Sunday November 1st, 2008, Zalău, Sălaj County. LUCIA POPA, a 47-year-old history high school teacher, born in a village nearby Zalău.
Her living room. On walls her paintings. Colorful flower bouquets, rustic landscapes, a nude female dancer. LUCIA has a mane of curly hair. She is svelte, tall, a beautiful woman. She lounges on a sofa. Her voice is quiet and dreamy.
LUCIA: There isn’t a single woman living on our lane that doesn’t drink. A few of them are downright alcoholics. In the morning when I arrive in the garden, around 7:30, 8 of course they’re still sleeping. Only later on they show up at my fence, craning their necks, looking about, marveling, “Oh, what a wonder of a garden you have! Oh, what a rich soil! In ours nothing grows. We don’t even bother ourselves with planting and weeding. What for?! They sell such beautiful tomatoes and cucumbers at the grocery! And cheap!” If you look in their gardens it’s just weeds and mess, ‘cause they “have no time for it.” Their soil is as fertile as ours, being on the banks of the same river.
Let me tell you something about auntie Viorica. Auntie Viorica was a very hardworking woman. She married when she was about 20. She didn’t have children until she was about 30. Her husband was such a good-natured man. Then they had two boys. When her sons grew up a bit, she went to work in the apple orchard at the State Farm. There, “Let’s have a quick pălincă/plum brandy shot!” A shot today, a shot tomorrow, so that within the seven, eight years she worked in the orchard, auntie Viorica became an alcoholic. She, who was part of everything that happened in the lane—if someone baked a cake, auntie Viorica was certainly invited to give her opinion! She was an expert in baking! If someone painted their house, auntie Viorica was certainly invited to give her opinion about whether the colors worked well together, since she was an expert in this issue too! If someone bought furniture, auntie Viorica, the expert, had the last word in this matter too—but, as I told you, in eight years auntie Viorica turned into a coate-goale/a raggedy beggar. Her life was tattered. She had nothing in her garden anymore. She’d work for the villagers for a glass of pălincă. Even today at 64, though she can barely shuffle her feet—when it comes to drinking, she can move them fast enough to humiliate herself for a glass of pălincă from her neighbor who has an orchard, and who exploits the local alcoholics as much as he can. He gives them a glass of pălincă, and after that he makes them work as much as they can between two binges.
So auntie Viorica is in deep trouble. She lives with her son, who beats her up, curses her because no one can rely on her anymore. She never bothers to cook for him or herself, so since he got married three, four years ago, he moved auntie Viorica into the abandoned summer kitchen and that’s where she lives.
Truly, her life is upside down.
Her legs are swollen, she’s become a human wreck. Everybody thinks she’s very fat, but actually, she’s very ill. I think she has cirrhosis. Also her husband hanged himself because of alcohol, 12 years ago, same year when I was married. He had psychological problems. A heavy drinker too, an alcoholic. I believe in a rare moment of clarity he saw his powerlessness, and felt that life wasn’t worth living. He committed suicide.
Auntie Viorica’s other son married in the neighboring village. He has plenty of chances to become an alcoholic too. However, he has a wife that keeps a tight rein on him. He’s just a son-in-law there. That moderates him a bit.
Then there is auntie Mărie at the end of the lane. She also had a very, very interesting life. She was an only child, she got married, had three children. Her husband was a builder. He built the majority of the houses on this lane, a very hardworking man. In the end, he had three houses on his property, one for each child. But being a builder, people treated him to food and drink, so in the end he became an alcoholic. In old age, also because of the alcohol, his hands started to tremble. At one point, he went off his rocker and cut off his testicles. They saved his life, but he became demented, dying in his madness. He also had some incurable illness. Now auntie Mărie, at age 70, lives with a 40-year-old Gypsy man. His family moved in with her, all kind of little Gypsy boys hang out in her yard.
Her children had been driven to despair.
This, I believe, is an escape from an impossible life. Her favorite son died when he was 34 years old, leaving behind four children. He had throat cancer. He had a throat tumor since he was nine years old. They operated 32 times over the years. They kept scraping it off, carving it out. In the end they had to cut out his esophagus. He couldn’t talk, had a tube in his throat, but, since he was still growing, it healed. So as an adolescent and a young man, he was relatively okay, until he turned 34. The tumor came back in his throat, it metastasized, and he died. That year was so dramatic. He came home to die, his name was Vasilică, he refused to see anybody.
