By the time the plane taxied into Bucharest I had a raging headache. The journey had taken two days with long stopovers in Singapore, Bombay and Zurich, and now I felt nauseated and my legs were swollen.
The Bucharest airport was in stark contrast to the bustling neon-lit and glitzy Singapore one. My immediate impression was, “Is this a very large public convenience?” Gun-toting soldiers paraded through the bullet-ridden concrete building, and I felt shocked and removed from a world I had left.
I went through the motions of following passengers, dreary and jaded, with Bryan’s words ringing in my head, “Try and bring back a bright-eyed little girl,” and lovable brown-eyed, brown-skinned Tristan pleading, “Can you get me a bruvver my size?”
It was arranged that a Romanian interpreter would meet me at the airport, find me accommodation and take me to the orphanages. Everything appeared either grey or black – passengers, airport staff, and the heavy atmosphere of the relics of communism.
“New Zealand.” A large placard waved in the air like a beacon.
“That’s me,” I shouted. “Speak English?” He did.
“I have your Kiwi friends here,” he slurred in a nasally American accent. And in that strange colourless world I wrapped my arms around every New Zealander who had come to the airport to welcome me.
“I don’t know you, but I love ya all,” I laughed. “How’s it going? Got your babies yet?”
They all had, and were booked to go home now that New Zealand authorities agreed that the adoption laws were compatible with Romania.
The Kiwis suggested I come back with them. They were all holed up in the same hotel for mutual support and companionship.
“Am I staying there?” I asked uncertainly.
“Noo, noo,” laughed Cristian, the interpreter. “You stay with my friends. They have an apartment near the railway station and there’s another Kiwi there.”
Cristian flagged down a taxi and we zigzagged our way to the other side of town before reaching a concrete block of flats, stark and plain, against a backdrop of ornamental sparsely-leafed trees where stray cats foraged in rubbish bins. We clambered up the stairwell, unlit and unfriendly, with Cristian gasping, “What you have in this bag? Money?” and he laughed like a hyena.
He tapped on a door at the end of a long corridor. It was like a secret signal. Other doors down the passageway opened and quietly closed again. Two swarthy people peeked through a peephole, and said, “Aaah, Cristian.” They opened the door and embraced him. It all felt so remote and foreign.
“Hello,” greeted a woman, red-headed and freckled. The Kiwi accent threw me, and suddenly I was thrust in a familiar world with unfamiliar surroundings.
She was sitting on a couch flicking through a wad of documents.
“Adopting too?” I asked.
“Yes, but not having much luck at the moment.”
“Oh?” I was disappointed.
“The place is swarming with Americans, and Irish, and now Kiwis,” she added with a chuckle.
Our new hosts stood awkwardly, waiting for us to finish our conversation in English. Dorina and Vlad. Their apartment was the size of a modern New Zealand kitchen, comprising a bedroom, compact bathroom, lounge and narrow kitchenette. The door from the lounge opened immediately into the bedroom, just large enough for a double bed and wardrobe.
“You sleep there with her,” Dorina pointed into the poky room. “Ten dollars a night, American.”
“I’m not a lezzie,” I whispered aside to the red-head called Flossie.
“Me either,” she replied.
I asked Dorina, “Where do you sleep?”
She patted the drab-brown draylon settee. “For now I sleep here. When you’ve gone I sleep there,” and she pointed to our bedroom.
Our interpreter, Cristian, collected us in a taxi the next day, asking, “Do you like my friends? Now we go to the market to buy flowers and chocolates and then we go visit an orphanage nearby. I take some people there before. Okay?”
Flossie wanted to come. She had been captivated by a little girl with pale strawberry-blonde hair and brown eyes but on further investigation the child was not available for adoption. Some parents placed their children in an orphanage, hoping to reclaim them at a later stage. In reality, poverty and family problems meant many children spent their childhood graduating from one orphanage to another according to their age. Many were simply taken to the orphanage and abandoned.
The tyrannical dictator, Ceausescu, aspired to increase the population of his empire from 23 million to 30 million by the year 2000, and ordered families to bear at least five children. Since contraceptives were unavailable, a glut of unwanted children was dumped into cheerless institutions.
