The Endearing Things I Didn't Know About My Father

In the summer of 2010 I interviewed my mom about bygone times. [For now it's posted in Romanian, if interested, click here.] It went well, though she was rather annoyed by my oral history archiving enterprises. Hers was a generation of ‘Keep your private life private! Hold your tongue! Watch your mouth.’
To my surprise, my father offered to tell me about his life too. My father never was a chatty person. I wrote about my father along the years, but always in the context of how bad his heavy drinking impacted on my life, and how glad I was that now in old age his ailments stopped him from drinking.
My son knows my father only as a small child, and he has fond memories of him. He also had to hear often my tirades against his grandpa’s drinking, which I think distorts our family history. So in preparation for Father’s Day Special Issue, since I published my mother’s stories on Mother’s Day Special Issue, I hereby start transcribing my father’s words, both to honor him and for my son to get to know him better.
I’m a bit worried I lost some of the sound files, because the one I have archived is named tata1. So if there were tata2 and tata3, where are they?! We’ll see how tata1 ends. If it ends ends then I was just eager to get more tatas, and rashly named it tata1, but this is all I’ve got, just tata1.
My father rests on his bed. Around us the house holding bustle goes on, mother leading the kitchen activities, at times calling on my sister and nephew for help. You’ll mainly hear her penetrating voice in the background, since the digital sound recorder was not a highly sensitive one. I placed the recorder on my father’s pillow, so his voice could be heard well. There’s often all kinds of banging and gnashing kitchen implements at work noises, perhaps my mother’s way of boycotting father’s freedom of expression?

Father: I was born the ninth. Being the ninth, I was spoiled. I wasn’t forced to work in the field, since the older ones did. In our village…

