Our circle was coming to a close. Our rental car was overdue, we had made the grand tour of Romania, and we were back for a final visit to see family before taking the train to Bulgaria. But there was one thing bearing down hard on my conscience: I had not been able to visit Bihor County and the place of my father’s birth yet.
Just why we had waited until these final days to visit them was a bit complicated. Leonica, Cornel’s mother, fell and broke her hip just after the wedding on about our fifth day on about our fifth day here in Romania. We didn’t want to be in the way after her surgery, so we decided to make the big circle tour of the country with the rental car and end up in Marginea to visit at the end of our stay. But why had I left only 72 hours to find them? How were we going to make this all work, especially when we did not have any of their addresses and they did not know we would be coming? Would they even be at around if we found their homes?
In many respects, it was Gheorghe, my father’s closest relative and his daughter Mariora, I had come to see. They were the subjects of my book nearly a lifetime ago, Pilgrim Notes. But now, I had no way to get in touch with them. When we had last visited them, they had no phone. And somehow, I had no address except a memory of where in the community Gheorghe’s house lay, a sort of geographical memory, the lay of the land and a sense of where they lived.
Our travels these last four weeks throughout Romania had given us some great new perspectives on history, trends, and politics of the country today. Our “Circle of Friends” tour was an amazing experience that presented remarkable and unexpected friendships, and serendipitous adventures. We have had a lot of fun. In fact, so much fun that I had sort of forgotten the main purpose of the trip.
Not only had we left too little time at the end of our Romanian adventure, we had planned far too much to do in these remaining days. In this final three-day swing I was planning to accomplish three things: visit the Bihor County seat in Oradea to photocopy some family records for my great nephew who is compiling genealogical records; I wanted to find and visit my cousin Gheorghe, visit Leonica, Dona Mica, Mariora, and Gavrila from Marginea (my father’s birthplace); and on the final day, we planned to meet up with Geta to meet my relatives on my father’s mother’s side in the village of Varviz.
Who would have guessed where we would end up today. Wow!
We drove north toward Arad and then on to Oradea where Drake Southwick (our great nephew) had asked Woody to copy some family records. We got to Oradea, found the GPS location but it was the wrong place. We got the right location from a lawyer’s office, then followed the GPS and found the Archives office. But then we had to go back to near the first place to pay for a permit to copy the records–so back and forth, across town we drove.
Once we finally got there, there were seven big books were laid out for us that Drake had ordered. He wanted us to photograph all seven–we knew we didn’t have time, but two and a half hours later when the office was about to close, I was glad that we didn’t have more time. We found some Fritea names and dates–But now he gets to sift through it all.
We hardly had a chance to actually read many of the entries in the records as we leafed through the pages, photographing about one page every fifteen seconds, or so. We were careful not to tear or pull the brittle pages. We commented that in the US, they would probably make us wear gloves or something. We were only a little more than half way through all seven books when the office closed at 2:30.
Now, we headed north to Marghita and then to locate the village of Marginea to find my father’s birthplace.
“So close to his heart’s desire, yet so far.” That’s how I described my father’s frustrating situation when he attempted to return to his birthplace in 1939. He was in Hungary’s capital, Budapest, and the security would not let anyone board the train going east. War was breaking out.
So he had to return to America after spending all the money he had raised to visit Romania in an effort to find his only living relatives, his sister, a brother or two, he wasn’t sure who was still alive. His mother had died when he was very young, in the 1918 during the Influenza epidemic that hit especially hard in New York, and Chicago. Cincinnati, a much smaller, city was fifth in the most deaths in the US. And my grandmother was one of them. My father was raised by benevolent neighbors and distant relatives in Cincinnati, but he was virtually orphaned, and finding some connection to his birthplace had become a quest for him.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Donald Fridae (originally Dumitru Fritea (changed by the immigrations officials at Ellis Island) traveled with his wife, Gussie Bee, and his son, (me) back to Romania to try, finally, to reconnect with any remaining family and reconstruct the dim memories of his childhood in Village of Marginea that left at age seven with his mother for America.
In March of 1974 I had taken a semester out of my college studies to travel with my parents to Romania. We spent two months in Europe, but our travel into Communist Romania was restricted and our visa was limited to two weeks.
