A Writer Writes

Moldovan Mothers

by Jason Spears (Moldova 2003–04)

    As a part of the Soviet Union, the future Moldova, a small land-locked country between Romania and the Ukraine, had economic ties between itself and other areas in the Union and the Eastern bloc. The dissolving of the Soviet Union had the effect of ending these relations. With no orders to fill, factories closed and agricultural collectives fell apart. No one had experience with capitalism, but they now had to live in a free-market economy. Few new businesses started and little new employment was created. Moldovans watched their standard of living decline, to the point where they became the poorest people — as measured by per-capita income — in Europe.

    About a fourth of the Moldova’s population, roughly a million people, have chosen to work abroad, often illegally, and send money to their families as a solution to the economic crisis. Traditionally, Moldovan families were close, and this new development is tearing apart the social fabric.


    “YOU KNOW LIFE WAS BETTER in the Soviet Union,” Tamara said from across the wooden dinner table.
         I lived with Tamara and her family for the summer of 2003 while I trained in their village, Fundul Galbenei, to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova. Part of my instruction was on the Romanian language, but my skills were still feeble at this point. To satisfy our mutual curiosity of each other we talked in Russian. Like all the Moldovans educated in the Soviet era, she and her husband, Nicolae, had to learn it.
         We were sitting in her kitchen along with Nicolae after a dinner of bell peppers stuffed with rice and meat, bread, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Behind her was a stove that was hooked up to a gas cylinder. To her left was an open window that allowed in a cool evening breeze.
         “I could have sent all my children to the university without a problem,” Tamara said referring to the free university education available during Soviet times.
         “My oldest son doesn’t want to go to university and I am fine with that. But Mircea, who is in his late teens, wants to study, and we want our daughter to as well, but we don’t have the money for both,” she said propping up her head in the palm of her right hand. She looked down at the table and let strands of her graying brown hair flop into her face.
         Tamara was a part-time Russian teacher at the village school for $40 a month, while Nicolae worked in construction six days a week in a neighboring town. He had not always done this type of work. In the past, he played guitar and sang in a band, but he could no longer make money doing that.
         I would never have guessed that he was a musician. I had never seen him play his guitar. Usually on his day off he did household chores and then lay down on the coach on the porch and dozed. His compact muscular body was too tired to do much else.
         As hard as they both worked, they were still confronted with having to choose whether their son or their daughter would attend university. A critical factor in their final decision was that the daughter was just twelve years old, which meant the family could start saving for her university education and build up a sum of money over the next six years.
         “Mircea agreed to go to work so his little sister will have the money to go to university when she is old enough,” Tamara said.
         Tamara sighed and looked outside. It had been a hot summer day. Just beyond the kitchen window was a porch that an arbor ran along covered with grape vines from which my hosts made red and white wines. Past the arbor was the vegetable garden. The sun had baked the black soil into a dry crust and wilted the leaves of the cucumber, tomato and bell peppers plants.
         “Understand. He is a good boy. He is smart, but he works in a furniture factory in Chisinau — the capital. He lives with my brother there and my oldest son. He always gives me a part of his pay and doesn’t ask if he can keep more for himself. We wouldn’t have to do this in the past. Now everything is money, money,” she said.

    TAMARA’S FAMILY’s water supply was a well about a dozen feet from the house. It was a cylindrical hole in the ground whose walls were made of concrete that stood a couple feet into the air. On its top was a steel cover, which had to be pushed back to reveal the well’s ten-foot shaft. At the bottom was about a foot of clear water.
         In the past, they had a small pump that brought the water to the kitchen sink. It had since broken and they could not afford to repair it, which Tamara related to me with a sneer. Now, to get water out, a steel bucket was dropped down into the well while someone clutched the rope tied to its handle. The bucket was drawn up and then carried to a water container in the kitchen.
         The summer had been very dry so far. Their house was built on the top of a hill and, like the other homes in the same area, they had problems with their well running low. Water trucks had to come to refill them. Later in the summer, the storms finally did come, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. We lost electricity during every heavy rainfall.