Some say a curse was put on this boy, Vasilică, who died of cancer. He might have been conceived with a lover whose wife found out about it and cursed the child. This boy’s life was overwhelmed by sickness and suffering.
What’s left of auntie Mărie’s life ended then. She had no direction. Truly, she’s throwing away her life. She has a very large orchard, more than a hundred apple trees, but her only concern is to make pălincă. Then she gathers the village drunks at her house. They drink, sing, dance. Merriment! Until there’s nothing left to drink. After that, she knocks at doors to borrow money. In her good days she had a wealthy homestead. She was an only child, she inherited land, too. She was wealthy. She came from a family of well-to-do people. But she’s degraded herself. Always in debt.
Her daughter married when she was only 15, right after eighth grade. She also had a hard life. She married a man 18 years older who was also an alcoholic.
As if they are cursed.
Her granddaughter also hooked up with a man 15 years older, almost the same age as her mother. She graduated from high school and now lives in France.
Are there any other alcoholics on our lane? Oh, there’s auntie Viorica, a different Viorica! That one also had such an interesting life. She was from a rich family. She got married very young, at 14. You could say with the man of her dreams, but at a certain point her husband went to work for the collective farm. He became an important man in the village, especially during Ceauşescu’s time when everything was in short supply. He started to neglect her. Little by little she took refuge in alcohol. Then her husband died of cancer when he was 50. She, being alone, sank deeper in her vice. Her younger daughter died in childbirth when she was having her second baby. After that, auntie Viorica took even harder to alcohol. Then she got leukemia and died two years ago.
Her house is empty.
On our lane are, how many? four deserted houses, almost the entire lane will disappear. Some call it Dead End Lane. There are, how many, ten houses?!... The first house on the left corner, the family died 10, 15 years ago. The daughter lives in Oradea. She comes from time to time. The wealthiest people in the village, they have a lot of land but they don’t take care of it. They don’t have the machinery to work the land, and they’re not healthy people.
Then in the second house on the left lives a family with three children. One isn’t married, another was married twice, and the youngest, a daughter whose husband died. He hanged himself, they say, also because of a curse.
Auntie Viorica’s house is deserted.
Auntie Rujica’s is also empty.
Her family, too, was such an interesting family, another tragic story.
She was the only daughter in a wealthy family. They bought land. Her grandfather lived 13 years in America at the turn of the 20th century when very many men from our village went to make their fortunes in America. She had a daughter from her first marriage. She didn’t get along with her husband, she got divorced, and got a younger one.
They lived at her parents, in a very big house. In the old times the village had the Sunday dances in their yard, being very large and in the middle of the village. The old parents drank a lot. Her husband, a tractor driver, had the habit of drinking too. Auntie Rujica also loved drinking. In her youth, she bought medicinal herbs, bought scrap iron cheap from the Gypsies and sold it in town at a large profit.
She had three children. Her daughter work in the tire factory where she married an engineer. Oh, my God, what a great catch! Out of this world! This was during Ceauşescu’s time, when any degree was more impressive than wealth. Within two years it was revealed the man had schizophrenia. She lived with his parents, who helped her. Talia was the daughter’s name. The marriage lasted because his parents loved her. They all hid his handicap. Periodically he goes to treatment to the Zalău psychiatric hospital. She has a very successful daughter, a student in Cluj.
Auntie Rujica’s older child, Emil, also fell into drinking. He is a renowned tarogato player on the wedding circuit. He has two children, one works in Italy.
The youngest child was a boy, the family darling. Everybody spoiled him. The first time he got plastered was when he was 10 years old, that’s what he told me. He became a huge alcoholic. He died at the age of 32.
