Ana and I picked up nine year old Stefan from school one October day, a gorgeous Indian summer day before the winter chill. A musical prodigy, little Stefan is a genius with a penchant for Italian food. Half a block from the art school is a restaurant called Da Vinci’s, always bustling with patrons dining under the grape vine pergola.
I was happy to see so many people out to lunch, able to afford food and particularly restaurant food, previously considered a luxury under communism that only the ruling elite could afford and felt entitled to have and enjoy.
Adjacent to Da Vinci’s was an old stately mansion in a terrible state of disrepair. A tall fence covered in vines obscured the full view to the house. I peered through the wooden slats that had separated here and there where the nails broke or the wood decayed. The gate opened with a groan and I stepped inside the yard. Someone forgot to lock the gate. There was neither a trespassing warning nor any sign of habitation. The formerly tended front garden was overcome with tall weeds, growing from the most unlikely places – like the many cracks of the cement garden path.
I walked to the front door and rang the massive lion head door knocker. It made a hollow sound. I waited for a few minutes but nobody answered. I looked through a window – the house was empty and had been empty for quite some time.
The mansion was oozing rust from everywhere but especially the wrought iron front foyer bump-out. The stained glass windows were still beautiful, just as I remembered them. I used to count the squares and name the colors to pass the time. The walls were cracked and peeling and the fancy silk wall paper hung desolate onto the floor stained from water leaks. The Bohemian crystal chandelier was still hanging in the dining room, missing bulbs and electricity. The heavy rosewood furniture with strange carvings was gone. The parquet discolorations bore witness to the place where they stood. Did the owners remove them? Were they sold at auction? Did the communists apparatchiks confiscate them in the 1980s and moved them to their villas?
Aunt Ecaterina’s bedroom bay window that I admired was missing the heavy curtains. Mom used to open them to let fresh air in. Miraculously the dingy glass was not broken. I sat on a pillow in the bay window many Sundays checking out the lush rose garden, now a jungle mess of weeds, or staring mesmerized at the rain. Mom and aunt Ecaterina talked in hushed tones and she cried a lot.
She always wore her finest housecoat and slippers made of rich silk brocade. I did not understand at the time what secrets they shared, why we had to walk so much to her home every weekend. It was a trek I dreaded but I was not old enough to stay home alone.
Her husband had been arrested because he was bourgeois. It must have been a terrible crime, I thought at the time. I asked Grandma several times why her youngest brother was in prison but she always avoided my question and turned her eyes away, waving her hand in the air.
Years later I understood. Grandma’s brother had acquired too much land and a nice home and that was a crime in the new communist regime. He had worked very hard to build a successful store from scratch, built the mansion, bought some land, got married, and had a son whom he sent to the best schools to become a lawyer.
Class envy and re-distribution of wealth sent him to prison for seven years. His wife was devastated! The communist regime confiscated all the land, the store, the bank accounts, and the furnishings. They left Ecaterina’s ornate bed. She became so depressed; she seldom got out of her matrimonial bed. Mom tried to cheer her up with our weekend visits. I only looked forward to her sour cherry preserves on rye bread. It was a real treat.
Nobody knows how uncle Pavel survived seven years in jail – it certainly was not a walk in the park being beaten daily and eating potato soup and bread. He died several years after having served the full sentence. Aunt Ecaterina never recovered from her depression. Not only did she have to suffer the indignity of losing everything, including the love and comfort of her husband, the communist party moved two families of strangers into her home. Nine more people made the large house look suddenly small and crowded. She had to share the kitchen, the hallways, and bathrooms with total strangers. She lived long enough to see her only adult son succumb to lung cancer. I wonder if the grandchildren inherited the mansion and did not have the money to remodel.
It was bittersweet, stepping back in time 40 some years, remembering the misery and abuse of communism. I walked back into the street and to the restaurant. By now, Ana and Stefan had arrived and were looking for me. I glanced back one more time at the rusty tin roof – the sun was shining but the house looked forlorn and leaning.
I smiled when Stefan gave me a hug and threw his back pack on the ground. The day was going to be all right, the fog of the past dissipated. Unpleasant memories still hound me, triggered by unusual circumstances. I went back to Romania to revisit my past but the unplanned encounters with the ghosts of communism were still painful.