Carmen-Francesca Banciu

 

 

(Germany)

 

 

 

Photo: Marijuana Gheorghiu

 

 

 

Fragment from the novel

SONG OF THE SAD MOTHER

 

 

Translated from German by Zoe-Annamaria Hawkins

 

 

 

MOTHER’S HANDS

 

I often examined Mother’s beautiful hands. From afar. It wasn’t recommendable, to come near them.

When Mother was laid out, her hands were still beautiful. Under the delicate skin blue veins were protruding. Blue blood flows through them, Mother used to say, when I asked, why they were blue. It was one of Mother’s rare jokes. Or one of her rare signs of vanity.

Mother didn’t pamper her hands much. A manicure was out of the question. She cut her fingernails very short, almost to the flesh. Because what did one need long fingernails for, when one was not allowed to paint them. It wasn’t only my father’s « not allowing ». It was rather my mother’s « not wanting ». Because long fingernails break when working too hard. And long fingernails are a sign of vanity. And in particular a sign for the worst, in Mother’s eyes. The preoccupation with oneself. That was frivolous.

Frivolous was not what Mother wanted to be.

 

Mother’s hands remained young and delicate. Although she permanently used her hands, you couldn’t tell by looking at them.

The heavy bags, which Mother carried from the market, filled with vegetables and potatoes.

The buckets of berries, cherries and plums, that Mother bought at the market and then pitted. They left no marks.

Not even the acid of the morello cherries, the sour cherries, that Mother has pitted and bottled by the buckets.

 

The acid of the “weichsel”. The morello cherries. The sour cherries. The “vishnia”. The “visine”. They couldn’t harm Mother’s hands.

Which one of these words can capture the power of the sweet-and-sour juice. Which word in what language could harm Mother’s hands. Is there a language in which the morello cherry juice could burn Mother’s hands?

 

Morello cherries. By the buckets, Mother pitted them throughout her life. And turned them into delicacies. Served them as jam in crystal bowls, accompanied by fragrant mocha and ice-cold water. In a moment of tranquility and delight.

 

Since I can remember her, Mother had never had leisure and felt delight. She enabled others to have that. For herself she only preserved the knowledge of having done so. So it would not disappear from this world. Not get lost. She kept the knowledge without inner sympathy. Like a duty, to remember. Preserve. Pass on.

 

Delight and leisure. Happiness. Mother has never imagined this to be part of her. She has never counted on it. Thought, she had missed it. There was nothing to do about it. But one could do something about it for the others. For the following. For tomorrows generation. Mother and the party had the same approach. For different reasons. They wanted to sacrifice everything for the next generations.

For Mother, everything good was coming too late.

For the party, everything was yet too early.

 

***

 

Mother never shared, her thoughts with me. What she believed in. What she felt. She had strict rules. And she forced herself, to follow them. Because she wanted to set an example for me. And because she believed, she was responsible for the others.

Mother believed, she had to atone for mistakes. For the mistakes of her forefathers. She had to take responsibility. Out of altruism. She had learned that from the nuns.

The party had taught her responsibility for others. And the focus towards the future.

 

The party had a very clear vision about the future. Everything was aimed towards it. The past should be rewritten. Or eradicated. Everything sacrificed for the future. Always look ahead. Always focused on the objective. Always ready to win.

 

For Mother the future had a concrete image. Me. I should be able to learn. To become someone. She had not included herself in that picture.

The future is only meant for the others. Wherefrom did Mother have this feeling of forsakenness. This feeling, that everything was too late for her. And that she was a morello cherry. A ripe, fleshy fruit, that had to be used up quickly, before it began to decay.

 

By the buckets, Mother pitted morello cherries throughout her short life. The morello cherries were sweet-sour-bitter-smooth. They held no power over Mother’s hands. She could turn them into anything. Jam, jelly, marmalade, compote, strudel, cherry soup and sauce. And the schnapps covered, sugar fermented “visinata”. That was even to my liking.

 

Mother was able to make so much out of almost nothing.

She smashed the pits with the hammer. The bitter seeds she put in the boiling jam. And the jam developed a vibrant taste. Like the echo of a plucked guitar string.

In summer Mother hauled the whole market home. Mother’s shoulders were tense. The arms stretched down along the body. And the hands clutched the bag handles.

