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Searching for Myself
By Emma Condurache
Balboa PressCopyright © 2012 Emma Condurache
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI am Ema O'Neill, a totally untypical name for a Romanian. I am 35, not married and no kids. I had never been sure I was ready to engage in a marriage relationship with the whole package: husband, children and in-laws. Something was missing but at that time I was not able to put my finger on a certain issue.
I was born in Romania before 1989, the year of the Revolution, as many call it. I have never met my mother; I have been told she died when I was born and this put a lot of serious questions and raised question marks on my existence. I often wondered "why me?" is alive and which is the lesson I should learn from this. Who was my mother and how she looked like were questions I fell asleep with and tears wetting my pillow. I was, in a way or another, looking for her in every older woman I met along the way: my nannies, my teachers, the women from my family and the ones I met along the way. None of them gave me a satisfactory image of a motherly figure. I unconsciously loved her and wanted, for many times, to turn back time and be again at the stage I was inside her and most probably happy. I wanted to be unborn and stay inside her forever.
I tried to understand why I was not willing to build a home of my own and I started to investigate the idea of not living the same "story" my mother lived. I was scared to meet a man and fall in love with and have a child and die at our baby's birth.
So I occupied all my time with ... work. I looked for and got a dynamic job and kept learning and growing in a career till I got to the point of understanding that ... this was not enough. All my life was concentrated around work but this was not enough to make me feel complete. That was the moment I started to seriously question my present and my past. When putting together all the information about my roots, I was surprised to find out how little I knew. The only ancestors I knew were coming from my father's side: my father's parents. Nothing about my mothers'. I was told my mother died at my birth, but what about my mothers' parents? "She grew up in an orphanage", my father used to tell me until I was 14. However I started to get suspicious when the subject was always changed when talking about my mother. "You will understand later", was the answer typical received when asking about her. After a while I stopped asking ...
When Revolution started I was already 14 and getting ready for the winter holidays. I still remember I was baking cookies with two of my cousins. I was so scared about the idea of change to such an extent that I forgot the cookies in the oven till they got burnt. I still remember that I felt like in a dream and had no idea if I could do something about it or not. The images on TV were so shocking and continuously interrupted that I gave up watching. My cousins were loudly crying about the "terrorists" coming, even though none of us really knew the meaning of this word. I had no idea if my father was safe and sound (he was at work) or if I would ever see him again. Only thinking about losing him too made me freeze. I felt like I was alone in the world: me, a lost child, with no one around (my father's parents were not living in the same city with us) and the rest of the world. I realized then that you never have total control on your life and all the literature I read was just ... literature. My nightmare was short-lived and seemed to finish once my father got home that day. Somehow that was only the beginning of my real life because it seemed that all I have lived till that moment was nothing but a lie.
I spent the last days of 1989 packing the most important things of my life: the book "Le petit prince", the only thing left from my mother; her handwriting was nearly seen on the first page as my touch on that page was the only physical connection with her; some postcards from my holidays, a couple of black and white photos with my colleagues, teachers and my best two friends, the pioneers' scarf with all my colleagues' signature on it. My first 14 years of life had to "fit in" a small suitcase. We were supposed to leave for the States in less than 48 hours. I did not understand why all this rush and especially the fact that I was asked not to mention anything to any of my friends. Those days were the last ones when I saw my grandfather. Since my grandmother had passed away two years before, he was the only one I could say goodbye to. He seemed to know exactly what was going on as he burst into tears when we said "Good bye". I always thought he knew much more than I was told and expected not to see me again! He was right; he passed away six months later. The "goodbye" image was the last souvenir from him I carry with me.