We eventually visited my father’s birthplace and a few surrounding towns where some of his relatives lived in the county of Bihor, north eastern Romania. We found Gheorghe Fritea and his wife Leonica. Gheorghe was my father’s nephew and my only living first cousin on my father’s side.
We stayed with them for two weeks in their rural home in Marginea, a village of no more than 200 people. Two days after our arrival, we witnessed the death of Gheorghe’s mother who had been suffering from pneumonia for weeks prior to our arrival. We experienced an emotional three-day wake that ensued.
I remember Mariora vividly who had somehow taken on the mantle of the “crier” at the funeral. She had performed a non-stop outpouring of grief during the memorial for nearly two hours, a gushing of sincere, almost surreal wailing for “Mama.”
During our 1974 stay, we were told in very private moments about the heartaches, fears and privations of the Communist rule that had drawn over the country since WWII.
One day, Gheorghe took us down to the old church and we located a weathered cross with faded engraving. It was the grave marker for his father, Gavril Fritea. It was one of the few times I saw my father cry. He hardly had any memory of his father, having died when my father was only five.
It was a life-changing experience for us and a tearful departure when we left them. We really had no idea when, if ever, we would see them again.
So now, as Rebecca and I sped on those same very uneven roads north, out of Oradea, I had a haunting feeling. Would we be able to find Gheorghe, his daughter Mariora and her husband, Gavrila? We had just the rest of this day, and the next to try to find my family in a tiny town that I visited in 1974. With no address, GPS was useless to us.
Dim memories of that trip now flooded my mind as we drove north from Oradea toward Marginea, when I first drove these roads in the 1968 Moskvich that we had bought in Luxembourg to make that first foray into Romania during the Communist era. The roads did not seem to have improved much, but there was far more traffic than I remember from 1974.
I was looking for the T in the road where Marghita lay to the left and we turned right to Marginea. We came to an intersection, much wider than the one I remembered, but the geography felt right.
Now, heading east, I began to think about all the changes we had learned about that had taken place here since the Revolution. Since our first visit, we have grown close to Cornel Mandra, the son of Leonica. Cornel came to live with us for short periods during the early 1990’s, just after the Revolution when Romania was transitioning from a dictatorship to a capatalist government. And we had visited them in Romania in 1994.
Cornel’s son, Adrian, who is a contemporary of our sons, was to be married the the beginning of October this year, so we planned this trip so we could be in Zalau for the wedding. During the wedding, we were able to visit with Leonica and Dona Mica, but Gheorghe and his older daughter did not make it to the wedding. I wondered if some sort of family split had occurred. Why hadn’t Gheorghe or Mariora been invited to the wedding with Leonica? Why didn’t anyone have a phone number for Mariora?
All this meandered through my mind as I found the smaller roads, once little more than dirt paths, now paved. Driving south now on the final kilometer, uphill, I finally found the split in the road at the terminus of the main road of Marginea. Here, there is a sharp right that runs downhill to the old cemetery, the one to the left runs slightly uphill to the higher part of town. And there, just in front of us, unmistakably, behind a tall green metal fence was the old home where my father was born.
From Oradea, we drove towards Marginea. Woody found his way to the street where Gheorghe’s house was, and where he hoped to meet Dona Mica.
No one answered at the gate–we were standing around wondering what to do when an old man on an electric scooter drove up toward us. Woody recognized him and said (in Romanian) “Gheorghe, I’m Woody. From America, I’m Dumitru’s son.
He looked confused but then Woody repeated it and recognition crossed his face. He put his hands over his face and cried. It was very emotional. He was happy and hugged Woody hard. Then he kissed me on the hand.
He led us through the gate and we saw that his yard and house was in somewhat disarray. Leonica is staying at her daughter’s house some distance away from here, we didn’t know just where that was yet. She is recovering from a broken hip three weeks ago, so there is no one here to help him.
I was surprised to see a scooter here in Romania. Without really thinking about it, I called out to Gheorghe before fully knowing whether it was really he. I tried to tell him who I was. I wasn’t sure if he couldn’t hear or what I said did not make sense to him. Or maybe it was the pure implausibility of us showing up here, now. When he finally recognized who we were, he broke down into tears.