We were ushered into an old building with a crumbling ornate façade, wrought-iron gates and overgrown gardens where stout white-coated women leaned passively against gloomy walls, smoking or scowling. Cristian spoke animatedly to a doctor who was shuffling papers in a shabby office. She grabbed the flowers and chocolates we’d brought and pointed down a long sunless corridor.
I remembered images of toddlers gazing from their prison cots, but was nevertheless deeply shocked. The orphanage reeked of decay, mingled with the odours of urine, cleaning fluid and boiled cabbage. Exquisite-looking babies lay in metal cots, side by side, unresponsive, like lifeless dolls dressed in worn greyed clothing. Toddlers made no eye contact but sat in their cots mindlessly rocking, some banging their heads repetitively against the bars. It was just what we’d all seen on TV. Worse.
Speechless, Flossie and I followed Cristian into a room for older children where obese, .bored-looking caretakers in butcher coats sauntered around, disengaged emotionally from their charges. “Mama! Mama!” squealed the children, arms outstretched, rushing towards us.
Cristian sneered. “They say that to everyone. They don’t know what it means.” Flossie and I glanced at each other in bewilderment. Barely out of his teens, our interpreter was an enigma. He was passionate about his country, but hated it. He felt sorry for the children, but they didn’t affect him. It was too big a problem. We gently closed the nursery doors leading into the corridor, a huge lump in our throats.
Another room held 20 small boys, dressed in regulation blue-and-white-striped pyjamas, two to a bed. Several arched their necks in mild interest but, when the staff barked at them, they fell back into a state of fear, rocking and sucking their thumbs. It was mid-morning, and Cristian had heard that some orphanages kept their charges sedated and in bed for most of the day to make them sleepy and docile.
In the spartan concrete kitchen with its cracked tiling, women in scarves and faded print frocks tended to cauldrons of soup that hissed cabbagy steam. Dumpy women with hairy legs swished rags around the institutional toilet block housing rows of cracked basins and a jumble of tin potties next to rusty wringers and enormous tubs. The building was poorly lit. Cristian explained light bulbs were hard to find on the black market.
“Let’s get out of here,” pleaded Flossie. “I feel sick.” She meant sick-at-heart, like me.
We had made contact with a doctor who lived in a northern town, and who had agreed to help us find a child. Dr Florina’s home was a typical apartment in a concrete block. “You stay here. My husband and I stay with my mother. I will help find a child for you, but we must do this quick.” And she fed us marmaliga, the traditional yellowy maize-meal omelette.
The next day the doctor and her husband called for us after she’d visited a friend who could translate our documents into Romanian for the court.
“Take a notebook and write down what child you like,” she said.
The forbidding institution stood back from the main road, flanked by trees in autumn hues. Dr Florina was greeted at the orphanage with familiar deference as we clambered up the myriad steps. Wails of crying babies tore through the concrete walls. Glass doors led into rooms crammed with cots.
“Oh. They’re all so adorable.”
“Which one you like? Write it down.” But we found that impossible. In the fourth room I was drawn to identical twin girls, eight months old with black curly ringlets and emaciated bodies.
“Now choose a boy,” coaxed Dr. Florina, and the darlingest boy stood up in his cot and reached out. His name was Costel, and when I picked up the damp year-old baby and drew him to me, his lips brushed against my face. He had a vivacity and appeal that was lacking in the pathetic inert babies scattered throughout the dormitories.
“How many names have you written down, Flossie?”
“It’s too hard. It doesn’t feel right.”
“I know, I know. We could love any of these babies.”
“Come,” said Dr. Florina bossily, drawing heavily on a cigarette. “I have a migraine,” and she led us to a tiny cluttered room where files spilled out of walled shelves. Flossie and I each held our breath while the doctor flipped through the notes of the babies. Many she dismissed, saying, “Too far out in the country,” “Father in the military,” “ Mother too simple,” and once practically spat in disgust, “Gypsy name.”