In autumn the arms hung lower. The bags were heavier. Full of eggplants. Full of “cornucapia”, the long sweet pepper. And of fleshy tomatoes. Full of mushrooms. Of onions. And potatoes. Of yellow and red and white and black turnips. Of parsley roots, celery and parsnips, which she would store in sand filled crates in the cellar. And grapes, that she hung on a line in the cellar. And tomatoes, that she wrapped in newspapers. And pumpkins. And apples. And quinces. And nuts.

So we wouldn’t lack anything in winter.

 

We didn’t lack anything. And yet we lacked a lot of things. We ate a quarter of everything there was. And kept part of it for times that never came. And threw the part away that we couldn’t keep. Which Father regretted very much. And would have loved to still eat. So it wouldn’t get wasted. Because waste was the worst. Where so many people in this world starved. And they themselves had gone hungry in their childhood during war time. And during capitalism. Which divides everything unfairly. And distributes nothing to some.

 

Mother hauled everything by herself. Because Father didn’t have time.

She hauled everything by herself. Because I was gone to boarding school most of the time.

She hauled everything. So we wouldn’t lack anything in winter. And we didn’t lack anything. And yet we lacked something. And we didn’t know, what we lacked.

Mother lacked Father. And Father lacked joy of living, when he was at home with us. And I lacked a father and a mother, who didn’t lack anything. Who have each other.

I lacked everything. Although I had everything. And always had to hear about those African kids. About the kids from capitalist countries, who didn’t have protection. Or a real childhood.

We didn’t lack anything. And yet we lacked something. I felt this, when she grabbed the belt.

Maybe Father felt it in a different way.

 

During the day Mother’s hands always kept moving. Whether she was doing her paperwork or her housework.

The paperwork never ended, and she had to take it home. At home she washed dishes, so she could serve Father dinner. So we could wash the dishes. So we could eat from them, and then wash them again. Father never helped with that. Father never helped in general. Because he was never there. And when he was there, everything had already been done. And I helped, as soon as I got there. And I would have preferred never to be there either. Not only, because I always had to wash up. And help. And do. And it never ended. And nobody ever said: You did well. Or: Now you can go play.

But because, it was all for nothing. And nobody was happy about it.

I would have preferred never to be there either. But that was much later. When I had enough, of waiting forever: For Mother, not to have headaches anymore and not to let her pain flow into my body. As if we were communicating vessels.

For Father, who’s resistance against family life infected me. Which I absorbed. And then passed back to him tenfold, as if we were connected through osmosis.

When I stopped believing in osmosis and communicating vessels between us, I stopped wanting to be present. I would have best liked to leave forever. Never look back.

 

Mothers’s hands were slender and delicate. And at the same time strong and skilled. And she was able to peel everything precise and quick. Mince fine. Mother indulged in beauty only at work. She allowed herself, to alter the beauty of natural forms harmoniously with her knife. Mother created beauty in her work. In a hardly noted way.

When she peeled an apple, a long, thin, uniform cut spiral emerged. When she chopped parsley, she swayed the knife on the wooden board and swung the blade over the herb forth and back, in a twirling dance. And when Mother cut the homemade noodles, she held the paper thin, rolled dough with her fingers and cut the fresh pasta close to her fingertips with quick, precise movements. And everything looked harmonious. Like a tap dance. And Mother was an expressionist dancer, who turned life into a live performance.

 

Mother loved eggplants, potatoes, pears, morello cherries, hazelnuts. Apples. She could wrap her slender hands around them, as if they were unspeakably precious. As if she were caressing them. As if she were stroking them. As if they were her children.

 

Her hands were always doing something useful. If Mother had ever been capable of caressing me, she had unlearned it. Long ago. Before my time.

 

One can learn everything. Or unlearn. Or relearn. Mother only wanted to do useful things. And Father too.

 

When Mother wanted to caress me, she’d give me a pat. Mother’s caresses hurt. They filled me with anger and shame. They ended with, me having to bring the belt. So I would learn, not to cause trouble. Not to pout. And take everything, that was done to me. Because everything, that was done to me, was well-meant. For my sake. And for my best.

