1. The Scholarship
My mother once told me that she knew she would end up being alone in her old age. Somebody had told her that, and although there was no reason to believe it, she did, with the same reverence she believed in prophecies, dreams, religion. This is her greatest fear, I thought then: to be alone.
I gave her the news on the phone. I had received a scholarship to study in the US.
I took a train from Timisoara to Arad to see her. She lived alone in our family home, a space big enough for four people. My father died four years earlier and my brother, now married, had moved to another new city.
I found her lying on the living room sofa, crying, surrounded by crumpled paper napkins. I pulled a footstool close to the couch, and I held her hand.
“I know you won’t come back.”
My mother was crying as if everyone had deserted her. Her parents were still alive, but she was already thinking about the day they wouldn’t be there for her anymore. Like all the mothers in my hometown who had daughters, she had expected me to get married, have children, stay close to home, and be near her in her final years.
“Of course, I’ll come back. It’s only for four years.”
I didn’t want to come back.
“But it’s so far away.”
The world was opening up before me, in a way it hadn’t before. I wanted to go as far away as I could, travel to countries I hoped were different from the ones I knew, become somebody else entirely.
When the day came, I rode a minibus filled with smugglers to Budapest, where I waited three hours for the airport to open before boarding a morning flight to Heathrow, and then to JFK, on my first transatlantic journey. Twenty-five hours later, I landed in Buffalo and found my father’s good suitcase on the carousel, the suitcase my mother gave me just before I left.
Distance made it easier for us to talk. I called her a few times a week.
“I had a dream about you last night,” she often said. She knew how to interpret her dreams: good things were about to happen, or the dream was a warning, or someone who had died, often my father, was trying to communicate a cryptic message. I tried to avoid these topics; I told her about school and boyfriends, about my friends and my advisor who didn’t get tenure. I called her when I moved in with the man who would become my husband. I told her about our marriage at City Hall, our vows read in a foreign language.
I kept my promise to go back every summer for the first three years, but then I stopped. My husband and I were moving, or I had to teach summer courses, or the trip was too expensive.
Ten years after I left home, I attended a conference about women and migration. One woman said:
“I left because I wanted emotional freedom.”
Of all the freedoms one came to seek in America, this was the most elusive.I pictured the Mother of Exiles welcoming the unruly daughters of the Old World. I suspected that this woman at the conference also had a mother, somewhere in a small town in Eastern Europe, whose greatest fear, that her daughter would leave her, had come true.
2. Malul Mureșului
I didn’t return home for a few years, but when I did, it felt miraculous to discover a world that hadn’t changed much. In my mother’s apartment, lace doilies, Orthodox icons, and fengshui knickknacks had multiplied and covered every available surface. She kept my father’s suits in the big armoire in their bedroom, old sandals and colorful leather handbags in the closet by the upstairs bathroom, my grandmother’s blankets in storage compartments under the beds.
At the end of the street, the tree-lined esplanade by the river Mureș awaited me, as always, with its parks and restaurants, its tennis and basketball courts. Meandering through the plain, the river made a turn, like a horseshoe, and the city followed. You could walk the promenade next to the river, pass the edges of seven neighborhoods, cross two bridges, and end up back where you started in less than two hours.
When I was a child, my parents used to take leisurely walks by the river on Sunday afternoons, after ice cream or profiteroles at Libelula, the café downtown. They would stop and chat with friends and co-workers. My mother would remind me to say hello and goodbye, sometimes grabbing my shoulder to prevent me from slouching, her steadying hand implying I wasn’t able to stand on my own.
When I went jogging by the river in the morning, as I used to do when I was a teenager, the circle seemed shorter; I could run it in less than an hour. In the afternoon, dressed up and wearing makeup, I went for a walk with an old girlfriend who still lived in town. I ran into a boyfriend from high school. He was married and had two boys and he asked me why I didn’t have children.
I went back again the next summer. I didn’t want to go the summer that followed, but then my nephew was born, and I wanted to see him. The summer after that I traveled home yet again, but I don’t remember why.
A few years later, back home again, I went for a walk by the river, alone. Most of my friends had moved away, and I hadn’t kept in touch with the ones who stayed. The river walk felt constricting, its circular route crowded with strangers. I still had a few days left of my vacation. I went back to my childhood home, sat at my desk, and read the news in English on my mother’s computer.
3. In Tune
I never liked sitcoms. I especially couldn’t stand the kind where the characters spent their time in the same house, sitting on the same couch, rehearsing the same old conflicts. Even Seinfeld felt claustrophobic at times. Why didn’t the characters leave? Why didn’t they just break up with their partners, friends, or parents?
Away from my mother, all our past conflicts seemed behind us, like rocky walls with sharp ledges we had scaled long ago. I called her every day, usually while driving to work.
“I was just thinking of you,” she always said. “We’re so in tune.”
She believed in bioenergy, in telepathy, in the soul’s ability to transcend distance.
It was easy to think that she was right. During the commute, barriers came crumbling down and we talked about memories, acquaintances from our hometown, my difficulties finding a full-time job, politics.
One day, when the connection was particularly good, she asked whether I was in Romania.
“No, of course not, I’m on my way to work.”
“I thought you were here and that you wanted to surprise me.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Because maybe it would be easier for you to get a job if you were in Europe. Alina—you know who I’m talking about, Marta’s daughter—just got a job at a big company in London. It’s much closer. She can come home for the holidays.”
Maybe it was the irrational hope that I would come to the country unannounced and surprise her, as if I didn’t buy my plane tickets months in advance. Or maybe it was the old tired trope of more successful and deserving children, computer programmers and economists, who had great jobs in places where I wanted to travel one day.
“I’m not moving back, do you understand? We’re okay here. And guess what? I’m glad I left. I’m not coming back to Romania. I don’t want to talk about this ever again.”
I regretted saying this. Maybe she needed the hope, no matter how irrational, that I would come back one day.
A few weeks later, she asked me:
“Can I organize your desk? It’s just your old notebooks from college anyway.”
I hesitated, but then I gave in. She took pleasure in cleaning up the house. Besides, she was probably right and very likely there was nothing significant in my desk, just some old class notes.
The next summer, I was back at my mother’s place again, sitting at my desk, looking for an old fountain pen. I found it, as I expected, in a painted ceramic cup I had brought home from a high school trip. Then I opened the large desk compartment where, ever since high school, I had stored notebooks, papers, files, old ink bottles.
Instead, I found neatly folded towels.
“What happened?” I asked my mother.
“You told me I could clean up your desk.”
I suddenly remembered my class notes from a Latin course I took in my sophomore year and the Comp Lit class taught by a professor who had died. What else had been there?
How could anybody who knew me throw out my papers? I assumed they were safe. Looking at the neatly folded towels, I missed the foot-tall pile of old papers and files, the feeling that I could explore that space, like a cavern, and find something unexpected.
Back in the States, I was angry for months, invoking all our misunderstandings of the past. I rarely called her, afraid to start an argument.
Then, slowly, we started talking again. Maybe I needed her more than I thought. Maybe it had been, indeed, an honest misunderstanding, and she simply wanted more space. My desk was the only spot left in her home that needed cleaning and organizing, the only space that still belonged to me.
One morning, not in a dream but on the edge of wakefulness, I saw her taking old papers, notebooks, files, and ink bottles to the garbage bin. It was as if I was moving with her through the space I knew so well. I sensed the weight she carried. I knew the expression on her face, pained but determined. She was thinking:
“You left, but I am still here.”