“I don’t mind a gypsy baby,” I assured her, but she looked at me with contempt.
“What about a baby for me?” asked Flossie.
“I have a nice boy for you. We visit him this afternoon,” replied the doctor confidently.
Dr Florina drowned her headache with a tot of whisky before her patient spouse drove us along potholed roads. At a hospital, tiny Sorin was produced, the darling of the ward, fussed over and pampered by several staff.
“See, you like this boy!” exclaimed Dr Florina triumphantly as Flossie reached out for him, her face flushed with excitement.
A nurse aide in a white coat undressed the baby from the waist down. “See, he is normal.”
“He is perfect,” Flossie wept, and she gulped when I declared, “That baby looks like you.”
“Don’t cry, lady,” implored the doctor. “He is nice boy,” and she chucked the startled baby under the chin affectionately.
Now that we had found the children we really wanted, Dr Florina’s task was to visit the parents and see if they agreed to their children being adopted. She was busy at the hospital and would have to juggle her time between us and her patients.
Several days passed. We filled in time exploring the town before the doctor tapped on the apartment door. She bowled in like a nervous canon ball, frowning and puffing on a pungent cigarette.
“Good news, lady. Family of the twins has given their consent.” She had travelled to an outlying village and plodded through muddy ruts to locate the twins’ home. It was a one- room shack with a mud floor. The unwed parents had six other children and worked in the fields. The twins had been premature, each weighing less than 1.5 kilos at birth.
I jumped up and down with joy, thanked her profusely, and eagerly quizzed her.
“Be quiet lady,” she snapped. “I’m thinking.”
Next day she and her husband turned up to collect rope baskets. They were venturing into the country to buy wine and vegetables.
“See me,” she began, which, in her quaint English meant ‘listen to me.’ That boy on your list,” she addressed me. “The mother has given her consent.”
“Which baby was that?” I had written down names of several baby boys.
She looked at her notes. “His name is Bogdan.”
“Oh. So his mother agreed to his adoption?”
“Da, da. Yes. She doesn’t want him.”
“She is a student. His father is in prison for deflowering a lady.”
“What about Costel, the baby who kissed me?” I asked.
“Pooh, the parents are gypsy. They said no.” I wondered if this was the truth. Dr Florina had objected strongly anytime we cooed into a cot at a suspiciously brown face. “Gypsy! Pooh!”
“What about my boy?” asked Flossie anxiously.
“Mother a schoolgirl. Disappeared. I have to investigate further,” and she whirled out in a cloud of smoke saying, “Keep door locked. And don’t answer phone.”
Flossie and I became virtual prisoners, only venturing out to buy food at the market, afraid we would miss news of the babies we had begun to bond with in our hearts.
“Are you visiting tomorrow?” I’d ask the doctor, but she’d snap, “Be quiet lady. You ask too many questions. You keep her in line,” she’d urge Flossie, who’d return an understanding wink. “This is very difficult situation. Lots of spies. Dangerous. Could lose my job.”
Now we really felt trapped in a tiny dark apartment where the greatest thrills were wondering when the water would be turned on, and swatting cockroaches. We hoped she would give us a time when she’d visit so we could go to the market and gaze at shops to fill in the long days. We were anxious for any news of our babies.
Although forbidden to use the phone, we couldn’t resist a persistent ring one night. It was Bryan calling to see how we were faring.
“I’ve got three babies on the go, definite permission for a baby boy and possibly twin girls.”
Bryan’s distorted voice echoed back, saying the situation was messy in New Zealand with reports of Kiwis being stranded and adoptions having ceased.
“Rubbish,” I snorted. “Full steam ahead. Love and kisses,” and the phone went dead.
One evening we had come back from town, having spent the day looking for non-existent toilet paper and feeling contrite because a policeman had bawled at Flossie for running in the middle of the road. We were trying to find our way home but kept going in a loop. The footpath had a spiky fence and we couldn’t understand how to cross the road. An overhead concrete pillar bore an ‘M’ sign. Flossie had a hunch it stood for ‘Mens’
“We can’t go in there,” I agreed. “We’ll have to keep walking around these buildings and see if we can find a way out.” But we were puzzled by waves of people stepping underground beneath the M sign.
