Lifescapes

Meanders
Monica Maria Grecu

Stories

We Remembered My Father

When Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, I was not around. The time I first learned of it, I was stricken by the beauty of that place's name and the horrifying event that made it known worldwide. Many years later, I visited Pear Harbor Museum in Hawaii with my mother, and we were instantly wrapped in reverence and sadness for all those young men and women taken away so ruthlessly at the dawn of a December day on the Pacific shores of a dreamlike island in 1941.

Inevitably, and without openly speaking about it, we remembered my father, who at only twenty-eight ended his trip on earth, a victim of the same war, but in central Europe. It is amazing how quickly we people learn and how powerfully the selective memory holds to moments of fear we've experienced, even if they happened in the very early childhood.

It was the summer of 1944. The magic box with a big green eye, speaking loud, frightened my mother. She grabbed a small suitcase and threw a few things in it, mostly my brother's and mine. My heart started beating so hard that I felt it in my throat. Mom dashed out of the house and into the street. I followed her as close as my short two-year-old legs allowed, and once I reached her, my hand clasped her skirt as if my life depended on it. I heard her speaking quickly to a neighbor, who happened to be the local fire department engine driver. He ran somewhere and promised to be back soon. Mom returned to the house, and I followed closely.

My little brother was in Maia's arms. Mom took him quickly and embraced Maia, my nanny, who had to return to her mountain village in the Western Transylvanian Mountains for a while, I was told. I could not understand why the magic box that fascinated me had scared everybody so badly that we all had to go. Where were we going? Why did we have to say goodbye to people and leave behind everything I ever knew?

Few words were repeated in the grownups' quick exchange of words: German, Hungarian, Russian. Who were they? I saw the fear in the women's eyes. I got scared, too, and though I wanted to ask questions, I fell silent. I followed my Mom's quick movements like a shadow. I clung to her skirt whenever she stopped for a minute and for as long as I could.

Suddenly we heard a long squeak in front of the house, and when we dashed into the street a frightfully big, red engine was waiting for us with the motor running. We were motioned to get on it in a hurry. The small wooden seat reserved for Mom and us was up on the side of the engine and was supposed to take the three of us and the small suitcase. Mom was balancing the two of us, my little brother and me, as well as the suitcase as the car jerked its way out of town and into the open country. I heard the driver telling my Mom that "this was the last moving vehicle left in town."

People vanished in a hurry from the path of the incoming, retreating German and Hungarian armies, who were taking, burning and bombing everything in their way, so by the time the Russians, who were in pursuit, would reach those places, they would find nothing but death and cinders.

The red engine was fighting its way, puffing heavily, among dried fields of crops of wheat and tall corn. Here and there, trees along the road were displaying their still-green crowns. I enjoyed looking up from that open seat and watching them disappear behind us. I felt my Mom's right arm around me. I could barely breathe, but I did not complain. I felt nauseous and wished that the trip would be over soon. Instinctively I was afraid of what was ahead of us. Everybody was looking intensely up the road. What were they afraid of?

Far away to the left, suddenly, I saw black smoke and red flames going up into the sky. The entire horizon was frightfully burning, and we were going toward it. I asked my Mom, "What was that?" She quietly said, "They bombed the Razboieni railway station [a major railway hub in Transylvania]. All trains and buildings are on fire. That's why we have to reach grandpa's place as soon as possible."

I heard a scream. The car stopped abruptly, and people ran into the dried corn field on the right side of the road. Mom left the case on the seat, jumped with my brother in her arms, then put him down in the road and helped me off. As she was putting me down she said, "Run, Monica. Run in the cornfield." Where was that? I wondered. I looked up at her and her eyes directed me. I could not really run, but I did my best to cut straight over the road and into the ditch and then up again into the cornfield. I do not recall how many times I fell, but I made it on twos or fours following my mother, who was carrying my brother in her arms.

"Sit down; don't move!" came my mother's quiet order. I was still as a rock. I sensed the danger but I had no idea where it was coming from. Mother pointed to me to sit on her spread jacket. The dirt around was as dry as bone and covered with big, rock-like chunks. I looked up at Mom and saw her lips moving in a silent prayer as she was covering us in her embrace.