Auntie Rujica was left alone in the house for her last six years of life. She hired a woman to take care of her, but in her last years the woman locked her in the house with a padlock, afraid that the Gypsies would break in. You couldn’t go to see her, bring her something, or talk a bit. She couldn’t get out of bed. The woman came to feed her in the morning, washed her, came back at lunch and in the evening, but didn’t stay with her in the house. This is how auntie Rujica lived her days, for the last two, three years of suffering. She left behind a beautiful house, large, a spacious yard, annexes, livestock, farm implements. They had a beautiful garden, full of fruit trees.
The family I want to tell you about next is a mixed family, Hungarians and Romanians. The man was named Şandor, the woman was called Iştinica. Şandor was married before; he had a son from the first marriage. His first wife, Ilona, went crazy and wandered about the village. She was a laughing stock. In the end she died. He married a younger woman. There was a 20-year age difference. They say she married him solely because he was a tradesman. He was the village shoemaker. He had his own workshop.
With the young wife he had another son, Arpi.
Şandor drank. An image stayed with me, of his heap of shoes he just never got to repair, even after 10, 15, 20 years.
That’s how it was then, you had your shoes repaired, year after year, not like now, That’s it! Throw them away, they’re worn out! Buy new ones! People bought two, three pairs of boots in a lifetime and a pair of shoes. Asidefrom that, they walked barefoot, or clothe shoes, or even with opinci/homemade sandals. They still wore opinci whe I was a child. Uncle Şandor had some in that broken shoe pile.
And he’d sit about, fix a shoe, then go to the pub, then come back. If someone stopped by to pick up their shoes, he’d hurry to finish their footwear, they’d give him a quart of pălincă, uncle Şandor would drink it, then take a nap, wake up, then again work. But he was always very relaxed, always joking. He was such a droll man. He never quarreled with auntie Iştinica. She always, taca-taca-tac, ran her mouth at him, but he’d only smile slyly under his white moustache, and never argued, just ignored her.
In the same yard, in another wing of their house, lived one of his sisters, auntie Cătiţa, who’d had a daughter out of wedlock. Auntie Cătiţa had an exquisite gift for storytelling. She’d come to our place all the time in the winter and she’d tell stories about adventures in her family, the Jews and Hungarians in their family. Carol, Ilonca, Vilma, Balaj. Ever since these names have stayed in my mind. What was interesting was that Cătiţa was at loggerheads with Iştinica, Şandor’s wife, but she adored Gyula, Şandor’s son from his first wife, Ilona, who went mad. Auntie Cătiţa all the time threw a wrench in Iştinica’s works.
When Gyula got married, Şandor and Iştinica tried to help him build a house, but Gyula felt his father should have helped him much more. It is said that out of spite Gyula came one night to take revenge on his father and his new wife. He poured fuel oil in two barrels of fermenting plums and ruined them. They couldn’t make pălincă/plum brandy out of it anymore, which was a big loss, homemade pălincă being quite expensive then.
Iştinica went to the priest who put the anathema on those who did this evil to them. The priest asked her to fast so that the anathema would work. Immediately Gyula was between life and death. Cătiţa went to Iştinica and told her to stop the anathema fasting because Gyula was dying and he confessed that he was the one who had thrown fuel oil in the fermenting plum vats. Iştinica didn’t stop at all, and Cătiţa went to the priest and begged him to break the curse. The priest said to give Gyula something cooked by Iştinica’s hand otherwise he’d die in a few days. And indeed he ate a slice of bread baked by Iştinica and his pains and the terrible illness that almost pushed him to dementia vanished on the spot. They said while he was driven mad he’d hit his head on the walls, he couldn’t bear it anymore, so possessed by evil was he, everything in his body was aching, and death was close.
But what happened next, was that Cătiţa stopped being in cahoots with Gyula against Iştinica, when another of their sisters, Vilma, who didn’t have children, died. Of course, her siblings, Şandor and Cătiţa, and their successors, were the inheritors, Gyula, as nephew, being one of the successors. Well, Gyula went to the courthouse, and he almost got Cătiţa off the inheritors’ list, though she was the sibling of the deceased, and under the law first the siblings, and only secondarily do nephews inherit.
The falling-out happened. Cătiţa went on her own to the courthouse and gave all her share to Iştinica and Arpi—Iştinica’s son with Şandor—with the provision that they’d take care of her till death. So it was an abrupt switch from being archenemies to this. A total turn around.
