WHERE WE CAME FROM
“Tell me about the Gypsies, Grandma...”
“When you were a little girl...”
“When I was a little girl in Romania,” she began.
At bedtime, when I was a little boy, my grandmother would tell me her
stories. Told and retold, each began the same way. “When I was a
little girl in Romania” was Grandma’s “once upon a time.”
My grandmother could not read or write. Her voice was her pen, memories
the color of her ink. By the light of my bedside lamp, she skillfully
wove family fact into fable, unwittingly planting my soul in the Romania
of her past. Here, in the dark, long gone voices spoke, faded fiddlers
made music for the vanished dances of my grandmother’s girlhood and
the Gypsies came down from the hills.
“People were afraid they would steal children, but they never did,”
she said. “When the winter was over they came, the tziganes , the
gypsies. They came into the town with their big copper pots, and they
banged those pots with big copper spoons. We came out of our houses with
our own pots, the ones we used for jam and food, the ones that got holes
or got damaged during the year. The Gypsy men they repaired the pots.
“You should have seen them. They wore vests like the cowboys. And the
women. What beauties. Hair black as night. Long braids they had, with
shiny beads. Did I ever tell you about my hair? The color of wheat in
the sun! Clara with the long gold braids. That’s what they called
Grey was the color of my grandmother’s hair. It was hard to think of
her as ever having been blonde, no less young. Every morning she would
come out of her bedroom, making her way to the kitchen in her nightgown
with a single grey braid hanging down her back. She looked like
Pocahontas, only old and from Europe.
“My thin hair,” she would say, pinning that braid back into a tight
bun, time-honored insignia of the old women of East Flatbush, of whom
there seemed to be legions. One by one, families had fled to an exotic
place called “the suburbs,” turning our neighborhood into a
reservoir for grandparents.
The Italians, from what I had heard, came mostly from Sicily or
Calabria, from towns and villages like Catanzaro and Cosenza or Aragona
and Messina, names that tinkled on the tongue like chimes in the wind.
The Jews, mostly from Russia or Poland, came from places that sounded as
complex and eccentric as the traveled history of the Jews themselves.
Minsk and Pinsk. Gdynia and Gdansk. Bialystoker, Kiev, and Warsaw. From
regions they came that might as well have been make- believe. Silesia
and Galicia. And Carpathia. Fairy tale kingdoms where, as it turned out,
there would be no happy endings. Latvia and Lithuania.
Nobody, it seemed, came from Romania. Except for us, and no one knew
what to make of us. We were neither Slavic nor genuinely Eastern
European, as many thought. We were Balkan. We were Latinate. We were
Judaic...and we were more.
Before Romania, there was Dacia where kings and noblemen reigned over
soil so fertile and warriors so splendid that mighty Rome took note. It
is said that among the Roman soldiers who came and conquered and
Latinized, there were Jews. We were present at the creation.
We were there when the Turks swept up from the East to seize the land.
Hundreds of years of Ottoman rule ended in a bloody war for independence
but left an enduring legacy. Constantinople spiced future Romania’s
foods, domed its rooftops, and arched its doorways. We Romanians hung
carpets on our walls, savored the aromatic buds of Turkish coffee, and
elevated the baking of eggplant to an art form. Even Romanian, least
known of the Romance languages and a gift of the Romans, would forever
pulse with Turkish words and cadences.
Over the years before and after the Turks, others would raid this rich
and beau- tiful country, from the Bulgars, Avars, and Mongols who helped
forge Romanian identity, to the Soviets who suppressed it and, it has
been said, ran off with the royal jewels.
We, the Jews of Romania, were there through it all. We even had our own
unof- ficial anthem: Romania Romania, a cabaret tune of syrupy Yiddish
lyrics and toe- tapping Romanian peasant verse. In our house, we
listened to that old song on a scratchy 78, and our hearts sang...
O Romania, Romania, Romania, Ro-may-nya – Ro-may-nya Was once a land,
so sweet, and so fine there What your heart desires, you can find there
A mamaliga A pastrami A carnati... and a little glass of wine.
At bedtime, when I was a little boy, my grandmother would sing to me.
Her voice was neither soothing nor sweet. Yet in songs molded of memory,
it drew warmth from the house where she was born in the faraway village
of Stefanesti. In Romanian, she sang of the flute player who made music
out of tin and air. In Yiddish, she sang lullabies steeped in the nights
of the distant East. To my dark room, her songs brought light and
longing for all that was so well remembered...
I have for you a bride, is she a Romanian, nice figure. She will cook
for you a delicious mamaliga.
Excerpted from "Mysterious Places" by Jeffrey Gorney. Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Gorney. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.