In the sixth of our grandmother pieces, Marina’s Romanian granny was officially a war widow, but the political situation meant she was always waiting for her husband to return.
My grandmother Dumitra (known throughout her life by her nickname Troy) was born in 1913 in a small village in the hilly sub-Carpathian region of Romania, in a fertile valley full of orchards. The area is particularly well-known for its plums, with many different varieties, some used to produce the local brandy.
Mamaie Troy (mamaie is an affection term for grandmother in Romanian, rather like Nana in English) was a bit of a tomboy, the youngest in a family of mainly boys. Not only was she a daredevil, riding horses bareback, walking through the forest by herself, but she was also very bright. She only went to school for a few years, her father didn’t have the money or the conviction for education for girls, but she was able to read and write and enjoyed reading throughout her life. This was by no means common for women of her generation who grew up in the countryside. My grandmother on my father’s side, for instance, was illiterate and had to have the letters from my father read out to her by the village priest.
Troy married in the late 1930s, when she was 25-26, quite late for the standards of the time. (Perhaps her tomboyish nature put men off? That, and the lack of dowry.) She married the village shoemaker and had, in quick succession, two sons and a daughter (my mother). The second son died as an infant, but we only know him from a picture, she never talked about him.
Unfortunately, the war came and Romania was originally allied to the Germans. My grandfather got sent to the Russian front in 1940. He did come back at least once, as my mother vaguely remembers him making a pair of red shoes for her when she was about 2, and how proud she was of them. She was the only girl in the village who had shoes at the time.
Then the military dictatorship was replaced and Romania switched allegiance in 1944, but my grandfather never returned. He was officially missing in action, although soldiers who later returned from the war to the village said he had been taken to a Siberian labour camp during the period when the Romanians were fighting the Soviets.
Mamaie Troy waited for him all her life. She didn’t believe he was dead and thought that he might be released one day. Indeed, after Stalin’s death, in the 1950s, some POWs were released, but not him.
Although she was officially a war widow, her husband had died on the ‘wrong front’, and after Romania became Communist in 1947, she was never given any widow’s pension. She tried to keep the farm going single-handedly, with two small children to feed and clothe, but the land was forcibly nationalised and she had to work on the state farms instead.
She was left with just a small patch of land, enough for 3-4 sheep, a pig, chicken, a goat or two and a cow, a tiny orchard and a vegetable patch. She looked after all of these on top of a full day’s work at the state farm, and while looking after the two children.
She spoilt her animals rotten – I remember the pig would follow her everywhere like a dog, even resting at her feet when she was sewing or knitting. Yet she had no qualms whatsoever about slaughtering him for Christmas (traditionally, we have fresh pork for Christmas in Romania).
She had her share of marriage proposals, but she never wanted to bring in a ‘strange man’ into the house, to mistreat her children, potentially. Or so she said. Perhaps she was still hoping for my grandfather to return. Or maybe she’d had enough of men telling her what she could or couldn’t do.
The son (my uncle) was a bit of a troublemaker, so she was constantly having to sort him out, but my mother inherited Troy’s brains and was sent off to secondary school in a neighbouring town. (One good thing about Communism: education was free, and she was given a merit scholarship for her accommodation and food.) But that did mean that Mamaie Troy was left alone from the mid-1950s to tend to her land.
She never complained and never wanted to move to the city, even after my mother went to university, married a diplomat and lived abroad for a while and offered to take her in.
However, she did once visit us in Vienna, where we were living at the time, and struck up friendships with the elderly Austrian caretaker of our block of flats, although neither of them could speak each other’s language. She also learnt a lot about agriculture and vineyards in the area surrounding the Vienna woods – she was always open and curious about other cultures.
I spent many a happy summer at her house with my cousins. She made us work hard – the animals needed to be looked after, we had to bring buckets of water from the well which was 200 metres down the path from the house – but there were still moments when we could go wandering through the forest, eat fruit directly from the trees and read books in the summer breeze.
I distinctly remember reading Anna Karenina up in the cherry tree, stopping every now and then to pick some cherries and coming down with a stained mouth and T shirt. The conditions were primitive – the toilet was in the outhouse, there was no electricity or running water, but Mamaie Troy was very house-proud and was endlessly sweeping and tidying.
Alas, as she grew older, her eyesight started failing (glaucoma) and her limbs stiffening and she was no longer able to keep things clean. It was difficult to convince her to allow us to do a thorough clean though, so we started avoiding eating in her house.
She didn’t want to leave the countryside until she was bedridden. Then she had to move to Bucharest into my parents’ flat and allow herself to be looked after by my mother. It was very hard on them both.
My grandmother couldn’t read anymore, couldn’t even go to the toilet by herself without help, all she could do was lie in bed and listen to the radio. After a while, her hearing got worse as well, so all she wanted to do was talk, but my mother was not able to sit with her all day to listen. Her mind was sharp right until the end and she hated herself being so helpless. She would complain that ‘God had forgotten her on this earth.’
She was always radiant when she saw me, however, and worried about how I was settling in when I went to the UK to study. ‘Isn’t the weather horrible there, my love? Are they treating you well?’
She was the one who consoled my mother when I decided not to return to Romania after completing my studies. ‘She’s got to make her own way in life, she’s not going to hang around for us.’
She was so modern and indomitable in spirit, so ahead of her time. We had a very special bond and I was happy that she lived long enough to know that her great-grandchild was going to be born soon.
Goats bring sticks to the porch.
Her hair harbours leaves.
Brother Pig snouts at the damp patch
beneath the hearth
where she – once more – spilled the ciorba,
bread chunks softened for three remaining teeth.
She warms her swollen knuckles
against the earthen pot:
all she can hear are the mild-greedy snuffles
of her companion sheep.
Soot caresses the damp wool
of jumpers hung to dry.
Grey hair in its plait, she doesn’t care
if mulberries stain her thumbs or clothes,
fingers in knots, eyes milky clouds,
she no longer mops the muck she cannot see.
Go for a visit: she can still slash her way
through nonsense with a crackle of joints.
The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.