A story by C.R. Roberts.
Realizing that their children might have economic value — farm labor or worse — the parents of this family have removed their children from the care of a Kidstown home. Still, a donor sends financial support. We’re out for a visit, headed into the Romanian countryside.
We stop first at a “hyper-market,” the local equivalent of a Transylvanian Costco, but bigger. There’s a tank with (mostly) live fish. A 41-foot cooler displays yogurt and if I wanted a 2.5 kg. brick of mozzarella it would have cost 17.97 lei, or about $4.50. There were many, many varieties of sausage, and full legs of lamb and a vacuum-packed flash-frozen suckling pig.
We’re after staples, oil, pasta, onions, potatoes, salami. The donor has given us $180 for the family. We spend it all. Our friend Karoly drives to the outskirts of the village some 30 miles away. He’s a former amateur wrestler and now a minister in the Reformed Church and the husband of Eszter, the unflappable group leader of a Kidstown home in Targu Mures.
The family’s home we visit, such as it is, rests isolated down a dirt-packed country road. It is not an exaggeration to say these parents, their sons and daughters, live in squalor. Flies buzz in the area of a room given to a small kitchen. The carpet, the blankets stretched across a couch, the miscellaneous rags and pieces of clothing scattered on the floor — all is soiled. Two bare bulbs try in vain to light the room. A pyramid of empty beer cans rises several yards away near a well.
From a previous visit, I recognize the children who are playing beside the road – including the little girl in pink with a smile able to melt any cold heart — and then the weaslish father steps out to answer all the fuss. On my last time here, I had to walk away. It was the same this time. I walked away, back down the road.
Estzer has offered to let the children return to the Emmaus home in Targu Mures. She has made this offer several times. Yes, I know the nuclear family is a primary and desirable component of a good upbringing. But here? In this filth? Let the sociologists set me straight, but first let them come take a look at these conditions and then we’ll talk.
The elder son was just returning from a job with a farmer who lived nearby. We met at the well, and I looked down into the dark water below and saw a greasy film reflected in silver ripples of sunlight. This is the water they wash with, and drink, drawn with a plastic bucket. We gave the family the groceries we’d bought, and Chuck, executive director at Kidstown, took the eldest son aside and tried, in a language he does not speak, to tell the boy he should try to make sure our gifts were used and consumed on site rather than sold for beer like the virtue of a mother and a daughter. A few of us had the respect to shake the father’s hand as we left, but I was already gone.
We returned to the Emmaus home in time for dinner, and when we were done we all gathered in the dining room, children and guests. As is the nightly custom, Eszter called on the children one-by-one asking what the highlight of their day had been. Each child spoke. Among the answers with an autumn freeze settling in outside: “At school today we took sunflowers, the ones that are so big, yellow and bright in summer, and we took out the seeds and I want to give some to our friends from America to take home and plant;” “I got good marks in mathematics;” “I played jump-rope and had fun;” “I sang a song (and she sang it again, for us all);” “I had fun skating;” “the dancing yesterday was my favorite and I thought of it again today;” “I’m happy that we could meet with our guests again;” “today after I walked the kids to school I had a good training (turns out that the next Bucharest Marathon will be held on Sunday, and he’ll be competing);” “I got a compliment from a teacher;” and then one girl pipes up pointing out that the girl sitting next to her has a new boyfriend, and most everyone laughed or giggled and their faces sang with a dear combination of teasing and congratulation, friendship, and love.
We sat for more than an hour around that table, listening, and the children, maybe 30 of them, did listen to one another, did pay attention sometimes with a question, sometimes commiserating, and the older children took care to encourage the younger, more shy residents of the home.
They do this every school-night, together.
C.R. Roberts is a retired journalist from Tacoma, Washington. After studying at the University of Washington he moved to England, and upon his return owned a small business dealing in rare coins and stamps. Later, following a 30-year career as a columnist and business writer at the Tacoma News Tribune, he retired to a life of volunteerism and has made several trips with Kidstown to Romania, India and Nepal. He personally sponsors two young men in Romania.
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