Mother: Make sure I don’t forget to also pack you a bit of sour cream! I’ve already put garlic cloves.
Father: ….there was a primary school. The first graders were in the same classroom with the second graders, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh graders.
Ella: One teacher for all?
Father: Only one teacher.
Ella: Grandpa was still teaching then?
Father: No, not anymore. So in order to have a chance to go to high school you had to attend a better school, in town, not in our village, from fifth grade on, either to Blaj or to Sibiu. In Blaj they had the Finances High School, in Sibiu they had the Teachers’ High School.
Ella: So after only four grades you could go to high school?!
Father: You had to take an entrance exam to get into the high school. I could go only to vocational school, though I attended seven grades. But from fourth grade to seventh grade I was the only student in that grade.
Ella: Why?
Mother: There were no other children in that grade.
Father: It was not compulsory. It was compulsory only until fourth grade. Whoever wanted to come to school, came. I was in the same classroom with the other kids, but I had my own copybook, my own books. My own homework.
Mother: .From time to time he’d get quizzed.
Father: Never.
Ella: So how did you get graded?!
Father: The teacher just passed me to the next grade. I had no competition.
Well, the village priest, besides holding religious service in church, owned a sheep herd. A hundred sheep. And the priest came to my father, to Ioşca, that’s how they called him in the village.
Ella: What was his official name?
Father: Iosif. And, ‘Look, Ioşca, you have so many children here. Give me one to take care of my sheep at the grazing sheepfold.’ The fold is an enclosed area. When the sheep come from the pasture, the shepherd’s help has to prod them so they all get inside the fold, and then one by one into the shepherd’s hands so they get milked. My father said to the priest, Cristea was his name, he said, ‘Look Cristea, I’ll give you one. If they want to, because I don’t force them.’ ‘Let the older one, Feri, go.’ Francisc. ‘Then we’ll settle the matters in the fall, see what I’ll give you, wheat, or what.’ My brother Feri went, Francisc, but he stayed only three days. He didn’t like it. He was afraid. The sheep went grazing in the grass fields by a forest, and he didn’t like it, so he came home. Well, father, so he wouldn’t be put to shame, ‘You go now, Carol!’ the second son, two years younger than the first one. That one goes too, but stays only five days. Well, now, father says, ‘Mişu!’ from Mihai they called me Mişu. Only another kid and I were Mişu in the village.
Ella: But why did they call you like that, father?
Father: They spoiled me like that. That was my pet name.
Ella: I mean, Mihai!
Father: From King Mihai. I was born in ’33 when King Mihai reigned. Well, then I go. The shepherd was an older boy from Broşteni village, about five kilometers from Cergăul Mic, our village. They had dogs. During day I had to take the lambs grazing, and so I was a shepherd’s help. Slowly, slowly, a month passed! My, my, two passed! Three! Four! Time came to go back to school.
But meanwhile over the summer I was a servant.
Many things happened to me. On Saint Ilie’s Day, I went home to get fresh clothing, since it was holiday. So I change and I go back to the sheepfold, to the shepherd’s house. It was made of logs, on sleigh runners, so you could move it from one place to another, it was not build on a fixed foundation. Well, when I return from home, look, such a heavy rain, it was raining so hard, pouring bucketfuls, it was flowing and thundering, I covered my head in my coat, let only my nose and eyes out, and I ran towards the shepherd’s house. It usually rains on Saint Ilie’s Day rains, on June 29th, always. By the time I reached the house I was drenched. I took off my clothing. Since it rained so hard, they milked the sheep without passing them thru the enclosure, so they didn’t need me. So stark naked I took on the sheepskin coat. Now this coat doesn’t have sleeves, just covers your shoulders and all, it has a few threads you tie up in front at your chest, that’s about it. I wrapped myself in my sheepskin, it was longer than my legs, and thus warmed up I fell asleep.
Then once… I loved the little ewe lambs. I saw them growing. They weaned them in the month of May and by August they were so beautiful! Around July I saw a field of sweet peas, which was cultivated together with oats, so the sweet peas climbed on the oat stems and out of this combination you get an extraordinary good hey that the sheep eat during winter, because the sweet pea is a leguminous plant, and oat is graminaceae, grainy, and the mixture of two gives a very rich nutritious fodder, rich in vitamins and minerals. They mowed it before it reached maturity, when still in flower. Well, I said to myself, ‘Let me take my little ewe lambs in the sweet pea field so they get satiated.’ So when the sun was down and people left the field and went home into the village, I let the little ewe lambs loose in the sweet pea field. They ate, ate my little ewe lambs!
Ella: How many did you have?
Father: About 20! From a hundred sheep. We also had little young rams. And as they were eating, after an entire day of walking about in the field with them in sunshine, I fell asleep. So I placed my head on my hand, not on a pillow… Do you know what a shepherd’s pillow is? His palm. He doesn’t lay his head on the earth, but on his palm and this is how he sleeps, on his palm. I set my palm under my head and I fell asleep. The little ewe lambs, shrewd, after they were full, went alone to the sheepfold.
Ella: Alone?
Father: All alone. They left me behind. When I woke up it was dark! ‘Where are my little ewe lambs? Boo-hoo-hoo!’
Ella: Were you far away from the sheepfold?