In my first hours after I left behind the "iron curtain", I was looking at the people I was meeting in my new life: passengers from different flights waiting to board, people at the customs, people waiting in the airports' waiting halls, people behind the windows waiving "good byes". They seemed so different than I expected. Some seemed sad, some tired, some angry, some indifferent, some happy, some anxious. I was expecting to see only smiley faces on the other side of "the curtain" but they seemed to be as "normal" as we were. We were so limited in our choices as the regime imposed a limitation on the information available but also by the limitation of information we had; all these people I was looking at had something very precious we did not had before 1989: the freedom. I was completely surprised to find that all this freedom was not visible imprinted on their faces as I was expected. They seemed as "normal" as we looked like. I was wondering though what their story was, if they had dreams and plans. I was trying to think about my life and could not figure out how it was going to be. I knew that my life was turning on a different direction but I had no idea in which way. The freedom of moving was the only clear thing for me at that point. Knowing that I will be able to travel from a part of the world to the other, gave me new hopes and wings. What I found frustrating was that, at this point, I could not say a word in creating my own life. The decision for the new direction was taken by my father and I had not even been asked about it. He was writing my life and I had no input to it. Just like a pilot that does not ask if you agree to take left, right or just go straight ahead when you are in his plane. I promised myself to take all the strings of my life in my own hands as soon as I could. I was 14 then and so, I had to wait until I was 21 if American law was applied in my case.
After more than 24 hours "in the air" and our transfer stop in Paris, the very first days of 1990 found both me and my father in the States. We finally arrived at our new house. I still remember my head felt like burning. I was told to ask no questions so that the first day was a real nightmare to me. The silence felt so heavy that I was gladly ready to change it with any painful fight. My father's eyes were darker and darker and just looking at him made me more and more weary. I felt all the tension around like a powerful cloud landing on my head and I knew that this trip and those moments would totally change my life. I had no idea how much. I had a past of 14 years in an ex-communist country, and now I had to face a new world. Overnight I got the new name, a new passport, a new life. No grandparents, no friends and no idea where I was heading to. Talking to my father in those moments seemed to be the worst case scenario.
A person my father seemed to know expected us at the airport and helped with the two small pieces of baggage we had.
"Is this all your baggage?" he asked in a tone of surprise.
"All our lives are in these small suitcases", my father replied. I found it, even then, at 14, a very sad reply. I promised myself to be "richer" when I would be my father's age. I had no idea, at that point, that more is not always better. It is a known fact that a light luggage can save your life in many circumstances. Caring your past through your life can seriously hurt not only your hands but also your health. Leaving the past behind but keeping the lessons makes it easier to fly.
"I supposed you are both tired, let me show your new home", the strange man replied.
After two days of sleeping, I started coming back to life. We were accommodated in a nice small house and a new life was supposed to be included in the package. The next weeks I tried to adjust to the new city. Huge buildings, huge supermarkets with tens of chocolate and coffee types seemed to be unreal for the 14 years old child raised in the other part of the world. I pinched myself more than once to see if I was dreaming or if everything was real. I was looking at all the people just like they were blessed to have so many things and be able to afford them. I had at the same time flashes from the moments I was lighting the candles for the dead teenagers in Universitatii Square back home. I had moments when I was between my past and my present as if they were fighting for sharing the same moment.
"Everything will be all right, you will see. We now start a new life, a better one. You have no idea how blessed we are to be here, at this moment", my father was continuously repeating.
I saw no sense or logic in any of his words but I had no courage to interrupt him. In my last 14 years I learned to keep all my emotions and words mostly to myself. I used to talk to myself and no one else because I was too scared that my wounds will be discovered. I learned to hide them so well that it was hard even for me to rediscover and heal them in the years after.
Now I was on a new continent with no friends and apparently no roots. Luckily I was speaking English pretty well and this helped. It was for the first time I was really grateful for the most difficult English teachers I got in school. I used to carry out whole monologues inside my head in English and they were really useful for a Romanian girl. Now I changed the "old pattern" by talking English out loud and Romanian with my father and myself. Strange is life itself ...
My first months in the States were the most difficult ones. Not because of the quality of life but due to the new environment and especially to my new colleagues. Coming from a place they have recently heard of as the most "horrible" one on Earth, made me cry over on many nights. I learned at that point that no matter how much you can learn at school, there are lessons you learn only by direct experimentation. The "horrible" place was the only one I knew and my only moral support and it represented, till that point, all my life. My friends, my colleagues, the little flower garden I was taking care of and had to leave behind, even the worst teachers and colleagues from "that" life now seemed to be from another life. I felt, in a strange way, that I was abandoned again (first by my own mother, even if she only passed away) and felt that this time not only my mother died but all my life. I felt I was like a ship in a troubled sea and hesitated to go to the future as I was still having doubts on about my present. The past months seemed to have no logic at all and I was desperately trying to find a reason "why" I did not understand anything from it. I was walking like a "dead but alive" person, in someone else's dream and life.
