When I think of childhood, I think mainly of my grandparents. I spent most of my early life around my paternal grandparents who lived in Cluj, Romania, in a small brick apartment.
The apartment was on an elevated first floor of an apartment building in a military complex built in the 1950s. The building had two more stories, as well as a semi-basement and an attic. Each floor had eight units, and for each four, there was one communal bathroom and two toilets rooms. With time, most people converted their pantries into very small bathrooms. The staircase and corridors were made of a sort of cement called Venetian mosaic, gray with some white and blue pebble-like shapes in it.
Sensuous smells were always suspended in the air in Grandma Anica’s kitchen. I especially enjoyed Easter and Christmas, when the gas cast-iron oven baked traditional sweet breads with walnuts or poppy seeds. In the other two rooms, the heating systems were also on gas: tall hearths covered all around by ochre terra-cotta square tiles. As children, we had to learn not to touch them because they could get very hot. I burned my fingertips a few times. In the cold winter nights, one had to wake up in the early hours to turn them on, with matches, because they took a while to warm up a room. I remember those hearths in my parents’ basement apartment also, which was in the same military complex. There, however, the tiles were dark brown and their pattern, to my unutterable amazement, miraculously made them look precisely like the chocolate cookies I used to have with my milk.
My earliest memory was of Grandma Anica and me in front of her tall mirror, having my long hair combed. My small, apparently frail grandma had hazel eyes, looking at me from underneath beautifully arched dark eyebrows. I dreaded the comb and gave her a hard time, but to see two little Adrianas was fascinating. Who was the little girl in the mirror? Was she a princess? Then, Grandma would braid her hair and twist it in a little bun. Magic.
I belong to Romania’s baby-boomer generation because of a decree-law issued by dictator Ceausescu in 1966 which interdicted abortions and contraceptive measures—but that is a different story. However, as we were a large generation of children rather not expected or particularly wanted, I consequently had always lots of children of my age around. The complex was surrounded on one side by a sloped dead-end street, which for a long time had been unpaved, and where we would ride our sleighs in the winter. On the other side of that street, there was a military base separated from our complex by a cement fence. Next to it there was a bakery which supplied bread to the neighborhood’s food stores. The smell of freshly-baked bread and pastry filled my long summer days. Occasionally, we would get a hot, steaming pastry bun, if we asked nicely. Other times, we got a bucket of water poured onto our heads.
On the fence that surrounded the entire military complex, we were walking fearlessly every summer. Especially after Nadia Comaneci became the 1976 Montreal Olympic champion in gymnastics, we made up competitions around the yard, so the fence became the beam apparatus. It was five feet high, but who cared? Nadia was the quintessential Romanian girl, and every little girl identified with her for years after that. I modeled my pony tail and bangs after hers.
During school days, every afternoon, hungry and tired, my first stop was at my grandparents’ place. Something was always cooking in Grandma Anica’s kitchen. The smell was of tasty food, whether it was stuffed green bell peppers, baking in the oven, polenta bubbling in a pot, my favorite chicken soup with homemade angel-hair pasta, or crepes sautéing in sunflower oil on the old stove. I could smell the aroma from afar, as it was floating through the corridor like sheer ribbons fluttering in the wind.
Grandma Anica would be at the stove. I would greet her and kiss her sticky cheeks. “I kiss your hand,
Grandma,” I would say in the traditional way women are greeted in Romania by children and men.
I would go into one of the rooms where Grandpa Constantin was painting in oil colors. For an accountant, and for someone with no formal art training, he painted with courage and joy. Art took him out of depression. The raw colors he used for his landscapes and flowers filled the room with a smell familiar to me from the art studios at school.
“Adriana, glad you’re here. Grandma made your favorite soup and crepes,” he would say in his Moldavian accent, raising his bluish-green eyes to greet me. He was of Greek and Sicilian descent, but was born in the south of the eastern Romanian province of Moldavia, a place with vineyards, where the speech is mild, fairy-tale-like, with diphthongized vowels influenced by Russian. Even after many years of living in Transylvania, he never lost his regional Moldavian accent.
They happily spent their afternoon with me and shared their food. The tasty rolled crepes were soon on my plate, hot and soft to the touch, oozing crimson homemade sour-cherry jam. Grandpa was watching me happy and smiling. Even after I got married, he would call and tempt me with grandma’s cooking, inviting me to visit.
Grandpa Constantin was a quiet man, but a little depressed, I suspected. I think he didn’t want to die. Having all the family around, however, would uplift his spirit and make him happy. I remember him telling all sorts of stories after Sunday dinners. Once, when my cousin Cosmin and I were little, he tried to make us fall asleep in the afternoon, so he told us stories. Cosmin was a year and a half younger and, at the time, my only cousin and the closest to a sibling. We all fitted very well on the large divan at my grandparents’ place, which seems quite unbelievable today. One quiet afternoon, he had us both around him, comfortably seated. And he started making up a story.