    MIRCEA DID NOT COME HOME every weekend even though Chisinau was less than an hour away by bus. The few times he did, he was kept busy helping with the gardening, the feeding of the animals and maintaining the house.
         We did hang out together once. On a Saturday evening, we meet up with some other Peace Corps Volunteers-in-training at the village disco, which a couple young locals organized on the weekends in the town hall of the village. On the first floor people hung around talking and drinking. A small folding table had been set up to sell bottles of beer, cigarettes and snacks. We walked past them and went up a tired looking staircase to the dance floor.
         Every time we danced the Moldovans would stop and stare at us. Having only one CD player, pauses came in between each song of European techno or American hip-hop, as a new disc was put on. During one of these breaks in the music, I walked off the dance floor and over to a wall. I leaned against it and observed the room, which had a dirty tile floor and a couple of colored lights that cast everything in gloomy shadows. Tamara had told me that Nicole’s band used to play here and she loved to come listen to him. I wondered if the room had looked old and worn out back then or fresh and new.
         Mircea came and stood next to me. His white pants and long sleeve shirt made his tall lanky frame stand out in the dim light. He shouted into my ear above the music things like, “Don’t dance with that girl. She’s crazy!”
         Eventually, everyone gathered in the center of the room in a circle. I moved closer and saw two young guys break dancing in the middle. They spun themselves around with only their palms touching the floor and backs perfectly horizontal before fluidly popping into a handstand. Brian, another Peace Corps trainee, lived with them and their mother, who worked in a bank in a nearby town. He told me that their father had moved to Italy to work in a coffee factory and sent money home. Neither of the brothers had a steady job, even though one had training in refrigeration repair, so they spent hours learning to imitate moves from break dancing videos.
         After the break dancing finished, Mircea and I headed home. We walked up the hill carefully as the only sources of illumination were stars and the weak, hazy beams of light leaking from people’s windows. He asked me what I thought of Moldova and I told him that it was a beautiful country. During that summer, the small hills were covered with green and the plots of flowers in front of people’s homes were in full bloom.
         I regret not knowing that this exchange would be our last. All I said to him after we reached home was “good night” as I went to my room. I would have liked to have told him that I admired his sacrifice for his sister.
         A couple of weeks before I left Fundul Galbenei, I came home to find Tamara looking frazzled in the kitchen. She was crying. She explained that Mircea had gotten some work lined up for himself in Moscow for a few months. He thought the pay would be enough to live on and save some so he could start attending university part-time in Chisinau after he got back. He had to leave shortly and take the long bus ride from Chisinau to Moscow. Her son had never been further away from her than the capital and had always lived with family, but now he would be hundreds of miles away in a city where he knew no one. Tamara used the back of her right hand to wipe sweat and tears from her face. She went back to working over the hot stove and said she wanted to prepare Mircea some tastes of home to take on his journey.
         I stood in the doorway of the kitchen watching Tamara. I tried to think of something sympathetic to respond with, but even in English I did not know what to say.


    AT THE END OF THE SUMMER, after completing my training and being sworn is as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was assigned to the village of Rauel.
         In the middle of that October, one of my teaching partners, Maria, and I watched chickens pick through a small grassy slope covered in household trash on a cold and overcast afternoon. At the bottom of the slope, ducks and geese swam in a stream of black water. The birds belonged to families whose homes stood at the edge of the dumping ground on the outskirts of Rauel. Maria and I were developing and teaching a health curriculum for the seventh graders of the village school. We had brought our class to this spot to observe different types of pollution as a part of a unit on environmental health.
         She asked the children to write down descriptions of the trash that was scattered throughout the area. Using a stack of nearby concrete slabs as a table, they began scribbling in their notebooks.
         A girl with long wavy brown hair and wearing an old hooded jacket stepped away from the other students and stared at a clump of garbage. Her face was earnest as if she was dissecting it in her mind.
         “See that girl?” said Maria.
         “Her father used to teach physical education at our school. He went to Italy to work and never came back. He left his family behind and stayed there,” she said. She paused for a moment.
         “We used to have a different school director. She went to Italy to work too and left her parents behind in the village. She started a new life there,” Maria said. Her jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed.
         “When her father died, she didn’t come home for the funeral and left her mother here all alone. Her mother was so distraught. These people are sick in the head!” snarled Maria.
         Maria’s son, a doctor, and his family had been living in Romania on his teacher’s salary at a medical institute. Recently, he had accepted a job in Germany and was home that week for a few days before going there. If his new position worked out, he would move his wife and children there as well.
         Getting to Romania for a visit had been relatively easy for her. From Chisinau a person could take an overnight bus or van to Bucharest. The simple travel arrangements made Maria think that her son didn’t live so far from her. Germany, though, three countries away, made the possibility of regular visits remote.

