The question came out of nowhere: had my grandmother ever stood in the same spot I did, looking down at the same city, at the same church, at the same old buildings? (although perhaps they hadn't been quite so old in her youth).
Maybe it was because I was trying so hard to see the beauty of Brașov and was failing to. I thought of it as 'Kronstadt', as 'Brassó', as 'Corona', trying to see it as if it were new and foreign, trying to see that Transylvanian Saxon architecture that people were so enchanted with. Or maybe the beauty of the hill covered in trees right behind me, now white with snow and winter.
The city lay before me as it always did and I hated my strange brand of synesthesia, which sometimes makes me see cities or books in colors and Brașov was always a dull, burdening grey, a smoke that covered good feelings and made me think not of prosperous people and beauty, but of communism and misery. I'd passed the old fortifications, the huge walls and sturdy towers, now with information provided for foreigners and they'd said nearly nothing. Perhaps I'd find it interesting one day.
But as I tried to go down the hill and back into the city proper, to the Black Church and the Plaza next to it, I stopped above and thought, idly, that my grandmother had studied here more than half a century ago. And my mother said she'd loved Brașov. I wondered if she'd ever stood where I did, looking down at the same buildings, the same Black Church. Young, slim, perhaps walking with my grandfather, who became a doctor so he would be able to dodge the worst of the fires of World War II.
For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking of my grandmother on my mum's side as a real person, instead of the hypothetical presence in my mother's youth. The sort of person who walks on streets and smiles and laughs and tries to make a life for herself. I'm told she loved me. I wouldn't know. I barely recognize her in pictures and that's because I learned to, the way you learn to recognize Shakespeare or Napoleon. She had a permanent wave, in that horrible style some old women still favor, shortish hair that looks as if you just took cylinders out of it. And she was fat and short.
But in my mind, she's not like that at all. She's a faceless, bodiless person, but if she had to be in any way, I'd give her another haircut and make her beautiful in that aging-gracefully way, and she wouldn't be thin, but she wouldn't be fat either. After all, mum is slim and I'm thin and my other grandmother is quite thin as well. I can't conceive my grandmother being, you know, fat.
"She was slim," mum told me. "In her youth. Before she had me. After birth, she gained a lot of weight and never managed to shake it off. Her heart weakened because of it. I decided I wouldn't do the same, so I made sure I lost weight after you were born."
From what people tell me, grandmother was a water, earth sort of person. She enjoyed good food and she was more mellow. Granddad was always doing something, planning, rushing about. Good old doctor. Mum is fire, on the other hand - whatever she decides, she does and she's not daunted by anything. When I was born, the doctors told her she wouldn't be able to breastfeed, because she just wouldn't, biologically it was at least very improbable.
"But that was silly," mum says. "Who were they to tell me what I could or couldn't do?" So she entirely neglected the biological inconvenience and had her way. She always does that. Very scary woman, if I think of it. Once she restrained a furious Alsatian which tried to get to me and tear me apart - with her bare hands. Because she could.
Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't eventually get bitten by an Alsatian, when I was only under my dad's supervision (dad got it away from me fast, but not fast enough) (dad is 1.90-something meters tall, by the way, and my mother is 1.60). I've had a dog phobia ever since. It makes me shake and prattle. Some people don't get it, but dogs scare me on such a basic level that if one were to rush at me, barking, while I was crossing the road, I'd probably stop dead in my tracks and not be able to move even if I realized I was going to be hit by a car.
My grandfather on my mother's side lived where I do now. I remember it so vaguely, you know? He died when I was in first grade, I think, because I remember him asking me about this girl in my class. But I don't remember him so well then - mum says it's because I didn't see him often because he was quite ill. I don't remember that. I remember him taking pills and this scene in which I must have been really young, because he was sitting down and I was on the floor - he was watching the news, "Telejournal", which were really boring and long during those first post-communist years. At least, that's how I recall them. And there was a ball. He pushed it towards me, and I pushed it back. And he pushed is towards me and I pushed it back. It was interesting and fascinating and the ball kept coming and going. We played like that.
I remember the funeral. But not that well. Mum says my other grandparents were there and they held her hands. I just remember there were a lot of people, I think. And some vague images. I think somebody was handing out the typical food at the entrance to the cemetery. I was playing around, sort of. Maybe. I can't recall.
I dreamed of him in November. He came to me in a dream and said that somebody in my family was gravely ill and was going to die. I initially thought it was my mother, and I kept asking if it was her and he shook his head, but I was so scared I kept begging it not to be mum. I woke up and thought to myself that it was odd, how well I could feel him and how close I felt to him, although for over 15 years I barely thought of him. And it was alright, you know? Just a dream.
My mother told me, not three hours later, that my grandma on my dad's side called. My grandfather on my dad's side had died that morning.
