Tuesday, May 26, 2015

grandma: later years & us

My parents and my grandparents
Grandma and Grandpa stayed with us so that mother could be free to work. I loved both my grandparents very much, but I loved grandma most of all. When I was growing up, I was convinced that she was the bravest and strongest person in the whole universe. My worst nightmare was losing her. It was a version of the little match girl with me as the protagonist. I was cold, grandma was gone, and I had to live without her (while my attachment to grandma was perhaps similar to that of the little girl in the story, I did have a loving family.)

After finishing her residency in Bucharest, mother started work in Alexandria, the capital of Teleorman county. Teleorman is a word of cumanic orgin that literally means the tick, shadowy forest or the mad forest (padurea nebuna). Both my brother, Mihai, and I were born in Alexandria. When he was young, grandpa spent some time working in Teleorman as a forest engineer. As he drove back with my parents, he recognized some of the forests he had planted, and measured the circumference of the trees to check how much they grew.  Tanti Luisa, a family friend who was a professor of art at the university in Bucharest, was inspired by the forests in Teleorman to paint a bridge that went from one forest to another with no inhabitants in sight, and gifted the painting to my mother (see picture below). The other painting next to Mihai and the grey kitten is also by Tanti Luisa. It represents the galaxy with what appears to be a black hole at its center with stars orbiting around it. It had been painted at Mihai's request. He was about 7 at the time (in the picture he is in highschool; we took it to prove to tanti Luisa that we still had her paintings).

Mihai with Tanti Luisa's paintings & our kittens
Grandma, me and Mother & Tusa Tavi (up the steps)
Our four bedroom apartment was on the 3rd floor of a building on Danube Street.   The apartment building had no elevator. Grandma would go up and down the stairs several times a day - often while lifting a stroller, one of us and a heavy bag with vegetables and other purchases. I still find it hard to imagine how she managed. She was 70 when I was born. Grandpa, who was 8 years older than her and had a shorter leg, could not help by carrying things, but instead read, talked and played with us. My mother hired a neighbor to do the standing in-line for milk and bread. The summers were spent in Lugoj, where my grandparents and Tusa Tavi had a beautiful house with a garden. Tusa Tavi (Octavia)  was grandpa's youngest sister and our great aunt. She did not have any children of her own and instead loved us like she would have loved her own grandchildren.


Grandma, Tanti Keti, Mihai, Tusa Tavi & Grandpa
Grandma and grandpa loved my mother and us more than they loved their own comfort. This is perhaps even more rare today. There were a few accidents, but even through those grandma remained strong. When Mihai was one year old, grandma fell on the stairs and broke her leg. It healed in a month. When father had to cut her cast open, Mihai failed to understand the procedure, and cried and begged him not to cut grandma's leg off.

My first memories revolve around her and grandpa. When grandma was cooking, Mihai and I would often sit on Grandpa's shoulders, throw his hat off, and play with the little hair he had left. In the beginning, he could walk with us on his shoulders through the living room. As we grew bigger and he grew older, he could only stand on the bed with us. He also enjoyed reading from the encyclopedia, and teaching us poems that often involved words that sounded similar, but had very different meanings that could be understood from the context of each verse. I only remember two of the poems he taught us. These did not involve homonyms - although, he must have insisted on them the most. One explained that we should drink only water and avoid alcohol and the other that smoking was bad.

"Bautura cea mai buna este apa de izvor
Ea este limpede mereu
O beau cerbi si caprioare
De ea capul nu te doare
 Nici nu lasa trupul greu"

(Credit: "Apa" de George Cosbuc; lousy translation: "Cold spring water is best/It is always clear/Deer drink it/It does not make the head hurt/Neither does it make the body heavy"). It also has two extra lines that encourage children to leave wine to their elders, but enforces that water is the best drink for everyone. The other poem explained that smoke comes from the chimney, and the chimney feels fine. Yet when people smoke, it hurts their lungs and causes chest pains.

