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Grandmothers on Loan

A Moldovan volunteering initiative gives abandoned children the loving Moldovan grandmothers they never imagined they would have. From Ziarul de Garda, a news and analysis site.

by Liliana Botnariuc 19 July 2018

My childhood memory begins one morning, with tea of chamomile, mint, and lime blossom. The smell and the colorful liquid pour gently out of the small, white teapot with a green lid. The most flavorful tea in the world – prepared according to my grandmother’s recipe – steams from a white cup emblazoned with three red cherries. The childhood memory continues with a slice of bread spread with butter, and raspberry, strawberry, or cherry jam. The tastiest dessert I’ve ever had. In the winter, it is the raspberry jam in particular that slips slowly out of the jar into the teacup. This is the jam that is supposed to treat colds, leaving you picking small seeds from between your teeth for at least half an hour after eating it. This is grandmother’s magic jam.   


At noon, the childhood memory finds me leaning against an old nut tree on the edge of the garden, obedient, waiting for the right moment to lift my head, to see the trunk where the gold- and silver-embroidered dresses, and shoes with silk embroidery, are hidden. Just like in the story of Cinderella that grandmother told me.


Toward evening, childhood always meant walking along a well-trodden path, biting at a green pear, and enjoying the smell of jasmine tobacco [an ornamental plant widely cultivated in Moldova] that filled the garden. Grandmother picked that pear. And this childhood memory has Grandmother’s eyes.


A few kilometers away from my childhood memories, behind a drab gate, another kind of childhood is passing. This is the childhood of 165 orphans and children with special needs, who share the love, hugs, and attention of ten “borrowed” grandmothers.   


Once Upon a Time


“Bianca,” says a gentle voice, “tell Constanta a bedtime story. The story we learned together.”


“Once upon a time there was an old woman and an old man. They had a mottled little chicken that laid a golden egg. The old woman tried to break the egg, and the old man tried to break the egg, but the egg would not be broken. The egg was on the table, and a little mouse ran past, waving its tail, and the egg rolled and fell onto the floor. The old woman cried, and the old man cried: ‘alas! alas!’ The little chicken came along and said: ‘Don’t worry, I will lay another egg – not a golden one but an ordinary one.’ And it did. And the old woman broke the egg and cooked it, and the old couple feasted with their guests!” The story flows peacefully over the cradle, trying to lull the doll to sleep.


Bianca stretches out her right arm and gives grandmother a hug, two bunches of hair playfully covering her face, as her big, hazel eyes move between her little doll in the yellow dress to the warm gaze of the face opposite.


“Bravo, Bianca! You told such a nice story!” the grandmother encourages the little girl, who is wearing a white dress with pink flowers, white sandals, and socks in a darker shade of pink, peeking out of her shoes.


Bianca is six years old. She has a doll, Constanta, which she carries everywhere with her, and a clear, emphatic way of pronouncing difficult consonants.


Grandmother Angela


Angela Buga is over 50, and doesn’t have any grandchildren, but she gets to be a grandmother every day. Every day she offers children love, wisdom, and lots of hugs. In the three years or so that she has been coming to the Child Placement Center every day, Buga has listened to the stories of dozens of children, held their troubles and their joys in her arms, and loved them as only a grandmother could love her grandchildren. 


“Bianca is very smart, and she likes to learn. She will go to school and get good grades. She will have a good job that will pay a lot of money,” the grandmother continues, stopping the swing and helping the little one climb out of it, with her big, work-worn hands. They’re now making their way toward a spring-mounted horse.


“Constanta woke up and she wants to go there!” the granddaughter says, with an animated smile.


This autumn, Bianca will have to leave behind her childhood with her two grandmothers, grandmother Angela and grandmother Maricica, to go to school.


Grandmother Angela's mandate will then pass to other children. She will keep coming from the outskirts of the city – where she cares for her own aging parents and works the land – to bring color into other childhoods, because, according to this heroine: “You can never have too many grandchildren.”


In the Young Children’s Placement and Rehabilitation Center in Chisinau, the children are divided into groups of 15, and the local staff divide their attention between them.


“You know, at home, when a child is born, he or she has the attention of a mother, a father, grandparents, and all the other relatives. And all of them complain that they're tired,” Maria Tarus, the director of the center, says enthusiastically. “Here, we have 15 children in a group, to three staff. These children need to be taken care of, cuddled, washed, dressed, taken for walks, brought back from walks, fed. It’s a titanic job. You really cannot pick up each of them whenever they ask you. In such cases, a grandmother is a treasure. She spends at least 30 to 40 minutes with every child. Then, she dresses another one and takes him or her for a walk. Here, the children go for walks every day.”  


The Idea Behind Borrowed Grandmothers


Some time ago, one of the nursery nannies who worked at the Placement Center had to undergo spinal surgery, and her health problems forced her to quit her job, which required her to lift children, as that would have hindered her recovery, the director explains.


“Although she wasn’t working anymore, the nanny would come every day to spend time with the children,” Tarus says.


“This is how we got the idea of seeking out people who were willing and able to communicate with the children. We have people coming to us from the suburbs, from the city itself, from the villages ... We wouldn’t accept just anyone. There’s a selection process, consisting of psychological testing, a medical exam, and we also take into account any experience working with children – that a nurse, for instance, would have, or a kindergarten teacher, or a nursery nanny – they're used to working with children and can listen to them,” Tarus says, adding that most children at the center have been abandoned by their parents. Almost all come from vulnerable social categories, where not even the most basic living conditions are met.