Cornel had told me not to expect much of Gheorghe. I had assumed that maybe some dementia had set in. Of course, Gheorghe had aged. As I observed him, I subconsciously assessed his abilities, comparing him to the man I saw some 25 years since I had last seen him. I remember him from when he was veril, hoisting up huge swaths of hay when the boys and I had gone to the field and watched while he gathered up an enormous cart load of hay and we all had ridden on the cart, then helped load it into the barn behind this house.
He was able to walk with a walker that he had tied onto the back of his scooter. He spoke carefully, but with a bit of the slushiness that I hear in other older people who are missing some teeth. With my poor Romanian, I had no way to tell for sure if what he was saying was clear. He made reference to things that I could sort out, but I couldn’t know for sure what he was trying to say. (Later, we would find out that he had suffered a stroke which hindered his speech and ability to walk.)
Gheorghe gets around with a walker and a scooter nowadays. I was surprised to see him approach us on the road on the scooter. Romania is not known, as far as we could see, for their modifications for disabled people.
They have upgraded the house since we were here in 94. There is now indoor plumbing and a “new” kitchen where a wood stove keeps him warm.
We asked about the others–Leonica, Dona Mica, Mariora and Gavrila. He said he would take us to them. We helped him into our car. I carried his walker in the back seat with me and he directed Woody to what we thought would be Dona Mica’s house. We went down hill by the old church, then around a big half circle and ended up at a gate. It turned out to be Mariora’s house.
By the time we made it to Mariora’s house, it was about a half hour after sunset. We drove up a winding paved road in the dusk that ended at a metal gate. I wasn’t sure what we should do. Gheorghe leaned over and pushed on the horn, three long blasts.
Soon, I could see a much older version Gavrila coming out, looking perplexed. I got out of the car and said, “Gavrila, Eu sunt Woody din America,” I’m Woody from America. Gavrila looked from the other side of the gate for a few moments in disbelief. Then he said something that I suspected was like Oh my God, I can’t believe it.
Gavrila came out looking just as handsome as I remembered. He was confused about why someone would be honking this late. It was a shock for Mariora, too–She cried and hugged Woody and Gavrila helped Gheorghe get out of the car.
We went into their kitchen and she immediately offered us soup and bread. We said we’d eaten already, but she insisted, so we ate.
It was truly hard to communicate, but between Woody and Google Translate, we got important things across. She called her daughter, who lives in Oradea and who speaks English, to come meet us and help translate. She and her husband drove (it took over an hour and a half) just to come and help out.
It’s truly amazing that people can age so much and yet be exactly who they were still, not changed a bit in certain ways. Mariora has, for me, always had this kind, cheerful disposition, yet when something in the conversation turns to the loss of a loved one, she will turn on a dime and burst into tears. So it was now when we mention of the neighbor Mrs. Petrus who first greeted us in 1974.
Cornel had told us that he didn’t know how to get in touch with her, but they have been in this house since 1994. Mariora told us that if she learned that we had been in Romania and had not come to visit them, it would have broken her heart. I’m glad that Woody made the effort. It was so kind of Ina (daughter) and Ionut (son-in-law) to drive all that way. It made it possible to tell a much fuller story.
Ina and Ionut arrived from Oradea. It was wonderful for us to see them and for them to help translate. They became the conduit for the conversation. We were able to communicate all sorts of difficult topics, nuances in the language and the subtleties in family matters.
I remember Ina as about an eight or nine year old when we were last here in 1994. She had been suffering with a fever, perhaps a touch of the flu while we were here. I remember that she had mustered up courage to sit up and smile at dinner, red-faced and damp browed. Then she had asked to be excused as soon as it seemed polite to do so. Now, nearly 25 years later, she a very tech savvy shop manager.
Her husband, Ionut, is very fluent in English with a robust vocabulary. He is a freight manager. He is big bear of a guy and very friendly. He loves to have Texas style barbecues and knows about various sports teams in the US. He seems to have a perch up on the dividing wall of our two cultures. He enjoys from that point of view the ability to analyze both cultures.
Mariora led us to the new house (many Romanians have a second house that is hardly used except for show and for guests) where she wanted us to stay. It had one of those wonderful tile stoves and a comfortable bed.
