Winner of the Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction, a childhood memoir of political oppression and persecution during Romania's Ceausescu years
Carmen Bugan grew up amid the bounty of the Romanian countryside on her grandparent's farm where food and laughter were plentiful. But eventually her father's behavior was too disturbing to ignore. He wept when listening to Radio Free Europe, hid pamphlets in sacks of dried beans, and mysteriously buried and reburied a typewriter. When she discovered he was a political dissident she became anxious for him to conform. However, with her mother in the hospital and her sister at boarding school, she was alone, and helpless to stop him from driving off on one last, desperate protest.
After her father's subsequent imprisonment, Bugan was shunned by her peers at school and informed on by her neighbors. She candidly struggled with the tensions of loving her "hero" father who caused the family so much pain. When he returned from prison and the family was put under house arrest, the Bugans were forced to chart a new course for the future. A warm and intelligent debut, Burying the Typewriter provides a poignant reminder of a dramatic moment in Eastern European history.
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About the Author
Carmen Bugan is the author of the collection of poetry Crossing the Carpathians. Her work has been published in Harvard Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and Modern Poetry in Translation.
Read an Excerpt
Burying the TypewriterA MEMOIR
By Carmen Bugan
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2012 Carmen Bugan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOld Photographs
Every few weeks my mother rearranges the family pictures around the house. She also moves the beds and the rugs, and she places every movable desk in front of a different window. Then she calls me. My father builds a new garage in every house we buy, but it's never about the garage. He takes his favorite photos of us to the shops, enlarges and frames them, setting them between the tools and around the car crane. Lately he turned a summer shed into a writer's hut where he spends his time drafting letters to the presidents of the world. He tells them about the rotten state of forgetting to which he has been condemned since we emigrated to America.
Since we moved into Thelma's basement on November 17, 1989, the snowy evening when we first landed in America, I must have moved again at least fifteen times. Whenever I go home I argue with my parents about not wanting to build a house in their backyard with my brother and my sister and our husbands. And I clean my parents' house, changing all the pictures around the walls. Then I call my mother at work to hurry up and come see the new arrangement. My brother chose a career in the U.S. Army, my sister still wants to be a traveling nurse, and I have lived in America, Ireland, and England, and on the French- Swiss border, writing poems about wanting to be rooted to one place that I will never leave.
My father's prize photograph is the one in which he reenacted his protest against Ceausescu and the Communist regime in România in 1983, when he left us to God's will and the secret police, the Securitate. He posed for us on Helen Street with an American car, on which he placed our Dacia's license plate number (2GL 666). On top of the car, at the front, there is a black placard on which he painted, in big white capital letters, CALAULE, NU TE VREM CONDUCATOR: Criminal, We Don't Want You to Lead Us. At the back of the car there is a similar placard reading, in translation, Army, Justice, Police, What Do You Defend, the Ceausescu Dynasty or the Rights and the Liberty of Man? He is wearing the same black suit he had on when he demonstrated in 1983, was released from prison in the general amnesty of 1988, and wore on the train between Tecuci and Rome at the end of 1989 when we were expelled from the country with death threats, as we began our exile to Michigan. On his chest he has pinned a piece of paper on which is typed I Fight for Human Rights. And he is holding on to a gargantuan portrait of Ceausescu that he has decorated with black ribbons and the Romanian flag, to symbolize the death of the tyrant's reign. Every time I introduce my father to my friends he wants to talk about this, and when he knows there is a chance of meeting someone new he takes a small print of this picture with him as his passport to show that he is not just any old immigrant.
