- Chronological progression of selected highlights which stuck in my mind
Age 4: Dad and Mom were turning 40, we lived in half of a rented villa with a nice backyard and an ancient walnut tree judging by the massive trunk. A swing was hanging from that tree and I remember I loved it. We had a huge snowsled but I don't remember how it was pulled. Or maybe it seemed huge relative to my size at the time. I remember dad sending me to the corner bodega to get him 2 packs of cigarettes. There was a movie theater named "The Peace" not too far, and a statue of an eagle across the street with something in its' beak, a cross I think.
My parents lost their house to their tenants while away working in Morocco for the Romanian Embassy, thanks to a law giving tenants of 1 year or more the right to ownership.
Age 5: As with thousands of other families, the government decided to demolish the homes in our "sector" and the villa where we lived was on the list: we were offered "to buy or rent" an apartment in a newly raised modern development a few miles away in a beautiful development, at the end of 3 trolley bus lines that went to different parts of the city center. It was a deal you could not refuse, sweet for its' modernity, sour because you were forced into either rent or mortgage with nothing to say about it.
I can remember the smell of new when we moved in. The bus stop had a public coin phone and an ice cream booth. Everyone was newly moved-in, and each building (of 2-300 or so apartments each building) had an administrative association with a voted council. Later when they demolished our grandparents' home where dad grew-up, an actual treasure was found at the base of a landmark tree (it was in the news and all). Dad told me that his father Constantin before passing away, was very frustrated because he wanted to tell him something but he was paralyzed and his speech was gone. There was very little one could do with riches during communism anyway, except keep your mouth shut and wait for things to change - it could only land you in jail or get you executed for conspiragy or treason. While I have nice childhood memories of a society I loved, the communists were really strict about some things, especially what you could own. You could dress your wife in fur and expensive shoes, but you could not have 2 cars or 2 houses, and definitely no treasure buried in your backyard, if they had something to say about it. We were all supposed to be equal as a country "recovering from the evils of capitalism".
Age 6: School started for me, and the building administrations in the new "projects" where we moved started planting baby poplar trees and making nice landscapes around the buildings. Now Bucharest, a very cosmopolitan city of 6 million people has trees taller than its' 5 story buildings. I was preschool / first grade when these trees were planted, the economy was booming, the buildings, streets, buses supermarkets, and everything else was NEW.
Age 7: Second grade, we started learning Spanish in addition to other things you'd normally teach a second grader. My parents turned Jehovah's Witnesses under pressure from other family members who were. For my dad specifically it was also the excitement of doing something underground and against the Communist system. He suffered dearly for it. Growing up JW for me meant: all other kids were members in Communist Youth organizations, I was not. They were practicing how to use a firearm to defend the country, I did not. They had birthday celebrations, I did not. Add the fact that they refuse blood transfusions made them weird. The fact they won't go in the army, made them undesirables - and we were outcasts.
The fact that I was never a member in any Communist organization, even youth oriented, would serve me well now, because I think and advocate that people should speak up for what they believe in. Screw the consequences, life is too short. Don't let yourself be remembered as a coward. Speak up for what you believe in. If you die for it, thank them. Better than to live a life by rules you hate, in shame for not having the courage to speak up.
My life was amazing as a kid. Probably largely due to the fact that my parents loved me enough and buffered me from their daily troubles of which I remained unaware. We could play unsupervised after age 5, and would roam the neighborhood, much was allowed as long as we'd be home by a certain hour. We roamed through buildings under construction at night, jumping from balconies, taking some calcium carbide from leftover building materials because it was fun to drop it in water and see it boil itself out. Or we'd ride the bikes and go grab fruit from the orchards. Come 10pm we had to be around, to avoid getting punished by our worried moms.
Age 10 - the big earthquake:
March 4, 1977 around 9PM - I am putting my pajamas on, when my father calls me to the kitchen window to listen.. a whistling sound coming from all around, as if the air itself had a background eerie noise. Pets and stray animals were going nuts, according to later accounts, as if they knew what was about to come. The noise went on for a while, so after exchanging ideas about what may be causing it, we each went about our chores. First it rumbled under our feet for 20 seconds as if a big truck was passing by... we were all staring at each other. The rumbling grew, bottles were falling off the shelfs, pictures were moving on the walls, now it felt like we were in a washing machine. But this was just the beginning:
Then the building literally started shaking back and forth about 2 feet each half second (back-forth, back-forth,...) for about a minute (which seemed like an eternity) and then it subsided. In retrospect that shaking motion may have been the very ground waving under us.