The olfactory sense is one of the most powerful memory triggers. The not unpleasant smell of the goose feather pillows and the musty smell of the earthen bricks that built this house send me back into that first visit here. That smell reminded me of the suffocating oppression of the Communist Era. As we drift off to sleep, the day stretches out before us, we can’t believe that we were able to find all the family members still alive here in Marginea, still pursuing their lives, still striving, still carrying on. In many ways, they are doing better than we could have imagined.
The next morning after we got up and went into the old house, Gavrila showed us around his land in the morning. He has three hogs, 30 chickens, a dog and about three acres of field corn and plum trees (for the palinca). He showed us his still where he makes about a 100 liters of palinca a year. Then he showed us his garden where they grow raspberries, tomatoes, eggplant, and apples.
Then breakfast was ready. Lots of good food. We ate and talked and then it was time to go. We wanted to give them help with Gheorghe, but they wouldn’t take it, so we left an envelope on the table in the room where we stayed.
It was an all too-short stay, but we had to get our car back to Zalau, we still wanted to see Leonica and Dona Mica, and then we were to meet my second cousin, Geta-the one we had discovered gfrom the photo of Uncle John. She had agreed to show us around Varviz and the hometown of my Father’s mother and the village of Varviz where I had met Uncle John back in 1974.
We gave hugs and made promises to come back soon that we may find difficult to keep.
Gavrila drove his car and led us to the house on the other side of the village where Dona Mica lives. Her house is large but not finished. They live in it anyway.
We saw Leonica recovering in a bedroom–she seemed alert and glad to see us. We talked and joked for about a half hour, but I think that was enough for her. We also gave Dona Mica an envelope with some money to help take care of Leonica. They just have harder lives here, though much more affluent than 24 years ago.
Gheorghe came by on his scooter just as we were leaving, so we said a tearful goodby to him. And drove away.
As we left town, we made one final stop. We went to the old wooden church. It was built in the 1500’s and was the place of my father’s baptism. We stopped the car, got out looked around. It is like so many other churches we have seen now with the interlocking joinery and aged, almost black weathering. It has the same architecture, same style, same layout.
There were very few graves here. One of them was my grandfather’s, we had seen it, a weathered wooden marker. But there was only one wooden plaque. Then I noticed in the back of the lot, a relatively new monument, looking quite regal. Could it be?
We stopped by the old wooden church where Woody’s grandfather was buried. When we were here in 1994, Woody had given Gheorghe some money to have grave marker put on the grave, but Woody hadn’t seen it. It is quite substantial. I think Woody’s grandfather would be pleased.
Finding my grandfather’s grave made a handsome capstone to this visit to Marginea. This church, built in the 1500’s was the place of my father’s baptism. And now it also displays my grandfather’s final resting place. A perfect place to call the End of the Circle.
Readers who wish to read my original 1974 manuscript, click here:
End of the Circle Postscript:
As I write, now, here in Greece, we have let some substantial time laps between the actual experience and the publication of our blogs. My plan this rainy morning on Crete was to wrap up our Romanian six week adventure with one final blog about a “New Circle Begins” referring to the liniage of my father’s mother’s side of the family, a contrast between two branches of that liniage: one younger educated European-mobile family and another seemingly stuck in a poor, agrarian village. Then, the plan was to dive into some simple, brief posts about Bulgaria and Greece. But on this morning, we received some bad news from Romania.
Last Friday, my cousin, Gheorghe was taken to the hospital in the county center, Oradea, with “intestinal issues.” Doctors performed a surgery and the results were not good. He was sent back to the smaller local hospital in Marghita for what I understood from messages from his family to be palliative care, meaning that he had little time to live and that the only thing that could be done was to alleviate pain. This morning, on Janaury 7, we received a report that he died last night.
We had felt a sense of closure, seeing Gheorghe and Leonica, and Mariora and Gavrila for the first time in decades. Now, the blog that I was going to write seems to fall behind an eclipse of emotion and distorted significance. We join our family from afar in their grief. We are also consoled in a very self-serving way in the fact that we were extremely lucky to have visited them when we did. So, I will let this be brief. I do not lionize Gheorghe. He was a common man who was vibrant, animated, and passionate. He struggled through difficult times, and was my closest relative in Romania. Here is a door into my past that is now closed.