In my mother's bedroom there is now a black-and-white photo of my sister and me dressed up for a children's show in kindergarten: the show at the village hall, where I recited my first poem on stage and sang a song about mushrooms dancing with their red-and-white polka-dot hats in the forest. On top of my head I have a big, peony-like white bow, which I try to balance while smiling widely at the camera. My sister has a hat that looks like a mushroom cap. This photograph, as all the others, is forced on the walls on West River Drive: it is the kind of old that makes you think your life (the version in which you are in the present together with the version from the old pictures) is invented. I remember being young and putting our photographs on the walls of the house we built with my parents, room by room, picture by picture, golden frames matching brass curtain rods. My sister and I were allowed to choose them and chose places for them, just where we wanted, so our kindergarten picture hung above the bookcase in the hallway, where everyone could see it when they looked at the books.
Our portraits were first taken off the walls when the secret police came to search the house just after my father's protest. I was home with my grandmother, who was summoned by my father before he left, to "spend a little bit of time" with me while Mother was in the hospital after giving complicated birth to my brother; my father said he had to "take a trip for a couple of days." My sister was away at the gymnastics school. When the Securitate plucked the family portraits from the walls and threw them over the blankets and pillows they had pulled from the dressers and the beds, I was twelve years old.
Sometimes when I go home now to Michigan to visit my parents, I take out the Romanian photo albums from the bottom of the stack that Mom keeps in the living room cupboards. My parents have their red album; my sister and I have one green album each. Though everything is in black and white, I remember the colors of the clothes and the dusty green or the sandy green of vacations. I also see now how different from each other's our lives have been. The pictures and the icons, though moving from the walls to a pile of things and then on to various other walls, have turned into stores of riches that nourish us when we feel out of place. They are passageways back in time. I call them "our first inheritance."
Our "second inheritance" is eighteen volumes amounting to nearly one thousand five hundred pages, which I have seen recently at the National Council for the Study of the Archives of the Securitate (CNSAS) in Bucuresti; I was granted access to these files after I finished the present book. These are some of the secret files from the penal and informative dossiers kept by the Communist government on my father from 1961 until we emigrated to the United States at the end of 1989, just a few weeks before the revolution. They document his lifetime of political dissidence and his three incarcerations, one of which I witnessed. I do not appear in my father's dossiers, or in the photo showing the buried typewriter on which my parents typed anti-Communist propaganda, or in the log of interrogations. But my heart beats between the lines of the reports; I am just at the edge, a ghost. The story I am telling here is the one with me in it, the story of the last penal dossier. It doesn't include anything of what I have done in the twenty years since we left România, from October 1989 until July 2010, when I was given access to the secret files and I sat with my mother in the archives looking at our lives as if other people had lived them. In this book I want only to talk about my childhood, a childhood in which a typewriter was buried, unearthed, buried, and unearthed again by two people who had children for whom they wanted a better future. So this story starts in the 1970s, a few years after I was born, about the time when I began to have memories and my father's code name was already long established as "Andronic," a name we learned about only last summer.
Bunicu and Bunica: Draganesti, 1975
"Mîna caii, Neculai! Mîna caii, Neculai! Ehhh, heeeh!" I am nearly five years old and Grandpa Neculai with his horse and cart is visiting us at our new house. "Ho, ho, Steluta," I hear him call to the horse, "prrr, Steluta," just outside the gate. I bolt out the door straight into his arms.
Dad comes after me, laughing, "Carmenuto, you sure got good ears!" and he shakes Grandpa's hand.
Grandpa is always wearing the same black dusty suit, only today, because it's not Sunday, he hasn't smoothed his hair with walnut oil, so there is a white mess sticking out of his hat.
"Mom, Mom, Bunicu's here," I shout with my arms coiled around Grandpa's neck, my skin all tickly from his hair.
Mom takes him around the house we bought from the old village priest who moved away. We all go in through the front door, by the jasmine bush. The sitting room still smells like the priest and his wife, incense and old people, but the rest of the house reeks of moth-killing naftalina from unpacking.
"The new priest is good," says Grandpa. "He lives near the kindergarten, so he'll get to know the folk, and I hear he spends the day on the porch playing cards with his wife."
Mom sighs, "Oh, the scandal about the old priest!"
