During Ceausescu’s “golden years of communism” my parents carefully scrutinized the people with whom we socialized because of my tendency to get in trouble. They did not know the parents of our classmates as well. They might have been “safe” people, but they maybe not. Not knowing who was who was an ongoing problem. Adults were used to keeping their mouths shut, but kids were harder to train. Many times the secret police would get the information they looked for from the most vulnerable members of a family, the children or the elderly.
As a result, we rarely interacted with other children outside Kindergarten or the school setting, at least until we were in fifth or sixth grade. By that age, we were fully trained to understand the consequences of breaking the law of silence.
With no friends in sight, I turned to animals that were our discreet companions. I would engage in conversations with dogs, cats, and tried to get closer to whatever animal I would spot when my parents took me out for walks.
I was in the second grade. One day I was coming back from school, and I saw this woman selling chicklets from a cardboard box in front at the bakery store. I had four Lei (the Romanian denomination is Lei) in my pocket, money I had saved for ice cream. But when I saw the yellow fluffy chicklets, I wanted one right away. Sadly, I did not have enough money to get one for my sister as well. So I got one chicklet, put it in my pocket, and went home whistling.
My mother almost fainted at the sight of my new pet. My sister started screaming that she had no chicklet and nobody loved her. My father wanted to take mine back to the woman, but after a long argument with my mom, they decided to get one for my sister as well. I flew back to the bakery store, panting and praying that the woman was still there. She was.
Our family awoke in a “new” reality. Here we were in downtown Bucharest with two chickens in our back yard.
Whoever said chickens are stupid never had one. Mine was aggressive and inquisitive; my sister’s was mild but stubborn. Each of us would spoil hers as much as she could, and spoiling included giving them food, playing with them and even catching flies for them. We used to walk around carrying newspapers hitting the flies until they were dizzy. The noise would prompt our chickens to land at our feet in seconds. At first, the family opposed this idea and laughed at us catching flies for our pets. But many times my father would do it too, and I even saw Grandma hitting the walls in the kitchen and inviting the birdies for a snack.
A problem arose unexpectedly when the chickens turned out to be actually roosters. They gained weight so fast that they did not resemble domestic birds but monsters. They were aggressive, too. My parents could not invite their close friends to sit outside in the backyard since the roosters would pinch their legs incessantly - and they could pinch! They pinched everyone but us, and I knew it right then that we had a very special connection with our feathered friends. Our joy of having them around was so great that we were oblivious to our mother wearing thick pants in mid summer and Grandma walking around with plastered calves. My father once remarked when we asked him for a puppy that we did not need one since we had two live gargoyles to watch the house.
I think he felt guilty because he was the one who ignited the love for nature in us, by taking us on fishing trips and encouraging us to take a close look at nature.
The roosters did what they knew best. They got into massive fights and they ended up killing each other. We were smashed. A long period of mourning followed. These were harsh times, and it was very hard for my parents to procure food, but Sorana and I refused to eat chicken. Every time we looked in our plates we saw our beloved winged friends and we cried. When someone would occasionally hit a fly with the newspaper, we would sigh deeply. My parents respected our suffering, and told us that chickens had gone to a better place and such.
A few months later, a friend “donated” one of his hamsters to us and this made our coping with the pain easier. He lived in a small glass jar and slept most of the time. He saved all the food we gave him (mostly salad and carrots) in his cheeks and seemed to be happy.
I connected with him right away. I was thrilled to see that he too loved to eat a lot and saved food for later like me. I did not have big roomy cheeks like his, and I had to hide the food in my drawer or under my pillow. I told my sister: “Can you imagine having such awesome storage options? You wouldn't need a freezer ever. Your food would be handy. And no one could check to see how much you have left or even worse, take it away from you.
One day my parents found him upside down and frozen in his jar. My Mom took it to the dumpster, hoping that we would not see him dead. We did.
A few hours later, my sister came to me screaming her throat raw: “They dumped our hamster! He is there, alive, in the trash bin, sitting in an eggshell and crying. Murderers!” she concluded.