For no reason, the bulky pieces of dirt began exploding in thousands of pieces around us, and loud noises above us froze my blood. I looked up from under my Mom's shoulder and saw a silver-colored plane, much bigger than my brother's toy plane, hovering around the cornfield, and from it fire-red sparks were coming our way. I heard our neighbor screaming, "The Hungarians are shooting women and children; how very brave of them! May the Lord take them out with his might!" Then silence. My hands started shaking. Frightened like never before, I turned to Mother. "Mom, what means shooting?" I whispered. Mom's eyes filled with tears. I got no answer, but I understood that it might be something very bad if I made her cry. Isqueezed her fingers in apology. She hugged me tighter.

The planes left, and we rushed back to the car, that surprisingly was still there with the engine running, though new holes covered its shiny upper cover, and the windshield was in splinters. Another leg of our trip to grandpa's house started, but not for long. We were back in the cornfields or under trees again and again as the planes returned to hunt us. Up and down that high seat became a constant exercise till we left the main road and entered into the hills on a dirt road, away from the main retreat path of the Germans and Hungarians. The red color of the engine made it an easy target from above, but when night came, the planes stopped flying, and we made some progress, even if there was just one headlight left functioning on that engine.

Was I happy when, late at night, we reached my grandpa's house! The tall gates were opened, and the brave red engine entered in grandpa's stables out of sight. My grandparents' welcoming home became shelter for all the ones that took that trip with us. Mom smiled for the first time in days, though tears were on all the faces.

The warm cup of milk my grandma gave me was the best I ever tasted. I fell asleep on her lap before I finished my wonderful cup of milk.

 
Left: Monica and father, Eugen. Right: Monica, mother, and brother Dan in 1945.

Lapush River

All Rivers are attractive, but Lapush was not just beautiful, quiet and mysterious, it was frightening too, so much more irresistible to us, children. We were never allowed to go to it unsupervised by an adult. All sorts of strange stories were told about it by older people, which I did not want to believe. They were meant to keep children away from its banks.

Summer was ending, and only a few days separated us from another school year. Stella and I were not ready yet to pick up our book bags and say good-bye to freedom. Our mothers were busy canning fruit and vegetables for the long winter season, while we thought that some time in the sun would be the best way to say farewell to summer. We pleaded with our mothers to let us go on our own to Lapush, and promised to be very careful. Finally our moms agreed. Oh, boy, were we happy! We felt grown -up, worth of our mothers' trust! We rushed to pack our towels, some cookies and books to read. The day promised to be wonderful!

My brother, Dan, who did not want to be left behind, a true nuisance, cried his plea to mom to let him come along with us. When Mom consented, I knew that the joy and peace of that day with Stella was gone. I always felt responsible for him, and did not trust his promise to watch for himself. Mom charged me with the responsibility for him anyway. I did not dare argue, fearing Mom's change of mind.

So, the three of us left for the sandy beach of Lapush river. We reached it in an hour's walk, spread our towels and laid down in the sun. It was very quiet, warm and truly beautiful there.

We were the only people on that stretch of the river, and so proud to be there on our own. Stella and I were soon deep in conversation about the new subject we were to be taking that fall, new uniforms the school was imposing, the friends we made during summer, and the dread of another winter with poorly heated classrooms. Once or twice, I looked at my brother, who was throwing pebbles into the water, and poking under stones along the bank. We went on chatting, and when I looked up again Dan had vanished. I jumped on my feet and ran to the water front followed closely by Stella.

My brother was nowhere! I screamed his name in panic. No answer!

The slow, heavy moving Lapush never frightened me more. I ran up the river calling him. Stella followed me calling him, too.

Suddenly, Stella grabbed my arm, and speechless, pointed toward the middle of the river, where, for a few seconds, my brother's head surfaced. A few yards down his head resurfaced for a brief moment, a listless, pale face, closed eyes. My good God, he didn't even seem alive!

I jumped into the river, so did Stella. We have hardly learned to swim that summer. We couldn't dare to go too far in, and still I had to save my brother! My mind was spinning... Somewhere I heard that drowning people surface three times before they go down. Dan had surfaced twice already. If that's true, and if I would not be able to catch him now.... my Mom would never ever forgive me. I could never go home again... I could not live if I lost him....

Lapush river was making a curve to the right just where we were hoping Dan would come up again. Strange circles of swirling water were ahead of the place where we saw Dan last. I rushed forward to the place where I desperately hoped he would come up again. I knew I was still too far from the middle of the river, and I was already up to my mouth in the water. Stella, who knew how to "step on water", pushed forward and grabbed my hand. We were both searching the surface for any sign of Dan's head. We knew he couldn't go any further, the river was moving slowly... I was praying frantically, "Please, Lord, let him come up again, and close enough to catch him, please!

