreciation for mathematics that transmitted through generations. Her youngest sister is the bride in the picture above. She was the second woman in Curtisoara to obtain the university degree in Mathematics.

When we visited Curtisoara, grandma's childhood best friend told us that Maria (my grandma) should have married one of their boys. My mother tried to take this as a joke, and explained that we were there and we were so very good looking because our grandpa had been like us.  But they insisted that the other man had been more handsome than my grandfather and was still single at 90. And added that he had loved Maria all his life. The village and his family still blamed her and by transition us for ruining his life by not loving him back. Such a marriage would have kept her close to them, and likely given her an easier life that did not involve moving every two years across the country in various contraptions. The village felt very strongly about this. The younger brother of the man she 'should' have married almost attacked us with his walking stick. Of course, grandma had gone back to Curtisoara many times herself, but nobody in the village had had the courage to criticize her or her decisions.

Overall, it was an interesting visit.  I enjoyed seeing the house that my great-grandparents had built. Great-grandpa did not have the time and resources to finish the last room in the house, and all these years later it was still unfinished. The village itself still looked very much like it did a hundred years ago - only it had older people, a lot fewer children around, and cars instead of horses. It was easy to imagine grandma running up and down that street as a little girl.

A few days later we returned home. I quickly told grandma the whole story, and I explained how mad everyone was at us for her decision to marry grandpa. She took it lightly, and said we should have pointed out the obvious. There was no need to be upset because Maria was now single and ready to marry again, and would consider the wishes of the village this time around.

Every night Grandma would tuck me in bed with a cup of milk, and tell me about her life. I listened to her stories over and over again, and yet I find I cannot do them justice in retelling.  I also do not have any pictures of my Grandma from when she was young to help me. However, I will always remember a pair of kind, deep blue eyes, a slight upturned nose, and a warm smile set on a perfect oval with porcelain white skin that never tanned. She must have been stunningly beautiful, and yet funny, practical, brave, responsible, and hard working.

Grandma started life as Maria Diaconu in a family of uneducated farmers. My great-grandfather was the son of the former village mayor. His father died when he was two. My great-great-grandfather's first marriage had been arranged. His bride was forced to marry him when she had loved another. So, she attended the marriage ceremony to please her parents, but then ran up the hill to her lover.  My great-great-grandfather found another woman who agreed to live with him. However, in their village, a man and a woman could only marry in front of God once, and the church refused to dissolve his first marriage and allow him to marry his true wife. They had a number of children, but all of them died young other than Gheorghe, who lived to become my great-grandfather. After Gheorghe's father died, his mother was shun by the village, and her former husband's property was taken away from her by trustees until the boy became of age. His first memory was the trustees remark to his mother: "this one will die, too, and then you'll go to hell". Growing up, Gheorghe had been too poor to be able to attend school. Instead, he learned to read and write from friends. By the time he was 18, his father's fortune was mostly squandered. He fought for what was left in court, and was able to recover 2 hectares of land. In the meantime, he married Ioana, a beautiful, strong woman with blue eyes who already had a young child. He made no distinction between her first son and their other children.  When asked, grandma said 'Constantin was my brother; anything else is nonsense.' However, 80some years later, the village still remembered.

Ioana and Gheorghe had four more children before the first world war (WWI). Maria was the third. Soon after Maria was born the Balkan wars started. Gheorghe had to leave his young family to fight before Maria could remember him. On the front-line in Bulgaria he contacted typhoid fever and was declared dead. A letter was sent to his wife to announce he had died. The Balkan wars continued with WWI - also called 'the war to end all wars'. Men did not come home between the two wars. Ioana supported five children on her own, and still send her oldest son to school when she had little help at home. She could not read or write well herself, but she had the determination and strength of will to study with her child. They learned to read and solve problems in Mathematics together.

Maria was 2 in 1914. Her first memories were of Constantin and her mother studying and of the fear and hunger induced by the war. When the German soldiers first occupied Romania, her mother and grandmother put all their belongings in a cart and hid with the children in a nearby forest. The cart was pulled by their cow. Maria learned how to make balls that bounced from cow fur. The tricky part apparently was convincing the cow to not be unhappy about the hair removal process, and stopping her from getting angry or running away. They attempted to eat acorns to survive, but found they were not nutritious. Eventually, they had to return home. 

Her mother, who was still young and beautiful, covered her face in soot and gimme to avoid tempting the soldiers. However, when seeing four crying children clinging onto their mother's skirt, the German officer who came to requisition food exclaimed 'Kinder, Kinder' and left. A few days later their two-room home was used to host the troops. Maria woke up surrounded by soldiers sleeping on the bedroom floors and started crying. To stop her wails, one of the soldiers threw her a huge bread, and another a doll. She went to the kitchen to find her mother with her arms full. But they were afraid to eat the bread lest it was poisoned, and the doll was thought to impersonate the enemy, who had killed many men from their village and kept away the ones who still lived.  So, the siblings soon destroyed it. As she grew older Maria felt sorry for those soldiers on the floor because she understood that they were men just like her father, who had a hard time fighting on foreign lands.

Her most dramatic memory from that era was her father's return. He became unconscious when he was sick of typhoid fever while fighting in Bulgaria in 1913, and so he had been registered as dead. He was then thrown in a pit with other dead and dying soldiers. They covered them with lime dust to prevent the spreading of the fever, but there was no time to bury them. Gheorghe woke up in a mass grave surrounded by dead men, and crawled out. He walked to a nearby village. There he met two kind women, who saw him as a man in need of help instead of as the enemy. They cared for him until he recovered.  He then had to return to the front lines (otherwise he would have been declared a deserter and killed) and continued fighting for five more years.

Maria still remembered how happy they were when his first letter came. Her oldest brother, Constantin,  found it and came running and screaming 'Mama, Mama, father is alive! there is a letter! it's in his writing!' He was the only one of the children who had been old enough to remember him. Some months later Maria and her younger sister were splashing in a small basin of water in the the yard when they saw an unknown man arrive. So, Maria ran inside and told her mother that a stranger had come. The stranger was their father, and to the small child he seemed a legend who had come to life. He soon sat down holding his youngest daughter, whom he had never met before, on his knee and started telling stories. At six, Maria felt old and wise, and also a little envious that her father had not been there to hold her when she was four. After eating, she took his hand and hopped along on one foot to visit grandmother. On the way, he stopped to eat some berries from a random, dusty bush that grew along the road. This shocked the little girl, who had placed a dead snake in that bush only the day before. How could her father eat them? It was not safe to eat the berries of a snake.

On his largest plot of land (the 2 hectares), Gheorghe soon started building a house for his family. They moved in before the last room was finished when Maria was about 13 and already in school.  He never had the money to finish it, and so this was how Mihai and I saw it some 70 years later.

My great-grandfather's homecoming gave hope to the many women and children in the village, who dreamed that their husbands, fathers or sons will come home. However, the village was too small for another such miracle to happen. I can still see my mother's cousin sitting at her window every day and hoping that her uncle would come home. He had been sent to fight in the second world war in the first line of soldiers, and 'disappeared' when he was just 18. His family never gave up the hope that somehow he escaped until the last of them was dead.

Continued in the next post.

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