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ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART SIX OF SIX)

March 26th, 2016 · No Comments · Diary, Genealogy, Genealogy, History, PEOPLE, quotations

ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART SIX OF SIX)

“En Roumanie tout est possible et rien
ne m’étonne plus!” (Emil Cioran)

7. -Doamne, miluieste! Doamne, miluieste! Doamne, miluieste!
God, bless! God, bless! God, bleeeess!

Angela Livovschi Lambrino

Angela Livovschi Lambrino

By the time it was our turn for the Orthodox service in the cemetery chapel, Angelica’s coffin was placed on the catafalque in the centre of the church, right under the cupola. Her body was shrivelled and pathetic and the expression of her face an indictment to the rest of the world, a reproach of the manner she suffered in the hands of the carer, whom I paid to look after her, at home and she skived. I remember from the former family funerals I attended that the dearly departed met the Almighty with a serene expression on their face. She was modestly dressed in her ‘Sunday best’. They put a lace shroud on her face to make her look like a ‘bride’, which looked ridiculous and pathetic. The flowers were poor – only the carnation wreath my family paid from England was looking all right – but then this was expected of me, as I “lived in the West”, so I could pay, what they could hardly afford, a decent burial.
– Doamne, miluieste! Doamne, miluieste! Doamne, miluieste!
God, bless! God, bless! God, bleseees!
The bearded priests chanted, wafting incense from their incense burner, which made a clinking noise, like those of bells on distant horse necks when pulling the sleigh in winter. The priests moved slowly round the coffin three times chanting and shaking gently. It was like a ritual dance round the coffin, The Dance of Issaya preparing the departed on its last trip. The Orthodox service was always impressive in the semidarkness, with all the wax candles lit, which the mourners were each holding in their hands: I was soon enveloped in the memories of my childhood and for long moments the scene blurred and my thoughts drifted to distant faded images – the world which I had lost. It was strange how our language combined, especially in the theologian speak, elements of Latin and of Slav, which added charm and mystery. The Latin words were sharper, more elegant and crisper than the softened and homelier Slav words. For ‘Doamne’ was the vocative form ‘Domn’ which was the contraction of ‘Dominus’ – God our Lord. By contrast “miluieste’ from ‘pomilouyeh’ in old Slavonic… did not they pronounce in the Russian Orthodox church in Rue Daru, in Paris, ‘Gospoje pomilouy’? except that the Russian God had to be Slav! Romania made that passage between two different worlds, the Western and the Eastern rites and this was reflected in the language. Sacral language, used during church services, had a higher incidence of Slav words compared to the current modern language, which was eighty per cent Latin.

There were not many mourners to see Angelica off. My children were at school in England, my parents, siblings, uncles and aunts were long dead. Friends and colleagues of Angelica likewise, somehow she outlived them all. The little assembly was disposed round the coffin in two little groups – to the right hand side of the dead stood the blood relations – with myself as the chief mourner and four distant Burada cousins, whom I have not seen in forty years, flanking me on either side. Facing us, opposite, were those mourners who were not blood relations, her carer whom I met for the first time and a neighbour from Angelica’s tenement housing estate, where she lived the last few years of her life. It was unfortunate that Ceuasescu’s bulldozers displaced Angelica’s from her home in an old residential area of town, only months before the dictator was shot. She uprooted from a spacious three-room apartment to a trite studio flat the quarter size of what she had before. The paltry compensation given by the communists, was not sufficient to buy her the grim studio which she was allocated by the government, so I had sent her hard currency at the time to cover half of the expense.
The train of hazy images faded all of a sudden, as I was brought back to reality by the mirth displayed by the carer and another unknown strangers, who were talking in hushed voices, during the service, waddling and occasionally throwing me oblique looks. They seemed to profess a mixture of fun and of curiosity – a mystery, which I was determined to unravel when time was appropriate, after the funeral.

