I remember the bottles. And the flacons. And the blister packs. All neatly lined up on the kitchen counter. I remember her taking a handful of her strongest tablets just before bed and, within minutes, her eyes droopy, mouth like rubber, voice distorted, like a slowed-down turnstile. It was during those few moments of seeing my mother changing from a normal person to a toy that had run out of batteries that I recognised something I wished I could forget.
If you didn’t notice her hands shaking as she held the receiver, absorbed in a long phone call with her sister about recipes and cooking menus, or as she poured hot water from the kettle into a stained mug to make coffee, you would be forgiven to think it never happened. That the woman running errands, paying bills, tutoring young children and cooking, always cooking, never heard voices and didn’t almost throw me under a train.
I only found out about the train a few summers ago.
I was in my thirties, I lived in London, and, even though I went back to Romania once or twice a year, I only rarely got to see my extended family. At least the side I knew, my mother’s side.
I used to know my father’s relatives, once upon a time, but after the divorce, after my mother and I moved away, we lost all touch. After he died, it was as if he never existed. Time and distance removed any trace of my father and it suited us just fine. We hardly ever talked about him. Once in a while, one of my aunts would mention him in the middle of a story, saying something like, ‘And that’s when Gabi, God forgive him, said this or that.’ She would then screen the faces in the room, as if apologising for mentioning his name, but we all knew it was inevitable, part of the story. A moment’s silence followed before somebody else said ‘God forgive him,’ and she could carry on with her elaborate narrative. Since living in London, I’d lost patience for unnecessary details, but storytelling in my family was never about reaching the punch line. It was about the journey of the telling. The point of every story was the narration itself. It was our way of spending time together. Like skilled Scheherazades, my mother and her sisters weaved memories into long braids that were not meant to stand the test of time but to defy it by conjuring the ephemeral time and time again.
That summer, we were all together—my mother’s brother and sisters and my cousins—at my uncle’s countryside house, that used to belong, once upon a time, to my late grandmother.
It was still the same courtyard, with the same enclosure for chickens, the same quince and apple trees bearing sour fruit. But the old porch with wooden beams, where I used to play as a child, now replaced by a modern enclosure with double-glazed windows, like a train’s corridor. It served no other purpose than transiting from inside out and from outside in, but I supposed it helped in the winter with keeping the heating in. I missed the old wood-fed stove where my grandmother made pitta bread during the long winter evenings. The room where the stove was, now a storage full of unwanted things. I missed the chintzy pattern on the walls (now replaced by bright yellow or green paint), the smell of moth balls, her Singer sewing machine covered in half-finished items of clothing, the wood burning in the stove and the cold winter air rushing in when she came through the door with a handful of kindling.
It was during moments like these, when I wasn’t running around, chasing deadlines, trying to catch my breath or a tube, that I remembered how much I missed home. With the passing years, home had become an accumulation of things: past, childhood, innocence, family, a language that jumped out of my mouth like a mountain spring, smells, tastes, seasons, nostalgia, a sense of self. The house may not have been the same and my grandmother might have been gone, but something unbreakable was still there. My identity. My core. My source. The people that made me, all gathered in a small room, telling stories.
I don’t remember how we brought it up. It must have been one of my mother’s sisters, her story taking a wrong turn, ‘God forgive him’ not enough to let her carry on.
‘Do you remember?’ said my mother, with eyes fixed on the floor, as if in a trance. ‘That day when I took you to the monastery in Techirghiol?’
‘I remember,’ I said, recalling one of the strangest days of my childhood.
By then, my mother slowly started to turn into some kind of religious fanatic. She dragged me from one church to the next, crying her eyes out in front of smoke-blackened icons, praying for God-Knew-What.
I didn’t find it strange at first. I was used to being dragged to church every Sunday. I still remember kneeling on a threadbare carpet or a cold stone floor, alongside old women with covered heads and moth-ridden coats. My mother kneeling next to me, wearing a long-pleated skirt the colour of plums and mid-heeled green shoes. Her fur coat, new and expensive (a gift from my father, he made sure to later claim back with interest), and her hands, clad in leather gloves, holding a bunch of skinny candles. My knees hurt but I suffered in silence and didn’t dare to stand up. The incense smoke rising in elaborate curled ribbons from the thurible stung my eyes and my nostrils. I felt nauseous. I must have had the devil inside if I couldn’t stand the incense. But incense purified—that’s what my mother always told me—so I let the smoke go in through my nose and into my lungs like a martyr, even though it made me want to throw up.