As it started rocking back and forth (after the weird whistling and the increasing rumbling), my mother, freshly indoctrinated into the JWs screamed: "The Armageddon is here!" and my dad keeping his cool gathered her, her sister who was with us that week, my brother Gabriel and I and told us that it's an earthquake, and to take position near supporting pillars precisely under the doorways, that being our best survival bet should the building collapse.
As it subsided we ran out - in the next 10 minutes everyone was outside, everywhere. A whole city on the streets at night. We took North on foot, away from the buildings, towards relatives in the area to see how they faired. Everyone was well, but we had no clue how lucky we were. It was 7.2 on the Richter scale and lasted 55 seconds!
After we all settled in someone's 1 story house (so glad to have made it out of the huge reinforced cement death traps). My brother and a few others went into the city to see what happened. At this time I was totally oblivious I was 19 short months short from the day when I would last see my brother.
Their accounts were horrific when they returned. Reinforced cement buildings and earthquakes strong enough to collapse them, are a recipe for certain death. You know those highway dividers you can't even scratch with a truck? It is the same stuff as the walls in these buildings, poured into place into a steel mesh.
The 70s were the time I was growing up there, when everyone had a job, and the Socialist Republic of Romania seemed to be doing OK. What most people don't know is that we were living on borrowed money. Our dictator was seen as a hero because he spoke against Russia's invasion of a nearby country, and all western powers were out to help him.
July 30, 1978: I am 11 years old and this morning was about to hit us like a hammer over the head. This is the day my older brother died an unexplained, or rather poorly explained death.
My brother Gabriel tried to wake me up to leave with him early in the morning. I said I will catch up later with mom, and he left alone. That was the last time I ever saw him... and nothing prepares you for something like that. He was (in my view) the good half of our parents progeny. Always quiet, yet alive and with a sense of humor. Always put his eyes down when dad spoke to him. But they spoiled me because I was younger. Gabi, as I called him, was 6'2" at age 19, great body tone, better hair than I ever had, energetic and very playful, and yet the humble demeanor of a saint.
My Brother's death
My brother Gabriel, 8 1/2 years older than me, died 2 months before reaching the age of 20. He jumped in a cold river during an outing with friends and his heart stopped from temperature shock as the doctors would have it... and they found him 3 days later when the water brought him to the surface. For 2 years afterwards I would save half of anything I was given, say a bag of candy, hoping he'd come back and we could share... but he never returned. My parents were devastated and took their religion even more seriously, because now it offered the hope to see him again one day. Time doesn't really heal folks, it just numbs you.
Over 2000 people attended Gabriel Banici's funeral because my dad had some sort of rank in the JWs. Apparently my dad and 3 others were running the whole underground gig in Romania where such a religious cult was prohibited. The head of Gabi's funeral column - a walking cordon of praying people - got to the cemetery and the back of the line was barely leaving the house 2 miles back, while government agents were filming the whole procession, which later led to my dad being detained and questioned as to his importance in what they called a "subversive, underground organization". Any person who could gather a crowd of 2000 or more people who were not afraid of being arrested by the Communist government, was seen as a major threat to national security.
1981-1983: As one of the four main organizers of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Romania, followed and prosecuted in a country where religious freedom was inexistent, my dad smells foul play. Not entirely convinced that his son's death was an accident, my dad requests to immigrate. I can remember it even now: "I want to move to a country where I can speak my mind and where I can exercise faith in what I want, and speak about my convictions to others, without getting arrested for it". Respect for human rights in Communist countries was the buzzword of the day. He was arrested and my mom and I were allowed to visit him in jail twice a month. Depending on the penitenciary where he was being held or processed, we would sometimes have to travel across the country to see dad or bring him a package with cold cuts, cigarettes (smokes were like currency in prison), etc. But in the JW community, they were debating: Should I give my husband cigarettes to trade in prison, knowing they cause cancer for the person who smokes them? Should women wear lipstick, knowing that making themselves look better may arouse men? So silly and innocent were these people back then, even as a kid I wanted to slap them.
At age 52 (both my parents were the same age), after hundreds of petitions denied, being out of work for a year, and our apartment which was paid off, finally confiscated, they allowed us to leave the country. My dad was still growing back his hair from the second time in jail at the moment when they let us leave but held the visa for another year - I remember they first terminated his employment then kept us a full year more, to make sure we are totally broke and destitute when we left.