"Cosul casei scoate fum
Si ma doare de tutun
Ici in cosul pieptului"

If there was a person near us in the train who was smoking, we would corner them and embarrass our parents by dutifully saying the relevant poem. Mother would quickly apologize for our interference, but we were proud of the effect we had. Some people would stop smoking temporarily, and some would even promise to try to quit altogether. We also knew about passive smoking, and explained that they were hurting us and other passengers through their choices. Grandpa left Alexandria when I was three. We only saw him in vacations for next three years. He was, however, very successful with this aspect of our education. Neither Mihai nor I smoke or drink alcohol. I  drink socially when I have to (once or twice a year), but I've never been drunk and I've never drank enough to get a headache. We were not curious about other drugs either.

The communist era was known for the many restrictions imposed on the population. My father installed three rows of glass at each window to keep the apartment warm. The power was on only part of the day to limit consumption and the heating was never on for long either. Hot water was only available once every two weeks on Thursday.  The TV was on for two hours each day, but then it would mostly show Ceausescu, who could not speak correctly. Mihai always noticed his mistakes, which was considered a crime. Mother explained that we could not mention that he was wrong to anyone else because this would send her and our father to prison. The car could only be used in odd days of the week.  The line for gas was always enormous. People would fill their car with as many recipients as they could fit in their trunk. Our car was mostly used to drive to Lugoj - where my grandparents' house was. For local trips we had bikes. I would ride on my father's bike, while my mom and Mihai rode alone.

In the pine tree forest
We loved the forests. Other than grandpa's forest, there was The Forest of The Chicken. It was named so because we had lost a chicken there. The chicken was a present from a family friend with a farm. Her legs were tied up. A few kilometers after leaving the farm, my father stopped the car and opened the trunk to see how the chicken was doing and offer her water. Instead, the chicken flew away so fast that we could not catch her. To prevent crying, mother convinced us that the chick became a successful wild hen and lived a happy life in her own forest. She was certainly spunky enough to escape us.

Then there was The Forest of The Fox. There we had found a fox burrow. It had many entrances and lots of bones around it from the fox's many meals. We each waited at a different entrance hoping to see the fox, but she decided to stay hidden even after my father tried to smoke her out.

There was also The Pine Tree Forest, which was planted around the time Mihai was born, and grew with us (see picture with us in the pine trees). I thought it was the most beautiful forest of all: full of live-Christmas trees.

Since mother often had to work at nights, Mihai and I slept in the same room as grandma. I shared her bed, and Mihai had an extensible armchair. Every evening she would bring us hot milk, and put it under our pillow in a special bottle.   I loved going to bed. It was a delight to discover the milk and drink it in the perfectly positioned blanket, and then to listen to grandma's stories. She would remember whole books by heart after reading them only once. So,  she would often turn off the light and tell us all the stories she remembered until we fell asleep. They sometimes ended with the ultimate attempt to keep us quiet: "mata moarta pe sub poarta; cine-o vorbi acum s-o roada de la cap si pana la coada" ("dead cat under the gate; the one who speaks will eat it now; he'll start at the head and end with the tail" - in Romanian it rhymes).

I did not spend much time in kindergarten.  Grandma would take me to kindergarten only after I woke up (after 10), and would pick me up some time before noon. The teachers said that I showed up rarely, and when I was there, I always arrived late and left early.  Although it was true, I remember my feelings were hurt whenever my poor attendance was mentioned.   I once asked why we (the children) were called "soimii patriei" (the falcons of the country).  My question was answered with a story of a little boy who betrayed his own mother to the special police because she spoke against the communist party. The special police arrested the mother. The father was also a traitor, and did not love the communist party. When they took his wife away, instead of feeling happy because the party got rid of a traitor, he became so upset that he threw the child off the balcony. The child thus became a hero and flew like a falcon (soim) to his death. In his honor and as a tribute to his bravery, children of similar age attending kindergarten all over the country were named "soimii patriei". Kindergarten gave children the unique opportunity to report any lack of loyalty that they saw in their own home to representatives of the party. Just like the little boy in the story, children were expected to be faithful to the party and the president above all else. Retrospectively, I do not believe the name could have been based on such a horrid story. However, the story impressed me enough that I could not forget it.

