My Great-Uncle Tony
I visited Romania for the first time with my mother in the summer of 1975. I was five years old. At Bucharest airport a passport official whisked us behind a limp curtain. My mother hadn’t beenback since she and my father escaped ten years earlier. As the curtain closed, she squeezed my hand. She’d told me before we left New York not to look anyone in uniform in the eyes. This was trickyduring the pat-down. The official was so close I could feel her breath on my face. Trying to avoid her nose, I met her eyes. I thought she might make me stay at the airport without my mother orreturn me to Jamaica, Queens. Instead, she smiled.
Outside, the air was dusty and it was getting dark. On the cab ride to my grandparents’ place, along Calea Mosilor and around the perimeter of Sector 2, we passed endless, grey concrete apartmentblocks, their walls cracked and stained with damp, as if they’d been crying.
At supper that night I met my great-uncle Tony. The table was covered with a crisp linen tablecloth, a crocheted snowflake at its centre. My grandmother, in her flowered housecoat, was dividing ascrawny roast chicken among nine of us. Tony turned to me and said: ‘Eat your carrots. They make you whistle better. A doctor told me that.’
He seemed to know everything, and if he didn’t, he’d make it up. Watching my teenage cousin smoking defiantly at the table in a Bee Gees T-shirt, Tony told me that ‘Smoking is idiocy. I smoked forthirty years and never even liked it. I just did it because I thought it made me look like the grand prince regent of Spain.’ He looked like that anyway: tall with thick, black hair and large, darkeyes, trustworthy dimples and strong forearms. He was blind in his right eye, from clashing skulls with another player during a football game in his twenties.
What I wanted from Tony was information about my parents. I had a pared-down, nursery-school version of their escape, in a small Fiat with their life savings sewn into the upholstery. In theStates, my father worked as an obstetrician at the hospital where I was eventually born. We lived in the Long Island suburbs, on the spout of a street called Teapot Lane. My parents were alwayssombre. There were often ashtrays full of fag ends in the den and stacks of open books about the Soviets and the Cold War on the coffee table. The phone would sometimes ring in the middle of thenight or early morning and I would wake to my parents shouting into the receiver to make themselves heard over the crackling line. I never knew what the calls were about.
That evening in Bucharest, I sat on a pile of pillows, my head barely above the table, and looked for clues. The adults mostly talked about food lines and cold showers. Everyone was afraid that thephones were bugged and the neighbours were spies. Everyone had stories of relatives who had gone missing or co-workers who’d been arrested by the Securitate. My family got on with their lives,celebrating birthdays and holidays and the homecoming of expatriate daughters. But having to keep silent about Ceausescu meant that his invisible presence loomed even larger.
I tried to talk about the past with Tony, but he wanted to talk about Kojak. We picked hundreds of tiny snails off the walls of the apartment block – Tony said they were sea barnacles –and I collected them like precious stones in the folds of my dress. With scissors, tape and plastic six-pack holders, we made pilot’s goggles and pretended we were Amelia Earhart and the WrightBrothers. In the evenings, he and my grandparents would tell me Romanian folk tales until I fell asleep.
Back on Long Island, I scoured old photograph albums, filled with pictures of my great-aunts in elaborate hats and my great-grandfathers on hunting expeditions. The images merged with the stories Ihad been told in Bucharest. I imagined the Romania of my parents’ childhood as a fairytale place where bears got their tails caught in ice and roosters hid gold coins in their bellies. It was acountry in soft focus: a land of rose petal jam and old-fashioned seltzer bottles, of outdoor card games and walks along the promenade with parasols.
In 1983 Tony managed to leave Romania and moved to Frankfurt with my great-aunt. I would visit them in the summer holidays. He’d thwart my earnest questions with his own, off-beat line of inquiry.‘Does America still have cowboys? If I wanted to become a cowboy, which would I buy first? The hat or the horse?’ He never wanted to talk about Romania. But then in 2005, during my last visit toFrankfurt before he died, he relented.
‘I remember the first time I saw an American soldier,’ he said as he finished his coffee and apple cake. ‘A bunch of us were sitting on the side of the road. The tyres on our truck were shot andthe truck sat on the street deflated. We didn’t speak a word of English but the American soldiers drove up, parked their big truck across the way and came up to us. They were big and healthy,almost a little fat. They pointed to their watches and kept saying “change”. After some miming and back and forth, we ended up trading watches. We were fine with it. Theirs were nicer of course. Atnight, one of the Romanian soldiers stole all four tyres off the Americans’ truck, so we all had to take off before they woke up.’
I wished he’d told a different story; I’d already heard too many tales in the Western media maligning Romanians as thieves and charlatans. I wanted the truth, or failing that, a little wisdom. Ilaughed anyway. But my great-aunt interjected, wringing her hands: ‘And we wonder why everyone thinks Romanians are criminals?’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked, smiling. ‘They were our tyres too. We were all Allies.’