“Must be good public urinals,” I reflected.
“Oh stuff it,” snapped Flossie in exasperation, and leapt over the fence.
A policeman, directing the traffic in the middle of the highway, waved his arms frantically. He blew violently on his whistle as wandering vehicles barped. Flossie disappeared into a seething mass of workers returning home while I hiked a tortuous roundabout, locating her at the edge of a tram track, munching on a crusty loaf. We found that M stood for Metro.
Dr Florina was waiting for us at her flat. “You are bad naughty ladies,” she scolded, and thrust our papers on the bed. “I can’t help you any more.
We were dumbfounded. Had a spy seen Flossie leaping the barrier and followed us home and reported us to the police?
“What have we done?” I asked.
“What have we done?” she mimicked sarcastically, curling her mouth up. “You bad ladies go to town without my permission and go blab, blab, blab and see me, you get me into trouble.”
“We haven’t spoken to anyone,” I cried. “We don’t know anyone to speak to.”
Dr Florina looked at us suspiciously for several seconds. She relit a cigarette and the air hung heavily with gloom and distrust. “Is this the truth, ladies?”
“Yes, yes,” we assured her
“See me,” she continued. “Lots of bad people around. They see me helping you ladies and I might lose my job.”
“But you’ve helped other people before,” I reminded her.
The doctor’s face clouded with fury. “You keep this lady quiet!” she shouted at Flossie once again. “You know nothing. You don’t know how things work here.”
“Sorry,” I murmured. “You’re right. It’s just that we see other couples adopting and Romanians are helping them. Are they getting into trouble?”
“Be quiet, lady,” the doctor snapped angrily.
Flossie gave me a cautionary look. ”What is the problem?” she gently asked the doctor, who produced a Romanian newspaper.
“This,” and she pointed her pudgy fingers to an article reporting an American couple who had paid megabucks for a Romanian baby. Another article reported some Americans were returning their adopted babies.
“That’s terrible,” I cried. “We have come a long way from New Zealand. We would never do that.”
”Okay, okay.” The doctor frowned deeply and smoked her pungent cigarette in noisy short bursts.
“See me,” she said at last, addressing me. “The judge has seen your documents and is suspicious. He asks why these people want more children? They have many children in family and they live on a farm. Maybe these are bad persons wanting more children for their slaves!’”
“No, no, that’s untrue,” I cried. “We love children. There are no slaves in New Zealand.”
“I know, lady. This is a little bit wrong man. Don’t worry, I will find a way.”
The doctor’s husband, immune to the explosive drama, fiddled with the knobs on the television set, turning up the volume every time his wife ranted.
“We are very grateful to you,” Flossie soothed. “We know you are doing your best and it is hard for you. We will be patient.”
“You are a kind person.” The doctor drew on her cigarette. She spoke rapidly to her spouse who nodded “Da, da, da”, and turned up the TV volume again. “I will find a way. But look at this.”
We peered at an angry red cyst growing under her plump armpit. “You see the trouble I go to for you ladies. It is too much stress. I can’t help any more people from your country after this.”
She’s a doctor, I thought. Can’t she diagnose herself?
Again Flossie soothed and comforted her before the volatile woman grabbed her spouse, peered through the peephole and quickly opened the door, leaving behind a drift of smoke and two rattled Kiwis.
Very early the next morning there was an urgent tap on the door. “Get up. Get out of here!” Florina cried. “You can’t stay here. Too dangerous. Don’t talk, lady. Get packed quick.”
Flummoxed, we gathered our belongings and slid into a waiting taxi. The drive to the outskirts of town revealed a modern set of apartment blocks. “You stay here where I can keep an eye on you. And no telephone,” she warned.
The adoption process was slow and fraught with difficulties If Dr Florina didn’t show up for days, we fretted and wondered if anything was happening. One day we disobeyed her. Flossie answered the telephone which was ringing persistently. “It’s for you,” she said.
