Catherina Zelenak is 91 years old and is among the last Swabians who still live in Clopodia. She lives alone and, because of a train accident suffered during her youth, she has lost her legs, but this doesn’t stop her, not even at her old age, to take care well of her house. We have met her during our visit to Clopodia, last fall, at the advice of Mrs Mariana, the village mailwoman. She was also the one who gave us details about the train accident, story which we did not manage (and did not want) to confirm during our visit to Catherina.
At 91 years old, I have more stuff to do around the house that others in the village, who are much younger!
The house numbered 262. She opened the door and asked what she could do for us. We asked her if we could go inside, see her house and tell us a bit about the history of Clopodia: I’m too old for that, I think there are others, much younger who can tell you the story. We answered by telling her that her age was what pushed us to knock on her door and she smiled: Then, come on inside!
I have to work outside too. And I’m waiting for the people to bring me wood, she said while leading us inside. Lively, she welcomed us into the kitchen and told us to take a seat but not before giving to each and every one of us a knitted pillow. Inside her house we traveled back in time and imagined how the family life looked in Banat, decades before. As a plus, the house looks impeccable, of a cleanliness that you rarely meet: At 91 years old, I have more stuff to do around the house than others in the village who are much younger.
Curious of the reason why we are in Clopodia, we tell her about our project and about the things that we have seen that day in the village, including about the old mill. How beautiful was that mill once! Now it’s completely destroyed, Catherina told us with a touch of nostalgia in her voice. We ask her if she knows who does the mill belong to now but that subject is less too important for her: I don’t even care about it! It had an owner once, after which he gave it away and didn’t care anymore. Before, it was beautiful there, we would go and walk outside and around the garden… After that, she opens the door to a room and invites us to check it out, to see how beautiful it is. The furniture is intact. Above the bed, framed, is a picture of a woman. It’s my sister.
Catherine takes care alone of the household. Sometimes, her grandkids come to help her, when she has a lot of work to do. The daughter of my niece from my sister’s side comes. My sister died three months after giving birth to her. We raised her. Of course, they are in Lugoj and can’t come just any time they want. They come once every month or two month, as they can. If you wish to see what kind of ovens there were before, she tells us while opening the door to another room. This was the kind of oven they used before. It was used as a replacement for terracotta. I had it so good with it! My mother was sick for a long time, in the evening I would put wood in the over and it stayed warm until the next evening.
You know how it is: one mocks, another condemns or takes pity of me.
During our entire visit, Catherina asked us not to take pictures of her – a wish which we have respected. You know how it is: one mocks, another condemns or takes pity. So, they’re all kinds of people and you can’t listen to them. Not a picture, please, I don’t want it to show up anywhere, because there were others around here and they understood me. To us, Catherina is an example and, in the 30 minutes spent inside her house, we told her that with every chance we got.
An example, you are right. They come to me from Germany. And I have admirers even from Hungary! At 91 years old I can calculate and, even though my hand shakes, I have wonderful penmanship, beautifully composed. Yep, at my age! You know what others say? From Moldova they were here and told me: “Mrs Cathy, through you we have seen that hard years can be lived and passed by.” They got the example from me, even though I was like this, but I got by. I made silk socks, I knitted for years. After my mother died, I gave it up, in order to work around the garden. It’s not luxurious or new but old and clean. I don’t have any reason to strive to buy new things. Her mother (of Catherine’s niece), when she died, that was her request: “Take care of my children! And grandchildren.” You can do a lot if you have the will and are not lazy, she says laughing. Everyone lives by how they work.
I was very busy and stressed out that I often wondered: will I ever finish? Until the rooftop of the house was done, the well was old and needed a cement coating. Today they could, tomorow not, but I managed to link water pipes to the house. I managed to do even that and that’s how I have water inside the house. I had another large expense but I tightened my belt and saved money. I didn’t even buy a bottle of juice which would cost only one leu in order to pay the men that were working on the house.
When you open the door to the street, you see who lives inside the house.
We asked Catherina to tell us how live in the village was in the old days: It’s a great difference comparing to how it was before: people were so understanding! Even inside the families, me and my sisters never fought or had a major sorrow…Never was! But today, when you hear that they break up or fight, that’s how it works today! On TV I sometimes watch the news. During the daytime I rather go and do something. Even now, before lunch, I went and cut the grass. And there were a few leaves in the garden and I didn’t give up until I got all of them. You know how the man says? When you open the street door you see who lives inside. And that’s true. Mariana, when came over today with the pension said to me: “Why are you sweeping the yard? Leave them to root there.” I said that it gave me a headache, that I couldn’t leave the leaves, but now it’s swept? It’s swept! When the lady doctor comes around she says: “What a calm home! It’s no luxury, but it’s clean.” Not even the harvest is the same as it once was. Now, everything is different. Everything is destroyed. These city folks. The old ones have died and it’s all gone.
Here people learned four languages: German, Hungarian, Serbian and Romanian. In Clopodia there were also Czechs, but they left for Czechoslovakia, the Germans left for Germany. My poor father was a carpenter. He constructed a lot of houses and he was a very hard-working man and punctual and he never mocked: for the ones that had fewer possibilities, he charged less. In our house there was no arguing, there was understanding between sisters and that’s why I’m sorry, that I only see on TV what I don’t like and I say: what bad people and how unjust! Before there was no TV, but that was the custom, we would all go out into the street and talk with each other. But now, if we didn’t have TVs, we would be totally lost, we wouldn’t know anything from other places.
People got along so well, that I can’t even describe!
When we asked about the noble families that lives in Clopodia, Catherina firmly told us: That never interested me. The village wasn’t like that before. The streets weren’t even covered in asphalt. People got along so well, and the teacher was respected so much more than today. The children now look at him as if he is their friend, they don’t respect him. Before, we used to respect those that were educated. There was a lovely atmosphere of getting along that I can’t even describe it! Or when it came to help: we had land and all the neighbours would come and help us. When they had work to do we would go and help them. Now, if they see that you have something, they don’t like it. What if they don’t work? Those who do work, have. Those who don’t work, do not have, but they just wait.
Before we leave, she also tells us her family name, Zelenak, it’s more or Slovakian origin, even though she is German. Then she reminds us: This is all I ask you, don’t post pictures of me. In these times, you rarely see that. Am I not hurting? Do I not feel sick? Yes, but you’re not allowed to leave things unfinished. So, it’s better that I work, the disease can pass another time.
If you ever go to Clopodia (Timis County), stop a few minutes by Catherina, in order to hear stories and see her beautiful house. From Timişoara to Clopodia you can go by DN59 / E70 (see map), the village being 70 km from the city. The access road is very good, with a few exceptions on the Moraviţa – Jamu Mare route, where work is being done.
Written by Alexandra Palconi. Translated by Doiniţa Spuză.
Photo credit: Flavius Neamciuc