This year's gift

Today I am not going anywhere, I do not have to catch a 7:30 a.m. train and make one hundred phone calls to get twelve appointments. I can relax, sleep late and enjoy my first Christmas in America.

I try to remember how it was in Romania, and my memories hurt. It is only human to forget the cold winter when the summer comes, to stop wondering about darkness when you finally come to light. And I pray that I do not forget the sadness I left behind, and that I keep the committment I made to myself, that is , to share my experiences and tell people to appreciate what most of them don't even realize they have because it seems so natural: FREEDOM.

For years I believed that in America there could be a superficial, consumer society with no depth. I was convinced that we behind the Iron Curtain had a more complex life, and because we lacked so many things, we appreciated better the little we had. But there came a day when I questioned the truth of my convictions, and I had to admit that there was no time left for creativity and thinking between listening to hypocritical speeches, attending meaningless party meetings and standing in line for food.

I remember the dirty, empty food stores smelling of rats while official posters announced a general rat killing campaign. I remember the frustration of going into book shops to find only mountains of President Ceausescu's writings in deluxe editions, and more and more his wife's - Academician, Doctor, Engineer , the number one lady, the woman scientist, mother and wife of a ''hero,'' symbol of what officially we all must aspire to become, symbol of all we can never become.

Ceausescu's works, purchased in hundreds of copies, by all public institutions, his and her portraits in every office, in every shop window, everywhere, like a haunting. One day, in the shabby kitchen of a garbage woman, I saw Ceausescu's portrait, and I could not stop asking ''Why? Do you like him? Has he been good to you?'' Thoughtfully, she looked at me and said: ''I found this while looking for food for my pigs . . . and well, who knows?'' She paused, then added: ''It never hurts to have his portrait around, who knows who comes here . . . and it is better . . . just more safe.''

My friend did not know to read or write, but she certainly had that unique instinct of preservation which exists in children and animals; most of us don't have it, as we become older and wiser, as we learn, as we know more, and our mind decides that it is better not to exist than to exist in shame.

I decided to go away before I reached the age when nothing is any longer of any importance.

It is still fresh in my memory, a nightmare I used to have in Romania: I dreamed that my whole existence is a path starting from nothingness, that I was looking upon my own life from its upper end, aware that the next step could be the last one. Now I know that the Lord has a plan for each of us, and I trust Him because his unconditional love never fails. And I have learned to give thanks in everything, good and bad, for now I know that ''all things work together for good for them that love God.''

But I wish that the great Romanian writer Marin Preda had not died after he wrote The Most Beloved Man on Earth,m and that books like Buzura's Voices of the Nightm would be published in numbers to equal Ceausescu's works, and I wish that valuable, lasting literature were available to the public without having to bribe the librarian with a pack of American cigarettes, the real hard currency in Romania. I wish people would not lose their position if they dare speak the truth, or if their daughters chose to leave Romania. I wish Romania would give recognition to its intellectual values before it is too late!

I walk down the bright, lively streets of Philadelphia, mingle with the happy crowds. I look at the colorful Christmas decorations everywhere and I see darkness: the unfriendly downtown Bucharest, with its worried civilians who hunt for food, while young militia men keep an eye on the population . . . just to make sure everything is under control . . . why take any risks?

I go shopping in Philadelphia and I am haunted by memories which don't even ask for permission, they just invade . . . the frustration of not finding something meaningful for those we love, and a Christmas Eve without a Christmas tree, and how could I ever forget the parents standing in endless lines, hopeful that they might be able to buy their children the most desired fruit in Romania: bananas.

Why can't I take my mind off Christmas 1980? After days of searching in Bucharest I ended up buying a plain Russian watch, the type which will function under any circumstances, even when the owner wishes it to stop, so that he can buy another one - I often wonder what happened to that watch? Does it still show the right time, or has it been long forgotten and thrown away together with other unnecessary things: my love, the trust and the beauty of Christmas!

Christmas, 1981 - I was invited to the most wonderful Christmas party I ever attended where kindness and thoughtfulness make me feel at home thousands of miles away from my homeland. My dear friends, the Van was how I imagined grand families: children, parents and grandparents, together, to be joyful and to be thankful for the good things they share. Why did I feel like Alice in Wonderland? I wished I could seize the magic of Christmas, and lock it in a glass box so that I can look at it any time I wish, afraid that it might vanish once I allow it to be free.

I would look at it just from time to time, just when I need to remind myself that life is good, and people are kind to each other and happy; that traditions and family ties are preserved in today's world where so many have lost faith in the meaning of life . . . and where love is replaced with hatred, friendship with lies, and people are more and more afraid of each other.

Christmas, 1981 - Refugees coming from Romania bring news that the toughest anti-emigration policy ever is imposed on the nation, still hundreds of people apply for visas to leave. Ceausescu imposes severe laws against food hoarding; several people are arrested. Newspapers describe the Romanian population as being angry but reserved.

Christmas, 1981 - Romanian friends sent me Christmas cards wishing to take advantage of the most precious asset I've acquired:MY FREEDOM.m And I pledge to keep the promise I made to myself, and I pray that the Lord give me strength to express my feelings, and I thank Him for the most precious gift he gave me through my friends: the gift which cannot be found, or bought - it can only be given: the gift of love!

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.