We saw something that looked like Dan's hair within Stella's hand reach. I screamed Dan's name and she grabbed his hair. Water got into my nose and eyes, I was coughing and so was Stella. We pulled at each other as hard as we could. Dan's face surfaced, gray and motionless. The grip of the powerful slow moving river was wearing us out. We collapsed near the shore where the water was about a foot deep. Dan was not moving! Stella looked ready to faint. I dragged him out of the water and rolled him over a bolder face down and started pressing him, while crying all the time. A streak of water came out of his mouth and slowly his eyes opened, finally. Stella joined me and kept pumping when I could not do it anymore. Dan came back to us, but he was disoriented, red-eyed, and could not speak... He was so cold and gray that I was afraid we wouldn't be able to save him. The first slap across his face was out of fear, the next few out of necessity. He was regaining color, his breathing got better, he was alive!

With Dan after the Lapush adventure.

My joy of having Dan back was accompanied by a strange desire to beat him up for what he had put us through... But my gratitude to God for saving us all annulled it.

Our return home was longer and quieter after the brush with death. We all felt much older. That life lesson was truly exhausting. We decided never to tell Mom what had happened there, even if we felt we were survivors!


Ruri

I was invited to my friend's house for a 5 o'clock tea. I found her with a few of our friends, and her five year old nephew, whom I hadn't met before. We were formally introduced. We shook hands and his tenor voice said, " I am Ruri, I'm five years old, and my aunt's favorite". He then looked up at his aunt for confirmation. Though surprised, she warmly smiled back to him. I told him how pleased I was to meet my friend's favorite. He took my hand and led me into the living room, where the others already were sitting comfortably, chatting. Knowing my friend, an educator, I shouldn't have been surprised, maybe a bit amused, seeing how seriously Ruri took his role of a host. Ruri pointed to an armchair for me, and only then sat down on the nearby sofa.

Ruri was tall and slim for his age. His brown eyes had a calm intensity, the honesty and curiosity typical for a deer. His chestnut hair gave a warm contour to his almost feminine, delicate face. On top of his head, a rebellious lock made half a question mark, giving a kind of merry note to his serious countenance. His bony, tanned legs showed a few scratches and a little bruise. He told me with pride that he played football at the kindergarten and that's how he got them. Ruri was dressed in a pair of short grey pants, white cotton socks, and snickers. His off-white shirt was neatly tucked in and partly covered by a nicely hand-knit grey vest ( my friend's work). There was nothing cheerful or colorful on him, but he was very neat, clean and color coordinated.

His attachment to his aunt was easy to read in his facial expression whenever his eyes turned to her, when he folded tenderly his little arm under hers, as soon as she sat on the sofa near him, or when he took a short "ride" on her crossed legs. His delicate, long fingers rested calmly on his lap while he followed our conversation. He never asked questions nor intervened in the conversation, but liked to stay close to us and listen to everything the grown-ups had to say. He smiled and laughed along with us when the conversation became hilarious, and only once or twice he frowned, when something was unclear to him. His unmasked curiosity and desire to socialize in his quiet way surprised me. When asked questions, he responded promptly with a kind of seriousness fit for an older child. There was no hesitancy, no desire to please, sheer interest to participate in the group discussion and to be noticed as a presence there.

He became animated when the conversation turned to wild horses. He put down the cookie he was munching on. Sparks of joy and curiosity were in his eyes. He spontaneously said, '~Do you know that I am a horsy according to the, . . . what is that, Tante Mary?" Horoscope, said his aunt. "Yes, the Horoscope! Did you know that?" No, I had no idea, I responded. But why do you think that something like that is true? "Oh, I love to run a lot. Tante Mary thinks that I run like a little horse all the time. She tried to catch me, but she couldn't." His face was suddenly so bright with smiles so childish that he looked different. "May I ever have a horse like that, Tante Mary? Could I learn to ride? Could I be allowed to take care of a little wild horse? The questions came in quick succession. His entire posture tightened up. His fists closed, his chest bent toward us, his eyes followed everybody's facial expression as they talked. His imploring eyes stopped on the face of his aunt. She caressed his head and said, "We will look into that, Ruri, this spring." He bent his head in a kind of . . . resignation. It was late, and time to leave. Ruri and his aunt saw us off. As I was coming down the stairs, I turned and heard myself saying, "What if I come by tomorrow and take you both to the riding school for an afternoon?" Ruri and my friend were silent for a moment. Then Ruri's voice took over the staircase, "Is that true? Are you coming for us ? Am I going to ride a real horse? Are we going, Tante Mary? Please say yes, please!" My friend could not refuse her favorite nephew. And that's how my riding lessons with a five year old began.