 

Mother had learned bookkeeping. And political economics. Economy for the people. At that time neither a planned economy nor a five-year plan existed, that one accomplished within four and a half years, out of ones love for labor, in appreciation of the good life and a sense of responsibility for our society. Which was sung in patriotic hymns and pop songs. And was ridiculed in jokes. And was testimony to the communists zeal.

 

Actually Mother had wanted to become a teacher. Before the war and before communism Mother had been too young. After the war and at he beginning of communism everyone had to learn a job, that the fatherland and the new republic had a need for.

The new republic needed teachers. But still more it needed economists, who would assess, manage and increase the country’s leftover wealth. The leftover, Father, the party and the teachers used to say. Left, after everybody had helped themselves. The Germans and the Russians. And the king, the party added. Not the king, Mother’s mother said, who not only was a monarchist, but also remained a follower of “Kakania” her whole life.

 

In dealing with the country’s wealth my Mother was more involved with money than with eggplants, apples or morello cherries. She couldn’t caress money. Because money was frowned upon. And whoever had money, was ostracized. Deported to the never-ending fields of the “Bârâgan”. Only the country needed money. To carry on a trade with the capitalists. The people who lived, within the country, should soon not be in need of money anymore. Because everyone was supposed to get everything according to their needs. Regardless of their accomplishments and capabilities. Mother approved of that very much. Because ever since she had been married to Father, everyone in the family had conspired against her and disowned her.

Disowned is but a word. What could they have bequeathed me with, she said. They had already lost everything. The few rings, the tiny diamonds? I can live well without them. And I’ll tell them where they can stick their silver cutlery, the crystal chandelier and the porcelain service. I don’t have a house for things like that. Nowadays we don’t need that. In our society we’re equals and don’t need silver cutlery, to set ourselves apart from others.

 

Mother didn’t want to set herself apart tom the others. But sometimes engross herself into a good book. She would have liked to browse through great-grandmothers library, through the books, that still were mailed to her from Vienna.

The party had libraries too. But many books were written in Russian. And even though Mother was so linguistically gifted, she was reluctant to learn Russian. And quiet flows the Don. How the steel was tempered. Or: A story about a real man. All these books were not what she wanted to read. But Father taught her, that they were indispensable for the development of the new human being. And she accepted that eventually.

 

Mother’s hands were still beautiful. Looked unexploited. They were only adorned with a single ornament. The wedding ring. The party had provided her with it. The party. Because Father couldn’t afford it. He had no gold and no money for expensive gold from the black-market. Let alone heirlooms.

Mother had sacrificed the ring, that she had gotten at her communion. But the gold didn’t suffice for both rings. So the party had donated the rest out of the state reserves.

The Russians had emptied the gold reserves, and the party had filled them up again. Partially with the gold of great-grandmother and other dispossessed.

A comrade had the right to buy, from the country’s gold reserves, which belonged to everybody, because now everything was public property, as much as he needed for the rings, which should reflect that the, from now on, inseparable comrade and his partner would establish socialism.

Mother had sacrificed her small ring. And the relationship with her family. She had relinquished the heirlooms. Relinquished her whole inheritance, to marry Father.

And Father said, she should be glad, the family had distanced itself from her, otherwise she would be badly off, as daughter of a former manufacturer. And she should be glad, fate had spared her significantly. And that she ultimately had to thank him for this.

 

Father didn’t wear his wedding ring. One could never see, that he and Mother, that those two comrades were together. One could not see, that those comrades were fighting together. United in the task, of bettering themselves. In the task, of creating a better world. In the task, of producing the new human being.

 

Father never wore his wedding ring. Mother’s was removed. Quickly, before she turned cold. Grandmother and aunt Amalia made sure of that. So it wouldn’t get lost. So it would stay in the family. So it would be passed on to me.

I don’t think much of wedding rings and have never worn a wedding ring.

Concerning Father, I think, he never intended, to buy a wedding ring, or even to wear a wedding ring. He didn’t think much of wedding rings. Earrings. Or any other type of jewelry. Of decoration. He never in his life so much as looked at a piece of jewelry. And buying was even more out of the question.

 

Father bought next to nothing. Everything, that needed to be bought, was bought by Mother. So that he could complain allover, she was spending too much money.

