A rule more precious than gold.

Elihu's Corner

This is the fourth post in the series on Chip Removal for Christians. Read the previous post here.

friends

I drummed my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, glaring at the red tail lights directly ahead. The blue Honda civic lingered irresolutely at the stop sign. For over a mile I had been stuck behind this beat-up car, inching along at 20 mph in a 35 zone. My blood pressure was up and my patience down.

Finally, the vehicle rolled forward. After performing an obligatory “California stop” I fell in behind them once again. A minute later, I could see my destination. Relieved to finally be rid of the snail-like vehicle, I whipped into the parking lot. In my flustered frustration I accidentally cut somebody off. I blushed and gave an embarrassed wave, hoping they’d understand that I hadn’t meant to be rude. I had been through a rough day and was duly distracted by…

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“Where are you FROM?”

DSCF4073Dorothea was from Germany and tutored our pastor’s daughters for a year. She was dark chocolate-eyed, with long black ringlets bouncing around her heart-shaped face. She wasn’t a classic beauty, by any means. Her hips were wide, her shoulders small. But she spoke fluent English with an exotic, guttural German accent, wore trendy western clothes, especially scented, frilly scarves that rendered our boys harebrained and tongue tied.

We adopted her in our exclusive gang, even though her presence would threaten the fragile balance of our hormone-challenged group. The boys were mesmerized by her, fighting each other fiercely over a smile, a nod or a mere look from darling Dorothea. We, the Romanian girls, became old news. Dull, stale like a slice of white bread, tossed aside for a piece of moist chocolate-rum cake. IMG_0012

When I moved to the United States years later, I secretly hoped I would be as exotic and mysterious as Dorothea was.

The first 6 months I hid in my apartment. America scared me, and fascinated me. I had to take her in small dozes, starting with my 2-bedroom apartment.

My kitchen sink had an evil food disposal that swallowed my teaspoons every day. I had vivid nightmares about my fingers getting sliced off, turned into mush and dumped in the American sewer.

I was very suspicious of the fans in the ceiling, blowing in hot and cold air. It reminded me of Auschwitz gas chambers. The first day my husband turned the air conditioning on, I held my breath in fright.

The windows reminded me of French guillotines. I had to be careful not to crush my fingers closing them at night.

And there was the dishwasher that shook the kitchen floor, sending me under the kitchen table every time it drained. The dryer machine, sadly, reminded me of my clothesline and my linens, scented with dew and sunshine.

I got used to paper-thin walls, neighbors showering and moaning with abandon at 3am, merciless Jehovah witnesses slipping flyers under the doormat, the garbage truck howling in the parking lot every Thursday at dawn. I got used to washing my clothes downstairs, sharing machines with faceless tenants that knew what undies I was wearing before learning my name.

When the walls closed on me, I started sneaking out at night. I hid behind the dumpster gate, holding my breath, rather than saying hello back to a startled neighbor, tossing their trash. I found Americans loud, nosy and obnoxious. They yelled “how’s it going” when spotting me grabbing the mail. I would scurry back into my apartment, as fast as I could, without tripping on my long bath robe. An awfully curious neighbor cornered me one day and forced me to face her. I listened and nodded dutifully, but said nothing. I was afraid my English was rudimentary, my galloping accent off-putting.

When I first ventured outside the property I found it aggravating that perfect strangers smiled at me and asked me how I was doing. Where I come from, smiles from people that are not your relatives,  or your friends, are highly  suspicious. You always wonder what they want from you.

IMG_2831It was eerie and exhilarating walking the streets of a small American town, on my own. I admired the manicured lawns, the exquisite holiday decorations, the variety of lamps glowing in windows at nightfall. The streets and roads were marked carefully with signs at every corner. There were no stray, famished dogs and cats roaming around, no drunks staggering home from the pub, singing their drunkard songs and waving their cheap vodka bottles. No overturned garbage cans, no abandoned car carcasses. No crippled gypsies begging on church stairs. IMG_2241

The grocery stores were veritable gardens of Eden. I fingered and sniffed every wondrous piece of fruit or root, for hours, until workers and shoppers alike started shaking their heads at the produce  oddball.