The service was drawing to a close with the chants of ‘Vesnica Pomenire’ , ‘Vesnica Pomenire’ and then a third time drawn with longer vowels, in an operatic way: “‘Ves-ni-ca Po-me-niiii-iiii-reeee’: “Eternal Memory!” During these final chants, we were handed over a huge ‘coliva’ (a wheat cake specially made for funerals) on a large silver salver, decorated with caster sugar, coloured sweets on which stood lit candles. This, my cousins and I held with in our hands together, moving it gently up and down, whilst the priests were chanting the last ritual hymn of ‘Eternal Memory’. It was time to bid farewell to Angelica before her body was taken out on her last journey to the family crypt. The elder priest, clad in those rich vestments, with silver and gold thread, tended me an Orthodox silver icon which I kissed and made the sign of the cross several times, in the Orthodox fashion, which is right to left, setting us apart from the Roman Catholics. Custom had it that in the process and just before the priest tended me the icon I was expected to kiss his hand, which I studiously omitted… well I was “not supposed to know… as an Englishman…” I stood for a moment nonplussed wandering what was expected of me to do next. I exchanged a glance with my busy-body cousin, who was in charge of the funeral admin and she came to my rescue whispering in my ear:
– You are supposed now to say goodbye to Angelica before she is leaving the Chapel
– Ah, yes, of course!
Everybody was waiting for me to make the move, with a sense of curiosity, which made me feel awkward. Yes, by Balkan standards this was my great moment, when I was expected to show my grief in public, a kind of tragicomedy, as in my family, at least, grief was always very private and never displayed in public, even at funerals. This flew in the face of the traditions and I presume those non-family mourners, sometimes even the family were all disappointed to be deprived of the opportunity of gloating over such public grief. I approached piously Angelica’s coffin and stood in front of it with a bowed head for several minutes of recollection. I just could not believe it why I was here and what was I doing here in this cold chapel of this very strange country, facing somebody who looked to me by now a stranger who died abandoned and in pain, a far cry of her former self, as I knew her, since I was a child… Grey images from the Communist times flickered through my mind like a slide show… I pulled myself together, crossed myself over, several times, performing a deeper last bow to Aunt Angelica, before I stepped backwards several paces (like Black Rod would do in the House of Lords, before the Queen) and gave way to the family to bid farewell. Now the service was over, I had to think of paying the two priests and I had no idea what to give them. I asked the cousin
– How much do they expect?
– Well, you give them whatever you feel you want to
– But I simply have no clue what is expected of me?
– Whatever you feel like, she said in a typical Romanian fashion, avoiding the issue rather than coming to the point
– But what did you give at Costi’s funeral?
– Well she said, there it was different – the service was longer and grander, there were more priests and there was a huge congregation like at a state funeral, I told you. So the priests had spent longer giving everybody the icon to kiss…
– Do you mean to say… I stopped in time I thought it not very septic to have a huge crowd of mourners kissing one after another the same icon, even if this was holy, they might catch a virus, or something and then be next in line for a funeral…
– Well, in this case I would give them for thirty minutes the equivalent of sixty pounds
– You have to count for the trip, they came from afar and there are two of them you have to hand over the money to each of them, separately.
– Well I have two envelopes – here is fourty pounds each
– You hand me over the sterling and I will give them the lei.
– Sure, what a good idea! I said being relieved that this hoary business came to an end. I put the Romanian notes in an envelope and gave them to each of the priests.
– Thank you, Father, for the beautiful service you performed, I told the more senior of the two
– Well, we were told that you wanted a medium-length service.
– That’s right, I think this is what the dearly departed would have wanted.
– You came a long way, Mr Professor Doctor Engineer, all the way from England?
– That’s right, I had to, it was my duty, this is my last close relation I am burying today
– Dumnezeu s-o ierte! May God forgive her (for her sins)!
– Da, Dumnezeu s-o ierte! Indeed!