December 2, 1983 - Outside The Iron Courtain - Rome, Italy:
First taste of freedom. Dad was first impressed by the abundance of meat in butcher's windows in Rome. Here he didn't have to "know anyone" in order to avoid long lines at the stores. It was plenty for all. The aroma of the bakeries... if this is Rome, imagine the USA? That was a dream short lived. I still remember Rome with awe, because in many respects the charm of an old European town can't be duplicated. There is a magic in the air in certain European cities that other places can't copy if their life depended on it. Suburban life in Connecticut was probably the first thing that made me feel in USA as I would in an European city. I live in the town of Southington, CT which I am proud to call home, and I absolutely love it. Even though I am 40 now (41 next month), I am happy and thankful to love here. Many people never experience or never learned to savor a summer evening in the breeze, sitting outside at a bistro or restaurant, in a town where everyone says "hi" to each other.
Not in USA for economic reasons, we did well
It was always degrading and insulting to see that I grew-up in a city like no other, with a fairly good childhood, comparatively better than most people have here, and later to have people here ask me "whether we had enough food" or silly things like that. I was affected by the shortage the same way you are affected now by the rice shortage or the price of gas. We all complain but there is still plenty for everyone. It is always the poor segment of a population that suffers during tough times, as I am sure many families in the USA at this very moment are having a hard time coming up with money for gas to put in their cars. Being poor is not a sin, folks, and don't let anybody tell you that it is. Having too much government regulation against the dreams and attempts to break from poverty is wrong. That is why I am a Republican. Are many in my party so far right that they are out of touch? "God", yes, they are. Both parties have smart as well as not so bright lights. Both the president (R) and the Congress (D) suffer from pretty low approval rates today. There is, however, a paradigm shift in the masses: people in this third millenium care much more about issues, and less about affiliations. And whereas 20 years ago you could speak for 2 hours without saying much, now you can't do that. People are smarter and as a group they know instinctively what is in their best interest, and will not let propaganda stand between them and a better life.
From the little money my dad had, since I know for a fact that he left Romania with $100, he bought me an FM radio while in Italy. But that was the first sign of bad timing: Boy George with Karma Chameleon was on all the FM stations! What were you doing in December 1983?
We realized in Italy that we were part of a large group of expatriates - this was business as usual for the Romanian government, sending a few hundred people overseas to show the world that "they respect human rights" and those who want to leave are allowed to do so (yeah, right - after a few times in jail, hunger strikes and humiliation). We actually got a break due to my parents' persistence in flooding the bureaucrats with hundreds of petitions. Half of us were dropped in JFK, the other half stayed on the plane and was taken to Los Angeles. Throw of the dice... we sat on the New York side of an Alitalia 747 and that seating arrangement carved the next 20 years for us.
December 13, 1983: JFK Airport, New York City
The first time you come to USA, especially if that time is 1983, when two-thirds of the cars on the road are from the 70s, it will be the sheer size of the vehicles, especially the limos, that will amaze you. Then the width of the roads... wow... After being processed in Customs, and with a warm "Welcome to the United States", we ended up at the Breslin Hotel in Manhattan. While trying to wake up and understand the fast-moving impersonal grey city around us, we also had to go to dozens of interviews for Alien cards, Social Security numbers, etc.
Three months later my parents found a Romanian community through the Jehovah's Witnesses. These were indeed the kind of Eastern European immigrants you may actually make fun of (permission granted), and even ask yourself whether they had something to eat where they came from. When I walked into this community of twice expatriated uncultured families, it was like travelling back in time, or entering Amish country. I will explain the term above - in the paragraph below.
Integration or segregation?
Dad was starting to have a bad taste in his mouth. These people not only had very poor command of both English and Romanian itself, but their ability to process information was somewhere between a German Shepard and a primate. Are these people for real? We have all heard fables and stories about incredibly "off" people, so we could teach our childred lessons from the exagerrated defects of the weird fable character - and the stuff of legend was alive and well in NYC suburbs... As it turns out they were from some villages on the border with Serbia, abandoned by one government but not quite adopted by the other, with customs 200 years old and little schooling.
If you are one of them and are smart enough to read and understand this, then you should not be offended; you yourself are not part of it even if your relatives are. In all likelyhood you probably agree with me. Besides, if you think living as a protagonist in "Dumb & Dumber" is a cultural value to be respected, I have nothing to say to you anyway.
The next 20+ years
Anyway... my father (his name was Ion), stuck on minimum wage in this cultural nightmare, quickly started losing love for both the weird community we ended up in, and the Jehovah's Witnesses. While back in Romania it was exciting to be a leader in a group where you meet in secret, have a cause as righteous as your personal belief, print literature on hidden presses in basements, and risking imprisonment for doing so, ...here where everyone was free he noticed the JWs were nothing more than another weird cult, and to put it in his own words: "it takes a much higher dose of stupidity to remain a convert in this new light" than he was willing to spare.