“I remember that my granny really liked holding me in her arms, and I would sit on her lap even when I was quite grown up,” says Claudia Ion. “I also remember that, one winter, I started going to dances, and every time I would come back my feet would be frozen. She would warm them up, and I would hold her tight. I learned so much from her. This is why we are also trying to be like true grandmothers.” Ion, who doesn’t even remember how she came to be a grandmother, searches through her box of memories.


Claudia Ion


Ion has been retired for a couple of years. She says that she is tired of staying home, and the possibility of spending time with children is relaxing for her as well. “I live nearby. I know that they need walks, a warm hand to hold them, attention. My grandson is 22 years old and he doesn’t need me to take him out, he has company for his walks,” the woman laughs, while moving the see-saw where two of her youngest grandchildren – aged two and three – sit quietly. 


“Swoosh, swoosh, up we go, up to the man who cuts the grass! We see a little bird, what does the little bird say – ‘chirp-chirrup!’ We see a squirrel, what does a squirrel say? I don’t know either,” the woman laughs. “We see a car, it drives past – beep-beep – we wave goodbye to the car.” The laughter and the cheery little voices, trying to repeat even one syllable after her, encourage the granny to carry on with her monologue.


“I’m happy when I see them happy, when I see them coming up to me. When I open the door, all of them want to go outside together with me. When I take them in my arms, I get the sweetest and most honest smiles.” Grandmother Claudia, as Ion is known, speaks about the spiritual rewards she gets from the children every morning, and after four o'clock, when the children bring to life the dreams from their afternoon nap.


She says that, in the summertime, daily activities are all about walking, talking, and dancing around, in a space set aside for them alone. In winter, they spend most of their time inside, reading in the classroom, drawing, and learning how to enjoy the moment. “In summer, we are in the midst of nature; in winter, we are immersed in stories. As little as they are, they understand perfectly who takes care of them and how, and who pays attention to them.”


“Let’s go dancing, shall we? La, la, la. One, two, three, four …, 10.” Two little voices can be heard, singing together, taking turns to chime in, a few seconds apart. 


A Willingness to Listen


“We have many children in our groups. Our children are special; they are not like children who live in a family, and who get a lot more attention,” says Tarus. “A teacher works with the group, a nurse comes to see the group, and so does the nursery nurse: ‘Kids, let’s go! Kids, let’s eat!’ But for the development of their capabilities, and for their individual development, children need direct communication. This is why it’s good for them to have contact and to communicate with other people,” says Tarus, explaining the necessity and the importance of dialogue between adults and little ones.


She says that, initially, staff members would voluntarily do overtime: “In the mornings, they would work with the groups, and in the afternoons, after finishing their paperwork, they would take a child in their arms, and walk around with him or her for half an hour. It’s very beneficial, and even nowadays all of us spend time with the little ones. You need to listen to a child. They need to express themselves, to talk, to voice their needs, to talk about their feelings, their problems, what they know, what they don’t know.” 


“One, two, three, four – let’s count the steps to the top of the slide. Careful, careful, like this – wheee! Bravo! Bravo, Ion. Wait, Ionut, Tamara wants a turn, too. Like this – good girl!” The grandmother catches the child when she reaches the bottom of the slide and lifts her, as though she has a treasure in her arms. Tamara, a little blonde  girl, laughs and runs back up to the top of the slide, to come down again.


Iulia Ion is one of the most energetic grandmothers here. She switches from helping children to climb the steps to lifting them up and playing airplane, to running after a ball, to teaching them to count. Today, she is playing grandmother to two children. As she catches her breath, Ionut starts climbing the slide, not by the steps but by the slippery side. She helps him, catches him when he slides back, and holds him close to her. 


Grandmother Iulia usually comes to see her grandchildren after work, but she manages to fit everything in. “We are making sure that they have someone to talk to as much as possible. A grandmother has to love children for them to understand this. My grandmothers died young, but I still got a lot of love. There were six of us kids in the family. You know what it was like, back in the day: lots of games, fun, most of the time spent outside, really lovely moments. This is why I’m trying to give them as much attention as possible.”


Grandmother Iulia


“Easy, easy. Grandma's got you. Your toy puppy fell down, so let’s put it in the swing, do you want to do that? Okay, you don’t want to play here anymore? Let’s play with the ball, all right? Like this, Ion, come down, come to granny. Up you go, Ionut!” she laughs and then sits down on the grass, to admire their energy.  


“The most gratifying aspect of the grandmothers’ work is the children’s reaction,” says Tarus. “They really love their grannies. Sometimes, the grandmothers bring something tasty from home. And sometimes the children cry if someone else gets taken for a walk and not them. And if the children love them so much, it means that it’s working. At the end of the day, this is love. And there can never be too much love. This love is in addition to what we give them.”


One of the volunteering grandmothers


Amid the blades of grass on the pathway, trampled by childish feet, in the shade of a cherry tree, another granny throws a child up in the air. Leaves bunch in the tiny hand of a four-year-old girl, as she tries to pick more than four cherries at once.


Lunchtime is announced. The grandmothers take the children to the kitchen, and then scatter – some to their jobs – while others go home, or to kindergarten to pick up their own biological grandchildren.


Another day has passed. The 10 grandmothers have left behind the marks of love and joy on the children, who seemed to have lost all trace of such pleasures when they were first abandoned.

This article was written by Liliana Botnariuc, a journalist at Ziarul de Garda, a news and analysis site based in Moldova, where this article was originally published in Romanian. TOL has done some editing to fit its style. Reprinted with permission. All images via Ziarul de Garda. Translation by Ioana Caloianu.

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