“Once upon a time, there was a princess, Adriana-the-Fairy-ana. And a little shepherd, Cosminel-the-Shepherdel,” he said adding a rhyme to my name and suffixes to Cosmin’s names to make them diminutives. By then, our mouths were open and our eyes didn’t blink. The way he worked out those names, molding them onto well-known fairy-tale names, had both of us stopped in our tracks. It took us a good few moments to grasp the meaning of our new names, during which we could not follow the plot, usually involving a dragon and a rescue. Shortly after, Grandpa himself fell asleep, and we emerged from the room announcing victory: “We did it! We made Grandpa fall asleep!!”
But Grandpa had other stories too: war stories, stories with Germans and Russians, with bombs and shelters, about running for cover every time the alarm blared. I still have clear memories of stenciled messages in black on the city's walls directing people to shelters. They were there well into the late 1970s. Grandpa once fell into a ditch full of tar in the panic of running to the shelter. After Romania turned against Germany in 1944, when the Russians were in the country, a zealous young Russian soldier almost shot him. Grandpa was on a train, wearing his Army uniform. At one point, while trying to buy a cigarette from another man, he suddenly heard from behind: “Don’t move or I’ll shoot you!” Grandpa thought he was going to die. It turned out that, since the Russians didn’t know Romanian military ranks, they couldn’t tell that Grandpa was a noncombatant. Only when the Russian soldier’s superior arrived was the gun taken away from Grandpa’s head, and he was allowed to leave.
I regret now not paying more attention to Grandpa’s stories. I truly believed he was going to live forever, as was everyone in the family. Today, when I remember my grandparents, I also remember that for a while, I was the only grandchild to five grandparents. In fact, once when I was about four years old, a work colleague of my father’s, Mr. G., kept asking me, trying to be funny, “Adriana, explain it to me again: How come you have three grandpas and two grandmas?” I'm sure he was winking at my father, smiling an old-funny-man's smile, behind my back.
I didn’t know what to say, thinking that counting and naming them was enough clarification. Upon returning home, I told my mother that something was wrong with Mr. G., since he couldn’t understand the simple fact I had three grandpas and two grandmas.
All I knew at the time was that apart from Grandma Anica, I had the grandma on my mother’s side, Valeria, whom I called my “Other Grandma.” Her story, when I learned it years later, seemed unbelievable. Honestly, I did not want to believe it. I didn’t know what to think about being the granddaughter of a political prisoner. It was already enough that my mother and her sister were the daughters of one. These things were not talked about, but rather whispered. So we did not talk about it.
I learned later that my Other Grandma used to be a notary public for the city hall in Satu Mare, a northern Transylvanian town close to the Hungarian border. Grandfather Ioan was one of the chiefs of the local police at the time the communists came to power. His position made him an “enemy” of the newly instated communist regime in those years of Soviet occupation. It was the Stalinist period, also known for the witch hunts that put away “enemies,” and an “enemy of the working class” could be anybody who had been an important part in the previous regime, or even people who had not been actively fighting for communism in illegality.
The night of December 15, 1952, they came and took my Grandpa Ioan away: they descended into the house and took him away, with no explanations. They made Grandma divorce him, as they did in all such cases, probably in an attempt to have her redeemed in the eyes of society. Besides, the local communist leaders wanted his house, so they took it. The procedure was, “You get up from the table ‘cause I wanna take your place;” or: “You get out of your house ‘cause now it’s mine.” I found out later that what happened to them was all too common in those times and many people went through exactly the same scenario.
Then they put Grandma and her two daughters in an apartment consisting of one room at the top level of an apartment building, which did not have a bathroom or a kitchen. She was 30 years old, and her daughters were 3 and 1. Consequently, she was also terminated from her job. Later, she did find work as a typist and moved to a village near Cluj, and then to the city of Cluj, in the same apartment complex my other grandparents lived in. That’s where my parents met in the 1960s.
Grandpa Ioan was put in prison with no trial. And then he was released with no apology after seven years. By then, everything was too late for him. He was never the same man as before. He died in the 1970s. I have only one memory of him.
I remember my grandfather Ioan as a very slow man. The communist prison life, with hours of standing in cold water up to the knee level, among other terrible things, as I learned later, had left him an ill and disturbed man. But in my memory, he was a warm and kind presence, with loving, bright blue eyes. He had been a handsome man. Smiling at me, he walked very slowly, in obvious pain. They told me that he had water in his knees, but also in his lungs. I did not know what that meant as I had never heard a thing like that before, but for the five or six year old I was, that explained the way he walked.
