In early January, we had chicken paprikash (tocana de pui in Romanian), and we told stories of Dave’s grandparents. A perfect evening.
Dave’s grandfather gave us a cookbook, Pofta Buna, sold as a fundraiser by a Romanian Orthodox church in Cleveland, OH. It has recipes for chicken paprikash and other familiar foods.
Dave’s grandparents, John and Olympia, seem to have lived the mythical American Dream. They came to the US young and with an entrepreneurial spirit made a life for themselves in Detroit and found happiness and success.
Born in the US, returned to Romania
The children of two Romanian citizens, Dave’s grandfather and his sister were born in the US, so they had both citizenships. Prior to John’s birth, Dave’s great-grandfather (also John) wanted to come to the US, but his then-wife preferred to stay in Romania with her boyfriend. Maria Beretei did want to go, and they went together, unmarried. When John and his sister Mary were born in the US, they were illegitimate. When the family returned to Romania, Dave’s great-grandfather got a divorce from his wife and married the mother of his children.
John and Mary grew up in a small village in Romania near the Hungarian border, Chiribis, in the commune (seems kind of like a township in our terms) of Tauteu, in the county Bihor.
Lost his Mother Early
John and his mother got Typhoid when John was a pre-teen, and the doctor came to their house and said that if they made it through the tenth day, they would live. John’s mother died on the tenth day, and John lived.
John’s father’s first wife had lost her boyfriend, and since John’s father had lost his wife, the two remarried. Yet, the children of the intervening marriage, John and Mary, were resented and treated poorly by his first-and-third wife. Young John got out as quickly as he could, taking a tailor apprenticeship in the big city as a teen, promising his sister he would get her when he could.
Came to the US on his own, then sent for his sister
Near the start of World War II in Europe, John made an application at the American Embassy to return to the US. Although he spoke no English at the time, he was an American citizen. He came to Detroit, where there was a strong Romanian community.
John was making his way in the US, and his sister was still in Romania, unwanted in her family home. One of John’s best friends, Florian, liked the look of John’s sister in a photograph, and he knew John wanted to bring her to the U.S. Florian said that he would help bring her to the US and there would be no obligation to marry him. After her arrival in the US, Mary married Florian. And Florian doted on her, sure he’d hit the jackpot. And maybe he did. I met Tusha Mary once, in her home in Dearborn, when Dave and I just started dating in 1994.
Making their Way in the US
John made his way with confidence and personality, befriending and influencing people with his charisma and strength of character. He had good timing, coming to the Motor City during a boom time, and he had the skills and drive to prosper. John met and married a woman named Olympia, who had made her way to Detroit from a different village in Romania. John served in the US Army, and would have gone to the Pacific front but the war ended before he was deployed. Olympia worked in an auto factory (Ford) and after their wedding, John and Olympia lived in a duplex next to Unciul Florian and Matusa (“Tusha”) Mary. John and Olympia had a son and a daughter. John eventually owned his own tailor and drycleaner shop adjacent to the Rouge Plant in Detroit. They moved their home and shop from Detroit to Dearborn, moving into single family homes from the duplex.
Retirement in Florida
Eventually, John and Olympia retired to Florida. I met John and Olympia in the 1990s, well into their retirement. John was gregarious, friends with everyone he saw at Costco and other stores he frequented. He was a small man, and I’m tall, so I have a vivid memory of him sidling up to me on an early visit. He got very close to me, looked up, and asked me if I wanted a drink, eyes twinkling, loving to indulge his grandson’s girlfriend.
I remember John’s tailor training showing up in the safety pins he kept tucked inside the waistband of his trousers, and in the clothing he liked to purchase on sale and give to his son-in-law and grandson. He knew what was made well and worth buying.
I knew Olympia less well. She was starting to slip away from Alzheimer’s disease as I became part of the family. One of her repeated stories was how much John’s sister Mary was like a sister to her. Olympia would show me, or anyone, Mary’s photo and profess her love for her. Olympia lost her English before she lost her Romanian.
John turned from husband to caretaker before she died, attending to her first in their home and then visiting her every day when she was in the Alzheimer’s ward of a nearby nursing home. My digital photos of Olympia are all from the nursing home, and they do not seem to capture her personality so I am not including them here.
Olympia passed first, then John got sick a few years later, and he passed away a couple of years ago now.
An Arc of a Life
A Romanian Orthodox priest presided at John’s funeral. And his burial was attended by an honor guard from the US Army. I thought about the funerals the Army honor guards must see, varying religions and ethnicities, coming together in the US and in the Army. I thought of John’s journey: from the US to Romania and back again as a youth, and then his path in the US, from immigrant to businessman to retiree, taking a turn through the Army on his way.
For me, I’m thankful for meeting John and I appreciate being a part of the family he and Olympia created. Like him, like his daughter, Dave and I love to entertain. So we carry on a few of the traditions, though perhaps keep more closely to the spirit of them than the specific details. We do offer people drinks and cook for them, yet unlike what is recommended in Pofta Buna, we do not boil our green beans for 40 minutes before serving them.
I appreciate the memories, which can be brought back now with a dinner or a shopping trip or some storytelling over a drink. John and Olympia, we miss you and are proud of you and we remember you. May we make you proud as well.