I was also used to being patient. My father was a helicopter pilot whose contracts were sporadic but well paid and, when he wasn’t away on a job, he would be drinking at the bar. If it wasn’t a school day, I could be found there too, amongst grown men with moustaches and sweat-stained shirts. ’Go with your dad,’ Mum would say, ‘and make sure he doesn’t drink too much.’ I would spend my entire day sipping on fruit juice and trying to persuade my father to go home. ‘One more drink’, he would say to me, taking a long thirsty sip of his eighth beer, droplets trickling down his neck and onto his chequered shirt. I sighed, knowing that by the eighth beer, I didn’t want him to come home anymore. I didn’t want to see him knocking my mother’s head into the walls and screaming at me to go away. I didn’t want to cry the whole night, frightened, powerless, listening to the whimpers of my mother in the adjoined room.
That day, when she dragged me to the monastery, I sensed something was different about my mother. She was absent, as if she had forgotten about me. She knelt for hours in front of the principal monk’s cell (supposedly gifted by the Divine and revered as a saint) waiting for him, cried, and made weird movements with her hands like in some kind of esoteric ceremony. I saw people walking past pretending to screw a light bulb at the level of their ears, as if to say that she was crazy. My mother is not crazy, I wanted to scream, but I said nothing. I waited patiently for hours until she lifted herself up, wiped the tears off her face, and started the long walk back home.
There were a few good kilometres between Techirghiol and our home. We walked on the side of the road, the late autumn sun shining bright, burning the back of our heads. I was tired and, to be honest, I was afraid. She was acting strange. Stranger than usual.
The only thing my mother said to me was ‘don’t look back, or you’ll turn to stone.’ And I didn’t look back. Not even when we went past the nudist beach by the Techirghiol lake, a salty lake, famous for its mud baths, where my mother used to take me to in the summers.
She would allow me to keep my panties on and smother me in sewer-smelling mud, especially around my neck to prevent colds and tonsillitis and around my knees and elbows to prevent rheumatism when I grew old. As much as I hated the mud baths, I was fascinated with the shapes and sizes of women’s bodies and with the nonchalance with which they spread their legs and exposed their vulvas to the sun. But my favourite part was the row of Polish ladies settled on the side of the beach on neat towels, wearing white fabric sun hats and selling whatever Polish items they could smuggle into Romania, from chocolate biscuits, to pantyliners, pens and jewellery. On a good day, Mum stocked on coffee, soap and tights and I would suck on a lollipop that tasted like Pepsi Cola and forget all about the horrible smell of the mud baths.
But the nudist beach was now empty. No naked women exposing their vulvas to the sun. No Polish ladies selling treasures on beach towels. Just the smell of mud and urine and damp walls. It was late in the season and the tourists had gone home. My mother and I, alone on the sidewalk, counting pine trees, with the odd car driving past. I was tired and slowed my pace down. ‘Keep walking,’ she said. ‘And don’t look back.’
‘Do you remember when we got to the train crossing?’ said my mother. My aunts sat quiet, busy with a button, a loose thread or a piece of lint.
I remembered but what about it? There were far worse moments I could recall. How she walked around in circles in the living room with an Elvis vinyl in her hand my father had brought from Russia, claiming she kept the Earth from spinning out of control and into nothingness. Saying she was Virgin Mary sent into the world to save it. Chasing the cat with burning incense to purify him until his whiskers caught fire. Hearing noises in the cupboards and saying that it was the Devil spying on us. Not that I wanted her to bring any of them up.
When we reached the railway crossing, they had dropped the barriers. The lights and the siren were on. We stopped and waited. We heard the train, getting closer, and a rustle of wind in the trees nearby. My mother squeezed my hand hard, almost crushing my bones. When she squeezed my hand like that, it was her way of reminding me to say hello politely to someone we’d met, but nobody was there. Not even a car stopped at the crossing, waiting for the barriers to lift. The train whistled and sped past with a rush of wind. My mother didn’t let go of my hand. My hand hurt. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. Eventually the train was gone and my mother let go.
‘I heard voices that day,’ she said. ‘All the way from the monastery. And the voices told me that I had to show God how much I loved him. To show him by making a great sacrifice. Like Abraham.’
She stopped and took a sip of coffee from a tiny porcelain cup.
We all knew the story of Abraham, the patriarch of the three Abrahamic religions. Abraham married Sarah, who was barren. By God’s grace, says the Old Testament, Sarah gave Abraham a son, Isaac, when Abraham was one hundred years old. The same God later asked Abraham to show his faith by sacrificing Isaac. But the story goes that, when Abraham had Isaac tied up on the sacrificial pyre and had lifted his knife to strike, an angel of God interrupted him. Behind the angel, Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket by his horns. The ‘lamb’ sent by God to be sacrificed instead.
