The actual story of that particular child started long before Smena Symbol entered the scene.
Sometime in between the wars, a young peasant couple bought a parcel somewhere in the heart of profound Transylvania and built their home around an apple tree. It was a vibrant, beautiful village that abundantly covered the hills up to a dense forest grown to cast shadows on the city several miles away.
One century later, the tree still stands, while the village around vanished and the home decays. What the camera witnessed through the sight of the child is just a recent, tiny part of this place’ story, but it’s here to last by being shared with the world.
The Apple Tree
The apple tree was there long before our grandparents started building their house. When they got married and bought the lands, the tree was already old and apparently tired; it only made apples one summer of two. That was happening in between the wars.
When I noticed the apple tree, we were living the glorious post-revolutionary years, but, for this earthling, everything was pretty much the same. Older than the oldest people alive and strongest than the house built next to it, the apple tree just kept on blooming every second spring, giving us delicious fruits every second summer.
I met it recently; it was full of flowers and bees. It’s 2015. Our grandparents are both long gone; their children have grandchildren of their own. Under its new armor and a coat of paint, the house silently cracks and crumbles, slowly slipping away with each rain. Outside this place, the world completely changed.
The day our entire family history will be gone with the wind, I expect from the apple tree to still stand, protecting its orphaned lands, surrounded by our ghosts, covered in blossoms, as it always was.
The house I got to know it’s not the original house built by our grandparents in between wars.
It’s the reconstructed version, somewhere in the early ’70s, when my father and his older brother decided it was time for a major repair. It was the soil, clayey after rains, crumbling in dried seasons, that caused the old house walls to crack, as it was built in the middle of a hill’s slope and the terrain was constantly moving.
This “new” house shares, these days, the old one’s path. It managed to last much longer before giving signs of failure, as the two brothers built it not just with a soul, but also with much more know-how than their parents had. Since the ’70s, it opened every summer to a next generation, us toddlers, rather interested in making a playground out of it. And, in this respect, it certainly proved itself a dream house. Literally.
It’s the kind of house that grows in dreams. It only has a hallway, three rooms and a small, hidden stairway that goes up in the attic. Its large windows overlooking the lands had at first green wooden blinds, open each morning to let cool air inside. When rebuilt in the ’70s, the house was also provided with new furniture, the classic one made of varnished wood, and had a big mirror placed inside each of the two front rooms. The smell of “new” soon gave in to the delicious flavors of homemade bread and pies grandmother used to keep in a trough, covered in hemp blankets to keep them fresh. We used to sleep in those rooms, long beautiful nights with skies full of stars and grass full of crickets. Once in a while, we could hear dogs barking and night birds making their hunting calls. And there was this ancient clock hanging in the hallway, that was supposed to announce the hour every thirty minutes, in deep voices of chimes, but rarely did.
The hallway and our grandmother’s room were kept as before and smelled of medicinal plants, some potted, and some left to dry on newspapers, up on the wardrobe. During the long, hard winters, a warm wood fire was set in the big iron stove placed in the hallway, and Grannie installed her ancient loom to make carpets, blankets and curtains from linen, hemp and wool.
All of these filled the rooms with a wonderful scent we always associate in our minds with times long gone. And it still fills our dreams too. Dreams in which the house doubles up its rooms, as it grows from the yard to the orchard, up to the wooded hill, down to the clayey road. It’s the kind of house that never actually breaks.
And there is also this summer kitchen with small windows, when we used to have our dinner, all seated around a big wooden table, from large wooden saucers, under the yellow light of an oil lamp surrounded by night butterflies. Under the table, on the clay floor, chickens and hens were napping heads under wings; at the front door, shepherd dogs were drooling, eyes at our big portions of polenta and cheese; crickets and frogs were filling the air outside with their chants. First, Grannie used to say grace, then my dad’s brother used to say jokes. Sometimes we laughed, some other times we cried.
Those were the house’s glory days.
Today, it still stands. But it fades away. Like our memories of it.
When they first built the house, there were no modern facilities in the entire country, except for in the big cities. It was only natural for the people to use oil lamps to put the light in their homes, wood for the fires and fountain water for drinking, cooking and washing. The oil came from the sunflowers grown on the land, the wood from the owned piece of forest, the main occupation was agriculture practiced the ancient way, and each family was raising their own livestock. Life was hard in-between wars, but also environmental friendly. People made their clothes from wool and hemp fibers and wore no shoes except on Sundays at church and on winters at school.
When communism entered its “golden age” period, the farms on the hills lost the most of their lands and stocks. People started to move in the biggest villages and the city nearby. Some neglected, some abandoned, the houses broke and disappeared. Very few people remained to work in cooperative associations and resist as well as they could. Our grandparents were one of those few.
Back in the ’70s, when they rebuilt the house, there were only four houses still standing in the area, all of them established along the sloppy road that linked the forest up the hill and the valley below, where a tiny river they called Little Danube used to flow. From the stream up, there was another hill called The Big Hill, once full of vineyards, since then deprived of them.