Father hardly kept any money for himself. When he received his income, he took very little from it. The blue envelope with his name and party emblem he solemnly handed over to Mother. Mother took it, counted the money and divided it into several small heaps, which she stuck into white envelopes. On those she then wrote with a copying pencil: week one, week two, week three, week four. On others she wrote electricity, rent, unexpected. On one of the envelopes she wrote piano classes. Violin. Ballet. Or English. When Father watched, how she was writing this, he exploded every time. This is nonsense, what you’re doing there. I’m warning you. You’re throwing the money out the window. That one won’t amount to anything anyway.

He often said: that one. And looked at me. Sometimes he also said: your daughter. He never said: my daughter. Or: our daughter. But always just: your daughter. When this was happening, I knew, I had to disappear, before Father would notice me. Sometimes I was already in the bedroom and felt Father’s anger even through the wall. I curled up into a ball on my bed. Made myself as small as possible and tried to fall asleep. Or at least pretend, I was in a deep sleep. If I was lucky, they’d leave me alone. But sometimes they’d come: Your notebooks, where are your notebooks? Your Father wants to look at them.

For ink stains and erased spots I had to pay for dearly. One would test me in geography or French. Or history. History was Father’s favorite subject. History was the only subject, in which he was well versed. The party had sent him to schools, where history was very important. Beside the subject economic socialism.

 

I trembled. In my head an emptiness spread out that swallowed everything. Just before blacking out I pulled myself together. With closed eyes I drew the page from my history book before my inner eye. And then simply read off it. Back then I still belonged to the best of my class. Learning was not an issue for me. I could memorize words. In various languages. I was only bad in memorizing numbers. Historical dates. One day I discovered, that the trick, to read with my inner eye, also worked in school.

 

When Father brought the money home, I never received something from it. The word allowance was not known in our family.

When Mother brought home the money, there was no ritual. Maybe because it was less. Because it wasn’t as important. Or because Mother always rationed everything anyway and mostly decided by herself, what would happen with the money. Father gave her free range. Gave her full responsibility. For Father this meant trust. He trusted, she would buy the right things at the right time. Mother knew, when the onions were good and cheap, for setting up winter reserves. The root vegetables, the two quintals potatoes. Or three quintals, if a heavy winter was in sight.

 

Mother always decided, what had to be bought. Father never went shopping. Mother decided, what and when he needed something, and bought it as well. When Father needed shoes, Mother went with a paper containing the pencil copy of a sole to the store and returned home with the fitting shoes. Put them on, try. Hopefully they’ll fit you. She didn’t say, hopefully you’ll like them. Mother had to know, what was good and appealing for Father. When Father needed a shirt, she measured his neck with a string and compared it to the collar size of the shirts in the store. I’m not sure, how she handled the underpants. But as far as I can remember, Father also never bought himself underpants.

When Father needed a suit, he always received at least two, because Mother dragged along several suits for him to try on. This procedure mostly happened in Father’s office. The secretary took part in it and sometimes even the driver and the cleaning lady. And because everyone had their own opinion, about which suit fitted Father best, and never reached a common denominator, several suits were purchased. Father always had to be dressed well. Because people like him are in the spotlight. As for Mother, being the president of the local communist women’s organization she also was in the spotlight. But her sphere of influence was smaller. And she didn’t need her own secretary. She shared a secretary with Father. Surely for no more than typing and writing. Nobody argued about, what clothes she desperately needed, in order to represent. This is why Mother only bought clothes for herself, when the old ones were almost coming off.

 

My circle of influence was school. Sometimes I was a secretary for the youth organization or the pioneers too. I most often wore a school uniform with a crimson tie and had no need for fashionable attire. Because I was the daughter of the party secretary and later mayor. In addition to that I was a single child. Mother ensured, it didn’t go to my head. She bought me clothes, that I never wanted to have and that didn’t fit me.

 

I hated the school uniform with it’s baggy fabric. With the worn out, shiny bottom. But still more I hated the things, that Mother bought me, and wore the uniform even in my spare time.

Even when I already lived in Bucharest, Mother reserved the right, to buy clothes for me.

 

Mother even bought for Grandmother, what she thought was right. Because her mother threw money down the rathole and only bought useless stuff, she thought.

 

Mother’s mother hated the new order so much, that she refused to buy anything in public stores. During summer she lived off her garden’s harvest, made most things herself. The rest she bought at the market.