 School was different. We had good textbooks that had been translated from Russian. The text was short and to the point. We learned to read and write well and to solve math problems. I liked school, but Mihai told me that school was bad because it forced children to do things against their will. He also said that we were entitled to go to school later, but our parents insisted that we start early (at age six instead of seven) without asking our opinion, and so we had the right to revolt against the twice-perpetuated injustice. I teased Mihai about this when he won the Heraeus prize for being the youngest graduate in Germany. But at the time, I took everything my older brother said as God given. I bravely kept my side of the protest and cried when grandma would take me to school. She would respond by telling me the story of another child who made a fuss while walking diligently in the direction of the school building. When we finally got there,  I would beg grandma to stay in class with me.  She always sneaked out later on, and when I close my eyes, I can still feel the disappointment of finding her gone. I also remember that my food was plain relative to that of other children. I was not allowed to have fried bread with egg or bread with bacon. My sandwiches at school were simply made from two pieces of bread with a very thin layer of butter on one side. Sometimes she added very small pieces of cheese if we had cheese or rarely some tiny pieces of meat.  I later learned to appreciate her moderation and strong common sense.

My mother had been trying to move close to Lugoj, where my grandparents had a house with a garden, for many years. Finally, just after I turned six my father received the approval to relocate to Timisoara.  Mihai and I danced around the telephone after he told us the news. Around the same time one of my mother's colleagues was arrested for making a political joke over a game of cards. My mother had to cover his hours, while his children and wife hoped that he would be allowed to return home. He was tortured for months. He was released around the time the revolution started. He did not remember how to speak, and did not know his wife or children. He could only say three words: "I am guilty"  - without knowing what he was guilty of.   My mother sent us to live with our grandparents in Lugoj while she tried to obtain the right to enter the workforce in the Timis county. She received this permission in 1990 - right after the revolution.

We loved Lugoj. We felt independent and very happy there. My grandparents and Tusa Tavi owned a beautiful Victorian house with high ceilings. It had its own wood-based heating system. Grandpa would chop the wood into smaller pieces to prepare it for the fire. We carried it upstairs. Mihai also learned how to chop the wood himself. The ax still is his favorite tool for all repairs around the house. We had our own plot of land in the garden, where grandma and Tusa Tavi encouraged us to plant all the seeds we wanted. The pits of most of the fruits we ate were planted on top of each other there. We kept track of all the baby trees that grew in the garden, and did not allow any of them to be cut. We would also bring willow tree branches from the Timis river,  put them in water to grow roots, and plant them in the garden or in the yard close to the flower beds.

My grandparents had 4 to 5 chickens who laid eggs. A large part of my childhood was spent following them around. I quickly learned that each egg had a different shape, size and color, and each chicken a different personality. My best friend was a chicken called Zaparsta. I remember having long discussions with her. She grew into a white, fat hen with short, bent legs who ate everything. This thrilled me because I would mix various herbs and flowers and feed them to her. I did not play with dolls because Mihai told me they were like dead children. Zaparsta, however, was very alive. Neighbors would comment on why we did not keep a prettier, more colorful pet, but I loved her just the way she was and found her more amazing than any doll because she responded to my attentions. She also did not move much, and so we could leave her in the garden without worrying about her ruining the vegetables.

Zaparsta died a few years later on my birthday. To cheer us up, mother performed her autopsy. She explained that it was important to determine whether there was a contagious disease among the chickens. After opening up Zaparsta, we found an accumulation of fluid that was bigger than an egg in her abdomen. Mother explained that this is called ascites, and it is a common problem in cirrhosis when the liver fails. Zaparsta's only chance at life would have been a liver transplant. This was not an option for a chicken/hen (or people) at the time.

