In the summer of 2010, I wrote for the first time about my family. The education I received at Vanderbilt University made me view my origins differently. Without being blinded by the stigmatized “Gypsy identity,” I could finally see how rich my roots were! The study trip to Guatemala also made me realize that I have so many reasons to value my family. I started writing this article in the United States, continued it on the airplane, and finished it when I arrived in Romania for my summer holiday. Before I had a chance to recover from jet lag, the article was shared by a few more websites and I received many encouraging comments. It is perhaps the most personal piece I have ever written.
I could not believe what I was hearing; I did not know how to react. I had always lived with the feeling that I came from a modest family, but suddenly, I discovered that I was a relative of one of the richest men in the world and that my roots are among the finest. The earth has spinned off its axis. Who would have thought? But let me calm down and take it from the beginning….
I remember my grandfather, who could forge metal. When I was a kid, he let me work the bellows, blowing air into the fire until it became hot and the metal glowed, ready to model. I wondered at how a piece of iron could take the form of a horseshoe, as the hard material began to flow and turn. He had his own blacksmith’s ’shop’ where he worked some days from morning till night. People were always calling to him from the gate, trying to get an appointment to have their horses shod. He kept an agenda to plan his meetings, often weeks in advance. Due to the professionalism of his work, he gained the respect of the locals. Through his craft, he made his fortune, bought land and built homes and gave his children weddings. Thrifty by nature, when he was not working in his trade, he was tending the garden or dealing with the animals; he loved to manage resources (money, grain, etc.). He often told me how lucky we were and how protected we were against the many evils that happen in the world, and he did not forget to remind me how lucky we were that we were so close to the train station, just a fling from the heartbeat of the city. When he was in a good mood and had more time (especially in winter) he would tell me stories (his favorites were Youth without Old Age and Life without Death); he spoke about Michael the Brave and Stephen the Great, reciting poems to me. People knew him as Manica The Gypsy, the smith from the edge of the village.
I am thinking about my grandmother. When, as a child, I wanted to take flowers from her gardens, she would rather give me money to buy them from the market because she considered it a pity to take them away from there. When she was young, she would take the young village children to the sea to do ‘mud treatments’. Then, for more than 20 years, she escorted people from the village who had health problems to Bucharest (on the same train my grandfather referred to proudly) to be treated by her lifelong friend, ‘Doctor Stefaneasca’. I grew up hearing her talk about people who got healed, had successful operations, the daughter of I-don’t-know-whom who recovered by I-don’t-know-what treatment. When I got sick, she took me with her to Bucharest. I was glad to see the capital, with its subways and ‘moving stairs.’ Dr. Stefanescu made me tea with biscuits, and she was very nice to me when we spoke, not to mention that she always gave me the most beautiful toys and clothes from her daughters, who had outgrown them. I grew up wearing designer foreign jeans and had a black doll, which I am not sure you could have purchased in Romania. I always thought that the lady doctor appreciated my grandmother for bringing her eggs, milk and chicken from the countryside, but later I discovered that she appreciated my grandmother so much because she was a very smart woman who, in another environment with more opportunities, would certainly have had a successful career. Maybe that’s why my grandmother always encouraged me to study hard and to be as much as I could be. It’s true that she is the same person who told me to find a man even smarter and stronger than me (please address any complaints to my grandmother :p). People know her as Ioana from Balteni, the wife of Manica the Smith.
My dad used to joke when I was a kid… he would tell me that I’d better not eat dark bread or chocolate because I might bite my hand, but I would pretend that I didn’t understand what he was saying :). He often advised me to associate with people smarter than me who I could learn from, rather than to make myself feel good by being the smartest in the middle of a bunch of ’stupid’ people. He also warned me not to be attracted to the ’stuff’ I see in people’s houses, and not to steal no matter how much I like what they have; he would tell me not to be tempted by anything, not even if the people I meet have a ‘golden bridge’ in front of their house. He always said to me that he would provide for me, no matter how much it costed him to do it. Sometimes he used to tell me that he would sell the house if he needed to just to give me everything I needed. He said this often enough that I was convinced. I was made to feel certain that I would have enough resources, regardless of the situation. Words were followed by actions. In my last year of high school, while still living in Slatina, I was commuting very often to Bucharest for private lessons with an university professor; a very big part of my family income was used on my education. But my father never told me that it was not possible to have access to education. So, I grew up without too many limits and with the feeling that anything is possible. My father’s behavior could easily be labeled by some as irresponsible, unthinking or at least unrealistic. No matter how difficult the situation would have been, he always had an incredible faith that we would manage the situation for the best. People know him as a welder at the aluminum factory.