But I don't listen to the conversation. I wriggle my nose and kiss Grandpa's stubbly cheek: "Can I go home with you?"
"But aren't you going to show Bunicu the house?" asks Mom.
Each room has two doors leading into other rooms. It's a labyrinth of cramped spaces with brooms and shoes in corners and toys strewn in the middle of the bedroom my sister, Loredana, and I share. The kitchen has a very short blue door, so Grandpa has to lower himself as he walks through it; from his arms I grab the top of the lintel. When we're inside, I show him the square hole in a side wall through which the kitchen communicates with the dining room: "This is the spy-window."
Except for the spy-window, my sister and I don't really like the priest's house as much as we like Grandpa and Grandma's house. Loredana, whom I almost always call Dana and Dad calls Danuta, is one year younger than me but is the tomboy of the family. At Grandpa's house she loves to make the turkey angry until it puffs up its feathers like a barrel and the pale skin- beads around its neck turn all red. She puffs her little body up too and blows her lips at it, screaming, imitating its clookedoodle sound and shaking her dark hair. Her eyebrows arch above her black eyes and her red cheeks. Here there isn't much to play with.
Grandpa left his cart outside the gates. When we're all out and I am on the horse, I take Grandpa's black dusty hat, which falls too deeply over my face, wrapping me in the scent of hay and his old sweaty hair. I push the hat to the back of my head so I can see. His blue-gray eyes fill with light, his sculpted cheeks with sun. Everyone roars with laughter when I imitate Grandma Anghelina on trips to the farmers' market in Tecuci: "Mîna caii, Neculai!" The horse starts to move obediently. I am thrilled. I want to go home with Grandpa in his cart. Dad takes me from the horse, puts me down. Bunicu kisses my cheek, climbs in without me, and picks up his whip. When he click-clacks his tongue, Steluta starts again and I run screaming and crying in the dust raised by the wheels. I try very hard to catch up with them, but I fall behind. Dust comes into my nose and eyes, making me cough and cry more, my sounds rising over the gluop gluop of Steluta's hooves.
* * *
I don't like being with my parents, because they are too strict. I love running my hands over the polished furniture to make fingerprints on the shine of the tables and glass displays, something for which I get punished. Mom is obsessive about cleaning and keeps the shoes- off rule when we're inside. My sister and I are not allowed to bring the cats or the dogs into the house. We must eat at exact times and have big plates of tomato salad after our afternoon naps instead of going straight into the street to play. And we can only play in the street for an hour or two. Plus, Mom always likes to "make observations" about how Loredana and I behave, so we are scolded all the time, something we are not used to. Our grandparents didn't scold us even on the day when the Gypsies came with their cart and asked my sister and me to give them corn in exchange for wild apples. Loredana, my cousin Florin, and I ran to the granary and brought as much corn as we could carry in our shirts. We made many trips back and forth, but when Bunica heard all our clambering around the yard and saw what we were doing, she just told the Gypsies that's enough corn. There are too many rules at my parents' house, so my sister and I want to go to Mom's adoptive parents, my grandparents.
Mom was adopted when she was three, at her mother's funeral. Grandma Anghelina gave her a tablespoon of honey, after which she followed her and Grandpa Neculai all the way to their house. Mom's natural mother died when she gave birth to Mom's youngest sister, who also died. At the funeral, Mom's older sister Balasa, who was already eleven years old, was taken in by an aunt who said she could help with the housework. Mom's natural father had tuberculosis and spent the whole time at the funeral coughing; people knew he couldn't take care of kids. When a couple of years later he was brought to my adoptive grandparents to die, he was kept at the back of the house in the shed and Mom was told to call him "mister" for fear that she would remember him as a father and suffer losing him. Mom's brother Stefan went to another aunt because he was also older and was useful around the farm. No one wanted my mom because she was too young, so when Grandmother Anghelina saw her running barefoot in the dust after the funeral procession, she felt sorry for her. She sent Grandpa Neculai home to get a jar of honey, and after they gave Mom a tablespoon she didn't want to leave them. I have always known this story.
