I am my mother’s son

Originally published December 2004 in Vox Magazine.


The Intercontinental Divide

I had not seen my mother in 314 days since we parted outside her apartment in Targu-Mures, Romania. But on the night of June 4, when she burst through the door of a New Orleans hotel room for our reunion, it seemed as though we had parted at lunch.

“Don’t you dare come home,” she said, dropping to the floor her blue plastic shoulder bag with the name of a drug company written on it. “I paid $40 on a cab to get me here from the airport. That’s a third of my monthly salary! You should stay in this country, where they will respect you and your work!”

Smiling, I replied, “Hi, Mom.”

My mother came to New Orleans for a medical conference. She is an oncologist, a medical specialist who deals with cancer and death. When my parents got divorced after 18 years of marriage, my mother reinvented herself by devoting her waking hours to my younger brother and me and her dying cancer patients. Our cat, Bubu, came third.

She makes peanuts in American dollars, the equivalent of a couple of grocery shopping sprees, but it’s enough in Romanian Lei to keep a third-floor, two-bedroom apartment on a street named after a Transylvanian poet, George Cosbuc.

She is alone there. My brother moved two hours away last September when he started college, and I had been away from home for five years, four of those in Bucharest. I would visit every three weeks, but these greet and eat sessions stopped two summers ago when I came to Columbia to earn a graduate degree in journalism.

Back in our bland Holiday Inn room off the highway, the scent of domestic familiarity lingered in the thick air. Especially because most of my mom’s luggage got lost in Atlanta. I was sharing the outrage and postponing the joy of our reunion. We had five days to get to that. We were busy being angry at Delta Airlines, the Romanian government and all institutions that give employees miserable rewards for their efforts. That night the list included the medical school where my mom teaches and the oncology clinic where she works.

This was the same energetic, strong, redheaded mom I had left behind, the same mom who thought I would have a brighter and lighter future in America because I wouldn’t worry about having money or being kicked around by an incompetent budding democracy.

While she smoked her last menthol cigarette in the lobby, I lay on my bed to draft a list of reasons for returning home to help a limp, Romanian journalism walk a straight line.

I knew my list of reasons could not include family, friends or the elusive idea of home. My mom’s family consists of two sons, and she would let both of us go if she thought we would be better off. She knows my Romanian friends are as practical as she is in matters of living without worries. And that night my mom was about to sleep in the clothes she had been wearing for 20 hours. She could spot cheap nostalgia and idealism the way I could spot potential party animals on Bourbon Street.

The conversation about my staying in America came up daily. We talked about it during breakfast as we enjoyed American free-coffee refills and scrambled eggs. We talked again when her luggage, wrapped in plastic because it had broken during transport, finally made it to New Orleans.

She tried to persuade me to stay using Maslow’s five-level pyramid of need, which argues that basic needs such as food, water or shelter are sometimes hard to satisfy. Even our visit to the National D-Day museum in New Orleans had a feeling of persuasion to it.

And of course, I heard the speech about her having to drive a Dacia, the stupid Romanian-made car, even though all the gangsters and post-communism profiteers cruised around in steel-gray BMWs.

I responded by pointing out that what she liked in America were things I couldn’t stand. I kept a small journal for the duration of the trip, in which I wrote at one point: “I just have to get her crazy, stupid tourist ideas out of her head. No bus tours, no organized $20-walking-tour rip-offs, no random things that looked colored enough for a picture.”

I even got her to agree on some things. America had too much political correctness, too much junk food and awful public transportation. America was also ignorant about the world. Then I tried to educate my mom in the things worth appreciating about America: not the malls, not the blow-out sales, not the $10 glittery sandals, but academic freedom, Whatchamacallit bars, increased personal safety and fascinating presidential politics. I even tried a lesson in American history.

“Hey, Reagan died,” I told her while we dined in a bar and watched TV.

“Hmmmm,” she replied.

To her, America wasn’t cool because of the media frenzy around Reagan’s death. It was cool because of voodoo dolls and soft beef steaks. The haziness and sugarcoated decadence of New Orleans didn’t do much to change our perennial dynamic.

But I had more fun observing our interaction than I ever had questioning it in the past. We parted at the airport over chicken salad after another expensive cab ride and my mom saying, “Think about staying,” and me replying with a smile, “Yes, Mom, I will.”

When I go home for Christmas, I’ll find the same mom who shops for ugly earrings for her sisters. I’ll be the same idealistic son who believes in a future at home. The New Orleans blues will be a Danube sad song, the alcohol-laden hurricane a cup of warm wine, the gumbo my mom’s eggplant salad. The background will change, but my mom and I will probably be the same.

Cup for mom

4 Responses to “I am my mother’s son”

  1. I’m glad you posted this.

  2. alexandra Says:

    this made me cry, even though i’m at work, even though i’m Romanian and have forever been living in Romania. i have 2 brothers that are Canadian citizens and that have left Romania more than 5 years ago..It’s good to be optimistic about your future here though 🙂 welcome back!

  3. Motherhood & Maternity Says:

    Motherhood is not a simple, but unqiue time in life. It changes so many things and the way how you see the world. It is interesting to participate in the experiences of other women.


  4. Cristi…I am sure that I want to be like you when I grow up.


    “The New Orleans blues will be a Danube sad song, the alcohol-laden hurricane a cup of warm wine, the gumbo my mom’s eggplant salad” – how come you came up with this? this analogy is pure genius to me!

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