Father: No, about 300 meters. ‘Oh, the wolf came and took them!’ I was so troubled, I was crying. I went to the fold. When I arrived, both the priest and the shepherd were there, and when they saw me, ‘What have you done, Mişu, my lad?’ ‘Oh, I was by the oak tree and the little lamb ewes ate sweet peas! They got full and I don’t know where they are now!’ ‘Child, they came straight home by themselves!’ Oh, my heart grew with joy! But they scolded me. What if a wolf would have come and ate the little ewe lambs while I was asleep? I shouldn’t fall asleep again, I should stay awake. But they didn’t chastise me that they went into the sweet pea field. They were content that the lambs were full.
Ella: But the field was not theirs?
Father: Not at all. It belonged to an auntie. She never found out who ate her sweet pea patch. What can you do?!
Then once I came down into the village because the boss, the chief shepherd, got sick from the sheep. The sheep in that year got sick with chickenpox. They had some swollen bumps, rashes on their faces, on their legs, chickenpox that humans could catch too. And the shepherd, while he would milk the sheep and he’d nurse the ill ones, got sick himself! If he got sick, the priest brought him to his home. And the poor shepherd would stay in the shade on a sheet in the yard, naked, since he was covered in blisters. So I’d run home quickly and I’d run back to the fold.
Once on my way home I passed by a small well and I drank water, and when I looked to my right I saw an onion bed. They were beautiful, tall, large, like a hen egg. And I pulled and pulled and I put them in my bag so we had what to eat at the sheepfold. [Sneezes, wheezes.] This phthisis doesn’t lay off of me. Well, when I arrived at the fold, the priest was milking the sheep. But when he called them the sheep wouldn’t come on their own. They didn’t let him milk them. Some sheep are ticklish when you milk them, and they kick with their legs. So I went inside the fold to help him. But one of them jumped over the fence outside the fold. The priest got mad, and pushed them all back into the fold and milked the entire flock a second time. [Laughs] He was that stingy! He couldn’t tell them apart, so he milked them all once more to make sure he didn’t waste any milk. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, well, let her be healthy, I’ll milk her tomorrow morning anyway!’
Well, I fulfilled my task and by September I came back home. My father didn’t lose his honor, he gave the priest a shepherd’s help as promised.
Well, here comes the seventh grade graduation exam, the maturity test, as they called it. It was due before school started. I went to a nearby village with the teacher in a wagon, tronco-tronco in Mănărade Commune, at five kilometers from Blaj. About seven boys and girls came to take the examination.
Ella: When was this?
Father: In ’47.
Ella: After the war?
Father: Yes, two years after. In ’47. Well, they set us up inside the school and they tested us on geography. I remember they asked us about counties. ‘How many counties does the country have and what are their names?’ Well, I kept on writing, writing. Then we had the math test, I don’t remember what, but I passed it. I got my paper that I graduated seven primary school grades. Then, the director, who supervised the examination, asked us, ‘What do you want to become, since you studied seven grades?’ One said he wanted to be a tailor apprentice, another one a butcher. He asked me too and I said, ‘I want to become a railroad worker.’
Ella: Why?
Father: ‘I want to go to the Romanian Railroad Vocational School in Braşov.’ ‘Why do you want to go to Braşov?’ ‘I have brothers and sisters there. Half of my siblings are in Braşov, so I’ll follow them.’ Well, time comes I go take the entrance exam in Braşov. I went by train, my brother Iosif took me, he was the fireman.
Mother: Does he tell you all the nutty things he did?
Ella: He tells them nicely.
Father: He was the engine fireman. On that steam engine they used charcoal, charcoal from Valea Jiu, from Lupeni, lignite, this is how it was called. And his mission was to feed the oven shovels of coal.
Ella: Sure, sure. But the train went thru your village?
Father: No, thru Blaj. I went on foot to Blaj, then I went on the train with him. This was a local train, its route was Braşov-Teiuşi. In Teiuşi it turned around. So I arrived in Braşov…
Ella: But you traveled in the engine?
Father: Yes, up there in the engine! The engine driver stopped and started the engine. The engine driver was on the left side and the fireman on the right side.
Mother: Are you hungry?
Father: So I went to uncle Nelu, and to his wife, tătăişa/sister-in-law Linca, they being the oldest. But what do you think, Lenuţa got born, their daughter, my niece. She was born in our village, in Cergău. And she got baptized as a Romanian Orthodox. She was the first Orthodox born in the village. Because after the war they established the Orthodox religion.
Ella: But what religion was there before?
Father: Greek Roman and Şchei, Lutheran. So I was born a Lutheran, a dastardized German, since I couldn’t speak German [Laughs] or Saxon, only Romanian, and in church they sang in Lutheran style. That’s why I remember that Lenuţa was baptized as an Orthodox.
Mother: So you were baptized as a Lutheran?
Father: Yes.
Mother: I thought you converted to Orthodoxism.
Father: I did not. They did it for me! [Laughs]
Ella: When was that?
Father: The church was in a school building. So then all the Şchei people, the Lutherans, were switched to Orthodoxism. Their church was abolished.
Ella: Over night? They didn’t even ask them what they wanted?
Father: Nobody asked them at all. On the contrary, they created an action committee. The Orthodoxes had fights with the Greek Catholics, they’d beat them up to a pulp. That’s how it was. This was the order from Moscow: Orthodoxy, the main religion in Russia.
Ella: When was this, father?
