Sunday, June 13, 2010

Growing up

My first memory was of a baby sleeping in a wooden carved crib on the floor of my parents bedroom. The rental house had a small kitchen and bathroom down the hallway. It was always cold - I cannot remember a time when I felt really warm except at my grandparents' house when they built a strong wood fire. Daddy used to blow warm air directly into my little hands and rub them together to warm them. We did not know which family the government had confiscated this home from, or where they lived. We were grateful to have it. Daddy paid a meager rent to the communist party each month. A small muddy yard surrounded the house and a decaying, broken fence. Having a lawn was a luxury that nobody could afford and cutting annoying, tall grass was a chore executed with a scythe. Nobody had heard of lawnmowers. Grass grew wild in patches. Anemic bulbs lit up each room and we considered ourselves lucky if the power stayed on continuously. Heat was delivered through steam radiators willy-nilly. We never knew when the plant would cut off our supply of steam. Grandma had made us heavy wool comforters that weighed a ton but provided heat during sleep. To stay warm during the day, we had to wear layers of hand-made wool garments. We even wore mittens most days because the winters were so frigid. It was not uncommon to put on several pairs of wool socks on top of each other to keep our feet warm. I always loved grandma's house because she could build a fire. Grandpa kept a steady supply of chopped wood and the ducts of the wood burning stove carried the warm air throughout the modest home. Her entire house was the size of a small studio apartment. The kitchen was outside, with a separate entrance, and the outhouse was in the back, close to the tool shed. Grandpa had an awning where he repaired bicycles and motorcycles. I was always fascinated watching him make spare parts from junk. McGyver would have been proud.

Because my parents were so poor and unprepared to care for an infant, I was sent to live with my maternal grandparents. My separation anxiety was severe. During summers, I would alternate homes and spent time at my paternal grandmother's home in the mountains. Life was more difficult and full of challenges. Water shortages were chronic. There was no such thing as bathing unless we took a dip in the river. Women climbed a mile or more to get water for cooking. We washed our clothes in the river or in a tiny wooden tub. We were not very clean, that's an understatement, everybody smelled pretty bad, but, after a while, we got used to it. Changing underwear once a week was a luxury. When it rained, we were in mud up to our ankles. It was pointless to wear shoes. The overflowing drainage/irrigation ditches became the kids' delight and grandma's nightmare. The cheap white cotton communist-issue underwear turned brown and stretchy permanently. Grandma got so mad when we waded in muddy water. No bleach to make underwear white again. She tried boiling them on the stove with detergent, stirring them with a stick to keep from burning herself - sometimes it worked. Habits die hard, I still have a bamboo stick to this day, I stuff wet clothes into the washing machine with it. It is 32 years old. My husband threatens to throw it away once in a while. Uncle Tache, who worked for a detergent factory for 40 years, "supplied" the chemicals. He was a scrawny man, always looked sickly, but strong as a mule. His offspring were mutants who never survived birth. The doctors told him to stop having children since he had been exposed to so many chemicals. Uncle Tache had lung issues all the time, yet he was still alive and active. The last baby he and aunt Nuta had, lived to six months although his cranium was missing a large piece of bone. Mamaia, Nuta, mom and I were bringing the dead baby from the hospital and, while riding the bus, it was hard to dodge the curious lookers who wanted to know why the baby was bundled so warmly in July. Orthodox tradition dictated that we bury him in a special corner of the cemetery since he had not been baptized.

Grandma Elisabeta was a tiny blond-haired beauty with piercing blue eyes, biting humor, and healthy common sense. She never met an idiot she did not dislike. She raised eight children by herself from the age of 32 after her husband died of stomach wounds from WWII. Back then marriages were arranged and she had married a man much older, 23 years her senior. She never varied her diet, she loved beans and chicken and ate it exclusively. Perhaps it was the good genes, perhaps the diet, she never had any surgery, never took any meds or vitamins and lived in her late eighties. Most of her nine brothers lived in their late nineties. She was the salt of the land, literally. Her vineyard and orchard were perched on top of a salt mountain. In her early seventies, the mountain decided to claim the top layers of soil and the whole face of the mountain slid down, taking farms, trees, and the livelihood of over 200 people with it. She had to relocate in the center of the village on a small patch of land that had a few plum trees, a quincy tree, pear trees, and an apple tree. Enticing aromas of fresh fruits mixed with crushed grapes emanated from grandma's cellar. Her youngest son, uncle Ion, built her a new house but she was never truly happy there. She missed her homestead and I really can't blame her, it was a real paradise that the communist collective could not reach. Her vineyard produced barrels of fruity wine when the grapes turned a golden hue. The house was spartan, devoid of furniture, save for the bed, the dresser, a table, and her 80 year old icon of the Virgin Mary with the 100 year old crucifix encrusted with rubies. The icon and the crucifix were the only items that survived the land slide. Although she had a room designated as kitchen, she always cooked on an iron grid outside under the shed. I could swear her beans and chicken tasted better that way.