Ruri Talks

Today we are going to play "Fox and Rabbit" with Tante Mary; we will be running around the block and into the backyard as soon as Tante Mary comes home. I can hardly wait to make her run to catch me, if she can. I am the Rabbit. I am very quick and hard to catch. I know how to hide, and how to jump unexpectedly. I even managed to scare Tante Mary a few times, and she is the Fox!

Oh, there she is! She looks so small from up here where we live, the fourth floor. She will be in soon; why is she not looking up at the window, I have just waved to her. I better run to open the door, we can't waste any time.

I only hope she won't come with a new idea and change our plan to play. I waited all day for our run. Tante Mary is the only one in the family who wants to play with me, who likes to run, and makes me believe all her stories. We laugh so much together. She is funny! I do not want anybody around when she plays with me, but almost always somebody comes and Tante Mary is too kind and gives her time to them. I do not like that at all! I know she loves me, then why talk to the others?

* * *

I remember the day when we were getting ready to go for a visit to Grandpa's grave, in the Heroes Cemetery. We have bought the flowers that morning, took the small colored candles and the matches, and as we were approaching the door, Tante Mary told me that we will go, after the visit to Grandpa's, to the Green Cafe for a Dobosh Torte, my favorite cake in the whole wide world! I hugged her tightly, and rushed to the door. I opened it, and there was Miss Lia, our neighbor, who loved to talk too much. I was so upset that I said: We are on our way out right now; you can wait, if you want, till we come back, and then I hit the ground with my foot as hard as I could. Nobody said a word. Miss Lia looked at me, turned red, then looked at my aunt. She waited for an apology, I know. None came. I was looking at the floor. She left, evidently upset. I was relieved, and at the same time frightened. I knew how embarrassed Tante Mary was, but I just could not help it. I expected no forgiveness for my attitude. Still, I did not like that woman, nor her voice, and certainly not her stories.

To my surprise, Tante Mary took my hand and we left for the cemetery. We did not talk on our way. We cleaned the grave; I brought some water and we put the fresh flowers in the Roman vases on each side of the grave. Tane Mary lit the two candles and placed them near the plaque where my Grandpa's name was written in golden letters. I was wondering what was she thinking about. She did not look at me at all. I was sure that there was no chance for my Dobosh Torte nor for Tante Mary's coffee at the Green Cafe that afternoon. But she surprised me again.

We went to the Green Cafe after the cemetery, and we had our usual treats, we also had a very serious talk, I can't forget. There were no smiles, no laugh, no stories, which I loved so much. She told me how sad and hurt she was when Ms Lia looked so disapprovingly at me, and I had not apologized for my rude behavior. She said that there are other ways to let people know that we had plans and did not intend to change them, without "pitched tones" and "foot work" in front of elder people. She made me understand that I hurt her more than I hurt the neighbor with my behavior. Boy, was I sorry! So sorry that I could not touch my favorite cake.

Tante Mary saw that. She leaned over, straightened my hair on my forehead, kissed my Shiva's Eye, as she always did when she wished me good night. Then she said, "Ruri, I hope this is the last time we need to speak about misbehavior." I was quiet. I did not want to cry. I could not look at her sad face either."

"Let's eat now, and then take a run around the block at home. I think that the Fox is going to catch the Rabbit this time," Tante Mary said.

I knew I was forgiven. I jumped from my chair and hugged her so tightly that she gasped for air. She finally smiled. The cake was almost as good as always. I watched my aunt sipping slowly her coffee and smiling at me from time to time.

That's why I love my auntie so much, she is kind and playful and forgiving. She is like a "ray of sunshine in our lives", as Grandma says. She teaches me so many things, she makes me think and laugh a lot. I feel I can tell stories too, when she asks me and listens to me like nobody else. We had our run around the block that evening, and I let Tante Mary catch me because I knew she would kiss me. I pretended to struggle to get away, but was I grateful that she forgave me, and we were still friends!

That night I asked Grandma to call my parents and ask them to let me stay longer at Tante Mary's, and they did.

* * *

Oh, I can hear her on the stairs. Hi, Tante Mary! I am ready to go!


