by Nicolae Roddy, Ph.D.

In 1928, Aurelia Moga abandoned her tiny Transylvanian village of Șpring and traveled all alone to America at the age of fourteen. Disembarking at the port of entry, Aurelia continued westward to South Omaha, the once great cattle slaughterhouse of the world. There she moved into the home of Ioan and Sofia Damian, who had recently emigrated from a village near her own, and four years later married one of their sons, Constantin, who would one day become my grandfather. Tragically, Aurelia died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1944, just thirty years of age, leaving behind her husband and five children, including a tiny baby. My mother, the second eldest child, was ten years old at the time. Bereft of her mother at so young an age, and charged with the task of looking after her younger brothers while their father spent long hours in the packing house, Josephine exhibited a lifelong sadness and occasional eruptions of violent anger, traits that connected me to my grandmother and no doubt played part in what follows.

For this, and reasons I cannot fathom, the grandmother who I never met managed to exert a powerful influence upon my life. It began with unanswered questions arising from a subject apparently too painful to talk about for anyone who had known her, so I learned precious little about her. Did the Moga and Damian families already know one another in Transylvania? How long did it take Aurelia to learn English, given it was never spoken in the home (Sofia, her mother-in-law who died in 1958, never spoke English all the days of her life.) Most importantly of all, how did Aurelia handle the anti-immigrant abuse her daughters faced on the playground at the hands of children of earlier waves of immigration, especially the Irish and German kids, who taunted them for their customary pierced ears, branded them as gypsies, and pushed them to the ground, soiling their embroidered East European-style skirts? The bullying motivated my mother and aunt to assimilate as quickly as possible, but it was all just a poor disguise, for despite any new appearances, the family remained inescapably foreign in its habits and outlook. But things were somehow different for me. I took on the study of Romanian and became one of the few family members left that could translate the letters that occasionally arrived from the village, asking after Aurelia’s brief and tragic life and expressing concern over the welfare of her children. I still remember standing before Aurelia’s mother, my great-grandmother Ana, in autumn of 1979. Ana asked for only three handfuls of dirt from her daughter’s grave, and seeing me said she would then be able to die. Indeed, she passed away just two weeks after I left.

In light of all this, it appears certain that Aurelia, the missing grandmother, was never really missing at all and has remained instrumental in my “becoming.” As a result of the mystery of her brief life, even as an American I also feel, think, and act essentially and inescapably Transylvanian. I travel regularly to stay with relatives in the village, where I have never felt more at home; as a poor graduate student in the mid-1990s, I applied for a Fulbright grant to conduct research in the capital city of Bucharest; and nowadays I spend breaks away from my professorship at Creighton University in Omaha to teach courses in biblical archaeology and Jewish history at the University of Bucharest. Moreover, my eldest daughter, who at a young age also bravely traveled the world alone, is aptly named Aurelia, after her great-grandmother. At the end of the day, while I still find myself trying to imagine who my grandmother was in life, it may be that I have somehow discovered the answer through the course of my own choices and inclinations, living a life inspired – and perhaps mystically guided – by  the grandmother I have never actually met, but have somehow come to know.

Bunicii Mele
(To my Grandmother)

How cheeky you must have been
How strong and foolhardy
To leave the village at fourteen
And cross the ocean
Leaving your poor mother to grieve.

So did she run you off?
Did you leave just for spite?
Did the family from the next village
That came to find a new life in South Omaha
Whose son Constantin you would marry
Treat you well?

On through the Great Depression
The devastating war back home,
Your mother ever yearning to know you
And the five children you bore.

But before the war ended you died
Long before I was born,
Leaving me decades later to wonder
Along with your mother
Who you really were
And why you chose to exile yourself
But also me
To this place that never felt familiar
Not like when I returned to your village
And handed your ancient mother
Three handfuls of dirt from your grave.

And told her I was planning to name
My firstborn daughter
(Which by the way I did)

Mă bucur foarte mult că ai venit, she said
Acum pot muri.*
(Which by the way she did).

*I am very glad you came. Now I can die.

Nicolae Roddy is an Orthodox biblical scholar and professor in the Theology department at Creighton University, a Jesuit liberal arts institution located in Omaha, Nebraska, where he teaches courses in the Hebrew Bible/Older Testament. He also serves as visiting professor for the Jewish studies center in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Bucharest, and travels there regularly as a springboard to visiting his Transylvanian roots. For twenty years, Nicolae co-directed and supervised excavations at the Bethsaida Archaeology Project near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, digging early Jewish and Christian material culture. He is married to Alexandra, an emigrée from Romania, and is the father of five incredible children ranging in age from 6 to 29.