Grandpa Mihai Apostolescu, who died at the age of 55, long before I was born, had built the house when they first got married. Elisabeta gave birth and raised all her eight children in this farmhouse. Dad told me, he could hear wolves howling at night in the dead of winter. The isolation would have been too much for a city person like me but my aunts and uncles did not seem to mind. They were mostly quiet people who spoke seldom unless asked. Grandma Elisabeta raised each child in the Christian Orthodox faith but aunt Leana, the oldest daughter, was the most devout. She was a deacon who never missed any event in the village life. Aunt Leana and her husband, Stelian, never had children of their own, but adopted a little girl from an infamous orphanage where people would abandon children they could not afford to feed and support. She became the apple of their eyes, indeed a very lucky girl. Grandpa was not particularly faithful to my grandmother and, as difficult as it was financially and economically when he passed away from war wounds, she was somewhat relieved that the specter of adultery was gone. I am sure she missed him dearly but refused to admit to the rest of us.

Maita, my special name for grandma, took me sometimes to village fairs across the mountains. It was an all day trek since there was no transportation beyond our own two feet. People would trade pottery, home-made canned food, honey, wine, liquors made from fruits, especially plum brandy, dried fruit, dried meat, hand-made cloth, rugs, and the occasional carnival ride would give us kids the thrill of a lifetime for pennies. A rickety bus used to come once a week to take people to the nearest town, 90 km away. One of my recurring daydreams was, a fast car would come and take me away to a nice, clean, foreign city. We were literally cut off from the world - no stores, no doctors, no hospitals, no emergency access. The communists did not care or worry that the majority of the population lived in abject poverty and unsanitary conditions so long as the regime knew where everybody was and under control. People were not encouraged to move away from their birthplace unless the government needed them for slave labor or "volunteer" work in the fields somewhere in the country to plant or harvest the crops. Soap and clean water were very hard to come by. My cousins and I would escape to the creek to frolic in the crystal clear water. This mild creek would turn into raging rapids during rains that could sweep away even the best swimmers. Unfortunately, none of us could swim. Adults did not seem to worry much and some kids did drown. Because we had one pair of shoes, we walked barefoot as much as we could. This meant that many kids had intestinal parasites picked up from the fecal matter of yard animals. We had no place to wash, no bathrooms, no running water, and whatever water we had, we used it for drinking and cooking. No wonder we picked up hook worms! If lucky, children would get a disgustingly sweet medicine, the consistence of honey, that killed parasites and restored health over a period of months. The suffering in the meantime was unrelenting. Kids had swollen bellies and many died before proper medicine was administered. The government was unapologetic and did not care. People were so poor and uneducated, they did not understand that their offspring died from lack of proper hygiene. I fell victim to these parasites as well. The medicine did not cure me until I was in my teens. I was lucky because my parents lived in the city and were able to get treatment. Many of my childhood friends were not so lucky.

Behind Maita's newer house was uncle Nicu's home, dad's oldest brother. His six children had to work very hard to provide food and shelter for themselves and the family. I was in awe, realizing that my cousins did not really have much of a childhood compared to a city kid like me. They had few books, no toys, no radio, no TV, no phone, and, for a long time, no electricity. The only light came from a petroleum lamp. It was not fair but they were happy to be able to farm a living without communist party ownership. Little did I know that they still had to pay the piper in the form of crop shares. Even the youngest children had chores early in the morning, fed the cows, the goats, the chicken, the geese, the rabbits, and the pig. These animals were very important as they provided milk, cheese, eggs, protein, feathers, and leather. I felt extremely privileged around my cousins since I got to be a child in spite of our poverty. I never had to really work hard until I was eighteen. I respected them for their work ethic but I wished they had their childhood back. After finishing high school in the one room school house, all six cousins left the village to learn a trade in the city. The boys had various professions ranging from policeman to businessman, while the girl became a great mom. None of them had very large families, 1-3 children.

I'd like to think sometimes that I escaped communism for an infinitely better life for myself and my future children, not because I was a restless soul in love. I am not sure my daughters appreciate the kind of sacrifice I have made to move to the U.S. and the life they would have lived had they been born in a communist country perhaps because they've never really seen true poverty. They never visited Romania. Yes, there is happiness in poverty but there is also misery and unnecessary suffering. Unfortunately, my children and millions of others are going to find out sooner than I thought, the effects of Utopian promises of redistribution of wealth. Nobody was wealthy in Romania, except the ruling elite. I sit in wonderment and ask myself, are the lives of Americans so deprived that they must give up everything they own for an empty promise of non-existent egalitarian socialism? Perhaps they are so self-absorbed, greedy, and self-indulgent, they want even more, and are willing to listen to and follow over the cliff any two-bit dictator who comes promising the Elysian Fields? There is a heavy price to pay when you lose your freedom to choose.