A Tale for a Little Boy

The Adventure of
the Brave Reddish-Brown Egg
(as Ruri first heard it)

Once upon a time, in a little farmhouse near the Western Mountains woods, lived a farmer and his lovely wife. They worked from dawn to dusk to make things grow, and to keep life happy for themselves and their animals.

Every morning, Ileana got up early and collected the fresh-laid eggs to make an omelet for her husband and herself. One morning, she found among the fresh-laid eggs one that looked quite different from the others. It was a reddish freckled egg. She wondered which of her hens could have laid it. On her way to the kitchen, she decided to put it in the pantry for now, maybe show it to her husband as a curiosity, and then use it later. So she did. The egg was put in a basket on the lower shelf in the pantry.

As soon as the door was closed, the strange egg rolled out of the basket, along the shelf, and hopped over the nearby window sill. "Am I lucky or what ?" thought the Reddish-egg, Ileana left the little window of the pantry open for fresh air, "and there I go!" The egg jumped into a box of old rugs that were just under the window and then rolled off into the grass.

The Reddish egg was an unusual one, an adventurous egg! He wanted to see the world, not just be sacrificed for Radu's breakfast....

The road passed right in front of the house, and the Reddish-egg followed it, rolling happily along, enjoying the wide colorful fields full of pretty flowers, the sun, and the fresh morning air. Soon he entered the shadow of the woods. He could hear the birds singing somewhere up into the trees, but he did not see them, he had no time for them, he was busily rolling into the depth of the forest. Suddenly, his road closed in front of him. He pushed but the soft fur of a stranger would not give in. He pulled back and looked up. There was a creature whose nose was moving quickly as he was eating something...

"Hello, I am the Reddish-egg; who are you?"

"I am Fluffy-the-Rabbit. What are you doing here in the woods all by yourself? Did you fall from a nest?"

" Oh, no!. I am on a journey to see and learn about the world. I am a curious egg!"

"Ha, Ha, Ha" laughed the Rabbit, " I am afraid it will not be a long journey!". Then he swiftly hopped away and disappeared in the tall grass. Our brave freckled egg rolled on down the road wondering what Fluffy meant by "not a long journey".

From behind the trees, a rusty creature jumped in his way, and looked at him with sparkling hungry eyes, while her bushy tail was swiping the ground.

"Who are you, and where do you think you are going? You are trespassing my territory, little fellow!", she said, while her tongue combed her stiff mustaches.

"Hellooo, I am the Reddish-Egg, and I am on my way to learn about the world", said the little adventurer somewhat intimidated. "Who are you?"

"Well, I am a friendly resident of the woods. My name is Foxy, and I like reddish eggs like you, very, very much!"

As she was speaking, Foxy came closer and closer to our brave little friend.

Somehow the egg sensed the danger and rolled off so rapidly that he left a cloud of dust behind. Foxy banged her head into a nearby tree while in pursuit. She fell dizzy on her back, and cried in frustration at the disappearance of her hoped-for breakfast.

The egg was traveling at such speed on the path that his shell got scratched pretty badly. He had to slow down because he lost his breath and was really hot.

On the left side of the path, the leaves rustled unexpectedly, and a huge brown figure stepped right in front of our little traveler.

"And who are you, little fellow?" growled the brown giant.

"Oh, I am just the Reddish-egg, and I'm on a journey to learn about the world; I'm in a hurry, really. Would you step aside and let me continue my journey, please", said the frightened egg.

"HO, HO, HO," boomed the Brown Bear. "You are a feisty little thing, aren't you!" But I haven't had my breakfast yet, so you will do!"

The Brown Bear opened his mouth and jumped to swallow our little friend. The egg turned around and rolled away with such speed that sparks came out of his shell. The brown bear fell with his nose in a thorny bush, and had to work all morning to get out the thorns. By then, our little adventurer was back in front of the farmer's house, scratched, dirty and extremely tired.

Just then, Ileana came out of the house with a bucket of warm water and threw it right over him. She noticed with surprise our little friend near the front steps.

"HOW on earth did that egg end up there? I remember putting it in the basket earlier this morning," she thought. "Or is it another one? My hens must have lost their sense of direction."

Ileana picked the egg up and placed it back in the egg basket in the pantry.

The little Reddish-egg was much happier there among the other eggs! Finally, he was in a safe place with no strange creatures around who wanted him for a breakfast, or so he thought. He had enough excitement for his first day into the world! The reddish-egg sighed deeply, rolled among his paler brothers and fell asleep instantly.



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