DSCF3911I will never forget my first trip to the cafe downtown. I timidly asked the barista at the counter for a small coffee, with two lumps of sugar. She leaned closer, gave me a once-over, and pointed, smirking, to a station filled with assorted beverage accompaniments. I didn’t know what “half-n-half” was, and hesitated to ask a rotund lady who was pouring some in her cup. I added nutmeg – a curious spice – to mine. Then cinammon, chocolate and brown sugar, and minutes later, the deadly cocktail sent me to the bathroom, running. The door didn’t seem to have a lock, or had a smart, tricky one, but I had no time to figure it out. I jumped to my feet, screaming, when a lady barged in, then apologized, equally frightened, grabbing her neck. Now I triple-check every lock I encounter.

I took the bus to get around. The first time I rode it, I was too shy to pull the cord to signal the driver. I didn’t want anybody to stare at me. I finally got off when a rider did, 5 stops after my destination. I had to walk back 3 miles.

The library was my home away from home. I checked out dozens of history books after somebody called me stupid for not knowing how Africans became slaves in America. Also I began reading thick, scary-looking vocabularies, page by page, and learned to use words like “estravaganza” and “benevolence” in casual sentences.

IMG_2227I applied for citizenship, and passed the test with flying colors. Afterwards, I DSCF5206went to the bathroom and cried in a stall, until an older lady knocked on the stall door, lightly, but urgently, and asked if I was ok. Still sobbing, I showed her the citizenship certificate. She congratulated me, gave me a bear hug and welcomed me to America. Her warmth and generosity overwhelmed me.  When she left, I went back in the stall and cried some more. I emerged smiling, taller, holding my certificate with pride.

I got a job at a grocery store. It was a humble job, but it helped me improve my English and acquire some social skills. I made friends, but felt I was different, still a foreigner, and it bothered me. My wide, high cheek bones, my small size, my lack of tact and refined manners pushed me into a lonely corner.

I enjoyed talking to customers behind the Bakery-Deli counter though. I desperately wanted to pass as an American – since I was now one – but inevitably they asked me, “Where are you from? Are you from France?” I was flattered that my Romanian accent sounded so… chic 😉 Some thought I was Russian, others Turkish. But none took me for an American, which made me clamp up, oddly ashamed, as though not being American-born made me a second-class citizen. I ran back to my history books and my dog-eared vocabularies. But I learned more about America making sandwiches, baking cookies and walking the isles of an old-fashioned grocery store.

I learned, in time, that Americans, unlike Romanians, cherish their personal space. You cannot bump into them in supermarkets, hit them with your cart, like I was doing, to my husband’s mortification. That you better say “excuse me” before walking in front of somebody. You’re expected to say “please” and “thank you,” with every breath. At first I found it phony, nauseating, but it turned out to be genuine common courtesy.

You cannot get too close to the next person in line at the pharmacy or checking lines. You cannot sit at a table uninvited, or borrow a chair without asking for permission. Under any circumstances you cannot ask personal questions like, “How much do you make?” or  “What is that smelly ointment for?” or “Do you still have sex with your husband?”

You cannot stare at somebody, no matter how loud or bizarre-looking, or check out fellow patron’s plates or pay attention to juicy conversations. You have to pretend you don’t hear that hysterical gal dumping the poor guy for not noticing her new dress.

Americans are great pretenders. I’ve learned to sugarcoat everything, beat around the bush, pay compliments in order to be “kind.” Apparently my being blunt was rude and unbecoming  – way too balkanic for sophisticated American company.