Bunicu and bunica, that's how we say grandfather and grandmother. Loredana is Bunicu's girl and I am Bunica's, which means that Loredana gets to feed the horse before me and I get to feed the pigeons and the chickens before her. In the mornings, just before the sunrise, when the rooster calls coo-coo-reee-goo, Bunica goes straight to the pantry where she keeps sacks of grain and corn. She fills two pots and goes outside barefoot. Sometimes I watch her from the bed, wrapped in the colorful quilts she makes from our old clothes and old sheets. Loredana usually turns to the other side, snoring. Most mornings I rush after Bunica on the cold damp earth: we throw handfuls of grain, which sound like rain hitting the bald middle of the yard. Pigeons fly from their nests (which Bunicu looks after and repairs every year), making a cloud of wings over us. And then all the chickens, roosters, turkeys, and geese come for the corn. We grab the hens and feel underneath their throats to make sure they are full before we stop feeding. There is so much noise in the yard from hissing geese, little chicks with their tiny beaks and yellow coats, turkeys puffing up and spitting air!
Next we must milk the cow, so Bunica takes her wooden stool and her blue tin pail to the backyard. She talks to the cow softly while she squeezes its teats between her thumb and her forefinger; milk glides warm and fragrant from the depth of her palm, her dress spreading out an imaginary field of blue flowers on her lap. Then we feed the pigs, who smell so awful and look so badly caked in their own shit that I always have to have my sweater lifted to my nose like a mask. My favorite ritual is to collect the eggs from the hens; they are brown and warm and I have to reach into the hay under the hens' butts, which makes them chuckle pleasantly. They are used to my disturbing them in the mornings and evenings. When it's time for making chicks, in the spring, Bunica brings all the eggs in the willow basket to the kitchen table and we look inside them with a lamp, letting the light filter through the yolk to see if there are babies in there. Those eggs we take back to the nests so the hens can sit on them until baby chicks peck their way out. I am fascinated by this. When Bunica says it's happening, I go and watch forever until the shell begins to crack and pieces of it fall on the grass, revealing a tiny beak, and then the chick, astonished with life. They are fuzzy and furry, the little chicks, all bright yellow. They fit in my cupped hands.
So, as I walk back to my parents with my face dirty from dust and tears, I know exactly what I would have done today if Bunicu had taken me home with him. To begin with, it is summer so we would water the big animals at the well, one by one: the cow, the calf, the horse. I love the smell of wet rust coming from the chain and how Bunicu lets me clamber to the edge of the well to look into the water, make faces in it before the bucket drops and the mirrorlike surface breaks into tiny waves. Then I put my hand in the bucket to feel the horse's nose as he snorts while he drinks. After this we fill the wooden boat-like trough for the pigs, then the various rusted pots spread around the yard and under the trees for the hens. When we're done with all this I am soaked. My feet are black from the wet dust I run through. I stomp my feet and tell my mom and dad that they have no horses, no well, no hens, no eggs for me to collect, no pigeons to fly for grain in the mornings and therefore I want to go to Bunicu and Bunica. Mom pretends to cry because I want to leave her but I don't care.
Excerpted from Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan Copyright © 2012 by Carmen Bugan. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Lynn Freed....................xi
Bunicu and Bunica: Draganesti, 1975....................7
The House of Straw....................29
The Black Sea....................37
The Angels in Bunica's Dream....................39
Pouring the Foundation....................43
Hands at the Window....................61
Burying the Typewriter....................71
The Watermelon Child....................79
March 10, 1983....................89
An Audience with My Father at the Rahova Prison....................111
My Parents' Divorce....................121
My Visit to the American Embassy....................163
Last Summer with Bunicu Neculai....................175
Good bye, My Village, October 1989....................185
Returning to Rome, 2006....................195
Afterword: The Files, 2010-2011....................199
Appendix: Archival Material....................211