Father: About ’47. In ’48 I left the village. So I want to tell you that I took the entrance exam at the Romanian Railroad Vocational school for apprenticeship. I went with tătăişa/sister-in-law Linca. We filed my application, we went to the exam. Well, there the other children were well prepared, from all over the country, from Moldavia, from Muntenia, from Bucharest. The Romanian Railroad was a strong institution, financially sound, the second after the Army. Discipline! And joj, joj, joj, joj, very good salaries, and they also gave you uniforms! Everything! Paid leave, vacation, everything.
I failed. I know they asked me at math the extraction of the square root. Radical. I didn’t study such things at my school in Cergău! I didn’t even know what was that, what you eat it with. I cried at the exam, why they asked me such hard stuff, I never studied such things. I was heartbroken.
Ella: But how old were you?
Father: Fifteen. Seven grades, from seven to fourteen years old. So my brothers said, ‘Let’s go to the Steagul Roşu/Red Flag Vocational School for Apprentices.’ Steagul Roşu was another large factory. There they made train carriages. I go there, but again I wasn’t well prepared. What kind of Romanian Language and Literature could I have studied in Cergău?! One pupil, what for prepare him? [Laughs] I remember we also had a history oral exam. We were several around a table, and the examiner asks about the Tudor Vladimirescu Army Division.
Ella: This was from Russia?
Father: They had been war prisoners in Russia during World War Two. And they trained them there to fight against the Germans. And that battalion was named Tudor Vladimirescu Division. ‘So why did the Russians call that army this way?’ I remember I raised my hand and I said that, ‘Tudor Vladimirescu was the hero that organized the uprising against boyars in 1821.’ But it was all in vain, I didn’t get accepted there either.
Mother: Be so kind and take this to the fridge.
Father: I was so upset, what could I do with my future? I was ashamed to go back to tend sheep. But one of our neighbors’ son was a carpentry apprentice. He said, ‘Come with me to our workshop. For sure the foreman will hire you and you’ll learn carpentry.’ Foreman Covrig. Grigore Covrig was his name. He was from Târgu Mureş, but he was Romanian. And indeed he took me as an apprentice. Well, my first year I fetched water for his lady, she sent me to do the shopping in the market, here, there.
Mother: Please do this! It’s time to eat.
Father: I learned only stealthily. I learned how to cut wood with the saw, how to make wooden nails, to shave with the plane, smooth the planks.
Ella: But what did he pay you?
Father: Nothing.
Ella: Would he at least give you food, where to sleep?
Father: No. I slept at my brother’s. I also ate at my brother’s. In the afternoon I also attended school, apprentice school. After three years I finished school, as a carpentry apprentice. At the end of the year there was an exhibition with all the things that we made. I took a framed mirror, on top of a cabinet with two drawers, in one you’d put the shoe brush, and wax, the kind you put in a hallway.
After I graduated, I stopped by the school, and my teacher said, ‘Oh, it’s great you’ve stopped by. We have to send pupils to Malnaş Baths,’ it’s between Sfântu Gheorghe and Turda. It was a very famous spa, for its healing mineral waters, but now it’s in ruins, like the entire country. Anyway, they had a summer camp for pupils from all over the country. ‘You finished school and are older, so you’ll take care of the smaller kids.’ Sure. I was very glad. For two, three weeks they fed us! Kids came from Bucharest, from all over. In the baths you’d go down a staircase in a cellar, like a waiting room. You stood up, to avoid breathing in the natural gases. If you lowered your body, the gases were stronger and stronger, and you could faint.
Ella: What kind of gases?
Father: Natural gases, from the earth.
Ella: It was good for you?
Father: Yes, good for the organism. Aerosols. Well, they organized dances. I remember a girl from Bucharest came and invited me to dance. It was Damen Tanz, Damen Tanz, which is girls invite the boys to dance. Otherwise, the boy invites the girl, you bow and ask, ‘May I have this dance?’
Ella: But who taught you all this?!
Father: Well, while I was an apprentice, during my last year I lived in a dorm for apprentices. And it was only boys, so to learn how to dance one played the harmonica and the rest of us danced with brooms in our arms. [Laughs] We learned to dance tango, waltz, Walzer! There also was Polka! Then we had Kazachok! So after graduation I looked to get hired. I went to the Motor Railway Engine Factory, also with the Romanian Railroad. They said they’d hire me if I passed their examination. They’d hire me in the molding, casting department. You’d make a casting shell in which they’d cast metal to make wheels, nuts and bolts. Well, I never! I failed, because I never made such things.
Mother: Would you lock the front door? While we’re all here in the kitchen, they can just come and steal the TV set from the living room.
Father: In the end they hired me in the maintenance department where I could do carpentry, since the Romanian Railroad had apartment buildings for their workers and you had to repair doors, whatnot. I remember they asked me to build a wardrobe with drawers for the Romanian Railroad Artistic Ensemble.
Ella: What kind of artists?
Father: Touring artists. They’d go from town to town with their show!
Mother: I dropped too much salt in it!
Father: In ’50 they announced they had an examination that if you passed, for two years they’d prepare you to go study at the university. It was a special high school. Before taking that exam I’d been going for one year to evening school, but it was very hard. We had to attend from 5 to 8 in the evening, after work, so cu chiu cu vai/by the skin of my teeth I somehow finished one year. Well, that one year was of great help. I filed my application to the special high school in Braşov and now exams were coming. They’d ask you where you wanted to attend school. Should it be Braşov, or Cluj, or Oradea, Iaşi? That’s about it. I told them I wanted in Oradea.
