I was only six in 1978, yet older for my years. I was imaginative, inquisitive, with a nimble mind, keenly aware of everything around me. Mama was exasperated with me being so nosy, pestering her with endless questions, but grateful for my God-given gifts she didn’t have to buy in a store.
I was painfully aware of my scruffy shoes, faded jacket, mended stockings or the holes in my socks. I didn’t have the supplies the first-grade, first semester, required; I had to borrow pencils and sheets of paper to write on. I felt humiliated over and over. During recess when my classmates ate their snacks, I didn’t even have a walnut to nibble on. I would just go outside, hide behind a bush and cry until the bell rang. I didn’t know who to blame, so I blamed Mama. I felt betrayed, hurt, worthless. I yelled at her every night, threatening to stop going back to school. Mama promised to find more work, in the field, harvesting potatoes, or plums farmers grew for their brandy. After a whole day on all fours, gathering fat, red-skinned potatoes in large burlap sacks and carrying them on her back to the horse-drawn buggy, she would came home with a small sack of wrinkled, sprouted potatoes and maybe two shiny eggs. She would sit in a corner, stare at the blue-black mold on the wall until dawn. Then she would grab her broom and dust pan and dragged herself to work.
I loved my teacher, especially since her first name was E., like Mama’s. She was amazed that after barely having learned a few letters – “A”, “M”, “N” and “E” – I was able to put them together in words, on my own, and read them out loud. My classmates scoffed with contempt and disbelief when she asked me to stand up and read words and full sentences we were supposed to learn the third semester. She even called over my aunt Veta, my father’s oldest sister, who was a teacher at our school, to show her how great her niece was doing. My Aunt wasn’t impressed though; she despised me as she despised Mama. When I was a baby, she loved to pinch my thinghs hard when I fussed, and throw me on the bed while changing my soaked nappies.
A few times after school I hid in the bathroom and later went back to the classroom. I would go through each desk and check for anything left behind. I was lucky to find a pencil or an eraser now and then, and kept them. I knew I was stealing and the guilt stung me, but being humiliated and laughed at constantly stung infinitely more.
Mama was about thirty five years old that year and wore mostly the smelly hand-me-downs that my Aunt Sofia, who was about fifty six, had thrown at her. Aunt Sofia worked as a housekeeper for well-to-do old ladies in town and she was the recipient of their charity. After she got tired of them, they landed in Mama’s lap. If Mama refused them, she would get beat up and thrown out in the street. One time Mama noticed a red turtleneck pullover on the clothesline (used by all the tenants in the building) while she was gathering our wash. She knew it belonged to a nasty Gypsy woman, with a dubious income. She calmly folded it under the linens and brought the basket inside. I was shocked to see her wear it in town, proud and defiant, even though she was a God-fearing woman.
Poverty also taught her to make an omelette for three people – well, an adult and two starving children – using only two eggs, a small onion and a tablespoon of flour. She would let us eat first; she would eat whatever was left in the pan. Often times we devoured the whole thing, our big tablespoons dueling hungrily in the pan. (We didn’t own forks; we weren’t “fancy” people). We never heard a word of reproach when she tucked us in, her stomach grumbling, her eyes heavy with fatigue and worry about where our next meal would come from.
Our tiny kitchen consisted of a table, a wobbly bench, a plastic bucket where we collected our muddy drinking water, two tin cups, three tin plates and a small jar holding a few tablespoons and a dull knife. A broom in a corner, a dustpan next to it, a rusty, cold-faucet-only sink. We kept our few pots and pans in the bare pantry. We didn’t own a refrigerator; we kept our food on the cement floor by the front door and on the small bathroom windowsill during winter.
Mama did our wash on Mondays or Thursdays when we had hot water, until 10pm. She washed our clothes in the bathtub and scrubbed them by hand with smelly brown soap and lye that skinned her knuckles to the bone. We bathed once a week, in the same water, and saved it for the toilet.
Then our “beloved” ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu, decided to pay our national debt in less than a decade and starve us to death in the process. The food, butane gas containers (used for cooking) and gasoline got rationed. No more hot water. Even the cold water got cut after midnight. We got half of a dubious-looking dark bread for a person a day. One kilo of sugar, one liter of murky sun-flower oil, one kilo of wheat flour and maze each a month. A dozen eggs and a scrawny chicken if you got up at dawn and managed to stand your ground in the queue against angry, desperate people. Many winters Mama came home without her headscarf and coat buttons, her ribs bruised, her face scratched, holding victoriously a bag of chicken feet, with their claws still on. Other times she came home empty handed. On holidays we were fortunate enough to buy two purple chickens in a small bag, the size of pigeons. There were rumors that the skinned lambs hanging at the market on Easter were actually dogs. People bought them regardless; they had more meat on than the chicken feet and necks.
One day I heard at school about butter. I didn’t know what that was, what it tasted like and asked Mama about it. She sighed. “Don’t ask me silly questions, Gabby. Go do your homework.”
I first tasted butter 12 years later, and marveled at it.