Every day grandma would wake up at 5 a.m.  She would then walk to the milk factory at the corner of the street, and wait in line until the milk came at 6. There she would hear the local news and various gossip. The milk she bought was poured into our own bottles and brought home long before Mihai or I woke up. It was always boiled to last longer. Grandma would bring us a cup of milk in bed, which was accompanied by a piece of bread with something on it, and then persuade us to get dressed.  There was no fire overnight and so she considered it easier if she dressed us in bed because the room was cold in the morning. Our typical complaints were "please, another five minutes" or "the milk is too hot". To deal with the latter complaint she learned to bring an extra cup and switch the milk between cups until it cooled a little more (at first she tried going all the way to the kitchen to cool the milk down, but this was deemed too inefficient to get us to school in time). Once we were finally fed, combed and dressed, we would dash out the door saying "why did you not wake me up earlier?" (instead of thank you) and often run all the way to school. When I beg Edward or David to get dressed, I try to remember what grandma went through with Mihai and me.

I was the last generation of school children to become "pioneers". I was very proud of my red cravat and black skirt because I thought it was pretty. It had also meant that I was among the top students in my school. The others never became pioneers because of the revolution. The protests began in Timisoara in mid December 1989. I was 7 and Mihai was 10. We were both living with our grandparents at the time. Mother called from Alexandria and asked how the weather was. She really meant to find out about the political situation, but she was afraid to ask directly because it was common knowledge that all phone lines were tapped. Political conversations were thus encoded to avoid prosecution, but the encoding was often done without a prior agreement. Grandma took the question literally and answered that it was raining heavily and there were thunderstorms. It was a rainy December.  Mother's anxiety increased further when she met a colleague who was part of the local communist leadership. He told her that the plan was to wipe Timisoara off the face of the Earth. Lugoj was 60 kilometers away. My father was working in Timisoara, but she first worried about us. So, she took the next train to Lugoj. The train station was full of people without luggage, who were gathering to protest. We were thrilled to see her, and very excited to help her block all windows with wood panels. However, the protests in Lugoj turned out to be largely peaceful: store windows were broken and two people were shot dead.

Grandma was the first to go downtown to evaluate the situation. She came back with two loafs of bread and told us that the protesters she met were a toothless old lady and a three year old child who were both stamping their feet and screaming of the top of their lungs "Jos Ceausescu!" (Down with Ceausescu). She did not find them in any way threatening.  And, yes, there had been some vandals who had broken the windows of the main stores, but Ceausecu's regime was careful to keep stores empty. So, not much was stolen. On the 22nd of December 1989 Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were captured. They had a mock trial on Christmas day. Since it was a major historic event, we were allowed to watch it.  It aired at 1 a.m. All his requests including his right to defend himself in front of the people (adunarea nationala) were  ignored, and both he and his wife were summarily executed. Nobody doubted that he was guilty, but he still should have been given a real, fair trial. Their execution replaced the nativity movie, which was usually aired over the Xmas period. The next day father called and asked my mother to bring him civilian clothes. So, mother left immediately for Timisoara.

After Ceausescu's death the revolution continued in both Timisoara and Bucharest until the new regime settled. The schools remained closed for months. Father was not allowed to leave the hospital in all this period.  As a military doctor, he received a gun and used it to arrest a number of terrorists who were shooting the protesters on the street. They were, however, released a few days later by his superiors. An officer who tried to report such crimes was murdered a day after my father signed his release from the hospital. He had mentioned being afraid for his life. A reporter who attempted to document the revolution asked father for a written statement. Father told him about us. He said he had two young children and wanted to live to watch them grow. The reporter was found dead two weeks later. 

Mother crossed the city to apply for the transfer to the Timis county during the revolution. On January 3rd 1990,  she was offered a position in Recas, a village near Lugoj.  She next participated in a nationwide contest where she was placed second. She could then choose a position in Timisoara. We moved with her there. Grandma stayed with us during the two school years that followed. It was easier to be closer to Lugoj, but she still fell once and broke her right arm when crossing the railways. We all practiced left-handed writing for a month. When I turned ten, she deemed me old enough to be alone when mother was working. She thus returned to Lugoj to care for grandpa.