In the end all of them died. Arpi inherited everything, a large plum orchard, almost 1,000 plum trees. He brews pălincă, he barely knows how much he makes. He works very hard, has two children in college, his wife drinks, and lately I’ve seen him quite tipsy and cheery too. I even told him, “Be careful Arpi, better not turn into a wastrel! It looks like you’re licking your fingers while eating away your own cake. Watch out! You don’t want to end up like your father and the others on this lane.”
You’d think they’d ask themselves why there are so many drunks around here, but they don’t, because people always drank pălincă in our village.
It’s a region with many plum trees, but in the old times they worked much harder for their daily bread. They’d eat slană/uncooked bacon, cured and smoked, with sheep cheese, and of course, it needed to be diluted with pălincă a bit. Lately with the social assistance and pensions and all that, they don’t need to work anymore and all they do is drink.
On the day that the pensions arrive, all is wonderful! Viorica rushes, Mărie rushes, all of them rush to the pub to pay their debt, their entire pension. The next day they again put their drinks on the tab until the pension check comes in again. Of course the woman who runs the pub knows how much is their pension check. When their debt gets close to that amount, they don’t get drinks anymore. So then, they go and help other villagers out for an hour, or two, as much as they are able to, for drinks. They don’t need to drink much to get intoxicated, since their system is already saturated with alcohol.
Now, I should say a few things about my father too. My father had a sister who also died of alcoholism. When she was 46 years old, she fell down from the barn attic. She didn’t dare sleep in the house anymore when she was drunk; she’d hide in the barn attic and sleep in the hay. Being drunk, one night she fell from the attic and they found her dead on the barn floor.
My father too died of alcohol. We found him after he had fallen down on the cellar stairs.
After he retired, he’d go to the pub in the morning, get drunk, come back, sleep three, four hours, go back to the pub, and get drunk again. This was his life, a nightmare. Lately he had various health problems, everything pained him. His prostate, his liver. He had cirrhosis. The vice of alcohol, at least for a moment, stopped his pain. He escaped reality. He saw he was old and sick and gave up fighting.
In his youth, the reason he started to drink was that they drank in his family. Later he became the collective farm president, and whenever he went on an inspection, of course the workers wanted to smooth things out. Everybody treated him to food and drink, “Here, have a shot of pălincă, Mister President! Just one glass! Two! One more, please!” and slowly he turned into an alcoholic. Then he worked in a factory, for the last 14 years. He wouldn’t drink on the job, but first thing when he arrived home he’d drink a shot, and by five in the afternoon he was slammed. He died in 2002 at 73, but utterly degraded.
I don’t have words to describe it.
I’d scold him, I’d reason with him, “Slow down! Let me take you to a doctor.” He’d say, “No. The doctor doesn’t have a cure for me. I’m about to die. I’m old, I’m ill, this is my fate. I have no reason to stop drinking.”
He’d do stupid things. He’d come from the pub, he’d fall, often hurting himself, he never had money…
But usually when we’d argue, he’d say he didn’t drink. “What?! Are you saying I’m drunk?” Though he was drunk, or on his way, he wouldn’t admit it. “What? Do I drink?! Am I a drunk?! I haven’t drunk one single drop!”
When he didn’t drink, he was very ill tempered, on edge. The pub was closed, or he ran out of money or his credit was used up. He’d come home and declare that’s it, he wouldn’t drink anymore, that he was testing his will, but soon he’d give in.
He had an accident, in ’97, when we killed our pig for Christmas. He was drunk and fell hitting his head on the brim of the barrel where we’d put the uncooked bacon and bones in brine. He had a wound on the top of his head, and the doctor said he was very lucky to be alive, so he got scared.
He was in the hospital for a long time and as he recovered he went thru alcohol withdrawal. He was shaking. I told him, “Look, father, you haven’t drunk in a month. You shouldn’t drink anymore.” But when he got out he started it again.
The last time, he broke his leg while he was coming out of the village hall. He was bed ridden for six months and I was under the impression that he wasn’t going ti drink anymore, but he started it again.
He had no motivation, no direction, no meaning in his life.