Saturday, June 19, 2010


My maternal grandma, Elena Ilie, used to threaten us children into quiet submission at the dinner table with promises of marriage to a gypsy if we talked too much or sang during meals. Marrying a gypsy was the ultimate punishment since they were nomads and lived, in our opinion, a very dreadful migratory life, full of peril and uncertainty. Who wanted to marry a gypsy, travel in covered wagons, never go to school, steal for a living, and live in a tent? It was dreadful to marry into such an existence. Our view was based on reality, not the distorted, romantic life portrayed in Hollywood.

Growing up, we were not allowed to date. Teenagers would band together and have group movie "dates," nobody held hands or kissed in public. Only people engaged to be married were allowed to go on dates alone, hold hands, kiss in public, or make out on a park bench. Nobody spent any time fantasizing about their wedding day, Prince Charming, or where they were going to spend their honeymoon. It was more important to have a good husband and food on the table. Girls did not expect or receive engagement rings, both bride and groom exchanged a simple wedding band on the day of the ceremony, in keeping with the Roman tradition of the circle of life.

Ceremonies were either civil or religious. Some couples chose to do both, on different dates. Either ceremony was binding and the couple received a marriage certificate. In order to marry, the bride and groom had to be disease free, more specifically, TB and venereal disease free. Without a doctor's form that testified that neither party had the above afflictions, the marriage could not take place. There was a marriage house, not affiliated with city hall, that performed civil ceremonies every day for a fee. The officer was a communist party member who recorded the marriage, performed a very brief and rigid ceremony, and issued the certificate.

A wedding was planned in advance if the venue was a public restaurant, rented for the day, or was a short notice affair if the venue was either the home of the groom or of the bride. Each family agreed on responsibilities for the wedding, who bought the food, the booze, the dress, the band, the bridal bouquet, the photos, the priest's time, and the two huge candles for the church, decorated with flowers. Often the bride was already pregnant and visibly showing. It was unmistakably a shot-gun wedding, although guns had been confiscated long time ago. The dowry was deliberated, challenged, fought over, contracted with lots of clauses, and, in the end, if the bride was not a virgin, she would be returned to her family in shame, unless more money was paid to the prospective groom and his family who had to endure such "shame." It was amazing how financial, land, or gold bribes could gloss over any shame. Remote villages followed the old tradition of the bloody sheet to prove the virginity of the bride.

Country weddings were less expensive than city weddings but just as elaborate. Fights often ensued between the drunken groom's party and the bride's party. More dowry could be demanded and the family had to produce it. Brides were expected to be virgins on their wedding day and potential wars could start when this premise was violated. Nobody went on a honeymoon, they were usually too hung over from all the drinking and partying. After three days of eating, drinking, and dancing, the partiers went home and the groom and the bride began their married life together. This is a far cry from the American weddings since the bride plans for months on end for the day of the wedding, giving no thought whatsoever to what married life would be like afterwards.

The wedding guests brought gifts, crystal ware, dinnerware, household items, but mostly cash. The wedding crier would announce the monetary gift of each person to the entire party. Since announcing sums of money over a microphone was somewhat tacky, some couples preferred that the financial gift be enclosed in an envelope. I cannot tell you how many empty envelopes I found at my wedding - why would anybody bother to give me a gift? I was marrying a "rich" American. I felt sorry for my daddy who had spent so much money on the wedding of his only child. There was no giving away of the bride, the religious ceremony was done by four priests in the traditional Orthodox fashion - the groom and the bride had to wear crowns, flanked by two huge candles, circle the altar three times, and recite various religious verses while being blessed by the four priests. Our wedding was in a cathedral, St. John's, in the middle of winter. It was a cold and luminous day with over 200 guests. My daddy rented a restaurant for 24 hours to entertain, feed, and booze over 250 people.

Grandma Elena was the matriarch who was often consulted before marriage contracts were agreed upon in the village. She was a seamstress and knew everybody who had girls of marrying age and had sewn their dowry trunks. She was the marriage broker whom all the families with boys visited before they proposed to a girl's family. The parents had to agree and certain sums of money, land, real estate, cattle, and heirlooms exchanged hands before the deal was sealed. Her marriage broker counterpart was Nenea Nae, the official village shepherd and drunk. He was a self-appointed sage who believed that it was better to be drunk under the bed than dead in bed.

Sometimes girls were promised to older men of means, there was no love involved, it was expected that love would grow later out of familiarity and duty. Such was the case when I turned 16, my cousin and I were promised to a 38 year old bachelor. It was his choice to select which would be his bride, our opinions did not matter or so they thought. They did not plan on the two strong-willed, stubborn cousins who wanted to go explore the world not get married right away and have kids. We were to meet him in a restaurant with uncles, aunts, and grandma in tow, during which time, he would choose. This man was short, bald, not much of a conversationalist, not very educated, and gave us all sorts of bad vibes. We were not impressed with him or his financial situation. He was very disrespectful to us. He owned a nice villa by communist standards at the Black Sea, a Mercedes Benz, and was the captain of a commercial vessel. He was in various ports across the planet 7 months out of the year. Lucky me, he picked my cousin Cornelia who was a very bubbly red head. Neither Cornelia nor I were very impressed with this man and told grandma so. The man upped the ante and added thousands of lei to the bridal "purchase." We both told grandma no thanks, we were going to pick our own husbands someday. We had to go see the world first and make something of our lives. I found out years later that it was a good thing we turned him down, he picked up HIV from one of the many prostitutes he visited in various ports of call.

Cornelia married a Lebanese Christian, Samir, and had two beautiful daughters with him. They are both enjoying retirement years in Sweden. I married a Mississippi man and failed at marriage miserably. But my second husband, David, is my soul mate and the love of my life.

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