What she needed for winter, she bottled, dried or stored in the cellar.

What couldn’t be found at the market, she bought at the flea market. What couldn’t be bought at the flea market, she refused to need. She didn’t need it. This drove Mother crazy. She didn’t want, her mother to run around in old things and visit her like that at her office.

 

Mother bought Grandmother shoes and clothes. But Grandmother sold the new shoes at the flea market and bought herself used shoes. She bought the ones she picked herself. This cycle never ended. Mother was eternally angry with her. Not only for that reason. Mother’s mother seldom came to visit. When she saw something, she needed, she just took it. Mother was angry because of that too. Mother’s mother said, we live in a society, in which there is no private property. You say, everything belongs to everybody. Now everything is public property. I am the public too. Now I need those things, that you own but don’t even need. So I’m taking them.

 

When Mother visited her mother, she always found something, that she had been looking for at home for a long time but had never found. She found it at Grandmother’s. If Grandmother hadn’t already sold it at the flea market.

 

***

 

In Mother’s family it was the women, who were in charge. Because the men had cut and run. Or they had been sent packing.

In Father’s family the women had always died young. There were no women to speak of, with the exception of his little sister, who never really grew up, despite the bunch of children she had birthed. And who never had anything to say. Who counted little or nothing.

 

Mother had beautiful hands. She was unaware of that. Father had never told her. It was never noticeable, it never looked like, Father had ever told her that. As if Father could have said something nice to her. Something, that could have cheered her up. Father only told her: You boiled my egg too hard again. Father told her: Destroy, smash, hack everything into pieces. Break everything. And then still be surprised, that there’s never enough money.

 

There was always enough money. Because both Mother and Father had top salaries. And we also had money at the CEC, the national savings bank. The only savings bank, that existed.

But Father believed, there was never enough. Father never said: You’ve done so much on your own. Pickled. Sewed. Darned. Scrubbed. Brushed. Washed. What you can save with that. No. Father never said that. It was taken for granted by him. Although I don’t know, why and how he took it for granted. Because Father had grown up without Mother. With a bunch of siblings. And a Father, who wasn’t capable of anything besides tending sheep, making cheese and drying apples.

 

Break everything. Smash everything to bits and pieces. You must think, I have too much money, he’d also say to me, when I, rarely, but still occasionally, dropped a milk bottle. Everything, that broke in this world, seemed to affect Father directly. Seemed to affect his wallet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VATERFLUCHT

 

 

 

– Chapter 16

 

Going home means going to my father’s house. My mother died a long time ago. I have always been an orphan.

Affection, tenderness and warmth weaken the character.

Mean poor parenting. Are petty-bourgeois.

When I was eight I was given a watch. That’s the only birthday I can still remember. Otherwise a birthday was a day like any other. The only difference was that you finally received something you needed anyway.

I never got what I wanted. You shouldn’t spoil an only child. Shouldn’t endanger it. Let it slip into petty-bourgeois, selfish behaviour. The girls in our building all had such pretty prams for their dolls. I wanted one like that too.

At that time, Romania’s relationship with China was still good. You could see that by looking at my toys. I had all sorts of mechanical toys from China that my mother was so proud of. However, when I was six or seven, I didn’t care about politics yet, and wasn’t bothered about propaganda and good relations with communist China. I much preferred a doll’s pram, like the one Juliana had been given, a doll’s pram from Germany, and I wanted one.

My parents were in agreement and explained to me that I was expected to understand better than other children. That I had to learn to go without and wasn’t allowed to give in to every whim. To be my own master. To control myself. Had to show my strength. Because we were the New People. The people of a New Era. Stronger than nature. We children of the Party had to set an example for the others.

I don’t know if all children received this lecture. But, at some point, all girls had this damned doll’s pram. This capitalist white pram. This doll’s pram that encouraged children to be lazy and spoilt. But, at some point, I was given a buggy.

A buggy. A green one. Such a toilet door shade of green that I was ashamed of it. I should be ashamed anyway, said my father. Because I wasn’t able go without. It was bad enough that Juliana’s parents had relatives abroad.

I don’t know whether the fall of Socialism was already decided then, when the girls of the PCR block got their decadent doll’s prams.

