Sunday, April 19, 2015

Grandma - marriage

The political climate in the 1930s was turbulent. Maria had no permanent position (see part 1 and 2 for the previous parts of the story), and would receive a new job every two years that forced her to move to some other corner of the country. She had had a number of marriage proposals. One was from a friend in her village, who had loved her all his life, but was the son of the village drunk. While she liked him, and thought very highly of his mother who had raised her children alone and sent them to school, she did not want to marry him. She was afraid that either he or their children would drink too much. When his mother asked her to finally make the decision to marry her son, she answered she could not.  I also suspect that even though he had been reported to be good looking, grandma saw him as a friend and was not attracted to him.

Another proposal came from a colleague in Bucharest, which she temporarily accepted and even settled a date for the wedding. However, he soon wrote how ardently he was preparing preserves and pickling tomatoes and cucumbers for their wedding feast. The letter was meant seriously, and she thought that focusing on such trivialities and writing about them showed that he was shallow and not very smart. So, she canceled the wedding. She later considered this a blatant show of immaturity on her side towards a man who was trying to write a nice letter to his sweetheart. I wondered if she had made a mistake in choosing a much harder life style instead of one closer to home or perhaps one where herself and her children would be put first. But then in the latter case maybe the pickles would have been put first. When I asked her if she had found her last suitor good looking, she described him as bald and male, and also 10 or 11 years older than herself, which left my teenage self very disappointed. Then there was a guy who would spend most of his time with Maria and her best friend. He was very close to both of them, but when the friend tried to make a pass at him, he became very angry and he never saw either of them again.

 Octavia was one of Maria's former colleagues from the university. She would take all the women professors to picnics in a beautiful carriage that was in the keeping of her brother, Iulian. Iulian was a very successful forest engineer who planted and maintained forests, and coordinated the building of relevant infrastructure. At the time, he had an astronomically high salary of 99, 000 lei per year, which was 30 times greater than the salary of a school teacher. He had a big nose, green eyes, a charming smile, and a shorter leg, which was a reminder of an accident from childhood. He also never saved or invested any part of his big salary, but instead gave it all away. In the Holocaust period, he held a position in Oravita, which is a town near border. There he could "hire" Jewish workers (they were free labor offered by the government) and later help them flee the country. His work in forests made the disappearance easier and less questionable than it would have been otherwise and his large salary helped in settling any resulting disapproval. However, he could only hire men, and so his mother and sister did their part by hiding women in various parts of the house. Grandpa did not like talking about this period. The only thing he said was that he was thankful when he found out that the people he and his family had helped reached safety, and that all the ones they had helped made it. This shows he was not shallow. He also never did care about the pickling process.

 Towards the end of the second world war, Maria had a position in Balti, Basarabia. Octavia and Iulian were also moved there. Basarabia was the frontier and the younger teachers and engineers were sent to help rebuild it. She spent her free time volunteering to field hospitals.  She was most impressed when children died in her arms with no external injuries. A young geography teacher fell in-love with her, but she did not feel it made sense to marry when there was so much to do to help save lives. Ion Antonescu himself came to thank volunteers at the frontier, and shook hands with Maria. She described him as short, perhaps even shorter than her, but with an obviously strong personality.  When Basarabia was lost, they had to flee back to what was left of Romania.

Maria's next position was in a village near Bucharest. While Maria and Iulian were attracted to each other from the beginning, at first he was not sure it was safe for him to marry.

Bucharest on April 4, 1944
In 1944 Bucharest was bombed. The city would glow at night from the many fires. Iulian, who had gone to Bucharest for his next contract, had to turn around and flee.  He stopped in the village where Maria was and asked her if he could stay there for some time, and perhaps return to Bucharest later. In the meantime, the landlady's sister also arrived from Bucharest. She had had two small children, but only the oldest lived through the latest bombardment. The baby had been about 8 months old, and the mother still carried him in her arms. She had smothered him accidentally in an attempt to protect him when hiding in the bomb shelter.  With this sudden heartbreaking turn of events, there was no room left in the house for people who were not family. So, Maria had to leave and Iulian offered to take her and her sister home in his carriage. There was no possibility to leave by train because the railways were being bombed.

As he dropped her off close to Curtisoara, he sheepishly inquired 'What would your father say if I came and asked for you hand?'. Maria responded proudly 'My father will say what I say.' 

After the war ended, Iulian returned to propose. It was spring, and her father was plowing the family land. Iulian enthusiastically took over, and plowed all the land himself, while using all the grain and corn in the stables to feed his own horses. Maria discussed her decision with her father; he asked 'do you think you are doing right in marrying this man? will he be kind to you?'. Her answer was practical as always 'Father, I am 32 years old, and I want a family.'  Also, Iulian's energy and enthusiasm was bewitching. He was outstandingly intelligent (although not quite as good as her at solving math problems for the olympiads; but she was too modest to take note of that),  had a big smile and an even bigger heart. She thought that she was ready to support him and the family they will create wholeheartedly. When discussing their future, she told him so, and his response was everything she had been hoping for.