“Me? Nobody knows we’re here, except Bryan, and I told him not to ring. Do you think it’s a spy trying to stop us adopting?” Hesitantly, I answered it.
“Is that you, Jonquil? It’s your cousin here. Joanna. Your cousin from England.”
“Joanna!” I squealed. “I haven’t seen you in over 20 years. Where are you?”
“Bucharest. I heard via the grapevine you were in Romania and I’ve been searching for you for 10 days. My plane is booked to go home in a couple of days.”
“Don’t go,” I cried. “I want to see you. I want to see someone normal.”
Joanna took the first flight up and, at the apartment, she unloaded her suitcase filled with little luxuries for us, meanwhile explaining how she tracked us down. She had contacts in Europa-Assistance in London and they had helped.
Joanna’s arrival was heaven-sent. She thought it ridiculous we couldn’t see our chosen babies while waiting for our court date. Since she was fluent in French and Italian, she jollied Dr Florina who had a smattering of French, but she admitted the morose doctor’s French was as bad as her English and could see how misunderstandings might arise. At the orphanage, the surly director accepted the flowers and chocolates and kissed Joanna’s hand. Flossie and I raised our hands expectantly for the traditional greeting, but let them fall to our sides when he didn’t show the same interest. Joanna told the director she had flown all the way from England to see the twins, and, since he found her so charming, he agreed to let us see the babies.
“This one is Ioana and this is Vasilica, and you can be god-mother,” I said. “And I am going to name Ioana after you. It means Joanna in English.”
Back at the flat we raised our glasses and toasted each other. “To your success,” Joanna said, before flying back home to England.
The lawyer we’d hired to act independently insisted through an interpreter that I should drop the idea of adopting Bogdan. He was the year-old baby boy on my list whose mother was a student and whose father was in jail. Nobody wanted him. He wasn’t particularly appealing and he had a turned-in eye.
“Forget about him,” said the lawyer.
It would jeopardise adopting the twins. It would look bad taking three babies home. And, besides, he added, he wouldn’t go to court for us unless we went on holiday with him.
We gasped. What blackmail! But we were glad we went. It was all above-board and we loved the scenery, monasteries and glimpses into a world that was centuries old. He got American dollars and we saw his country.
When we returned to our flat, the lawyer and Dr Florina spoke animatedly together. They repeated their earlier concerns.
“We cannot imaginate (sic) you travelling to New Zealand with three babies. Give up the boy or the twins. Better chance in court.”
It was a terrible choice to make. Three children who were destined to a life in an orphanage. It was like a select abortion. I dithered. I loved them all. They could all be part of our family. How could I make the court understand that I was not a person with ulterior motives? There was talk about slave labour on rubber plantations and recruiting African children in Malaysia. I was appalled. We came from a civilised country. Everyone in New Zealand knew about the orphaned children in Romania and a few of us had travelled thousands of miles to give a child a family. Nothing sinister.
“Da, da, lady,” snapped Dr. Florina. “Yes, I think you are good persons. But the court has some wrong persons,” and she shrugged dismissively. “Shoosh. Now be quiet, ladies,” and she turned up the volume of the black-and-white TV. She and her husband, the lawyer and interpreter and apartment owners cheered and applauded Romanian dissidents on the evening news. The room filled with spirals of smoke, and when I offered a bottle of whisky “to all you kind people who want to help us,” it became a party. A morbid German soap opera with Romanian subtitles flashed on the screen, and once again we were shushed into submission while everyone watched in wide-eyed suspense.
I felt the court system was moving too slowly. Dr Florina would flap her arms when I asked, “When is my court date?” The apartment was comfortable, but I felt like the fish in a glass bowl that stood on the sideboard. I’d close my eyes and imagine myself alighting from the plane at Nelson airport, my arms filled with the tiny twins, and Bryan walking out to the tarmac to greet me.
After the social report had been typed up on the twins’ parents, a court date was set. I was in a state of nervous agitation, waiting several hours in the court foyer for our names to be called. The lawyer had left early in the morning to fetch the parents from their village in his unreliable Dacia. The peasant couple looked hungry and bewildered but greeted me warmly. We sat on a wall heater, sharing bread and biscuits I had brought along. They snatched my photo album, scrutinising and talking animatedly. I pulled out some photos and the mother grabbed my hand and kissed it.