"He probably didn't want to live any longer," dad said, later on. "They'd already cut one of his legs and now they had to cut the other one. He couldn't bear the thought of losing it."
Diabetes. Nearly everybody in the family on my dad's side has or had it. Not that it stopped my great-grandmother from getting to be ninety or so. My granddad's brothers all have it (one got it from being very upset when his mother died 7 years ago). Dad got it last year and now he's switched to a much healthier diet. My granddad's brothers were making fun of it at the dinner after granddad's funeral - "When you have it, you're always hungry," one said. "You sit down at the table hungry, and you get up the same!"
And they told my dad what to eat and what not to eat and to be cheerful, even if he was going to be hungry for the rest of his life and even if he'd wake up in the middle of the night with his throat parched from thirst.
I vaguely remember my granddad on mum's side having issues like that as well, but it was because of his hepatitis. I wonder if he got hepatitis from a patient. He was just over 70. Mum says he was coughing blood.
"Poor Ghiță," grandma said a few weeks ago. I don't know why she remembered him, all of a sudden. Ever since her husband died, she's been lost and angry. Sometimes I'm not sure how she thinks or what she thinks of because she sinks deep into herself. I don't think she was talking to me. I think she was remembering and I just happened to be around. Mum says that she got along well with Ghiță, mum's dad. They were very much alike, they were people who did things all the time. She used to knit at a hundred miles per hour and had clothes done in no time. "My mother taught me how to knit," she told me. "She was an amazing woman and always did so much." I wondered how much my great-grandmother had done, if her daughter, pharmacist and champion sweater-knitter and, according to mum, the fastest cook in the world, spoke about her like that.
"Oh, poor Viorica's mother," my granddad's brother said at the dinner after the funeral. "She died at fifty, very young. It was very sudden."
My mother obviously didn't know much about her ex-mother-in-law's family. "Oh? What happened?"
"They didn't know how to treat it back then."
Not too long ago, I woke up in the middle of the night having the feeling that my dad's dad was calling out to me. "Mălinuța dragă, Mălinuța dragă.” Over and over, addressing me as he had in life. "Dear Mălinuța,” using my diminutive. I didn't have the heart to tell him I didn't believe in ghosts anymore.
"Yes?" I asked.
"Where's Mami?" he asked. They always called each other that - Tati and Mami, Daddy and Mummy. It sounds worse in English, but it's okay in Romanian. Many others called them that way, including me. Including mum. It's always fun to listen to somebody speak with the respectful forms of verbs when they call the person Mami or Tati. "She's not home," he told me. "She's not home and I don't know where she is."
And I thought it was so much like him, you know? To wake you up in the middle of the night to ask you some question. No regard for propriety or for people's sleep that way. And no regard whatsoever for the creepiness of the situation!
"She's in dad's house," I said. "Staying there for awhile. This is how you get there - but don't you bother her, you hear? Don't you bother her, she's sleeping! You be nice and don't demand much of her, she's tired."
He left and I curled up in bed, thinking that being a down-to-earth person who's left stuff like ghosts behind doesn't work quite so well when your grandparents are coming around for various reasons.
I think my mum's dad knew all too well that he was dead and that he had decided to come around and warn me because it was his responsibility to say something as the local doctor, dammit. I'm not sure dad's dad knew he was dead.
"I used to dream of dad, too," mum said at one point. "You were very sick once and I didn't know what to give you. Maybe you had a really bad flu, or maybe you had food poisoning. I fell asleep and dad came by and said you had food poisoning and that's what I should treat you for. I did as he said. He was right. And you know, just before he died he wanted to tell me where I could find all the official papers I'd need, but I wouldn't listen. So after he died I could almost hear his voice, 'No, not that drawer, the other one, why do you never listen? No, no, no, go to that cabinet, that's where I put the house papers. Dear, dear.' And at one point I used to dream of him and my mum nearly every night and we'd talk about my life that day - but then I said we should stop, because I couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't and it was driving me up the wall."
Well, I thought, that explained why her dad came to me instead of her. I don't believe in ghosts, but they seem to believe in me and I never told them not to show up.
"Maybe there's some sort of reverse-psychics," I told her. "Just like real people can contact the dead, they're dead people who can contact the living."
"But he wasn't at all interested in psychic things," mum said.
"Yeah, no, I mean, it'd work in reverse. He'd have to be grounded in the real world. Or something."
So one night, mum and I were sitting down and talking about Marquez and Allende and all those amazing South American writers.
"Do you think that the things they describe in books happen, to a certain point?" she asked. "Do you think they do see spirits and talk to God and all that? South America sounds like it were another world, where you just reach out your hand and you can touch something supernatural. But it never happens here, you know? The world here's so real."
I looked at her over my mug of tea and started laughing.