Maria: 'You must understand that I have no dowry. I have my degree in Mathematics. So, when you will not be able to work, I will work and support our family.' 
Iulian: 'I only want you. I will buy you everything. Take nothing with you. ' 

Maria gave her last salary as an independent woman to her father to buy food for the family horses. She had been practical all her life, but for once, even while the whole world seemed to be collapsing around them, she wanted to believe in romance and happily ever afters. So, she left with nothing from her old life other than the clothes she was wearing. Her shinning deep-blue eyes laughingly held the pair of green eyes next to her, and she felt a sense of belonging and pride when watching the answering light in his eyes. They left in a carriage drawn by beautiful, big horses with a driver who was wearing white gloves (Iulian's official driver), and the people in the village temporarily thought that their brightest and strongest woman had been lucky.

The Cinderella part of her story lasted until they reached the nearest big city. There they searched for clothes to buy, but the stores were empty because of the war. So, Maria immediately sent a telegram to her father to send her the clothes she had left home. They then went to Iulian's office, where a bulky police officer was waiting for him claiming to want to break his good leg (the one that was not medically shortened) with a large wooden weapon. Maria hurriedly asked 'what is wrong? how can I help?'.  The response came in a gruff voice 'Who is this woman?'. The calm answer of the secretary 'She is the fiance of Mr. Engineer', made the man suddenly turn around and leave. He did not want witnesses. The incident was later blamed on a woman named Singureanca (mot-a-mot translation of the name: the lonely one) in whom the police officer was interested. He was reading Iulian's correspondence and viewed him as competition due to some letters that were sent by Iulian's mother. When telling this story, grandma would say that this was the first out of many times she had to protect her husband from serious injury.

After they married, he procrastinated going home, which left Maria confused. She and Iulian's sister had been friends in university. They had originally met through her, and she did not think there would be cause for concern. However, when they arrived, everyone in the neighborhood was crying and wailing as if she had brought Iulian home dead. The neighbors knew about the wedding from a friend who had seen them buy rings, and so everyone was prepared - not to welcome the bride and groom, but to judge and find fault. It did not matter that Iulian had married a woman who was intelligent, and beautiful inside and out or that she loved him. It was, of course, most important that she was from a different part of the country. Maria was from Oltenia, which was seen as inferior to Banat. Her clothes were not the latest fashion, and her presence obviously meant the potential loss of their main source of income, which came from Iulian. Up to then, he had spent all his time and money in helping the people around him with no previous thought to himself, and it was taken for granted that he would continue to do so without trying to build his own life. However, Iulian's mother, Ana, proudly stood up among the crying and gossiping women who came to her to offer their condolences and said 'E profesoara'. Everyone suddenly went quiet, and soon left for their own homes.

The extended family and neighbors had no real need to be afraid because Maria was just as kind as Iulian, if a little more practical. Furthermore, any sign of an era in which people of value were rewarded was gone, and communism began. As unfair and as criminal as the previous totalitarianism had been, communism was worse since it promoted unfairness under the guise of making everyone equal, and in the beginning, the Russian army was there to enforce it.  A network of spies and special security forces was built that kept the population under control with the treat of torture. People who dared to disagree were sent to be tortured in political prisons that destroyed them. Many young people were deported to Siberiato Baragan or sent to labor camps/concentration camps built under special instructions from the Gulag

Maria's prediction came true. Iulian was soon no longer allowed or able to work. While 'everyone' who worked received an equal salary, people who had educated parents were considered of 'unhealthy origin'. They were a threat to the new society. Maria did not posses the 'unhealthy origin' because her father had been a peasant and was more unobtrusive as a plain school teacher.

When communism destroyed their careers, Maria and Iulian considered themselves lucky. The two former engineers living on the same street as them had a worse fate. One was in jail for political reasons, and the other was carrying coal to atone for being privileged before. Iulian was demoted from engineer to gatekeeper after refusing to sign that a forest that had been stolen was not there to begin with. His position was taken by a shepherd who could not write and signed with his finger. The promoted shepherd spent his time facilitating various thefts and frequently insulted Iulian.  Iulian loved forests and their needless, wasteful destruction was hard to watch. He was diagnosed with paroxysmal tachycardia. Episodes of very rapid heart beat would occur when he was insulted at work or when their pig was killed for his meat. He was thus allowed to retire in his late 40s.

Maria, Mariana (my mother) and Iulian
Maria's salary was about ten times greater than Iulian's, and it was not large. He taught mathematics in Hungarian at a minority highshool in Lugoj. There were times when they had a hard time making ends meet, but she was used to living on little money and made the little they had last. Only after they both retired, the difference in their pay started to decrease.

I learned to count money on their pensions. Even then, grandpa's pension was about half that of grandma. Their money was always placed together under some towels in the closet. It never mattered who made what. Grandma was kind and generous, and grandpa was man enough to not care that he was bringing less money into the household than his wife. He was also never lazy. No work was 'below him'. He had the strength and patience to find enjoyment in us and in all the little things he could do to help around the house. He practiced Yoga, washed and wiped dishes, chopped wood, lit and maintained the fires in the house. Grandma and grandpa taught me that personal belongings come and go, but that family matters.

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