Friendships, Susan and Assimilation!

As I was adjusting to my new status as mother of two daughters in suburban Philadelphia, far away, in the country of my birth, Romania and all over Europe, the impossible was happening!

The events of 1989  and the fall of Communism, taught me to never say never. Who would have thought just a few months before, that the rock which seem to be Communism will tumble and disintegrate in just a few short months? Who would have thought that feared regimes will disappear after tens of years of ruling  and those ruled will questioned at last and fight back?  Who would have thought back in 1981 when I made the decision to defect from Romania, that President Ceausescu, his wife and their feared entourage  were to collapse, just like a game of dominoes!

But I was watching all these historic events from afar… on television, on CNN!

1989, was in my personal life, a year of great changes in completely different ways. They were changes experienced by an Eastern European mother trying hard to fit in, to assimilate into my new, suburban American stay-at-home moms life. The time when my accent was an asset because it made interesting conversation at parties on the Main Line, or because investment brokers found it charming and an incentive to sell more, was gone!

This time, I really, really, wanted to belong. I wanted my children to be a hundred percent part of their new, American culture. I was trying so hard to fit in, harder than I ever tried anything before, because this time it wasn’t about me, it was about my children being accepted and fitting in. Our pediatrician suggested I do not speak Romanian with my girls, since the father was American and he didn’t speak my language.

“It might be confusing for the children” the pediatrician said, and I readily accepted the idea that later, proved to be wrong.  One of the many mistakes I made, was to not teach my children Romanian when they were little. However, I made up for that mistake by posting a Baby-sitting Co-op advertisement at the local Library, and taking them to the Library reading hour every Wednesday, and to ballet lessons and gymnastics… there was never enough for my daughters. We had the most pets, all the pets I was not allowed to have as a child. They had more toys than a toy-store, all the dolls I never had, I was organizing the largest parties in the neighborhood, all the parties my mother didn’t allow me to have! Yes,  in those days, I really, really wanted to be assimilated by my new culture, not just acculturated, not having the two cultures live in parallel. Many times, my efforts were undermined by malicious questions: “So… where are you from?”

At first, I’d give long explanations about how I defected from Romania as o political refugee and…

But little by little, especially when the first question was followed by, “and is your husband Romanian too? or so… when did you meet your American husband,” implying that I might have married with the purpose of becoming an American citizen, which couldn’t have been further from the truth..

At first, all these malicious questions hurt me deeply, but one day I determined to rebelled. I stood up for myself and in my mind, I fought for my kids’ rights and place in our new world.  No one had the right to take away from me my rights, those of an American citizen who earned her right to be where I was through  work, determination, endless sacrifices and love for my new country.

I started to fight back in a sudden way, so every time someone asked “Where are you from?” I’d pretend I didn’t understand, and smiled: “We are from Elkins Park, PA, how about you?” And if the person  foolishly insisted, “No, I mean where were you born originally,” I would just respond:”America is known as a melting pot, we all came from somewhere, one time or another, how about your ancestors?!”

Yes, I was, in my way fighting back against what I considered bigots, people who wanted to put me down just because I came from somewhere else more recently than their own ancestors. More importantly, now, I felt like the mother-lioness, I was standing up not for myself, but for my daughters to be accepted in our new world…

Thankfully, Elkins Park, PA was one of the most multi-cultural, accepting and loving communities I could have wished for.  Soon, the baby-sitting co-op changed into play groups in which we, the mothers, enjoyed one another’s company as much as our children. Most of the women who responded to my Library ad where like me, in their mid to late thirties, professional women, who were taking a break from corporate America to offer their babies the best start in life.  Tara, Susan, Maureen, Linda, Karen, Sandy. We formed a core of neighborly and motherly commitment not only to our children but to one another. The bond was to last beyond the play-group, our children’s childhood and teen years, our friendship was to last a life-time!

Only Susan, the gifted, free-spirited artist was to leave us…

Susan and I had a very strong bond which went beyond the love for our children and the baby-coop.

Truth be told, our parenting was not compatible at all: She was the embodiment of free-spirit, I, of the rigidity of my own Eastern European culture where everything needed to be just perfect, in which, at the time, there was little place for “let it be” and flexibility.

