My grandmothers were babushkas with the fear of God imprinted on their black headscarves.
They looked like fleshy dolmades rolling to church
wearing aged garb in narrative colors—
“the day my first husband died – black,” or “I survived famine gray.”
Pious mouths polishing the altar icons,
mealy kisses weighing down the priest’s lower garments,
always praying for deliverance from imaginary sins.
They reluctantly let me play in the churchyard.
I couldn’t breathe inside in the dank darkness, the oxygen-less air,
the byzantine chants, the guilt, the vague sense of doom,
the priest’s censer breathed dragon fire toward me, chain clinking hypnotically.
I preferred the gray and green of the graves
to the clammy wombness of the church.
Even then, I see it now, I wanted out.
The other grandmother had worked in a textile factory.
When I was young, she would make dresses for me from stolen scraps,
or so she told me, with a gravelly phlegmy laugh,
her mouth like a Venus fly trap.
I would demand new ones over and over, she said, with a cackle and wheeze.
I was horrified.
I don’t think she ever finished high school.
My mom modeled in college:
the working woman’s communist collection of 1971:
sensible heels and midi skirt, floppy hat.
But in other pics from her student dorm
she looks like Garbo, long lean fingers elegantly balancing a cigarette
over knee-high boots and a mini,
her hair a polished bob.
Now my mom’s fingers are bent and arthritic, swollen with years, yet deftly
chopping the vegetables required for the ciorba,
the soup I used to shun because it was all there was,
and I now love for the same reason.
She wants to feed me and my daughter,
–her long awaited nepoata, an ocean away.
Her granddaughter doesn’t want to eat the soup.
“She’s exactly like you,” my mom says, “always contrary.”
My daughter watches cartoons on an iPad, oblivious to all this.
“Too many princesses,” my mom scolds no one in particular.
Later she tells me my outfit isn’t feminine enough.
I should lose some weight. Wear high heels. Speak only Romanian in the house
So my daughter can be theirs, too. I agree:
These days, if I am to belong anywhere, I belong with them.
I left my mother and my motherland in one move,
dragged my boots in the dirt to erase their traces,
my gaze fixed unerringly on the future.
I was grown up but you’re never quite grown up enough to leave your family
when you are a Romanian.
My boots are still full of dirt
ground up from the spines of those left behind.
My daughter will never know her great-grandmothers,
Their stilted rituals weaving their bouldery, moldy magic
from the dust of Eastern Europe,
In The Place Where Nothing Ever Happened.
She will never know the airy delights of their papanași,
or the day-long labor that rounded their backs.
She will never know their mushy, teary, cloth-wrapped, fierce love.
Back in college in Bucharest, I was an anti-feminist before I was a feminist.
It was chic to be contrary, it was uncool to be modern. My professors seemed to agree.
As a nation, collectively, fresh out of communism, we had no idea of how little we knew.
Shiny eyes, full hearts, hands on our flag poles,
a hole in the flag and infinite possibilities in our heads.
We didn’t know at the time that we hoped too much.
We didn’t know we were going to abandon hope.
“A woman has to have some mystique,” my mom would tell me. “A certain je ne sais quoi.”
“A woman must be a woman,” my dad would say.
They could never explain quite what that meant,
But my professors seemed to agree, as they eyed my outfit critically.
Later, I wanted them to read Beauvoir, but they couldn’t care less:
Their wisdom solidified like the cracked mud at the bottom of a pond hit by a 50-year drought:
They needed a biblical flood, and all I had was a pitcher.
My grandmother the diabetic, with a heart condition and a bad foot
Had a shrine made for my father in a corner of her efficiency apartment,
Big picture of a handsome young officer, black and white but tastefully tinted by hand
So that his rosy cheeks popped, surrounded by cracked plastic flowers and knick-knacks.
Her husband had left her while pregnant, taking their firstborn.
Her second husband drank himself to death in a matter of years.
Dad was her only light. He visited twice a year.
She cooked for an army on those occasions—
I still remember the place. The bathroom was the worst.
Still, she was saving cash from her paltry pension
To give to us. Satisfied, she then made us acknowledge
That the other nanas gave us nothing. (Not true.)
One night someone broke into her apartment, beat her up, and stole all her savings.
She died shortly after, alone, forgotten, diabetic, in a one-room apartment that smelled of cigarettes, and pee, and lard.
My other grandmother had icons on the walls, with intricate 3-D tin frames.
One of them was the Last Judgment, which I would study as a kid. It was gruesome and soft. Jesus looked handsome, Satan grotesque.
Her kitchen was magical, her braided colaci out of this world, her dumplings an unspeakable delight.
She made her own cheese, and yogurt, and bread.
The kitchen was painted a deep soporific green and smelled divine and just a little moldy.
Under layers of cloth and wool, there was steel in her eyes,
Resignation, and horror, and quiet, and love.
They all passed away within a year of my coming to America. I couldn’t go to their funerals.
I may or may not be forgiven for that.
My dad’s mother had made sure we knew where her grave was ahead of time
She had spent a handsome sum on the marble headstone–
– death had been her specialty, her main job and topic of conversation.
I’m sure she is still waiting for me there,
brown papery fingers clutching a filterless cigarette.
Mom still wonders why she let me go away.
They all knew I would not return, before I did.
“Do you know that my campus is the size of a small village?”
“Nobody here walks. There are no sidewalks. Everyone drives.”
“Trucks here are the size of buildings.”
“They all want to convert me so I can accept Jesus.”
“Nobody knows where Romania is. Or what it is. Or why.”
I spoke of such wonders over the holidays.
Nobody back home knew what Romania was, or why, either.
They are still trying to figure it out.
The ocean bulged up between us and everything got blurry,
The firm contours of who I once was oozed like dripping paint.
America has been replacing my innards slowly, deadly, sweetly,
Reprogrammed my synapses, ripped God away from me, made me dream in English.
I can’t go back, yet how do I stay? What place is this for my daughter? For me?
How do I fight the political hydras infesting the land?
I feel soiled by their slime, I feel drowned by their screeches.
I no longer know what America is, or why, either.
I am in Neitherland, my neitherhood confirmed by my hundred passport stamps,
my forked tongue, my wilted cheeks, my crosshatched shadow, my transgenic self,
not quite a woman there, not quite an American here.
I am a neitherfemme, a token, a protocol,
a Russian bride and a Mexican maid, a Syrian refugee and a Czech model, a Transylvanian vampire and Nadia Comâneci,
atomized and poured into digestible molds.
But so is every woman
caught in between her mother and her daughter,
in between places and times that tell her what to be, how to be, when and where,
until she retreats into her corner, like a billiard ball in its pocket.
I may not be the hand that thrusts the cue this time, but I am raising my daughter to be one.
What is her mother’s tongue? Where does she go
when she slaloms between words and worlds?
How long until she leaves? How soon until I let her go?
How soon till she forgets? How long till she remembers?
And does she know
That I am her forever home?