My mother-in-law comes from a very small northwestern mountain village called Dolno Ozirovo (Lower Ozirovo). There is, naturally, another village very close by named Gorno Ozirovo (Upper Ozirovo), but I have never been there. My mother-in-law once told me that her father was adopted from Gorno Ozirovo. He was not an orphan, but his parents had too many children to support and another family living in Dolno Ozirovo had none. The pair of villages have remnants of Roman times, stones from an ancient observatory and coins that my husband’s cousin Ognian likes to collect on tramps around the hills and caves nearby. Less than six miles away is the nearest small town, Vurshetz.
My mother-in-law was the youngest of four children, the eldest Dimitar and three girls following him. When at 19, she married my father-in-law, she went to live with his family in Kozlodui, a far larger village on the Danubian plain. With determination and hard physical labor building the nation’s train tracks, they managed eventually to move to Sofia and obtain Sofia residency permits. Despite being the only one of her family to have left the village behind, she felt very strong ties. When my husband Rumen was born, she brought him there to be cared for by his grandmother for some time. How long is not clear. Rumen remembers calling his mother “Mama Ivanka” and his grandmother “Mama Kana” so it was long enough for him to sense a maternal relationship with his grandmother. At five, he was standing next to a motorcycle when the rider suddenly revved the engine. Rumen began to stutter and Mama Kana took him to a neighbor healer who mumbled incantations and cured him in a single visit.
Rumen is a slow eater and in Dolno Ozirovo that slow eating once awoke a hitherto unknown aggressiveness. At that time, he was the youngest of seven first cousins. As a special treat, his Mama Kana made a large pan of mlechnitsa, a light dessert pudding made with milk, sugar, flour and eggs. So slow was five-year old Rumen to eat that his older cousins had polished it off before he could get his fair share. The result was that he grabbed a nearby ax and chased them around the yard. This forever imprinted on his mind that even the most mild-mannered can be roused to dangerous fury when sufficiently goaded.
Later he attended sixth grade in the village. It was felt that an application for the prestigious art high school in Sofia would have more of a chance arriving from a small peasant village than “bourgeois” Sofia. Sofia at that time nevertheless being filled in every increasing numbers by peasants from small villages all over the country. Rumen was accepted and the school changed his life in countless ways.
Rumen spent a good deal of his childhood in Dolno Ozirovo, even when living most of the school year in Sofia. One year, the movie The Godfather came to the village. Everyone gathered in the community center to see the much anticipated but not subtitled two-reeler. No one spoke English, so perhaps it is not surprising that whoever was chosen to operate the projector began with the second reel and then, after a short break, showed his audience the first reel. Rumen doesn’t remember anyone complaining or enjoying the movie any less.
Communism in many ways was good to Dolno Ozirovo. The village might have emptied, been nearly abandoned much sooner otherwise if not propped up by central planning and an infusion of resources. When Rumen was growing up, Dolno Ozirovo seemed to be thriving. Even then, though, it could provide education only through the primary grades. Anyone wishing to continue to secondary school had to go to Vurshetz.
Now with less then 500 people and many empty houses, even in 1993 Dolno Ozirovo was still a lively village. We were there for the annual village holiday on August 2. Every family slaughtered and roasted a sheep to celebrate. Kept awake all night by a sheep continually bawling, we disgruntedly hoped that it would be the one chosen. Rumen’s uncle had been the village baker until market forces entered the village and the bakery in the next village was the one that survived. So Voycho (Uncle) Ivan became the village slaughterer. Voycho Ivan was Khrushchev in appearance, thick-set, balding, with large, thick-fingered hands. He sat down with Rumen to drink a glass of the Bulgarian fruit brandy rakiya. “I’m going to hell,” he told him. Rumen asked him why. “Because I slaughter all the sheep.” Rumen tried to reassure him; after all, each village family paid him for the service and we were all quite willing to eat the resulting roasted meat. “But I’m the one who takes their souls,” Voycho Ivan sadly mourned. His daughter, Rumen’s first cousin, had died in childbirth years before; his wife Marishka, my mother-in-law’s sister, had passed away recently. A year or so later, Voycho Ivan had a heart attack, fell off his donkey cart, and died from the combined effects of coronary, hard fall, and harder life.
My mother-in-law’s brother Dimitar retained the family plot when his sisters left to live with their respective husbands. While working full-time as a miner, he built a beautiful two-story house catty-corner to the old three-room building he had grown up in with his three sisters and parents. He then ensconced his protesting parents in one of the rooms and demolished the old house. He built a clean cement outhouse with a light—and when you have visited enough village outhouses, you can clearly see that this is the most luxurious, most hygienic, least smelly outhouse of them all. A cement pathway led easily from the house to the outhouse set discreetly in the corner of the large yard, where a substantial and well-organized kitchen garden was laid out. In the far corner stood the barn. The outside of the house had a patio with overhanging grape leaves and the fruit ripened overhead as we sat to eat our lamb soup, roasted lamb, salad, and bread. Growing up, Rumen preferred always to stay with his Voycho Mito and his wife Verka because their house was so comfortable and clean, with no unfinished projects or piles of building materials laying around.
One winter we visited Dolno Ozirovo and of course chose to stay with Voycho Mito, now a widower. Voycho Mito was a committed Communist. Born in 1926, he was old enough to know the extreme poverty and even hunger of the pre-revolution years and he remained an earnest and sincere believer until he died. But his only son defected to Austria and his nephew Rumen to the United States out of hatred of the Communist system, and that surely was a personal tragedy for him. He never said a word in protest to Rumen, never tried to convince him of his views. Yet sitting in his kitchen eating applesauce he had put up himself and drinking rosehip tea from rosehips he collected, he looked carefully at Rumen and pointed to a wall calendar published by the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). “Who is that?” he tested Rumen. Rumen cocked his head at the photo of Joseph Stalin and composed his face carefully, “I don’t know,” he answered. For the BCP, time has stopped even for calendars.
When we went up to the second floor bedrooms by the outdoor stairwell that all Bulgarian village houses have, Voycho Mito stoked the wood furnace to heat the room. By morning, the room would be cold again and I would gasp from the shock of baring my skin to get dressed, but the fire warmed the room wonderfully and we felt very comfortable under the heavy wool blankets.
My mother-in-law, her two sisters Marishka and Sedefka, and Voycho Mito have all passed away. Only Sedefka’s house, the one she built with her husband Lazar, is still inhabited. Rumen’s cousin Ognian lives there and his sisters visit regularly. A few years ago, we took our children there and our son splashed around in the river that Rumen had swam in countless times when growing up. A flock of geese was there as well. Something of Dolno Ozirovo is still there.