The court scene was sombre and austere. The ‘presidente,’ two judges and a prosecutor, sat at one end of the long polished table, looking impressive in black robes and white cravats. We all rose and my non-English speaking lawyer presented my case with his nephew translating. The ‘presidente’ asked numerous questions about life in New Zealand, poring over my photos, admonishing the couple for their unwed state, and suddenly we were ushered out of the courtroom.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The babies are yours,” replied the interpreter. Magic words. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Flossie and I had made a deal. We would stay and support each other, but her adoption was proving more complex. We didn’t know if this was the Romanian way or whether we were being strung along to part with our American dollars. We filled in our days visiting our babies in the orphanage, badgering our lawyer and sending telegrams to our husbands as we were running out of money.
Cousin Joanna sent a telegram from London. I was on her mind. Would I like her to return to Romania to help me in the last stages? I would. Oh how I would.
Finally Flossie had a court date and it would be plain sailing for her from now on. Bryan was urging me to come home and, since my documents were typed and translated, I flew to Bucharest with the tiny twins to complete the final part of the adoption and book my flight home.
I hadn’t realized how drained and emotional I’d become after I’d settled back in Dorina’s apartment. I felt guilty leaving Flossie behind to fend for herself and sobbed with tiredness. The twin girls needed three-hourly feeds and I especially worried about the smaller one, Ioana. She mewed, fretted and arched her back when held. I still had difficulty telling them apart and it was only at bath-time I could see a slight difference – but I still got their passport photos mixed up in the end. Dorina’s mother-in-law had connections to the Red Cross and was able to find me suitable tinned baby milk powder. The orphanage had given me powdered milk from a foreign country but no-one was able to help me translate it, so I diluted it too much. No wonder the poor babies cried and felt hungry for a couple of days, leaving me feeling guilty and inadequate.
Now I was trapped in a tiny room, sharing my bed with needy infants and constantly at their beck and call. I tried to visualise my other children at 10 months. At that age they would have been crawling, pulling themselves up, uttering the odd word and contemplating their first step. These babies were like newborns. They couldn’t roll over, they couldn’t hold on to a bottle to feed themselves and their high-pitched crying unnerved me. I didn’t know how to respond. I’d hold each in my arms, willing them to stay alive so Bryan could see them.
When Cousin Joanna said she was on the next flight out to Romania, Dorina offered to babysit. Her husband Vlad and I hired a taxi and rattled down the wide boulevard to the airport. The plane was hours late and another hour was lost looking for her luggage.
“I bought lots of little knick-knacks for the babies,” she cried, “and all my things are in there too.” The luggage had mistakenly gone to China, so until it turned up we shared clothes and a toothbrush.
I bought two light aluminum pushchairs on the black market, so Joanna and I wheeled the twins around the busy streets of Bucharest until they screamed with exhaustion and our feet throbbed. Finally they were issued with new birth certificates and passports and it was time to make homeward plans.
Booking a return flight was tortuous. The Swiss Air office was busy and all the flights were booked a week in advance.
“I’ve been nine weeks here,” I wept. “I just want to go home. I can’t stay here a minute longer.”
Bryan had rung earlier that morning, saying it was about time I came home and asking what the hold up was.
“Just had a thought, Cuz,” Joanna announced. “Swiss Air has no seats for a week going via Singapore. Why can’t they re-route you through the States? Let’s ask.”
“Brilliant,” I exclaimed. My brain was so fuzzed up with all the emotion and stuff I’d been through, I wasn’t thinking clearly. “Let’s do it the Romanian way.”
“Watch me,” and I darted up to the nearest street vendor and bought a bottle of whisky.
Instantly the bejewelled travel agent confirmed. “You have good luck. You can fly out this afternoon.” I whimpered with excitement. Travelling Catholic nuns, who had peered into the twins’ pushchairs earlier in the travel agency, crossed their hearts and sent up a heartfelt blessing.