IMG_0020I learned to eat large portions, combine 3 kinds of carbs on my dinner plate – tortillas, rice and beans – a diet that would horrify my Romanian figure-conscious friends. I got used to the ice in my water glass, the potato chips that came with my sandwich. I fell in love with bacon, pancakes, hash-browns and, particularly, maple syrup. I learned to roast huge turkeys, to bake apple and pecan pies. The first year I roasted a turkey though, I stuffed its neck cavity, I cooked it breast down and left the frozen neck and giblets inside. The first crust for my pies was as hard as a rock, the apples made your mouth purse with their tartness. The stuffing for the turkey was a pathetic, mushy mess even I couldn’t look at, without gagging. But every holiday I persevered, IMG_0027determined to become a true American, in every way.

I learned to take showers instead of baths, without panicking while watching dozens of gallons of unused hot water rushing down the drain. I stopped turning off lights in rooms I wasn’t in. I ate out more, threw away food that had gone bad; slowly and surely I forgot all my thrifty ways. The waste around me was bewildering, yet had a nonchalant charm to it. Every single night the store threw away tens of pounds of good deli food instead of donating it to an orphanage or a local shelter. Who was I to judge? The more careless and wasteful I got, the more integrated I felt.

I called Mama every Thursday and have noticed that I had trouble remembering Romanian words. I would start sentences in English without realizing it. When I started to dream “in English” I was ecstatic. My Romanian friends were not impressed with my English-only emails, and asked me if I had forgotten Romanian in less than 7 years I had lived in US. I was on a mission though, and blew them off. Besides, I had American friends now.

I flew to Romania to visit Mama a few years ago. As soon as I put on comfy clothes, a neighbor knocked on the door, demanding to see me. I heard Mama explaining to her that I was tired and was resting, but the woman walked by Mama and marched in the bedroom. I was flabbergasted. She gave me a hug and asked me how America was. I told her that in America people call before dropping by, and never at dinnertime. She goggled at me and scoffed with disdain.

Another neighbor stopped by. She asked to see my American passport and marriage certificate. I almost choked on my food. She said that the whole neighborhhod thought that, in America, I worked as a sex slave, tied up to a pole, in a dungeon. That they had never seen any photos of me and my American “husband,” so they needed proof. I got up and stomped out the room before punching her in the face. “You’re too good now to talk to us, huh?” she yelled at my back. When she finally left, I told Mama that I didn’t want any visitors for the duration of my stay. “They are my friends,” she reminded me. “They’re not as sophisticated as your American friends are, but I’m thankful for them. You grew up with their kids. Don’t look down your nose at them now. And wherever you go, child, don’t ever forget where you come from.”

I returned to America. I resumed my English studies. I continued to receive lots of compliments on my vocabulary, my conversational skills. At work my boss asked me to write the weekly reports. I wrote statements to HR for my coworkers. The store director asked me if I was interested in a management position. Most importantly though, my accent became less and less noticeable. Nobody asked me where I was from anymore. I was elated. I was finally an American, I thought, through and through.

Then one day a pretty young lady asked for 2 salads from the Deli display. She had the most DSCF4073charming British accent I had ever heard. I was sudenly smitten with her. She wore a fashionable blue coat, a cream-colored top with an intricate embroidery on her chest. “Where are you from?” I asked, my cheeks flushed with excitement. “I’m from England,” she answered with a polite smile. She got the same salads, every day, for a whole week. I always rushed to help her and chat a little bit, although she was reticent, like some English people are. “I’m from Romania,” I said toward the end of the week. “You are?” she asked, surprised. “I wouldn’t have guessed.” Was that a compliment? I never saw her again.

I never learned her name, but to me, she was my darling Dorothea. Exotic and mysterious and charming, just as I want to be, one day.

The taste of butter – 1

IMG_2256Everybody in our neighborhood was poor, but we were poorer than most.

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.

About me

DSCF4875I was born 43 years ago, the unwanted third child of a mean, perpetually drunk coal miner and a meek, despondent housewife, living in a cold one-bedroom apartment on the third floor in a rowdy Gypsy-run old building, in a small mining town in communist Romania.