One day, Grandpa Ioan came to see me. I was playing in my other grandparents’ yard, at the military complex. There were lots of kids in the inner courtyard, between the gray-stucco buildings, playing in the grass-covered yard. Summers were long and sunny, so I used to play outside all day long. Nothing could beat the fact that the sun stayed up in the sky until 9 or 10 at night. I observed Grandpa Ioan's walk as he came closer and talked to me, calling my name, smilingly, wanting to capture my attention. I saw him going away again, only to return a few moments later with a piece of cake he bought at a small pastry store across the street.
We both went inside to my grandma Anica’s, where he sat down and calmly watched me devouring the dessert. It was a brown, square piece of cake with a hard, chocolate frosting and some white curly lines as decorations on it. Grandma and my mother always made all the food from scratch and were not fond of store-made pastry, so I almost never had such cakes. I had always wondered how they tasted, though, and this was probably the first time I had ever touched one. Being the busy child that I was, as soon as I finished the cake, I ran outside to play with my buddies. I still remember that visit and the cake to this day. However, my next memory related to him is attending his funeral, probably my first ever.
My Other Grandma remarried in 1968 with my grandpa Josef Unk. To me, he was Buni-Tata, a corruption of “grandpa-daddy,” widely used in Transylvania by the Hungarian minority. Being partly German-Romanian, partly Hungarian-Romanian, his Romanian was bad, and he spoke Hungarian with my Other Grandma. I believe she was happy. He was a good man. Rather tall, with a red face, he had a thick blond hair full of gray and big, wrinkled hands. He loved riding his bicycle even in his seventies. I remember how once, when putting sugar in his tea in a beautiful gold-rimmed porcelain cup, turned to me and said, “Adriana, do you know how the Germans dance? Like this,” and he stirred the liquid with his spoon, clockwise. Then he continued, “And do you know how the Russians dance? Like this,” and he hit the bottom of the cup with the spoon, making short, up and down movements. “And the Romanians, do you know?” I shook my head, smiling. “Like this,” he said again, stirring counterclockwise. “But do you know why?” I didn’t know why. “Just so that the sugar melts,” he said happily. He was my fifth grandparent. None of the kids I ever knew had divorced grandparents, let alone remarried ones. No one could understand.
My Other Grandma loved having me over. She made me “furred” bread, as the translation from Hungarian goes, a kind of French toast but savory, without the sugar. It was good. Or she would toast sliced bread in a pan, and then put oil on it and rub a garlic clove against it. She cooked in a more Hungarian-Transylvanian way, with sweet fruit soups made from cherries, sour cherries, gooseberries, plums, or apples; plum-filled potato dumplings rolled in sugar and breadcrumbs; pasta with cabbage, pasta with poppy seeds, or pasta with ground walnuts and sugar. That was quite different from my Grandma Anica’s food.
Thinking of my Other Grandma now, I realize she was also the one who talked to me about God. I am grateful she taught me how to pray because God was not talked about anywhere in the communist years. One evening when I was about four or five, before we went to bed, she was talking about something, perhaps heaven, when I suddenly said, more in the form of a question, “And there is a big golden book in heaven, and an angel is writing in it...” She looked at me amazed, probably thinking I had some kind of inkling of the heavens, and hugged me tight. That scene often pops up in my mind when I least expect it, or when people talk about angels. It came to mind when she died in 1994. I wish I could still believe in either the book or the angel.
My grandparents were there through my childhood and young adult life, to fill my soul with memories. Remembering them through the years gives me the dimension of their love for me—a love I mindlessly took for granted in the first part of my life. In 1996, I won the Green Card Lottery, which gave me the possibility to get the visa for the United States. When I was about to leave for America, Grandpa Constantin tried to make me stay. He didn’t understand what else I wanted when I was already lucky enough. My career was taking off as an English teacher at a famous high school, and to have the kind of parents and a loving family like mine was all he thought I could ever want. But, excited about the adventure of my life that was about to happen, my mind's eyes wanted to see only roses in my future.
I will never forget the last time I saw Grandpa Constantin. I was in a hurry, and even though I had seen them every day before that time, I did go one more time to my grandparents’ little place that was so familiar to me. I went to say goodbye. That Grandma Anica was crying was actually expected, but to see Grandpa’s clear eyes tearing up and looking away, in that small kitchen, chipped on my euphoria. It moved me that my serious grandpa was hurting. Couldn’t they see they would always be with me, in my heart? And that their place had always been my home that I would never really leave? But that was the last time I ever saw Grandpa. He probably knew it then, or just feared it. He died of a stroke the following year.
I went and visited that complex again, almost ten years to the day I last saw it. The place I remember from my childhood was considerably larger. The place I found had shrunk to a miniature of what my memory retains. A small part of me is still hiding around there and will never leave.