Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I used to beg grandpa to take me to the mill on the horse drawn wagon. The 250 year old grist mill was at the end of the village main road by the river Proava. A village was a cluster of homes separated by high fences on either side of a main road. Fields of wheat, corn, and vegetable gardens circled the village. The miller turned wheat into flour and corn into cornmeal. It fascinated me how two large stones powered by water could accomplish such a feat, especially since I knew how hard it was to shuck dry corn off the cob by hand. Often our hands would bleed and there were no band aids, bandages, or lotions to soothe the pain. The grist mill had a romantic, medieval quality about it, and it was shaded by hundred year old trees surrounding it. The grinding noise was quite soothing and I used to nap on the ground while we waited our turn. The horses would poop around us and nobody bothered to clean it all day. By dusk, some workers would shovel the dung into a mix of mud for garden fertilizer. Villagers wasted nothing since there was no such thing as a co-op to buy fertilizer. Ashes from the stove mixed in with dirt grew a beautiful vegetable garden. The only concession to chemicals made was the DDT sprayed generously on everything. I felt lucky when I moved to the U.S. and I could eat tasty vegetables free of the peculiar DDT smell. The worst pest was the Colorado beetle, a beige colored insect that had hitched a ride on an American plane that landed on Romanian soil. It was not very choosy and it devoured everything in its path. DDT was the only chemical able to control it. Without DDT, we would have had a hard time growing enough food and many people would have starved to death.

My earliest memory of motorized trips was the rickety bus going to my grandparents' village, 9 km away from my parents' home. It took over an hour to go five miles and it was not the heavy traffic, it was the bumpy, deep pot holes, unpaved roads which forced the driver to go very slowly. I could see the road running beneath the bus through the hole in the floor. The smell of exhaust fumes was powerful and nauseating. I always got motion sickness but I embraced it because I wanted mobility freedom. Buses were our transportation if we wanted to go anywhere far, otherwise we walked. We were never bussed to school, we walked from day one. Cars were out of the question as only the ruling elite could afford to buy Russian made Zils or German made Mercedes, Opels or Trabant. Trabant, an East German car, could only go about 40 miles per hour, used a special mix of fuel, and its body was made solely from plastic. The communist Germans from the Eastern Block must have had a cruel sense of humor naming the car Trabant, "rocket" in Russian, since it could not run much faster than a lawn mower. There were also Czech made Skodas. All cars cost twice as much as an apartment and there was a 10 year waiting list. The working poor in the Utopian communist society could not possibly afford any car. The ruling elites, on the other hand, could order any western car they wished, and the favorite was Mercedes from Daimler-Benz. If you owned a Mercedes, even a 20 year old one, you had arrived among the ruling elite. Russians added to their arsenal of parvenus a dacha, a country house, where they could relax on weekends. Since gas was very expensive, even if a person was able to somehow buy a car, it stayed parked on the side of the street all the time, as gas was close to $10 a gallon. The fact that thieves stole tires, windshield wipers, hubcaps, and rear view mirrors, made it even more expensive to own a car. Obtaining a driver's license was very costly, close to $2,000 and each driver had to attend driving school for six months and pass the draconian driving test as well as the written. Slalom on a muddy track usually did most drivers in and prevented them to pass the course.

Trains came later, as I became a teenager and started to commute to school every morning. I would wake up at 4 a.m. to catch the 5:30 commuter train to Bucharest, 60km away. It was not much faster than the bus since it stopped at every village to pick up day workers who manned the many factories dotting the landscape. Most refused to work on the farms as it was back breaking labor with very little pay or benefits. At least the factories offered them a once a year paid vacation to a spa where they could treat their injuries through massage and sulfur baths at the expense of the communist party. Since room was limited, their turns came once every ten years or so. Nobody complained because it was pointless to complain to the wolf that the sheep are eaten when the wolf is eating them. Party elites took bi-annual vacations to beautiful sea resorts, mountain lodges, hunting resorts, skiing, and London, Paris, and Italy. The rest of the population could only dream. Besides no ordinary citizens were allowed to hold passports or obtain visas to travel anywhere. It was a forbidden fruit - the communist elites did not want citizens to see how much better other countries lived and how much freedom they had.

