In the fall of 2012 I was on a mission to see my Dad’s last three surviving siblings, two sisters and a brother. I wanted to visit uncle Ion, my Dad’s youngest brother, first. Had my Dad lived to a ripe old age, he would have probably looked very much like his sibling. When they were kids, Dad helped raise Ion and was his role model, especially after Grandma Elisabeta became a widow with eight kids at such a young age.
Ion turned 78 in 2013 and lived in Grandma Elisabeta’s house in Popesti, not far from the bustling city of Ploiesti, the center of the oil industry during the communist regime.
I drove the rented VW-Jetta through the sloping hills, dangerously close at times to the narrow ledge that separated the road from the deep ravines. The asphalt made it a quick and smooth journey unlike the long and bumpy ride of my childhood in the rickety communist bus that ran only twice a day, carrying a few workers back and forth to the village from their factory jobs and the occasional visitor to the city who needed medical attention. The Diesel engine fumes choked us through the open windows or the cracks through the doors. I could see the ground running along the route through the small rust holes on the floor board. The commies did not care that we rode like rodents in a rusty tin can. They had fancy and shiny Russian made Volgas with state paid chauffeurs.
We were thrown all over the bus every time it hit a pot hole and there were quite a few. Deep ruts cut during a heavy downpour by big rigs dried into uncomfortable and hard to navigate jarring tracks. When the road was muddy, the deep ruts made by previous vehicles stalled the bus. The men got out and pushed until the wheels stopped spinning and the bus got traction again. Nobody cared that they were caked in mud; they were already dirty from their factory jobs. I always felt bad for them. At least in the drab grey apartments in the city we had a tub and a sewer system. Even if the water was not running or was cold, we could carry buckets from other streets or we could heat it on the stove as long as the natural gas had not been turned off. We felt like royalty because we could bathe once a week. The poor villagers had to carry water from wells far away. It was thus precious, used for cooking and drinking. People went to bed dirty and got up the next day and dressed in the same clothes. It was hard work doing laundry by hand at the river.
I drove by the stream where we bathed in summertime and washed our clothes. Nothing seemed to have changed that much. The landscape is easily recognizable – I can almost see myself running through the tall weeds followed by my cousins, racing to be the first one in the cold water. A couple more hills and I arrived in the center where the bus stop used to be. It’s still there, clearly marked by a shiny painted sign. Across the road, the small state-run store that sold mostly alcohol, sugar, flour, corn meal, and a type of dried up pretzels called “covrigi” is gone, replaced by a new building with a modern façade, large windows, and a neon sign. It was so frivolous and verboten to have large windows during the dark and energy-starved era of Ceausescu’s tyrannical communism. I stopped and peered inside. Neon lights, ads on a flat screen TV, a large freezer and a refrigerator held any imaginable item a convenience store would have and some. To my surprise, cousin Gigi owned the store. Still a relatively young man, his entrepreneurship paid off in the free market system. Remnants of the old communist system remained in the bribery and the overt political corruption. Gigi sold t-shirts, rented DVDs, meats, fish, cheese, dairy, candy, oil, wine, pastries, canned goods, and other foods that villagers could only dream of once. Abundance was here within their grasp. The second floor held a cozy restaurant/bar that served local dishes and beer.
Homes looked larger, more substantial, better maintained, with a car parked up front and intricate wrought-iron fencing; yet most still did not have running water. What was the point in having a bathroom with a tub if there was no sewer system or a septic tank?
Some houses looked shuttered, the owners gone somewhere in the European Union working hard for a year to bring home euros, save them, buy a car, pay for a wedding, buy a few pigs, cows, goats, or add another floor to the villa.
The steep hill in front of me had been blacktopped as well – no more trudging through mud. A few goats were grazing in the ditch, having escaped their enclosures. I decided to walk uphill to uncle Ion’s house. It was the same I had remembered. The weathered wood fence hid the tall fruit trees and the grape vines. The rusty metal gate looked like it had not been painted in years. A clothes line ran parallel with the gravel walkway and sported a few plastic grocery bags hanging out to dry. Nothing is discarded; everything is still reused, rewashed, repaired, and refurbished, just like under communism when nobody could afford to be wasteful.
