I went back home for a few days, to the Romanian town where I was born, where I grew up, and where I spent the better part of my youth.
I took a long nostalgic walk down memory lane, revisiting all those places that were the landmarks of my childhood years: the school, the school yard, the walls around that intimidating building which, in centuries past, had accommodated a catholic convent; my grandmother’s place by the river, now all dirty and derelict; the spot on the street corner where my best friend and I would stop to chat for another half hour on the way back from school before parting, and where on several occasions we conspired to conceal, erase or forge a note from her report card; the park where our class was made into communist “pioneers” by another class of pioneers, two years our seniors. I went by the marketplace (now renovated but without real peasants) and the bakery where we had stood in countless lines for French bread…
And sure enough, as I was getting ready to slouch off on a bench in Doina Park, in the quiet of an autumn midday filled with remembering, a slanting sun, and crunchy amber leaves, there she was.
I didn’t recognize her at first, until I practically stumbled over her dog’s leash and she spoke. Mrs. T. was not just my elementary school teacher: the one who taught us how to eat an apple until there’s nothing left but the stem and the seeds; the one who taught us how to make cups out of folded paper to be able to drink the water from our insalubrious school bathrooms without getting any germs; the one with the perfect handwriting who knew each student’s weak spot and turned out four (4) first prizes instead of just one, so there would be no jealousy among us. Mrs. T. was more than my teacher. In our town, Mrs. T. was an institution. The best teacher in the best school in town – people would resort to all sorts of tricks to squeeze their progeny in her bulging class, which by 4th grade had reached 47 young souls. That was unprecedented. 47 children – some shy and studious, most average, and quite a few riotous – and she managed to teach every one of us to read and write and add and subtract, and did so with dignity. The worst pupils she would visit at home and then pair with the best ones, so that something would rub off. For a few hours, in class, these children from very poor, dysfunctional families, were no longer in the wrong entourage. She’d plead every couple of months with the gypsy families in our district to bring their sons and daughters to school, and when they came, she’d integrate them right into the school dance where they were gifted, even though they smelled. None of us complained. Back then, Mrs. T was authority. A kind authority, but one that in our minds often overruled our mothers. If a child had a turtle, she’d ask her to bring the animal to school, for all to see. If there was a school trip, she’d pick a famous cave for a destination. Mrs. T. was the best.
I sat next to her at an arm’s length, still shy, still avoiding her eyes. They were old, and her skin creased in countless sad folds around them. I spoke very briefly of my current life in another country, of my two kids, I showed her the pictures of them I carry in my wallet and realized they were outdated because nobody else had asked to see them in a while. Then she looked into the distance and said she was going away too.
She told me she has two grown children with adolescent offspring of their own in Germany, but that was not where she was headed. No. A couple of former students of hers are living in Switzerland, in the Italian part, and have asked her to come lead a private kindergarten there for the children of the Romanian community. She was divorced now, so what could she do. A dignified occupation, in a nice place, with nice kids who needed her, while she still had the vigor. “What’s left here?”, she said. “You people all went away. There’s nothing left but pensioners and shop assistants.”
Both our hearts sank, the bench we were sitting on started to sink into the brown earth, the sun was sinking beneath the trees, naked and stark. I remembered our classroom, the school corridors, and those heavy thick walls for the very last time. A lock on the door and a forwarding address. Mrs. T. is leaving the country.
I never thought memories, too, can emigrate.