On school trips the parents scraped and saved enough money together and hired an old bus by the day. This was a luxury that people could only afford once a year.

A few citizens owned motorcycles - it was very hard to obtain a license. The rules were archaic, draconian, and people did not like following them. It reminded me of the Neapolitans in Naples, Italy, who, when the law was passed to mandate seat belts, they not only refused to wear them, but went as far as printing white t-shirts with black seat belts painted across. Accidents were frequent and many people were killed by inexperienced drivers or drivers who did not follow basic rules. There were daily funerals of people who had been killed in traffic accidents. And then, there were the jay walkers who took their lives into their own hands. Parking was at such a premium that everybody parked anywhere, even on sidewalks. Parking garages were non-existent.

The cheapest way of transportation were bicycles. My grandpa rode his bicycle to work every day, wind, snow, rain, or shine for forty years! Bicycling by necessity had kept him really healthy.

The communist mode of transportation for workers was the cattle truck. Large trucks with open cargo area could handle 40 people standing, stuck like sardines. The ride was free and provided by the union. One of our neighbors, Costel, had died as a result of a ride to work in such a truck. He lost his balance and fell off when the truck hit a pot hole really hard.

Flying was the stuff of dreams and only communist elites had the power, prestige, money, permission, and visas to ever board a plane to leave the country. Most people never left the area where they were born, lived and died in the same town or village. It was not just a matter of personal choice, it was forced on them by the constant control that the government exercised on their ability to move to another job, apartment, or school. The upside was that families stayed closer and kept the traditions intact, few people were estranged from their loved ones.

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.

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.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Funeral for Stela

Tuesday, June 1, 2010, aunt Stela was laid to rest. It was an ominous day with frightening lightning and thunderclaps. The clouds erupted into a torrential rain about the time her coffin was carried outside the home she built with her husband Costel forty years ago. Romanians are really superstitious people, a remnant of the Roman culture. They believe that if it rains, the deceased did not wish to die. If that is true, aunt Stela was the cover story of a spirited woman who wanted to live in spite of her dire circumstances. She believed and hoped for a cure from God until her last breath.
The elders of the village and relatives showed up to celebrate the life of the deceased however, the frightening weather kept many at home. Stela's wishes were not honored as the goverment denied permits to build an underground mausoleum. In traditional Roman fashion, she had saved her money in preparation for this day but she had to be buried in a hole in the ground half filled with water. Her casked was huge, as her limbs had separated from joints and she suffered many fractures as well. The bone cancer had eaten up her entire body but not her spirit. She used to tell me that she felt the cancer eating away at her bones. She was never at peace about death - she did not believe in the afterlife and there was so much to do around the house and garden. She always raised roses and a vegetable garden. The village priest tried in vain to bring her peace through numerous confessions but admitted to have failed. She was a tortured soul. After burial, it was customary to give away food and clothing in memory of the deceased. There were few people left in the hard driving rain to accept these gifts.
I wonder what would have happened if the socialist government had been merciful to Stela and not refused her surgery and treatment when she needed it? Were the people on the death panel responsible for the decision to withhold timely surgery, chemo, and radiation feeling guilty for killing Stela and so many patients before their time? Did older people not pay their dues to society? Did they not deserve respect and care in their old age? Did the members of the death panels feel pangs of regret for denying adequate morphine doses to patients who suffered so much pain, they no longer felt human and welcomed death as a relief? Who but God had the right to make or take life? Is there such a thing as a Hyppocratic oath anymore? Have we become so calloused in the face of pain and suffering? What are we if we cannot be defined by our humanity? Does rationing of medical care through mathematically clever formulas describe how advanced we are technologically, but how low we have sunk ethically and morally?

Aunt Stela was in a coma for ten days with lucid moments among many delirious rants. She was whispering in the last two days of her life. Her last wish was that the priest not spray her body with red wine during the last rites. She did not want to be buried dirty and soiled. She desired to be pretty, makeup in place, just the way she was in life.

I cry for her soul, I hope she found peace. I want to remember her the way she was - full of life, dry and witty humor, and positive until the very end. I spoke with her three weeks ago and she was actually laughing. What a positively powerful woman! God rest her soul!