The house was the same stucco, half painted white and the other half a bright teal. Huge cracks along the side made it look like it was leaning. The wooden door was also painted teal. The small porch banister was peeling teal paint. I spent many days on this porch watching nature unfold in front of me, listening to the buzzing of bees, and counting bright stars at night. It was on this porch that my Dad’s and Grandma Elisabeta’s coffins were placed before the last journey to their resting place in the village cemetery. I peeked through the window of the room where Grandma used to sleep. The furniture was nicer and was very familiar; it was the furniture that belonged to my parents. Perhaps Dad had willed everything to uncle Ion. The packed dirt floor I knew, expertly swept by Grandma Elisabeta every day, had been replaced by poured concrete, covered by a handmade wool rug. A crucifix with prayer beads was the only ornament on the wall. It was Grandma’s favorite; the beads were made of polished garnet and blessed by the Mitropolit, the leader of the Orthodox church.
I checked the other room, nobody was inside, it looked like a kitchen/storage room full of jars, bottles, dishes, and various small tools. I turned around, ready to leave, when I heard the creak of the metal gate. A very thin old man with hollow cheeks walked towards me. It was uncle Ion. I recognized his bright blue eyes. Half of the children inherited Grandma’s beautiful blue eyes and the other half had green eyes like my Dad. Uncle Ion was wearing tattered clothes and his pants were held up by a string. I flinched in dismay. It was Sunday and he did not look like he worked in the garden. I knew he had a good pension but he never spent it on himself – he supported his unemployed daughter and her two children. Unemployment hit hard the former communist countries like Romania who joined the European Union in 2007. Uncle Ion was too old to take advantage of the new economic opportunities; he was satisfied with his pension. His daughter quickly became the typical product of the European entitled welfare nanny state. I felt sorry for uncle Ion - I wanted to go buy him some clothes but he proudly declined. He was happy and content in his self-imposed poverty like a penitent monk.
Happy to see me, almost incredulous that I was there after 25 years, he kept digging in his pocket looking for his glasses that were obviously lost. We sat on the steps for a few hours, talking and remembering all relatives, dead and alive. My husband was a bit overwhelmed, not because he felt left out when he could not understand our conversation (he got the jest of it) but because this level of poverty, need, and misery was alien to him. He could not understand why people have not made more progress in 25 years since the “fall” of communism, why the former commies still live so well and are in charge, while ordinary people like uncle Ion were still so very poor? My hubby did not understand that uncle Ion chose to live this way because he wanted to support his daughter who did not work, and his grandchildren.
I tried to convince uncle Ion to let me erect a marble monument on my Dad’s tomb. Ion’s wife Angela is buried on the same plot and I offered to carve her name and photograph on a double monument. Ion refused my offer. As the only surviving senior male of the Apostolescu clan, he was de facto owner of the cemetery plot and I could not convince him unless I bribed him generously. Bribery still greased the wheels for everything in a country where most citizens learned to survive for forty years under communism through bribery, “borrowing” from work, and barter – old habits die hard. I would have offered whatever monetary compensation he was asking for but I knew the money was not going to benefit him in any way. I resented the lack of industriousness in young people and the entitled attitude that they were too good or too educated to work on menial or ordinary jobs.
Uncle Ion started to cry when we stood up to leave, it was almost dark. Last time I saw him he was young, vibrant, and defiant. He would have moved mountains to protect and care for his family. He had aged and mellowed a lot but was the same lively character with twinkly blue eyes. He picked a few plums and peaches from Grandma’s orchard and stuffed them in a well-worn paper bag, handing it to me. It was Grandma’s routine when I went for a visit. She always sent me back to the city with a bag full of fruits and vegetables. The purple plums were plump, juicy, sweet, and fragrant just as I remembered them in my dreams, scaling fences and climbing trees in the orchard and picking my own fruits.
I turned around and gazed at the silhouette holding on to the garden gate. I wanted to sear this moment into my memory. I was not sure if I would see uncle Ion again. In the twilight, his smile looked eerily similar to my Dad’s when I last saw him. He waved good-bye as the car sped off and my childhood orchard disappeared from sight.
On the drive back to the city, I gave the wheel to my husband. My eyes were filled with tears of regret and longing for a time and life that no longer existed, for family members who were now just a loving memory. I was distracted by the running landscape, the sheep and goats crossing the road, the orange sunset, the pungent smell of crushed grapes, and the cherished images of people and places playing through my mind’s eye.