My sister and I are looking at a family photograph. It’s Belgrade before the war. My mother, aunt, grandmother and great-aunt are fashionably dressed in their spring coats and hats, carrying handbags and wearing gloves. Everyone is happy except my mother who is crying. She is tiny, pretty, dark haired and about four years old.
‘Why were you crying?’ my sister asks with concern.
‘I wanted a doll and they didn’t have enough money to buy it for me,’ my mother says. You would never know it from they way they look. They are beyond chic. I happen to know that my grandmother sewed all their clothes.
‘You were materialistic even then,’ my sister says without missing beat.
My mother likes fine things, and she likes to live well. Usually the kind of life she likes to lead has been beyond her means. And often as she had been about to attain it, the rug has been swept out from under her feet.
Her Romanian father died shortly after she was born but not before leaving his lands to his own family and my grandmother destitute. Granny, as she is called now, was not only beautiful but clever and resourceful. Like many women at that time, she had her share of protectors, and when she got too old for those she married five more times. I don’t know who took that photograph, maybe it was the illegitimate son of the Hungarian count, who nevertheless became the sole heir of his father’s estate. Or perhaps it was the renowned journalist, more than twice her age, who wanted to marry her and send her children to Swiss schools where they would have escaped the war. He like so many others was arrested by the Nazis and was never heard from again.
In any case, these events happened after the war, after the hiding and fear was over. The Bulgarians who had fought on the losing side were suddenly converted to socialism and invited the children of their long suffering Serbian brethren to enjoy a holiday on the Black Sea.
My mother having heard about this adventure at school signed her sister and herself up right away. She would have never missed an opportunity to leave home, having unsuccessfully tried to run away from seven times by the age of seven.
And so they departed, my mother, happy, my aunt, the good child, in tears.
They arrived not to a beautiful hotel as promised but to a sanitarium where tuberculosis patients were housed. The patients were a godsend, however, since the Bulgarians had made no provisions for the visiting children. My mother, ever resourceful, literally sang for her supper and the patients gave her their food which she shared with my aunt and some girlfriends who would otherwise have been forced to subsist on the onions growing in the garden.
But once the patients were moved, the girls fell on hard times. My mother and a few others decided to run away, while my aunt carefully composed a letter to Granny and decided to wait, a leap of faith considering that there was no regular postal service, and most of the roads were still out.
My mother set out with the others, who quickly returned. She survived by knocking on doors, saying she was hungry. People fed her freely and let her sleep in their barns. The weather was warm and it was no hardship she claims.
She finally arrived in Sofia, the capitol and, claiming she was a war orphan, was promptly taken in by the childless Mayor and Mayoress. She stayed with them for over a month in great comfort, receiving gifts; frilly pastel dresses that she had always coveted and more dolls than she had ever dreamed of having. The Mayor and Mayoress were drawing up adoption papers when Granny arrived in town manning a requisitioned motorbike with the children she had collected from the sanitarium trundled in the back and the sidecar.
Granny, a red headed spit-fire or ‘that cobra’ as she was often referred to by men who did not admire her, had begun her journey two months before by enlisting the help of the ‘comrades’ as she unceremoniously refers to them. The comrades had given her a ride in a military vehicle to the border, then she had ridden trains, walked and hitch- hiked to the Black Sea. I don’t know where the motorcycle came from or what she had to do to get it. In any case my mother was publicly exposed as a liar and had to give all of her dolls back, although she did get to keep the clothes.