‘The voices asked me to throw you under the train.’
As a young woman, my mother suffered from menorrhagia. Her periods lasting three weeks or more with only a few days of respite in between. Her years at the pedagogical institute defined by mountains of cotton swollen in blood and red stains on her underwear. Once, she said, the bleeding was so bad that she rode the bus all the way to the end of the line for fear of leaving a red pool on her seat and walked home shielding the stain on her skirt with her purse. The shame and the frustration upstaged only by the fact that she was told she would not bear children. Having me was a miracle. A miracle the voices commanded her to give up that day, by the railway crossing. She didn’t see an angel of God or a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, but something in my mother’s disturbed mind told her that God wouldn’t, couldn’t have asked such a thing. You weren’t supposed to kill a miracle.
‘I fought them,’ she said. ‘I had done everything else the voices told me. I promised I’d do anything they asked of me, but not this,’ she said. ‘Take me, I told them. Take all of me, but not my child.’
I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. It never once crossed my mind that, without my knowing, I had cheated death. That I could have been a headline in the papers— ‘Crazy mother throws daughter under train’—instead of a breathing, living person. That having an abusive alcoholic father who’d turned my mother schizophrenic wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to me.
‘When we got home, your father was already there,’ she continued.
Strangely, I didn’t remember that. I didn’t remember much of what happened afterwards. It was all just flashes, fragments. My mother’s friend, who was a nurse, coming over and cleaning her. Blood. Shameful blood. Stains on the bathroom floor.
Flashing lights from an ambulance and finding myself in a neighbour’s house, trying to sleep.
‘Your father screamed at me and shoved me into the walls and I was happy that he did. It was my punishment for letting you live.’
God forgive him.
I didn’t see my mother for a few weeks, until they finally let me visit her in the hospital. In fact, it was my father who took me there. He acted all loving and attentive like a good husband should. But it was all an act he was capable of displaying when he saw an opportunity for something. Usually money.
My mother was wearing her house robe, made of green cotton with a small flower pattern and brown trim, tied at the back. Her hair dull and uncombed, peppered with her first grey hairs. She could hardly speak, her movements slow as if she was travelling through glue and her eyelids falling heavy over her eyes every time she blinked. She swallowed a lot as if she didn’t have enough saliva.
We went for a walk in the hospital gardens, majestic peacocks strolling past amongst zombies in pyjamas. My mother couldn’t speak in full sentences so we didn’t say much. I held her shaking hand in mine and tried not to cry in front of her. My father was keen to leave. We hardly managed a full tour of the gardens before he shuffled us back to the pavilion and left my mother outside the entrance, to be taken back in by a miserable-looking nurse.
I cried all the way to the gate and my father got angry with me. ‘Stop crying,’ he said.
I think back of what my life could have been if my mother didn’t come back. Raised by an alcoholic, womaniser of a father. Without cuddles, home-cooked food and kind words.
Without my mother’s monumental, voice-defying, unconditional love. What kind of a fuck-up would I have been?
But my mother came back. She doesn’t know how she did it, but she knows it was out of love for me. She came home with a bag full of pills and months of sleepless nights ahead of her. I would wake up in the middle of the night, finding her pacing up and down the hallway shaking like a drug addict.
‘Mum,’ I’d launch myself at her with all my might. ‘Stop,’ I’d say afraid that the voices were back, telling her to walk up and down the hallway to keep the Earth spinning.
‘I can’t stop,’ she’d say, gently, kissing my forehead. ‘It’s the pills. I can’t lie down, my legs are throbbing.’
‘What can I do for you, Mum?’ I’d say, sobbing. ‘Nothing, my love, go back to sleep.’
A few months passed and she seemed better. My father had moved out of the flat and in with his new wife, taking more than half of the money from the sell of the flat with him and all the clothes he ever bought my mum. We moved away, close to one of my mother’s sisters, and bought a smaller flat. A delicate sense of normalcy had returned. We were at my grandmother’s country house, all together, like now, telling stories, until my mother said something weird. We ignored it, maybe we’d misheard. Then she said something even weirder. I ran, found a place to hide, covered my ears and cried.
They told me she had stopped taking her pills. The pills that slowed the world down, turned concrete into rubber and made her hands shake. But when she went back on her meds, she made me a promise. She promised me she’d never stop taking them again, no matter the price.
My mother kept her promise. Staying sane had become her new religion.
My aunt resumed her story and finally reached the punch line. Laughter filled the room. One of the men put his head through the door, announcing that the barbecue was ready. My mother swallowed a handful of tablets from her toiletries bag and we all went outside. A lamb roasted atop a crackling fire.
A ram caught in the thicket by its horns.