We both flew to the trash bins. Yes, the hamster was there, stunned, in what appeared to be a half of an eggshell. Apparently, my parents had no clue that the tiny rodent was hibernating and thus his body temperature was low; to them, he appeared to be dead.
Sorana brought the hamster back to the house (“I knew that hamsters live forever” she mumbled) and from that day we did not trust our parents with animals. We put the hamster in our bedroom so we could keep an eye on him.
A new era began. After the hamster incident our parents were even more careful not to hurt our feelings. As a result, two cats joined the family and a shepherd dog soon followed. They all slept in bed with us. My father adored animals, yet he did not like their presence in the house. That prompted unexpected inspections (he would open the door to see if the animals were in bed or not). If they were, he would kick them out and lecture us about cross-contamination, ingestion of fur from cats, parasites and such. We ignored his teachings, and as soon as he left our friends were back with us.
In the summer we slept with our windows open, and the animals followed an unspoken ritual. As soon as they heard the gate (a sign that Dad got home) they would all leave, only to jump back in the bedroom once the lights were off (a sign that everyone was sleeping).
When the Chernobyl incident took place we were both in high school yet our attitude towards furry friends was unchanged. I remember that Mom and Dad were out of town and we were, as usual, under Grandma’s supervision. They called us and instructed us not to get out of the house no matter what. Only Grandma could go out to get bread. She was supposed to lock us in the house to make sure we would not attempt anything stupid.
There was little or nothing in the official Communist press about Chernobyl, yet Grandma came back from the bakery with gruesome news. Clouds of radioactive dust were above us. We had no clue what that meant really, but we learned that old women in the neighborhood feared that radiation could make people grow horns or a third eye.
I looked at Sorana. She pointed at the window. One cat was on the bed purring, but the other one was outside. The meow-meow as I called her was in the peach tree in front of our bedroom. I knew what my sister meant. Growing horns or additional eyes was a small price to pay in order to be reunited with our pets. We did not care about radiation. To us things were simple: we were in, and our cat was out. Leaving her there meant betrayal and we did not leave anyone behind.
I told my sister: “I’m going out, period. But how fast do you think I can catch her? Maybe if I‘m very fast, the radiation won’t get me.” That was a joke, of course. We started thinking of protection. I suggested a big towel around my face, but Sorana opposed the idea, due to limited visibility. We tried to cut holes in a plastic bag I was supposed to put on my head, but we gave up because we were afraid that I would end up blind.
Suddenly Sorana stood up. She went straight to my parents’ bedroom and came back with a big ugly mask. It was my father’s mask from his military service. Mom hated it and hid it under their bed. We used to take it out and scare each other when we were much younger.
I tried to put the ugly mask on my face. It was huge and was hanging awkwardly. Besides, it stunk, and the filter was full of dust. My sister adjusted it the best she could. “OK,” she said, “this is the plan: I open the window, you jump out, get the cat and then back in. We need to be fast.” I agreed with her. But once I got out, I realized that something was wrong in our plan. I went straight under the tree and started calling the cat:”Hey, kitty, kitty.” My throat hurt from inhaling the dust trapped in the filter. The cat seemed not to recognize me; even worse she hissed at me. I tried a gentle approach, yet nothing worked, and I could not reach her. I ran back to the window where my sister was standing with her eyes crossed.
She cracked the window open: “You are an idiot!” she screamed. “You think she knows it’s you, with that crap on your face? Just grab her, and don’t say a word. Your voice is strange with this mask on,” she added and slammed the window.
She was right, I totally forgot about the mask. I went back, climbed the tree and got the cat in no time. Soon enough we were back in the house, with the glowing feeling that we did the right thing.
Yes, we did love our animals. They were more than usual pets; they were friends and allies altogether.
As to strictness: thirty years later, I watched Dad eating his soup while one of his cats was perched up on his right shoulder, like a bird would do. The kitty occasionally dipped her nose in his soup and he would feed her pieces of meat. At some point I noticed a heavy drop of soup falling discreetly off her whisker. I must have looked very surprised, for my father smiled: “I don’t mind her at all.”