The house on the top of the wooded hill belonged to our grandfather’s older brother, the house down the road belonged to one of the oldest families in the area, and the house on the stream shore belonged to a distant neighbor, of which importance I’ll write later. The house placed right in the middle, where the sloppy road crossed the main road that came from the bigger village nearby, that was our grandparents’.
Before communism spoiled everything for the people of these places, the parcel our grandparents owned started mid distance from the bigger village and was marked by a sweep fountain provided with a large wooden trough for the sheep and cows to get enough water. Every time we headed to the house, the fountain’s sweep was the first thing we saw on the horizon as we’re passing by the gypsy quarter, the last site in the bigger village. During the ’90s, when we used to spend our summers there, immediately after the Romanian Revolution, the lands were given back to the people, and the fountain regained its landmark status. But to us toddlers, it was a more important symbol of freedom, play, and unfinished delight.
Unfortunately, there is also something unpleasant to it. The fountain was not well drilled, as in-between wars, without the proper instruments, it was pretty hard to beat up the clayey soil and reach the groundwater deep down. Thus, during the rainy seasons, the stream filled the fountain up to the border, so there was no need to actually use the sweep, while during the dry seasons, the fountain only gave us mud. The neighbors right up and down the sloppy road had the same problem with their fountains. Which brings me to the importance of the neighbor in the valley: as drilled right next to Little Danube, his fountain never dried.
I never really knew who was this solitary old man, or if I did, I can’t remember. We used to take our sheep and cows to drink from its fountain’ trough and fill our carriage with barrels of its water. Dried seasons happened more often than the wet ones, which was a delight to our bare feet thrilled by the smooth dusty sand on the road, but also a constant sorrow to our Grannie and for Uncle’s family.
Now the fountain is still there. It has the same tricky nature, as being dried it is also the landmark for something people still call wealth. Right next to it, Uncle drilled a new one it provides enough no matter the season. Gnarled willows grew in a line above it. It also has a sweep, and a covered canal meant to bring up to date facilities, such as taps, to the house. For unknown reasons, this never happened. Just like in the ancient times, the household still uses oil lamps for light, wood for the fire and fountain water carried in buckets, five times a day at least, with the bare hands.
Time changed the things and then changed them back, and it’s like it has no power there.
Just like the old sweep fountain, it surely has a tricky nature.
The children in the main picture are some of us.
Luckily, we are all fine twenty years later, although the last time I met the girls – my father’s little sister’s daughters – happened more than a decade ago. The boy, Uncle’s youngest son, no longer lives in the house, as he started a family of his own in the village, but still do work there, keeping the ancient ways work.
Them three, the boy’s older brother and sister, and my father’s little sister is the happy gang I spent those magic summers with, helping Grannie around the house and Uncle and Auntie around the farm, but mostly playing. They were also the first to call me Misha. As Smena only showed up in the ’90s and it couldn’t take selfies, and because some of them were not comfortable with having their pictures taken, we’re all together there solely in our memories.
So we are fine as we speak, but many of our people passed out.
Down the sloppy road, on the property of the neighbour with a lucky fountain, there is this merely marked place of a tomb. It’s our grandfather’s grandfather remains under there. He was a tall man, big as a mountain, with blue eyes and large hands, that nobody knows anything for sure about, except he gave his name of Slavic resonance to his entire kin, being the first of us known living on these lands. Next to him are buried his wife and one of his sons. In the orchard belonging to the house up to the sloppy road, there’s a white tombstone on which time and chalk erased the inscription. There lie the remains of our grandfather’s parents. That was the tradition back then, to bury the people where they were born and lived their lives.
For a long time I thought that the tombstone in the orchard belonged to a hero, our grandfather’s little brother, a student in law, who volunteered in the second world war, came home with permission, refused a job at the town hall, went back and died on the battlefield. He was 21 years old and the first intellectual in a row that included my father and his little sister. It’s only recently that I found out that his body was never returned to his lands, as he fell in the Caucasus and most probably buried in one of those mass graves the earth is filled with. His father, though, made him a memorial inside the bigger village’s church. Right in front of the altar, there’s a stone that says In memoriam I.S., hero in the WWII, God rest his soul.
Our grandfather died while communism was taking over, after long years spent in defending his property. He was a passionate man knowing well the value of the right principles. Our grandmother lived to meet and pamper us, she raised some of us from the very first day, she spoiled us, the others, during magic summers and she even met a few of her great-grandchildren. The pictures here, I took of her the summer she died. She was 80 years old; she apparently had no serious health problems, and she cooked for us the greatest lucskos (cabbage soup) the day she passed away at sunset. Both our grandparents rest in the bigger village cemetery, next to the church they used to visit every Sunday. Near their grave, there is their elder daughter’s, who also lived most of her life at a house not far from her parents’ and had four kids of her own, of whom two are now successful modern farmers.
And many others are no longer among us. Some present ones are preparing to leave as well.
Some others moved to the city and never came back. And a few are still there, living more or less like their ancestors did one century ago.
This is my incomplete and humble tribute to all of them.
One day, after gathering all information, I might write a book for those to come.
For there is nothing worse for a man than forgetting his roots.