Our little talk came to an end, as everybody finished to pay its respects and the coffin was ready to be taken away. A group of six gypsy undertakers entered the chapel in their scruffy clothes and lifted the cheap pine-tree coffin on their shoulders with a jilt. A fifth one took the coffin lid and the sixths the wreath and the wooden cross on which were written in black characters INRI (Iisus Nazarineanul Regele Iudeilor, Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews) and Angela Lambrino, 1910-2001. The two priests followed the coffin, followed by myself, the cousins and the rest of the small party. The carer took in a plastic bag the coliva, the candles and neatly made sandwiches to give as alms to the poor, which surrounded the graves like a swarm of seagulls. The coffin was at a perilous thirty degrees tilt down the stairs of the chapel and for a minute I thought poor Angelica was going to fall out: a moment of panic… but the gypsies knew their score, they went through these motions every day several times a day. The family crypt was not too far. Here we were passing all these familiar mausoleums, which I knew as a child, grand names of Romanian aristocracy, whose members were either exterminated in the political prisons or dispersed to the rest of Europe, like the ‘Wild Geese’ in the ‘Flight of the (Irish) Earls’…Huge buildings decorated with heavy cast iron doors, bronze ornaments, and white Carrara marble sculptures. Some over hundred and fifty years old, from the time of the Hohenzollern Monarchy.

Only a few yards from the Chapel steps, before we took a right turn, on a secondary alleyway, flash-backs came stirring my memory – my maternal grandfather’s funeral, as mother held my arm, as we were walking knee-deep, in fresh snow drift. It was still snowing and windy with the ashen sky heavily overcast. I exchanged reassuring glances with Mother… words were not necessary…
Then images of Mother’s funeral, described on my return in a most graphic manner, by this cousin who buried her: I was not allowed to risk coming back to Romania under Ceausescu. Mother preceded father’s death by less than a year. By this time father’s mind became clouded with the occasional clear-mind spells, which got rarer and rarer towards the end. He could not negotiate the steps of the Chapel, ten of them: he was too weak for that. Permission was sought from the cemetery to allow the car to come close to the steps and he stayed in the car with this cousin, and the car engine running to keep the car warm. When the Service was over and the mourners made their way slowly down the slippery steps, Father was helped out of the car. He took off his fur hat to bear his head and bowed in deep silence as his wife of over 60 years was taken to her place of final rest. It was a moving scene of desolate loneliness: his only close family being overseas and unable to attend… After Mother’s demise, Father was looked after by his sister, my Aunt Angelica who moved in temporarily with him. Only a few weeks after Mother’s burial, apparently, Father enquired after his wife:
– How is Jenny?
– Well, don’t you know? She is not of this world, anymore!
A few weeks later father died. This is when the closest Velescu cousins descended on Angelica like ravens and demanded their “rights’ as ‘legitimate heirs’ – it was only a petty conspiracy, or at best a pre-programmed amnesia, because I did not count, being physically on the other side of the barbed wire of Romania’s prison-country. So they took all they could, including my personal collection of icons and ethnic art, sold the flat, which I actually bought for father in his name and left Angelica empty handed! After all, she only looked after Father during his days of incontinence! To add insult to injury, they wanted also father’s monies from his savings account, “so that they could pay the inheritance tax!” This was wanton impunity, well rehearsed by my first cousin, who, I was to learn later, demanded also the monies sent by me to father, which he held in a savings account, “so that he could pay the inheritance tax”… Angelica did not complain! This was the “dear cousin”, my mother’s own nephew, who shared Mother’s maiden name, and who made a living from running, with the iron hand of a Communist Party cardholder, Ceausescu’s dreaded Censorship, from his offices at the “Casa Scinteii”…

Soon I was jolted to the sad reality, as we were following Angelica’s coffin on her last road to the family crypt. I did not know how long I was having these flash-backs, whether it was seconds, or minutes… I looked at the cousin, who introduced Angelica’s carer:
– This is the lady who looked after Angelica.
I tried to measure her, to decode her beady eyes…shifty, I thought, as she was not looking one straight into the eye – she looked sideways.
– Nice to meet you, and thank you for being with the old lady when she died.
She knew exactly what I meant, but pretended differently.
– And may I ask, what was it that you were giggling about, during the funeral service?
– There was this stranger, who joined us during the service, attracted by Angelica’s surname: she thought that it was the same family as that of “Prince Lambrino” and assumed that you, as chief mourner, you were the Prince himself! So I reassured her that you were, indeed, the real thing!
– God forbid! Perish the thought!
For a split second I believed that Aunt Angelica’s funeral turned into a scene from Eugene Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd, one that my Aunt, as a blue stocking, will have enjoyed.
– Farewell Angelica and God bless you!

END OF “AUNT ANGELA’S WAKE”

Revised Jan 2016

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