Nobody had air conditioning or had heard of it. Summers were hot but dry and torrid days were tolerable in the shade. There was a city pool but the water was not chlorinated and dark green from bacteria by the end of the week. It was disgusting, nobody wanted to swim in it, and when the city drained the water at the end of the week, they found gross things at the bottom and an occasional dead body. It was more sanitary to go to the river to cool off in summer time, fish, or swim. Most Romanian kids never learned to swim, there were no swimming lessons or teachers, you learned from others, if you were lucky. I was 23 years old and in the United States before I learned to swim. I went to the Black Sea some summers and stayed with my uncle Gelu's family. I never learned how to swim there - the water was pitch black with algae and quite scary. All sorts of invisible creatures were biting at my feet.

Grandpa Christache Ilie, mom's dad, was an amateur archaeologist and a skilled mechanic. Following him around on archaeological explorations helped keep my mind focused and my interest in education and learning. There was a Roman fort at the edge of the village Tirgsorul Vechi, with the ruins of an orthodox church on top. The archaeological digs were supervised by grandpa's friend, Nicolae. The highlight of my day was to follow both of them and observe everything they did. It was fascinating to watch them find a Roman child's sarcophagus with the intact skeleton, reddish hair, bits of clothing, Roman gold and silver coins, and precious jewels! Grandpa Christache was probably one of the few men in Romania with access to National Geographic in the early seventies. I remember falling in love with the glossy photographs although I could read no English whatsoever. These magazines were brought in by a crew from the United States who received college credit at a southern university to help with the Roman dig. I knew I wanted to see these marvelous places with my own eyes. I remember seeing pictures of Napoleon's tomb in Paris and dreamed someday to be there. My husband David took me on a ten day trip to Paris five years ago. He is a history buff and we both visited Musee d'Armee and Napoleon's mausoleum. My immodest childhood dream became reality thanks in part to my determination, fate, and my grandfather's passion for archeology and learning. I have certainly rifled enough through his coin collection, his books, and his memorabilia.

Tirgsorul Vechi had been a garrison for the German army during World War II and the villagers were occupied and unwilling participants in the collusion against the Allies. The biggest allied air raid during WW II had been 20 miles away, trying to destroy the seven refineries that were supplying oil to the German army. One American pilot had been downed in grandpa's back yard and he hid the location from the Germans until Americans could come and claim the remains. The Russians had "liberated" the village after the Germans had already surrendered and grandpa told horror stories of plunder and rape by the Russian soldiers. The Romanians were more comfortable with the German occupiers as they were gentlemen and first class surgeons, taking care of the medical and food needs of the village. One of mom's teenage friends had her face bitten by a horse and a German surgeon repaired it flawlessly. Knowing the atrocities the Third Reich had committed against humanity, it was hard to believe that kindness existed among the German officers, but I never doubted the veracity of grandpa Christache's stories.
A remarkable self-taught man, grandpa Christache was an athlete by need, he rode his bike to work for 40 years, rain or snow, 20 km a day. He was in excellent physical condition, yet doctors cut his life short at the age of 61 when they punctured his colon during a routine ulcer repair surgery. I say routine by western standards, there was nothing routine about any type of surgery under communists' free care, doctors were so ill prepared, most simple surgeries ended in disaster. I watched him die in the agony of gangrene and it will be forever etched in my memory. As a last good-bye, I kissed his cheek while he was in the casket, it felt like kissing a stone, not my lively, warm, and kind grandpa.

Grandpa Christache encouraged me to try new things, climb trees in his back yard, explore the environment, collect rocks, make mud pies, dig drainage ditches for irrigation, plant flowers, can vegetables for the winter, explore the fauna and flora around his farm, fish, collect frogs and leeches, and be kind to all domesticated animals on the farm. I watched him in awe repair just about anything. His hands were made of gold. If grandpa could not fix something, it probably was not worth fixing. He reminded me of the enterprising Cubans who still run 1950s Buicks by improvising parts and repairs.

My second early recollection of my childhood happened when I was four years old, playing in mom's kitchen in a large bowl filled with corn meal. I was making "sand castles" while mom was preparing the traditional "mamaliga" made of corn meal as a substitute for bread. A stranger knocked on our door and told mom to go to the hospital because daddy had been hurt and was bleeding to death internally. I did not understand what communists were, why they beat him, what bleeding internally meant, and why they would want to hurt my sweet daddy. Mom dragged me onto the bus, we walked endlessly, it seemed to me like days, and, when we got to the hospital, daddy was alive, barely clinging to life. I cried because he looked so pale and unresponsive and it scared me. Everyone was praying and whispering. I touched his hand and reached over to kiss him. Several relatives guarded him around the clock until he was out of danger. After two weeks of hospitalization, dad was released on the promise to eat well and stay out of trouble.

No comments:

Post a Comment