Grandma and Grandpa
A year later grandpa had his first stroke, which left him bedridden. He had just turned 89. The neighbors lamented that it would have been easier if he had simply died. I asked grandma if she thought the same thing. She strongly disagreed. Her style was to fight until the end. Under her outstanding care, grandpa recovered and started to walk and talk again.  He lived for another six months. The week before he died he gathered the family around him. He told us that he was sorry he had to leave. He kissed grandma's hand and forehead, thanked her, and told her that he loved her more than it could ever be put into words.  Grandma waved him away, and insisted he should stop talking nonsense. He told my mother he was sorry to leave her fatherless, and asked her to always take care of our father. It was one of the few times I saw him cry. He also said that we should never be afraid of him. If there was some form of life beyond the grave, he'll love us from beyond and only try to help.

When we came back next weekend after school, grandpa was in a coma. He had had a second stroke. I was 11 and Mihai was 14. We called mother and explained the situation. He died in Mihai's arms with grandma by his side when Tusa Tavi and I went to the kitchen to get something to eat. Grandma joked that he chose that moment to protect his little sister and the youngest child in the house.  Tanti Keti (long term family friend and neighbor) and grandma washed him and dressed him in his best suit. I put a flower in his chest pocket and helped with the final arrangements. Not knowing that he had already died, mother drove to Lugoj through the dark, stormy night as fast as she could. As she entered the living room, grandpa's face relaxed into a smile, and stayed like this for the next day. It hurt when the undertakers entered and asked "where is the dead body?". I wanted to answer back that he still deserved respect, but I did not.

Grandpa loved horses, and for his funeral my mother arranged for a carriage pulled by a team of beautiful, black horses. The funeral was on February 24. It was such an unusually warm and sunny day that we could wear short sleeves. As we walked behind the funeral cortege, grandma worried about us. She said that we should ignore customs: we were not to touch the earth from the family tomb. Her son was buried there. He had died of polio, and she did not know if it could still be contagious. We had been vaccinated, but she still thought it was best not to be exposed.

Last dance: me, grandma and Mihai
Grandma lived for eight more years, which was the age difference between her and grandpa. When I left home to study in the US, she cried as she told me I was going to a world dominated by men, where I would have to be as strong as a man or stronger, and that it was going to be very, very hard. I laughed, and joked that she should not worry because she raised me well. She explained that she tried to compete with the best men of her time, too, and that it is hard to be strong - she had felt so alone throughout most of her life and career and yet she had always been surrounded by people. She had been there for me up to then and was sorry that she was dying or she would come with me to help.

I did not see her again. She did write a few words on a postcard saying that she missed me so much that it hurt. She died 8 months after I left home. Tanti Keti had stomach cancer and passed away six months before grandma. She had already been sick when I left home. I remember grandma saying that she would give her all the days she had left if she only could.
Last time together: me, grandma, Tusa Tavi, Tanti Keti & Mihai

My mother told me that grandma was brave until the end. When the priest came to read her the last rites, she asked if she should get up. She did not want to offend by lying down. Grandma had the clearest and most beautiful mind I know. But close to the end she had a few moments when she was not quite there. It was then that she saw her father come with his carriage and their horses to pick her up. She was laughing, and seemed young and carefree again, and so happy and excited at the thought of going with him.

I once asked my mother if I will ever love anyone else as much as I loved her, grandma and Mihai. Her answer was that she did not know if I will find a husband to love quite so much, but she was certain I will love my children more.

My last dream of grandma was at Lugoj. I dreamed that house felt lived in again and was like it had been when we were young. Grandma was surrounded by all our pets: the chicken who had lived with us, the dogs, the cats, and Ciupi (the sheep). She told me that she and the animals had remained there to continue to look after us. She then said that she was proud of me and of Mihai, but that we did not need her any more. When I complained that we will always need her, she showed me pictures in the air of other children. She said that there were many she had to take care of, and that in every one of them there was a little piece of her. Then grandma and all the animals became transparent and lifted to the sky, and the house returned to its current state - it became neglected and full of dust again.

1. Grandma had never considered her life a drama. It was, instead, a life well lived in which she did her best at every turn up to the end. 

2.  I know that this post is hard to follow and far from well written. It is what/how I have time to write right now. I will try to write more when I can. The main goal would be to have these stories there for the next generation of children.

1 comment:

  1. Very beautiful writing.
    Thank you for sharing this.