What do you say to a child who doesn’t know how to pray?
I was an old soul, and I enjoyed my own company more than running barefoot on the dirty roads of the village, with the other children. I hated skirts too, they made me feel exposed, and inadequate.
I had this special hideout in the garden, behind an old grapevine that found its way over the fence, one that reached all over to the neighbor’s yard, creating an arch, like a green veil. I felt safe there, unseen by the skies, in the shade of the leafy vine, enveloped in the sweet aroma of the Muscat grapes. I’d spend my summer afternoons there, with a book in my hand, devouring page after page, mostly Romanian philosophy, not the usual fairy tale books appropriate for my age. I was 9 going on 50, and it felt wrong to be so young, when all I wanted was to be older. Do you know that feeling? That “I can hardly wait to grow up, so that all of you would leave me alone!”
Hours passed by, till her voice would finally interrupt my daily reverie: “Mihaeluta, come! Dinner is ready.”
It was usually warm goat’s milk with polenta and sugar. How I long for the smell of polenta today! What would I give to be a child again, and this time, instead of hiding under the vines, to hold her more, to tell her how much she meant to me.
She knew all along how I felt, and, from all the people in my life, save now for my husband and my little boy, she was the only one who never even tried to change me. She did not push me to get out of the yard, to run in the dirt. She did not force me to go to church. But she would always lay down clean, beautiful, “Sunday clothes” for me, and she’d always ask:
“Are you coming to church today?”
And I would always answer:
“No! But please bring me flowers and basil!”
She’d always bring back flowers and basil from the church, and I believed just like her, that they had healing powers, because the priest had said a prayer over them. God was in those flowers.
This is one of those random things I remember about my grandmother, significant for the girl who did not know how to pray. Perhaps, holding those flowers was my way of praying.
She prayed for both of us. And for grandpa, and for her children – my mom, and her big brother – and for my twin cousins, and for the dog, and for the donkey, and for the chickens, for the ducks, for the three goats, for our six sheep who were in the care of a shepherd, for our cow and her calf… Yes, it was a long prayer. She’d whisper it softly, in front of an icon of Saint Nicolaus. At the end of the prayer, making the sign of the holy cross, she’d say out loud: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!”
After the prayer, she’d tuck me in, and make the sign of the holy cross over my forehead, repeating the prayer’s end, and adding: “Sleep safe.”
The holy cross was like a seal of protection. I don’t remember having bad dreams when I stayed with her, but I always did at home. My mom and dad had a bad marriage, and I always felt threatened there. I remember that protective seal, and I carry this legacy today, as I make the cross over the forehead of my own child.
Monday came, and the girl who wanted to be a grownup awoke to the first rays of sunshine, for her daily chores: sweep the yard, feed the chickens, milk the goat, open the gate for the ducks and the geese. Grandma and grandpa would go to their jobs at the cooperative leaving me home alone, with my books, and the cooking. Every two days I had to water the plants in the garden, and I remember it well: it was huge, with endless rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, salad, onions, garlic and much else. There was a small pond at the back of the garden, where I ventured armed with two buckets, to grab water. It was a lengthy back-and-forth, and I loved to feel refreshed by the water, barefoot in the mud.
Village life during communist times in Romania was not unlike today. Children are still taught to understand the value of hard work. Thinking back, I was privileged to grow up at the countryside. The first six years of my life were spent there, then every holiday, till I turned 18, when I stopped going back for long “breaks.”
I turned 18 on a Sunday. As always, I grabbed a book, and retired under the old grapevine, to my fragrant Muscat haven. And then, I heard his voice: “Mig, where are you?”
My knees felt like rubber: Marius? It wasn’t possible. It was also not appropriate, him coming without an invitation. What would grandma say?
But against common sense, I emerged from my hideout with happy smile, and I ran to him, barefoot. As he embraced me, he whispered “Happy birthday! We have a picnic by the pond.” We?
They were all there, my best friends, with their guitars. Dan, Ilona, and Marius had traveled from Bucharest to Crangeni, to wish me happy eighteen. But I couldn’t move from the spot. I was just staring at them, wondering what would happen should grandma find out about the “intruders.”
“It’s all taken care of,” Marius reassured me.
I turned around, about to go to ask grandma for permission. She was there, at the gate of the garden, with a kind smile on her face.
“La multi ani, fata mea!”
We stayed till the stars lit the skies, singing around a small fire. When my friends left, I went back to the house, where Grandma was waiting, with warm goat’s milk and polenta.
“Who was that boy?“
“Marius,” I said, and a tear ran down my cheek.
“Why are you sad,” she asked. “Didn’t you have a nice party?”
“He is dying, grandma. He has leukemia,” I explained. “He is my best friend, and the big brother I’ve never had.”
“Everything dies,” she replied. “It matters how you live.”
When grandma died, the whole village wept. Because she lived, just like she used to tell me to live:
“Forgive, for if you don’t, nothing will heal the sorrow in your heart. Without forgiving the wrongs others do you, you will become a lonely, tortured soul. Live like the Earth, with pride, grace and endurance. Learn to give.”
Her words did not make much sense when I was young. They do now, when I live with Victoria in my heart. And when I am down, not knowing which path to choose, I can still hear her voice, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!” Then I know I am not alone, and I know where to go.