In several recent blogs I wrote about the challenge of creating characters based on real people and family members I love and respect and who, like most of us, are not perfect. I also sometimes struggle with how much background and historical information is necessary, especially when I write about remote and unknown places such as a small town in Northern Romania in the 1930s. In this excerpt my character remembers her childhood.
By the time Tina came into this world, her mother, Bronia, was already thirty-nine years old. She had delivered three children before Tina, two who lived and Rifka, the first born, who perished at four months. Larissa came fifteen months after Rifka died, then came Herman — they called him Bebe — two years later, and finally Tina, after a stretch of eleven more years. She must have been an accident, and later in life Tina heard that her mother had considered abortion, but for some reason didn’t go through with it.
In the performance of her motherly duties, Bronia had been exact and proper. Tina remembered her as cold, since she rarely hugged her, or played with her, or bought her small presents the way her father did, when he gave her chocolates and strawberries.
Even her nanny, Parashka, gave Tina a small rocking chair on her birthday. Parashka was a beautiful Ukrainian brunette who slept in the kitchen and disappeared from their household as soon as Bronia discovered that she and Dr. Barr, who lived on their street, had exchanged what appeared as more than innocent glances. Like Tina’s father, Dr. Barr was a lawyer. He was dapper and snobbish and had a long and very narrow nose. Dr. Barr and Mrs. Barr didn’t have children. Mrs. Barr, who was very attractive, was rumored to have exchanged glances with other men in her husband’s profession. So it was that from a rather precocious age, Tina understood from her neighbors that beautiful people kept a constant eye on each other.
After Parashka was let go, her maternal grandmother, moved into Tina’s room, forced her to eat fish oil by the spoonful to improve her rickets and grow strong bones, and fed her bean soup with fresh bread and butter. Grandmother’s name was Eugenia, but Tina called her Babtzia. Tina learned from Babtzia’s stories that Babtzia had come to the area from Galicia, in Poland. Before World War I, their entire county had been in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and only later had become part of Romania. That’s why at home they all spoke Romanian and German.
Tina knew they were Jewish, and their last name was Freedman. Her father, who had fought for the Emperor in World War I, had come from Galicia as well. Like so many other young and educated Jewish men, he searched for new opportunities, and after he settled down in Bukovina and changed his first name from Rubin to Rudolph, he opened his law practice and got married. He was a mild man with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and a tendency for procrastination. Sometimes he walked with a limp — an old wound from the war — and he liked to carry a cane. Standing next to Bronia in their old sepia family photo, he was shorter by a few centimeters.
Their town was called Câmpulung. Loosely translated the name meant ‘the long meadow.’ Indeed, the town was a few kilometers long and rather narrow, squeezed between two wooded hills, the Runc and the Deia. Main Street ran along the valley, parallel to Moldova River, and was lined with shops, a small movie theater, Rudolph’s law offices, the Town Hall, the city clinic, the police station, and the pharmacy. The synagogue and the Jewish cemetery were nearby. Anybody who was somebody in this town — mostly the Jews and the Germans — lived on Main Street, while the rest — Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Hungarians — had their homes on the shorter streets perpendicular to Main Street. The closer to Main Street the higher their social status. Jewish children did not usually mix with the others. None of the streets were paved, although gravel and river stones were dumped on Main Street after major rains and snowfalls to cover the mud and make it passable.
There were several bridges over Moldova, of which one lead to a watermill and an open-air swimming pool, and another to a park at the foothill of Deia. Summers were hot, wet, green, and vibrant, and for a long time life in Câmpulung seemed peaceful and carefree.
In front of the mirror, Tina compared herself to the pictures of princesses in her fairytale books — like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty — and discovered that her chin was pointed like a goat’s, and her nose was slightly crooked, just enough to give her entire face a sad and mature look.
When the weather was warm, Tina played in the garden behind the house, in between the raspberry bushes, the eglantines, and the currants. She ran with her hoop and hung from the second rung of the roof ladder, trying to pull herself up. She did not know other neighborhood children, and often thought of herself as “ein grüner Frosch” — a green frog in German, as someone had lovingly called her — without hope for the prince to emerge from the prickly shrubs and kiss her. There was a small vegetable garden near the bushes and a white jasmine grew by the front entrance. Their well had water so cold and clear that neighbors came to fetch it and drink it. A tall weathered whitewashed wall separated the garden from the city clinic. After the rain, slugs clung to the plaster.
Sometimes Larissa joined Tina in the garden, usually with a book in her hand. One day she came in the company of a young man, about whom Bronia had complained that he was only a peasant from a nearby village, called Frumosul. It meant ‘the beautiful one’ or ‘the handsome one’ in Romanian, and Tina thought it was funny that her sister’s handsome friend would be from a village called The Handsome.
“Tinochika,” Larissa would call her, “come here!” and Tina would approach her older sister and cling to the blue skirt of her high school uniform. “Look at her, so sweet and delicate,” Larissa would say. Smiling, she would pick Tina up, remove thistles from her hair, and give her a million little kisses until the girl’s face turned red, and she melted and wriggled with happiness. “So, what do you think, Sile?” Larissa would ask her friend pointing at Tina, and Sile would shrug and roll his beautiful dark eyes and not say anything. After a while Larissa and Tina would see the young man to the street where his cart and horse were waiting.
One afternoon after a massive snowstorm, Sile came to Larissa in a horse driven sleigh. He didn’t enter the house. Through the window, Tina watched them talk and gesticulate wildly. Sile took his fur hat off and smashed it onto the snow, jumped on his sleigh, and disappeared. Larissa returned, her eyes awash in tears.
Spring came and the melting snow washed the hat into the gutter.
Tina was four when one morning, she bent over in pain and slowly collapsed to the ground. She was in the garden, and as she fell she reached out and scratched the wall looking for support. Slugs clung to her hair.
Bronia fetched a doctor from the clinic, who, after a short exam, decided that Tina had to have surgery at the larger hospital in Cernăuți, 150 kilometers away by train. She was operated immediately by a Dr. Flor, who was very tall and whose mouth was crooked. Her appendix was removed literally minutes before bursting. In the ten days that followed, Rudolph came and went, but Bronia stayed at Tina’s bedside, and slept on a chair. Rudolph’s brother, who lived in town, came to visit with Marna, his large German shepherd. When he saw them in the hospital ward, Flor’s face contorted in fury to such a degree that his mouth regained its normal shape, and he loudly ordered the dog and the visitor to leave the premises.
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