As a child, I tried to imagine my parents’ wedding day. I had little to go on except what I had learned from romantic movies like “South Pacific” because my mother did not want to discuss their wedding or reminisce about it in any way. The only clues were the few worn, professional wedding photos among the family pictures kept in a box. I spent hours looking through, sorting, and labeling the wedding photographs.
In the 1939 sepia photos, my mother wore a magnificent, long-sleeve gown. A veil descended from a headdress into a long train and she carried a large bouquet of flowers. “They were white,” was all my mother was willing to say. My father, Sandu, was dressed in an immaculately tailored and fashionable suit with a white bow tie, white gloves and black top hat. They made a lovely couple, elegant, beautiful and so innocent, with no hint of what was in store for them.
My mother’s name was Netty, named after her paternal grandmother, as were four of her cousins because there is little imagination in the Jewish custom of naming your children after your deceased next of kin. The family kept the cousins straight with nicknames like Netty, the eldest, Netty, the shortest and Netty, the redhead. I never did learn for certain what my mother’s nickname was although I seem to recall that she was Netty, the cunning. This was only fair; she was a complicated person who led and survived a difficult and complicated life. In her later years, I devoted a great deal of time to her care when she should have been called Netty, the cranky.
She was always unhappy whenever I arrived at her apartment late because I was attending to my children or my grandchildren. She was expert at immediately taking the joy out of seeing her. “Any, they’re taking advantage of you.” “You spoil them too much.” One of my grandchildren nicknamed her Great Netty, perhaps an ironic name, a contraction of Great Grandma Netty.
A few years ago, I realized how little I knew about my mother because in an immature and childish way, I remained the center of her life well into my adulthood. Before she was so old she began to fear her own death, she revealed little about herself, holding her emotions in check and her full history a mystery. She never wanted to seem vulnerable or dependent.
My mother was born in 1923 in Galati, pronounced Galatz, which is a large seaport situated approximately 150 miles east of Bucharest on the banks of the Danube River as it makes its way to the Black Sea. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the thriving seaport had a population of 100,000 people including 20,000 Jews whose ancestors could be traced back to the 16th century. Galati had survived successive occupations, beginning with the Romans and later by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire.
By the time of my mother’s birth, anti-Semitism was less prevalent although always present, much more so during the Ottoman rule, which collapsed at the end of World War I. By then, Galati had become Romania’s center for Zionism. When my mother was young child, Galati had 22 synagogues.
Films documenting life in Galati around 1944 show tram tracks, but it seems most everything else was moved by horse and wagon, or by women, balancing large, woven baskets on poles across the shoulders. Yet, my mother boasted to me that Galati had a railroad station with daily service to Bucharest. Though I saw no resemblance, it was strangely comforting to hear from my mother when she first saw our train station in Madison, New Jersey, that it reminded her of Galati. A picture of Galati’s old train station circa 1890 shows an appealing stone building with pitched slate roof. It looked like it had been transplanted from a quaint Swiss village and was built to survive forever. At the time she told me about the trains, I did not yet realize the role they had played in her life before she left the city.