We worked hard in Ridgewood for a very long time. We had good times and bad times. And it was all in three, myself, my mom Tudora, and my dad Ion, here in America, with an occasional flower for my brother who went away too soon, placed on his grave, every time we had a chance to go back to Romania to visit. The highlight of my dad's New York life was owning a small factory. Mine was putting over 300 people in their own business, and giving them enough work to service their loans and make a good living. My dad was just one of them. I have seen more import / export documents than I care to remember, and I am lucky that I can still read without corrective lenses.
Age progression, thoughts
As age was catching up to them, mom and dad became more and more needy, eventually retired, and for 9 years after I got married to Monica (1996-2005) my parents and I lived only a mile apart - yet very separated - as life, work, and daily problems leave little time for old people and their small issues. They tried moving back to Romania, then coming back here, never finding their rest, happiness or a place to call home. Some say that is the curse of America: once you live here you won't be happy anywhere else. I hear ithis is the story of many first generation immigrants. Do you have someone in your family with a similar story?
In his 50s he was dreaming of saving enough to buy a quiet place where he could spend retirement with his hobbies (playing chess, reading a good book, fixing stuff)... instead he got dealt another card: strokes, gradual loss of the use of his limbs, and blindness. I guess the moral is "don't put it off until it's too late". His saying was "when given a choice just do it - everything you procrastinate now will be the very thing you will regret at age 70 and kick yourself for not doing it".
I wish I had made more time for him and his little annoying requests. I honored many of them, but I feel so much regret about the times I raised my voice and told him "dad leave me alone, I have no time for these trivial things, I have real problems". I would give anything to turn time back and say yes to every silly thing my dad wanted, and show him a little more patience, maybe show him how much I am like him. Yet somehow I think he knew and he was proud.
Dad liked fixing stuff, such as TVs and computers, anything to do with logic circuits and the smell of soldering paste. He wanted me to take him to garage sales in the weekends - and sometimes I did, other times I refused. What is the last thing you did with your dad?
Dad passed away from progressive strokes, leading to total failure of the cardiovascular system on March 10th, 2007, 3 months after my son Victor was born at the Bristol Hospital in Connecticut. He got to hear the little monkey on the phone, but never saw him in person. Dad was born on April 18, 1931 in Bucharest to Constantin Banici, whom everyone loved and respected. Grandpa Constantin is someone I do not remember, as he passed when I was 2 months old in 1967.
Out of a total of 7, dad still has two younger brothers still alive, one dumb as a doorknob, an idiot who persisted in the JW cult to the point where he is now a vegetable for any practical purpose, you can't even talk to him, uneducated and stubbornly uncultured, a dangerous mix, then the other who would not even come to see dad (his older brother) when he was dying, so this brother of him is yet another treestump. Dad used to help these two and their families quite a lot, especially because of their ... heh.. whachamacallit... defficiencies.
The rest of his brothers and his younger sister Lia, were all rather smart people - but they are all gone now. They were all in their 30s and 40s when I was a toddler. That is the inevitable course of life. All the faith in the world and all the prayer will not stop that clock. A smart diet, moderate portions, and a lot of exercise will slow it down considerably, though. But let's change the subject because you can always watch "The Lion King" if you want the story of generations and renewal.
When I went to bury my father in 2007, the Christian Church would not bury him because he was a J. Witness and never made a verbal "desire to return" to the old faith, and the JWs would not bury him because he has had it with religion and he openly quit, becoming effectively an Agnostic. So much for labels, apparently everyone forgot that above all he was a man of honor. So here we are with a body in the living room and nobody wants to bury him. At that moment standing over his corpse, I loved and admired him even more, when I saw how small in virtue the idiots around him were "in the name of their beliefs". I have sworn to never let "the club I belong to" get in the way of doing the correct thing. We finally got a JW elder to bury him in their rights, someone he went to jail with (for their belief, before my dad immigrated) back in 1982, his buddy of old. But he did it hiding from the other JWs, because my dad was not one of them anymore and this pal of dad's risked 'excommunication' for doing us such a favor. Pardon me if at this very moment I feel the greatest disgust for them all.
So much for cults. Even in death, my father was standing taller than all these insects around his coffin who could not even agree on how (or whether) to give a decent burial to the very man that they all looked up to, the guy who had the courage to speak up to the Communists when none of them did, who gave up a good and comfortable life of leisure to work 12 hours a day in America where he didn't speak the language, all in the name of that illusory bug which sometimes infects us: we all call it freedom, my friend, and we all pay a lot of lip service to it. How far would you go for yours? Ever wondered? Would you risk jail? Would you give up your citizenship and move to another country? Would you speak up freely when everyone around you runs and hides, and your friends and family say "don't do it, you have too much to lose"? Would you? If you would, you are one in a million. Therefore I salute you and I would personally like to meet you.