Maramures is a rugged and independent area where traditions have lasted due to the isolation of geography and the neglect of history. The Romans conquered Romania in the early 2nd century AD but they never went as far north as Maramures. The valleys of the Mara and Iza rivers lead nowhere, meaning strangers have always been rare. During communism many villages escaped collectivization due to poor soil and hilly landscape. Today, the proud Maramureseni continue practicing their ancient traditions of farming, costume making and folk dancing. They also serve as a time capsule preserving old attitudes toward women and their traditional roles in the community. I traveled to Maramures with my husband in order to live a year with a peasant family and photograph their way of life. On our first day in Maramures, we descended the mountain pass and were amazed at the beauty we found. Folks traveled by horse and wagon. Smoke wafted from small wooden homes. The colorful striped aprons that women wore over their skirts outshone the turning autumn leaves.
Language was our first barrier, and we found women to be the key. Our first stop was by a field where some woodcutters were resting. While I had studied Romanian with a tutor in the States for ten months, my language was still minimal. The men seemed afraid to speak with us for fear of misunderstanding. With hand gestures they offered us pork fat and brandy, but beyond that welcome, we couldn’t exchange words.
But in the same field with the woodcarvers, there was a robust woman keeping watch over her water buffalo. I asked if I could photograph her. She stood proud and I could tell she knew who she was and where she was from. We quickly worked past the limits of my language abilities and she asked us questions. Did we like Maramures? Were we married? Did we have children? Where we were from? In the next field I noticed two younger women walking arm-in-arm in matching skirts, eating what looked like walnuts. We dashed over and said our hellos and they immediately wanted to know who we were and where we were from. They were both young mothers and invited us to their home when ever we wished.
As the weather became colder, our search for somewhere to live became urgent. The 300 household village of Sarbi lay between two larger villages and we kept driving through it. One day we met an older woman named Maria. She was quick to fetch her daughter, husband and granddaughter. We answered the basics: married, yes; children, no. Despite the presence of her patriarch father Petru and her husband, it was Ileana the 37-year-old mother who did the negotiation, car salesman style, shuttling between her father and us over the course of a week. We eventually settled on a rent that included a private room with plenty of wood for the stove, and having her and her mother cook all our meals.
As the first several days progressed, Ileana was afraid we’d embarrass the family by not liking her cooking or the state of the cleanliness—there was no plumbing. She was accustomed to village gossip and wasn’t sure if she could trust us in keeping family matters within the sacred family space. She apologized frequently despite our attempts to explain we’d come to experience just this way of life. But she could not understand Americans wanting to give up the good life of conveniences. She seemed to begin to believe us when I doted on their toothless neighbor Ileana Doca: I took endless pictures of her and declared her “beautiful.” Perhaps foreigners with such absurd aesthetics might indeed like not having a shower.
Maria, 65, was the matriarch, also referred by us as the beast of burden. She didn’t hear well and was an embarrassment for the family. She remained in the compound and practically never went beyond the family gate. Her role was keeping the household running. This translated into milking the cows, cooking the pig food (collard greens, corn meal and squash), cleaning the laundry in the river, baking the bread in an outdoor, wood burning stove, fetching water from the river for the animals, maintaining the cooking fires in two ovens, preparing food for the family and finally making sure her daughter, Ileana, 37, was keeping up appearances.
Ileana focused on this duty to maintain a proper image. “What would the neighbors think” was a daily preoccupation. Her daughter, Ileana, 10, was their only child and hence, their only future. Was she pretty enough? Would she be eligible for marriage into a wealthier family? Ileana wanted the girl to not live the peasant life they had. They could already see there was no future for it, and the work was very physically demanding. They gave her no chores other than minimal attendance at the half-day school a mile down the village. Ileana the mother had wanted a life outside the village when she was a young woman but her older brother was the first to leave the village. Custom required that she remain to help with the family land. When she married Petru (who we called Junior), he moved in. Except for nights she sleeps in the fields on the migration to harvest corn, she has never stayed anywhere else.
Like the women we met on the first day, Ileana took on the tireless role of communicating with us, her guests. If she had to explain something three times, she would. She learned to slow down her speech, recognize the words we learned for things and translate, like talking to a child, into our pig-Romanian. For our part, knowing we could only speak as three year olds was embarrassing. It took us two weeks to finally understand the first question of the day, “cum asi dormit?” How did you sleep?
One consequence of their need to maintain appearances was their demand that we eat more of everything. Our childish protests that we weren’t hungry were to no avail. “Powerfully little have you eaten!” Maria would say. They wanted to fatten us up so that the village would know their cooking was above reproach. As we settled into our village life with the Berci family, we learned about their traditions and histories.
Though she worked the hardest and wielded the least influence, the land their house was on came from Maria’s family, and she still technically owned it along with the best farm plots in their holdings. Her husband Petru Sr. had inherited from her father his position as deacon at the church; he rang the bells on Sundays for service and when people died.
Because of this perceived wealth, Ileana the mother had had many suitors. At one point her parents wanted her to marry an older man. It was better for the family. They were on her every day, but she didn’t want it. The only place for her to cry and protest was in the outhouse. She stayed there for hours until they relented. Eventually, quiet Petru Junior worked up the courage to ask her. He was considered a “good” man because he didn’t drink to get drunk or smoke.
Domestic bliss is defined simply in the villages. Whenever we traveled the villages with a female, American friend, we would find ourselves translating the same questions from peasant women to our guest. “Are you married?” Yes. “Do you have children?” If our guest answered yes, then they had a little better status. If no, a little less so in front of God and peasant. The third question was always the same. “Does your husband beat you?” The shocked “no” that this always evoked resulted in a wondrous smile from our peasant inquisitor. “Ah, then you have a good man.”
Not only do women support such burdens of fieldwork, of housework, of communication and of emotional and physical abuse, they perform the emotional heavy lifting. At memorial services, women let their hair down from under their headscarves as they cry out in custom written poetic dirges declaring their love and sadness for the departed. In sub-zero weather, they huddle in lines, arms wrapped around the woman in front to stay warm, listening to the chants and crying together.
The work of men should not be forgotten. Big labor items belong to them. In the winter they must leave the warmth of the house to fetch hay, spread heavy manure, and kill the Christmas pig. Yet, women’s work comes close behind in physical demands. They split logs into firewood, milk the cows and wash laundry in the river through the summer sun and winter ice.
Thanks to Ileana, our language improved enough to make friends. Dana, a neighbor, struggled to live. She suffered depression and her husband was often drunk. They were so poor, even in this agricultural community, that they barely had enough food. Dana was a stellar knitter and over the course of the year I had her make over fifteen sweaters for gifts and other visiting Americans. Dana asked me to pay her at the end of the large order of sweaters so that her husband wouldn’t drink it away before they could buy the family a cow.
By the time we left, I knew we’d communicated something of our values to them. As we struggled to finish building our family a bathroom (the gift they most wanted,) Maria was willing to give up her sink to allow the work to finish before we left. When we insisted there would be no bathroom without her sink, she cried. The neighbor Ileana Doca, who always declared, “I’m old and ugly” when I took her photograph, left roses on our car the day we left. In these silent and small ways, the women of our days in Maramures were showing how they’d been shown they were special.