Ella: Why?
Mother: Because that’s where I was.
Ella: But you didn’t know him yet.
Mother: That’s how destiny works.
[Ella laughs]
Father: I chose Oradea because in Braşov it was a technical preparatory school, for mechanical engineers. I said I wanted to become a veterinarian.
Ella: Did you love animals?
Father: Yes.
Mother: What the devil are you doing that for?!
Father: The math teacher gave me a problem and I solved it on the blackboard. And he said it wasn’t like that, and I said it surely was like that. He was testing me, to see if I was a resolute person. I argued with him, I said, ‘This plus this equals that!’ He said, ‘Well, you do know the subject material.’ He asked the Romanian Language teacher, ‘How does he fare?’ She said, ‘He’s not good.’ I failed her subject. ‘I don’t want to have to deal with him in our school. He’d barely drag about. I don’t want to deal with him.’ ‘He wants to go to Oradea. So let him slide by!’ [Laughs]
I was lucky with him.
In the fall we went to school in Oradea. They made a class of boys. Group I, we were 32 of us. We were from everywhere, from Braşov, from Mediaş, from Oradea.
Mother: Where’s everybody? The table is ready!
Father: First year went alright. Second year begins. I used to go to dance balls. Every Saturday evening, and every Sunday evening for two hours we danced at Oradea University. Later they called it The Workers University, because the majority of students were workers.
Mother: Bring more chairs.
Father: Second year we were older, we had freshmen now. I went dancing. And there I saw a small, timid girl!
Ella: Timid?!
Father: Yes! I was from Braşov, I was a townsman no less!
I invited her to dance and we danced. We danced once, then we danced again. I liked her because we fit together. There were other colleagues who didn’t know how to dance, so you had to drag them after you like you dragged sheep! [Laughs] I asked her, ‘What’s your name, if you don’t mind?’ ‘Vilma.’ ‘Well, I’m Mihai.’ We danced a bit more. I asked her, ‘How many siblings do you have?’ She said, ‘Eleven.’ I started laughing. [Laughs] She snapped, ‘What are you laughing about?’ ‘We’re eleven too.’ Then I kept on inviting her to dance. At the beginning she didn’t want to talk to me…
Mother: Lunch is served!
Father: She was proud. She was the first in her class! She was a good student. She had in charge two classmates. The teachers put her in charge of less diligent pupils. In the afternoon when it was homework time she studied and then tutored the other two, which made her even more knowledgeable.
Mother: Do you have a fork?
Father: We went to the movies, this was in the fall, in September. In December I told her, ‘Don’t you want to get married? Because I want to get married.’
Mother: Come and eat! It would have been better were you not to get married.
Father: ‘I don’t know, let me think about it.’ She fell in love with me. During breaks we’d go in the yard and play. She could hardly wait to come to the yard to play with the boys and girls. Well, in time she said, ‘Let’s get married.’ In summer we had to go to the university. I wrote a letter home, saying they should send me the birth certificate.
Mother: Ella, are you done with the stories?
Father: I got the birth certificate and we went to the Oradea Town Hall. We filed our application and on January 6th they called us. We had to have two witnesses. I had a Greek friend, Petros. She had Mărie.
Mother:. Oniga.
Father: Oniga Mărie. So we got married. ‘I declare you man and wife now.’ We went back to school. Then, ‘Let’s go to a restaurant, we are the Bride and Bridegroom! And you are the Godparents.’ The four of us went to a restaurant. We ordered food and we ate. We danced.
Mother: Watch whom you let listen to this recording!
Father: They said, ‘Don’t forget tonight you’re newlyweds.’ But at the dorm, she went to her room and I went to mine.
Ella: Let’s eat and then we talk further on, alright, father?
Father: I got tired now. 

I really don’t know if he told me more about his life, because it’s been a long time. I rather think that his story telling ends up here, my mother being the family spokesperson after they got married.

The strange thing is that my parents became agricultural engineers, agronomists, but father who loved animals never became a veterinarian, instead he took care of the crops. And mother, who actually loved flowers, took care of the animals, so they could work together, at the same cooperative farm.
I called to ask him a few clarifying questions, so I don’t write mistakes. He was amused, he said no one would know if I did. I said it mattered nevertheless. I should have told him I’m bound by my duty, this is history. Anyway, he said he wanted to be many things, forester among others, veterinarian too, but in the end he went arm in arm with my mother to enroll at the Horticulture Department within the Agricultural Institute. 

New York
May 25, 2013

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.


  1. I very much enjoyed reading this story. I was able to imagine your father in the countryside, and al the other places you wrote about.

    1. thank you, mark :) i'll tell him. it was so unexpected to hear him talk at all, and then to imagine him and my mom young, dancing, and how he said they were playing in the school yard, as if they were kids again... also when he talked about the village religion, how it was imposed on them. imagine that happening here. and my mom not even being aware of it. she always thought he was romanian orthodox, so she switched from reformed hungarian to romanian orthodoxism for his sake. not that they were practicing under communism anyway.