Mama Mia

A farewell to the woman who sabotaged Communism by knitting sweaters.

(Source: SME)

My grandmother died at the beginning of April. She was 91 years old. I could not attend her funeral in Romania as I would have landed in a quarantine facility for two weeks when entering the country. So I had to say good-bye from a distance.

I used to call her “Mama Mia”, trying to find a shortcut when as a young child it got too complicated to remember who was who in a family full of aunts, uncles, cousins and their own cousins.

My grandma was born in a relatively well-to-do family in a village in a famous vineyard region in Romania, at a time when the country was entering a period of modernisation and prosperity. The only girl among two boys in the family of the general manager of a vast vineyard owned by a rich minister, she was not interested in the modernisation of the country or…in art. I remember how she told me quite amused that as a child she thought that there must be something wrong with the daughter of the rich landowner - Bianca - who spent her time painting the vineyards on the hills and a few portraits of people.

Grandma could not wait to grow up and… become rich. The first step of the plan was to train as a seamstress, but the war came and she had to give up school. Then communists came and confiscated the family’s vineyards and forest. Grandma never forgot and never forgave them for doing that and later “sabotaged” them in her own way, by officially being a housewife but running a kind of “underground” one-woman pure capitalist operation: knitting sweaters, skirts, vests, caps, scarf and everything her growing number of clients came up with. In the grey communist Romania of the 1980s there was a shortage of good quality fabrics and garments, but never a shortage of wool, mohair, and melana working-class people stole from their workplace.

She developed good trading tactics with Polish tourists in their small Fiat cars on their way to the Romanian Black Sea Coast, desperate to get some extra local currency. To this day I am amazed how many Poles (plus luggage) could fit into that miniature car. As a kid I was interested in sweets, which I quickly learnt to trade with Polish kids by showing “our offers” to each other. I and my gang of 8-9 year olds got watermelon (sometimes stolen from the market) while they got orange- and lemon-flavoured lollipops and chocolate lentils, who in the long hot summer days wanted something fresh and hydrating like our watermelons. The sweets were a bit melted sometimes, but the watermelons also slightly changed shape while being pushed through the small window of the Polish Fiat.

Grandma made sure to take advantage of all the “perks” for the working class as the wife of her second husband, who was building hydroelectric dams. At least once a year she went to a spa and took me with her. I quickly discovered that my duty was to write postcards, because she never completed more than six grades with grammar as foreign to her as that rich girl painting all day long. She was very good at Math, however. At the age of 85, she was quicker than me in calculating how much homemade sour cherry brandy she could sell for a certain amount of money.

Grandma got back her vineyards and forest at the age of 61 and moved to her native village to be a landlady. She never made a good profit but she was her own boss on her own land. She also never understood why I contemplated the beauty of the hills instead of how big the raisins were. Thank God I am not good at painting! But I did not inherit her “entrepreneurial” genes either.

Anca Dragu is a journalist with Radio Slovakia International, which is available in Bratislava in English on 98.9 FM at 6:30pm and 8:30pm and at www.rsi.sk. The opinions expressed in this blog are her own.

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