    MARIA HAD NOT SPOKEN about how her son’s move strained her, but it was visible. Several days later we had agreed to meet in the early evening to write a lesson plan together. Waiting for her in the teacher’s room, I sat at the wooden rectangular table that took up most of the space. On the wall in front of me was an empty coat rack. The other teachers had already bundled themselves up and gone home. The light outside was fading. Few street lights still worked. The village would soon be almost pitch-black, making walking on the frozen mud roads tricky. It was twenty minutes past the time we had appointed to meet.
         Maria burst into the schoolroom, took off her scarf and sat down while apologizing for being late. We began to talk about the topic of the next class and started to write out a lesson plan in a notebook, but Maria couldn’t stay focused. Her fingers, with dirt under their nails from working in her garden, tapped on the table, while her eyes darted from my face to the notebook to the clock on the wall.
         Suddenly, Maria leaned forward and asked to stop.
         “My son is leaving soon. I want to spend more time with him. Can we do this some other time?” she asked as her eyes teared up.
         “Okay. What about the parents’ meeting tonight?” I asked.
         We had planned on discussing with our students’ parents the topics we would be covering in health education. We agreed to postpone it. Then, she fled the room.
         Later that evening Iurie, my teaching partner for sixth- and eighth-grade health, and I were running a meeting in a classroom for the parents of one of the classes we taught together.
    Unexpectedly, the door opened halfway and Maria, hunched over and leaning heavily on the doorknob, took a small step inside the classroom. I stuttered and stopped talking. The parents’ attention focused on the partly ajar door and their eyebrows rose with curiosity. They could not see Maria on the other side.
         Maria’s eyes were half open and her cheeks drooped. She nodded at me and asked to address everyone. Not wanting to offend, I told her to go ahead, despite not knowing why she wanted to address the group.
         She stepped further inside and shut the door behind her. Surprised, the parents shifted back in their seats. Maria raised her left arm and, as she let it drop to her side, seemed to make a shallow bow. She rose up and began spitting out short sentences between labored breaths, with her voice straining as it increased in volume. Its force made those even in the last row hunch towards the desktops as if hunkering down against a bad wind. The parents did not have faces of shock, rather they stared at the floor or they glanced up and then down again before Maria could lock eyes with them.
          Iurie, who had once been a student of Maria’s, slouched in his chair with arms crossed over his chest. He looked down at the floor with his mouth tensed into a small frown. Younger teachers typically deferred to their older colleagues out of respect. Even if he wanted to, he could not interrupt Maria without violating the social manners of the school.
         “I am a single mother,” she said. Her youngest child, a daughter, still lived at home.
         “My husband has left. My son will leave,” she shouted as her eyes focused on a distant spot past the classroom wall. With each phrase she swung her left arm from her chest as if trying to toss these feelings as far from her as she could.
         Maria came to an abrupt stop and her chin dropped to her chest. All the parents watched her, but no one moved. She turned and raised her head. Tears glistened in her eyes.
         “Excuse me,” slipped from her lips. She let herself out of the room. Nobody said anything. Everyone straightened up in their seats and looked at me.
         For a moment we stared at each other. Their eyes were calm or a little sad, while mine were wide open. I could not think of anything to say. Not knowing what else to do, I resumed the meeting.

    NO ONE SAID whether or not Tamara’s son’s work in Moscow would be legal. This question didn’t matter to their family. The job was his chance to achieve a goal that otherwise seemed unobtainable, but, before 1991, had been taken for granted. But even if he did earn a college degree, it would not mean much if the country’s economy did not provide him with the circumstances to use it. Like Maria’s son he would be a skilled professional forced to work abroad.
         The predictions for the future of Moldova are not optimistic.
         During Peace Corps training an economist spoke to us about the Moldovan economy. Someone asked him about Moldova’s chances for European Union membership, which is a good indicator of a country’s economic status, as members have to meet certain standards of economic health.
         “Well, Romania hopes to be in the EU within the next five years,” the economist replied. He chuckled before saying: “Maybe Moldova will be in 25 years from now.”
         On January 1, 2007, Romania and Bulgaria celebrated joining the European Union. EU leaders were willing to support the eventual membership of seven other already designated countries. Moldova was not one of them.