My mother is, above all, a beautiful and elegant woman. And this is not only my opinion. When she was a teenager, it was proposed to her to be a fashion model, she found the offer confusing and not knowing what to expect, she refused. She gave birth to me when she was only 17 years old. When I was that age I married my doll to the puppy. I was given a long childhood (perhaps to compensate for her own too) where I received great care; she always took care of everything, while I read and wrote from morning till night. I learned from my mother what correctness and equality are. I used to spend the summer in my grandparents village and she used to visit almost daily from the city (by now you know how). When she brought sweets, if my cousin happened to be there she divided them equally, or even gave her more, a behavior different from what I have seen in most other mothers. She also encouraged my curiosity and my need to be modern and fashionable, bringing me teen magazines like Bravo or Hello when she visited me in the countryside on my holidays. Her delicate presence didn’t prevent her from insisting we move to the city when I was only a few years old or from transforming into a lioness to persuade the principal of the school to move me to a better class. In all of these things, if there was only one characteristic to define my mother it would be her capacity to take care of others and the public good. People know her as Geta, the wife of Vica, and the building cleaner.
My brother is a little smaller than me. During his first grade, he ‘tortured’ me and my mum by saying ’sailom’ or ’sailon’ instead of ’sailor’ . Once, while both of us were still studying in Slatina, we went on a trip on the Olt Valley. The trip had an optional cruise on the Danube River. I wanted to go but I didn’t have enough money. When he saw that, my brother gave me his pocket money. I will never forget his gesture made with an open heart. We grew and we followed different development paths. He went to vocational school and then went to work in an aluminum factory. We have not seen each other too often in recent years, since I came to Bucharest and then went to the the States. But whenever we meet, he seems to get taller and more handsome. Last time we talked, he spoke with so much wisdom. I was always so proud of him, but I most admire him as he has returned to school. I cannot wait to talk to him and see how school goes for him. My brother’s name is Emil.
As a kid I found it hard to accept that my relatives were a smith, a welder and a building cleaner. More than that I did not want to accept at all that I am a Roma/gypsy. I wished that my mother was at least a secretary and my father at least had a lighter skin tone. I would have done anything to keep my grand-grandmother on my mother’s side not to ask me anything when she was selling seeds in front of school, or at least to keep my colleagues from figuring out that she is my relative. I isolated myself from my family, finding myself (or my peace) in my story books, dreaming for hours of having adoptive parents. I imagined places I wanted to visit, the things I would have liked to experience and how much I would have had the chance to learn.
Years passed, and I got to have adoptive parents, to travel to and see beautiful places, to be accepted in families with royal blood and noble names. Some fragments of my life are more beautiful or adventurous than movie scenes and similar to the most beautiful stories. I started to gain access to the kind of knowledge I had always wanted. And you see, sometimes education does not make you any smarter or more wise…it only changes your perception. When I learned about economic development I realized that my grandfather could have had had a brilliant career at the World Bank, my grandmother has always been a social worker who helped her community in a natural and spontaneous way (and, I am so thankful, provided me access to the best doctors in the country). When I was in Guatemala, I understood how much what my father taught me mattered and that my start in life was full of ambitions and encouragement. Understanding ‘The Culture of Serving Others’ in the U.S. I was never more proud of my mother and her occupation. When I read about the lack of interest of students to continue their studies, I sincerely admire my brother for his motivation to complete high school.
While it is far from being perfect, my family is guided by strong principles and values, a desire to be respected and integrated into society. They made me feel safe, but more important than anything … they gave me freedom to choose and support in whatever I wanted to do. I could tell them that I want to study or to be a salesperson in a shop; as long as I was happy for them it was fine. Happy with what I am doing, they have never pushed me to take a career that will bring me lot of money, or to do something that they thought would be better for me. When I failed my final exam at the undergraduate level, they never judged me or accused me of breaching their trust. You would be crazy not to appreciate something like this, blind or brainwashed by a society without values.
What a crazy world we live in if a child refused to recognize her parents because of race, social standing or material wealth! But things have changed now in the only place where change must happen… in my head; now I cannot imagine a better family. As a consequence, I don’t compromise myself or have to make an effort to ‘accept’ them as they are… I have finally opened my eyes and really see them: extremely rich and valuable people, a treasure not take your eyes off of (though it is not shiny), but it conquers your soul, it gives you wings and guides you to development.
Looking at my genealogical tree, following the values of my family, who do you imagine I discovered to be my relative? Andrew Carnegie, a world famed philanthropist and one of the richest men in the world. He believed ‘a man that dies rich dies in disgrace’, therefore he donated his ‘tons of money’ for philanthropic purposes, arguing that what he left to his family was its principles and values, which is sufficient for future generations to restore their material wealth. I admit that after I found out this, Andrew Carnegie became my favorite uncle!
With such relatives and realizing that I have such a rich dowry, I can only do my best to get up to the standards ‘imposed’ by my family.