I was often waking up in the middle of the night having no idea where I was and what language I should speak but learned to live with it. Romanian words were mixed with English ones. One night I found myself making a plan to find my own roots. I was the main character in my own play and started to make a plan for saving money and hire a private detective. I had no idea how much this decision will weight on the "resources" I had in "my pocket" at that time but I found, for the first time in my life, a clear purpose in my life. And this meant more than focusing on school. I started working on in extra school activities and considerably opening my horizon. I made a list with my "favorite things to do" and that I could get extra money from. I have always felt some curios resonance and "security" when speaking French and this created me the "space" for spending some time in improving this language and then teaching it to others. It was like a language my heart understood and was happy every time it was spoken. I also started writing for the school magazine and I used this opportunity to express my feelings in writing. Not only did this helped with my school essays but also became an effective true therapy for me. Reading these notes after years I realized how "broken" I felt in those moments of my life. I felt a great eagerness to write especially when feelings such as upsets, hurts or abandonment visited me. These notes became closer to me than anything else before. My past seemed to lose the importance it used to have, my friends, my life in Romania, my grandparents, they all became memories from another life.
"Everything will be ok, you will see", my father kept saying to me.
I started wondering if he was talking to me or if he was trying to encourage himself. I guess he knew nothing more than I did at that time, about where life would be taking us. I was always looking at him as the only one knowing precisely all the steps of his life and implicitly mine but, for the first time, I felt that he had no control or idea over our new life. He was also struggling to find his own place in the new life. Besides, having a child to take care of was probably more burdening for him. I understood that and did my best to "compensate" for the situation.
"All you have to do is go to school, learn and you will see that everything will be just fine. All you have to do is give your best at school. All you need to do is try to be the best and you will succeed in everything", he kept saying.
I was getting the best marks and I have to admit that in many areas I knew the lessons before the teacher taught it. The theory topics seemed one year behind from what I studied in Romania so I was just repeating the year. Besides, all I had to do was learn and study and this was my main focus at that time. Being alone was not something new to me and did not bother me too much. I learnt to have "silence" and "patience" as my best friends. I was struggling not to forget pieces from my past; writing letters to my Romanian friends every other week seemed to be the best solution at that time even though I knew I was not part of their universe anymore. As expected, the connection with them lost its grip on me, the ties became weaker and weaker, and sequences images of my past seemed to fade away. In order to survive in my new life, I needed to make some "clearance" room in my memories so that new moments may enter. I still remembered though and laughed just thinking about our video parties, pioneers festivities and playing outside all day long during our holidays. I remembered not having a large variety of sweets but different types of fruits and home made marmalade, I had no idea what a computer was but I had full access to outdoor games. For me, "Nine stones", "Country, country, we want soldiers", "Geese and hunters" were essential games but for my American colleagues they all seemed hard to explain and difficult to understand. In those days, our childhood seem to have no flaw. I remembered how we shared a chocolate not bigger than a child's hand in four or even six pieces and were very happy to have it. Probably sharing it made it taste so good.
I admit that the new world I was suddenly "sent to" was totally differently from the one I was coming from. In Romania we were faced with scarcity, now we were faced with diversity, starting from food and ending with books, magazines, clothes. Also, the school rules seemed more relaxed, the whole system seemed to let you create and not force you to "fit" in the same matrix; this got me scared but at the same time considerably challenged me. I have been taught to "stay in my own square, exactly on my spot" and not attract too much attention. Now I was asked to stand out in a crowd. This reality seemed so full of contradictions and many times I felt like I was in between two different worlds. In fact I was in the middle and had not decided which one was better for me. It felt strange to be on one side and not the other one; by choosing one of them, I had the impression that I would betray the other "reality" and got a little bit confused. Besides, spending much of my time in the library, gave me more information about the country I was coming from. The history I learned at school started to have "leaks". Facts I always took for granted had different data; it was the same with my own life story so that was no surprise I started to identify it with my own history. The fact that I knew so little about my past and roots started to raise more questions than I expected.
Excerpted from Searching for Myself by Emma Condurache Copyright © 2012 by Emma Condurache. Excerpted by permission of Balboa 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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