Through the Fog of Time

My childhood creek
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2015
As we age, humans tend to mellow out and nothing that had previously been that important matters anymore in the grand scheme of things. All struggles, frustrations, successes, victories, defeats, losses, and gains, dissipate in the fog of time. Regrets and memories of opportunities lost, of physical pain, of mental anguish and frustration diminish, replaced by arthritis, loneliness, and loss of loved ones. The struggle is still there for billions of others, very real and painful, but it seems almost irrelevant to us.
Romanians just lost their King Michael to old age, very old age, and their last hope that a monarchy might somehow right all the wrongs that had plagued the country politically was dashed and died with him. There won’t be another king. Some mourned him, most did not even know he existed nor cared. Like here, these citizens are part of the #resist movement yet they have no idea what they are resisting.
Yesterday I met one of my first cousins I adore (I have 27) and his lovely daughter Elena for lunch in a town nearby in Virginia. It was surreal. If you had told me 39 years ago that someday in the future, in a state far away, thousands of miles away from my former home in Romania, I would see one of my first cousins again, I would have been extremely incredulous and would have laughed, a physical impossibility.
Yet here we were, reminiscing about our childhood, how fast time flew, how my aunt passed away a week after a severe cough had plagued her for months, and the second stroke that killed my uncle while gardening. We compressed almost four decades of life, weddings, baptisms, burials, disputes, schools, professions, and family into two hours, surrounded by spouses, children, and grandchildren. Good food and beloved company are always relaxing.
He asked me about retirement, teaching, accomplishments, life in America, and it almost seemed like we were talking about someone else. What teaching accomplishments? It was just a job that paid me well. No teacher of the year for me and certainly no thanks for a job well done. I was not a Democrat, nor a communist, how could I possibly succeed in education and thrive? Mediocrity and collectivist politics ruled around me in academia. My cousin was shocked.
I told him about all the communists in education in America and he was almost incredulous. How could any rational human being possibly think that a Marxist ideology that killed 100 million people around the world can even remotely be considered in this beautiful country built on free markets, not oppression and tyranny?
My cousin had to work in difficult places around the world in order to bring home enough cash to build a beautiful villa for his family. Two of his three beautiful daughters moved to America, just like I did, in order to find freedom and opportunity for success that had been denied to many still in Romania, twenty-eight years after the “fall” of communism. They joined the five million other Romanians who immigrated around the globe in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
We talked about adjustment and assimilation, learning the language, becoming an American citizen and losing my Romanian citizenship, how it was so much harder for an older person to learn a new language and how little my mom learned in 37 years. Cousin Ionel learned Russian in school and found it much easier to learn and speak than the English language, even with the Cyrillic alphabet. Russian is very phonetic, it is pronounced the same way it is written, no wild variations as in the English language, he added.
We reminisced about fishing and swimming in the crystal clear river in his village, a river now so shallow that it looks more like a creek. The landscape was more verdant as more trees grew around it, seeded by the blowing wind. A nicely paved rural road now runs nearby, no more gravel roads, picking up dust every time the bus drove through.
Now every home has a nice car, food on the table, no lines, and a well-stocked country store, owned by his brother. The store stocks fresh meat and vegetables, frozen food, fresh bread, wine, sugar, cooking oil, flour, and anything a cook might need. There is even a gas pump on the side of the road. No gas station around it, just the pump. Bringing free markets to Romania changed the pastoral and isolated life for so many.
We talked about growing up. Cousin Ionel had three brothers and one sister. At meal time there was never enough to eat, it was a free-for-all. My aunt placed a large bowl of food in the middle of the table and the meal began after a very brief mandatory prayer, no portion sizes, whoever ate the fastest, got more to eat first. Poor Gigi, the runt of the family, was always left behind and hungrier than the rest. Even so, there was still not enough to nourish five growing children, we were still hungry and thin when we finished a meal, he said. I used to watch them eat so fast, wondering why my aunt did not give them each equal portions. As an only child, I only had to share food with my mom and dad. We were always hungry ourselves but I did not have to fight siblings at mealtime.
I looked at our table laden with food which we did not prepare but we could afford to pay someone else to prepare for us. Ionel and I never saw restaurant food when we were children and young adults. If it did not come from mom’s or grandma’s kitchen, we went hungry. Later in life, as we gained freedom of movement and our financial fortunes improved, we were able to taste our first restaurant meals and foods we’ve never known existed. Ionel is so cosmopolitan when compared to most people that he will eat any food put in front of him. He traveled around the globe through various jobs and sampled many cuisines and so did I.
It was sad to see him go, to say good-bye, almost as surreal as getting on a plane and finding yourself on the other side of the globe in mere hours. We were together for brief and happy moments, found our common roots, reminisced, but then we were lost again in the fog of time. A few photographs were the only proof that we celebrated today the memories from another life, far away from our humble beginnings.

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