Just you wait and see what becomes of your daughter if you give her whatever she wants just like that, said my father, when mother weakened, gave in and bought me a doll’s pram. A buggy. A green one.

I had got out of the habit of wanting things at a very young age. I didn’t want the Chinese toys. I wanted a doll’s pram and simple doll’s crockery. But I never got it. I didn’t want any of those garish things that stood in the glass cabinet at home. I was never asked and then got two of them at once as a surprise.

Aren’t you pleased, asked my mother.

I had got out of the habit of being pleased at a very young age. I never wanted the bear with the drum. Nor the bear with the camera. Nor the ice cream man with his cart. Nor the little Chinese man on a bicycle. And none of those things that you had to wind up with a key to make them turn in circles again and again in their little worlds and always freeze in the same position. With one hand raised. With the camera in front of his eyes. With his drumsticks in the air.

I had never wanted these toys, even though mother was so proud of our collection. I was allowed to get them out of the glass cabinet and show them, demonstrate them to visitors when they came. But that happened very rarely. Otherwise I wasn’t allowed to play with them in case they broke.

 

China, Hungary, Yugoslavia and so on. You could have believed that the communist camp was in agreement. The Prague Spring had not yet happened at that time. But even we children from the PCR block knew that that wasn’t true. Radio Tirana spoke about the imperialist Soviet Union and the revisionist Chinese. I can’t remember what father thought about it. But mother thought. Those little Albanians are paid by the Russians to emphasise the freedom of expression in the communist bloc. To prove democracy. Those little Albanians. They’re pushing their luck. Taking themselves too seriously.

Anti-Russian sentiment spread further and further. As soon as our liberators had left the country, the muttering became clearer and clearer. That the Russians had made off with our agricultural products, natural resources and oil. At least as long there was still some oil left. After that we reimported our own oil. Only it was a bit more expensive. The voices muttered.

I didn’t know what the Chinese got from us. But I knew that our Chinese brothers made all sorts of toys. Efficiently, efficiently. By hand. So that the children of the comrades in Romania have something to play with. And so that millions and millions of little Chinese people get a job and can eat their daily rice with their chopsticks. So that each Chinese man can buy his suit every year.

That’s Communism, said my father.

My friend Melitta and I, we listened to him open-mouthed.

 

At that time, Romania’s relationship with China was still good. It even became excellent when the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, who soon appointed himself President as well, the proud man, had brought the New Spirit from China. The Cultural Revolution. A present from Mao. Shortly after the Prague Spring. A present from one career revolutionary to another. The journey to China marked the beginning of the brotherhood with the giant brother. From then on, each little Chinese man was the brother of each little Romanian. But, of course, some Chinese men were left empty-handed. From then on, there were more and more jokes about Chinese people in Romanian folklore. And that indicated solidarity. Solidarity in suffering. Only things were much tougher for the little Chinese people. But, if you wanted to, you could find people who had it even worse. The Albanians.

The Cultural Revolution had to be fiercely guarded. So censorship was reintroduced. They would have liked to build a Great Wall of China. But that didn’t go with our Specific Naţional. National pride had saved us once more. They left it at barbed wire.

Vigilenţa. Vigilance.

Death. Grey. Dejection. Hundreds of words were banned. It was a society with a positive attitude that threatened us. With negative effects.

The times were changing. Being connected to the outside world was suddenly an act of courage.

 

 

Translated from the German by Anna Thompson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________

 

Born in Lipova, Arad County, in 1955, Carmen-Francesca Banciu wins Arnsberg’s International Short Story Prize in 1985. In that period, her name goes on the « publication ban » list. In 1991 she establishes in Berlin, where she starts to write texts in German. Volume: Manual of Questions (1984), Fenster in Flammen (1992), Filuteks Handbuch der Fragen (1995), A day without President (1998), Vaterflucht (1998), Land voller Ein Helden (2000), Berlin ist mein Paris ( 2002), Deborah (2005), Das Lied der traurigen Mutter (2007).

Carmen-Francesca Banciu agreed to offer us an interview. We appreciate her patience and showed interest.

 

____________________________________________

 

www.banciu.de

www.literaturport.de

www.goethe.de

 

http://www.mutterromancefebe.wordpress.com
www.levurelitteraire.com

 

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