One winter my oldest sister – nine at the time – was sold to a family who couldn’t have children. “What do I get for her?” my father asked the couple, convinced he was doing them a huge favor. He was hoping for a large sum of money to drown himself in cheap rum and vodka for a while, but the man handed him a bottle of plum brandy and told him to get going before he called the police. Mama was forced to sign the adoption papers with a knife pressing in her ribs.

My second oldest sister was sent to my paternal grandparents far away in Moldavia Province.

One day a pleasant police officer came to me and asked if I wanted to go to a nice warm place, full of toys and coloring books, to play with children my age – I wasn’t five years old yet – and eat lots of good food, and get even second and third helpings. My eyes went wide with wonder and excitement and I said yes. Mama had been gone for a week after my father had beaten her to a pulp and had threatened to throw her off the window. My days of knocking on our neighbors’ doors and begging for a piece of bread were finally over, I thought. I was done sleeping on the doormat, outside the front door, when my father was too drunk to hear my fearful knocking, or didn’t care.

When I got to the orphanage for girls they shaved my head as my matted, unwashed hair was crawling with lice. A plump lady furiously scrubbed me until the brown-grey dirt spots on my elbows, knees and neck disappeared in the soapy water and dressed me in clean-smelling clothes. I didn’t have third helpings as I had hoped, but I always went to bed – my own – full and happy. I was sad, though, for having left my baby brother behind with my angry, bumbling father. I prayed that I would see him again one day.

Mama came to rescue me almost a year into my stay at the orphanage. She took me home to a one-bedroom apartment across town from where my father was living. She was proud to rent a place of her own and have a job to pay for it, a cleaning job. She wore a dark blue cotton coat over her street clothes – her work uniform – and swept and mopped staircases, landings and the front of apartment buildings in town, and shoveled snow as well in the winter. It was an exhausting job, Monday through Saturday, but she rarely complained.

She managed to rescue my little brother, just in time, one day as he was on his way to the orphanage for boys. She invited the police and the Child Protection Service over and showed them the clean – albeit scarcely furnished – apartment she was renting and proved that there was enough food in the pantry for my baby brother, if he would be allowed to stay. He was, to our utter joy and relief.

Later on, Mama sued my Father for child support, but he refused, scornfully. He went to jail for a year and when he was out, he came stumbling to our place, cursing Mama at the top of his lungs. But first he went to the pub across the street and drank some more, to gather some courage, but instead he peed his pants as he hadn’t manage to get to the outside toilet in time. He cornered Mama in the kitchen and pummeled her to the floor. Lucky for her, the booze had impaired him enough and she managed to push him aside eventually and get away, her face bloody and swollen, her ribs aching, her neck red and throbbing, and three of her blouse buttons laying on the green linoleum. She never sued him again.

He then grabbed my hand and ordered me to take him back to his place. He sang a drunkard song, slobbering over his crumpled, sweaty shirt. Our neighbors stared at us and crossed themselves delighted, happy with a circus they weren’t part of for once. I was beyond embarrassed on the way to our old place across town when he started to run and drag me along, staggering and falling on me, choking me with the sour booze on his breath, his body odor and urine, dried up on his pants. We bumped into people, but he laughed and cursed them with glee. At last I pushed him up the spiraled staircase, step by step, and took his heavy miner boots off when he collapsed on the bed. The same boots he kicked me with every time I asked for food or for a little fire in the terra-cotta stove to warm up my frozen hands and feet. He then tried to grab me, shove me on the bed and get on top of me as he had done many nights before, when Mama was sleeping over at some kind neighbor. But he was too drunk. He fell back on the bed and was gone, snoring loudly, snot bubbling rhythmically on his thin upper lip.

Many nights before I was taken to the orphanage I had timidly crawled in bed with him on cold, lonely nights, looking for some warmth. He would strip my panties and rub his limp penis against my buttocks. Later on, I would find out that he attempted to molest my older sisters as well. Thankfully for us, he was too drunk to ever succeed in actually raping us.

I covered him with the dingy comforter he always hoarded and tiptoed out, relieved to leave him behind this time. I ran all the way home to my bruised Mama and my frightened four year old brother. I was about six years old.