For instance, one afternoon, Susan and I had tea at her house, while Eva and Susan’s older son, were playing in the living-room.   There was silence, too much silence in the other room, and we went to check what was going on:

Susan’s living-room walls were “decorated” in all colors and our two emerging artists smiled innocent smiles! I started to scream, Susan smiled: “Oh, honey, she said, ” this is beautiful, did you two draw all these? You are artists!”

I was stunned. To me, this was the beginning of graffiti, I did not want my Eva to draw on people’s walls, but Susan viewed this as a sign of creativity. I learned to be flexible, I learned that not everyone had the same values as I did. After that “revelation of creativity”, we tactfully decided to continue to see each other without our children.  Susan’s friendship, her free-spirit and creativity I loved and wanted to cherish. However, I had to admit our  parenting styles were not compatible, so we started to spent time walking around the tracks at Ogonz Park, Elkins Park. It was our time together, and we cherished every second of it. It was at this time, when in my eagerness to have a flexible schedule for my daughters, I went back to train as a massage therapist, reflexologist and energy practitioner.  At first, people didn’t give me much credit, but Susan was among the few who believed in  me from the beginning and among the first of  thousands  of people, who, along the years became my clients.

I was giving Susan  regular treatments, and this was our time away from the hectic world we both lived  in. Then, one day, Susan who was going to regular breast-checks, because her mother was a survivor of breast-cancer, told me she had a breast-infection. I looked at her scortched breast, and I didn’t need to be a doctor to know  that what she had was more than an infection. However, what my common sense told me, experts told her there was no reason to panic…I told her until a certain diagnosis was made, we could not continue her treatments, but we continued our walks at Ogonz, which in a way were as healing for both our spirits. Soothing in the mist of madness!

“The infection” got worse… Finally, after a few months of unsuccessful treatment with antibiotics, Susan was told it was in fact an aggressive form of breast-cancer, “inflammatory breast cancer!”

Susan was soon hospitalized at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.

Sitting on the edge of her hospital bed I touched her swollen hand, her forehead… She smiled and I forced myself to smile back…

“I will be just fine… it must have a meaning, I just know it’s a trial, after all, I have two young boys, I have to be alright! There is a God, right?”

What was I supposed to say… all I could remember at the time were my mother’s eyes and her scream on her death-bed, “There is no God…” But perhaps, for Susan there was a God, for her sons’ sake!

Susan survived the many surgeries and came back home. I visited her every other day, until her husband told me she no longer accepted visitors. I continued to call and one day, her husband said:

“If you really want to see her… but I must warn you, it’s not a pretty site…”

I went up the winding staircase to her bedroom. It was semi-darkness and in a large bed I saw a swollen body… I guessed it was my friend, Susan. Her skin was so tight, I was afraid to touch her, yet, I wanted to somehow transfer to her some of my healing energy she so much believed in, but which I doubted!

She smiled, as I touched her foot lightly:

“Do you think I will make it?”

I felt the heat on her foot, the roughness of her skin:

“Of course, Susan, you will make it, just be patient, you are loved, I love you and so does your family and friends…”

She seemed satisfied and peaceful with my lie. She smiled, reached for my hand and said:

“Yes, I know I will… I just needed you to reassure me…”

Susan closed her eyes. She looked peaceful.

I carefully withdrew my hand, kissed her closed eyes and left. From the door, I looked at her one more time. Yes, she was peaceful, she was smiling, she was happy.

I left.

The following day Susan’s husband called:

“Susan passed last night…”

She had a well attended Shiva and a very simple, austere burial.

It didn’t matter, because I knew for a fact, her soul wasn’t in that casket.

Every time I walked or drove by Ogonz, I felt her spirit there, in the Ogonz Park, where we spent many hours talking and bonding beyond what we called  life. I mean, the life we see and comprehend with our limited senses.

Yes, Susan’s body was gone, but not her spirit. Her spirit still lived in her works of art, her children and sometimes walked in Ogonz Park, as our lives continued on this plane, that we all called “life.”

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