The babies and I flew into Bonn after a stopover in Zurich, as it was vital to get entry visas at the New Zealand embassy. That evening I disembarked with the babies, not knowing where to go.
“There’s a trade fair in Bonn,” explained the air hostesses, “and it will be very difficult to find accommodation.”
“Help me,” I implored, and they looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and disgust.
A taxi was hailed. Luckily the driver spoke a smattering of English. I was exhausted, the babies were mewing and I just wanted to get the uncertainty over. “I’ll give you 20 American dollars if you can find me a place to stay the night.”
“Forty,” he demanded.
“Okay, lady, where you from?”
For an hour we toured the city while he darted in and out of hotels in the heavy rain. He became my protector and took over my immediate worries. Finally he found me a seedy hotel where the rates were exorbitant. I counted my money and had just enough for three nights but not enough for food.
It was difficult being trapped in the cheerless room. I couldn’t leave the babies so I existed on powdered chocolate milk and stale rolls, waiting for word to come through from the embassy that visas had been granted for the twins to enter New Zealand.
Cousin Joanna phoned, miraculously tracking me down to my hotel room, and she confirmed a niggling worry. “The ticketing agent made a mistake, she didn’t allow for the international date line. You’re a day out!” And my stress levels rose again.
“Don’t worry, Cuz, I’ll get it all sorted from this end.” And she did.
The plane was late arriving in Los Angeles and I missed my connection to New Zealand.
So I did what most normal women would do. I collapsed in a heap and sobbed. The Swiss Air staff were sympathetic.
“Don’t worry, madam. We’ll put you up for the night in a good hotel and book you on the next flight out tomorrow.”
I perked up, and, clutching a baby under each arm, hopped on a shuttle bus to a luxurious hotel. “Now this is the lifestyle to which I could become accustomed,” I told my new baby daughters. I made myself at home in the plush room, ordering room service when the whim took me, but I was puzzled by two TV sets. One said ‘Pay TV.’ What did that mean? Since I couldn’t sleep, I flicked on that set. Up popped a porn movie. My eyes nearly shot out of my head. “This is too rude for you, little darlings,” I cooed to my precious girls. I switched off the TV before warming up their bottles, feeding and changing them and tucking them back into the king-size luxurious bed.
The next day I was deeply embarrassed when checking out at the hotel reception desk. I handed in my keys and complimentary vouchers and started out the foyer door.
“Oh, madam,” the desk clerk called. “You owe $6.95.”
“What for?” I didn’t have any American dollars left.
“The porn movie you watched last night on Pay TV.”
I blushed deeply. “Look,” I stuttered. “Look, it wasn’t me who watched it.”
Other people at the counter glanced sideways at me. I pointed to my innocent babies lying in their twin pushchair. “They watched it!”
“All right, madam,” sighed the clerk, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ll just charge it to Swiss Air.”
The flight was long and crowded. The bubbly air hostesses, on hearing the babies had come from Romania, invited me into their kitchen-cabin on the overnight haul. The plane lights were dimmed and while lumpy passengers slept with their heads tossed back in awkward repose, I fascinated the staff with my adventures. “Really?” they howled. “Wow.” Their open demeanour and twangy American accents made me feel safe.
But what would it feel like seeing Bryan again? Would I feel nervous? Estranged? Or would it be like a happy-ever-after movie ending?
When we arrived at Auckland airport after a midnight stopover in Hawaii, customs asked, “Any food to declare?”
“Tinned baby milk.”
The twins and I were set apart from other passengers while ground staff did a thorough check. “It’s not cocaine,” I insisted, but they kept me waiting while sniffer dogs eyed me suspiciously.
“I’ll miss my plane,” I cried to my sister-in-law who had taken a day off work to meet me. And with only minutes to spare I raced to the next terminal and made the connecting flight to Wellington. Two of Bryan’s brothers and nephews were there to welcome us. In the hubbub I failed to notice the minutes ticking by for the last leg of the journey.
Suddenly I heard a plane revving up. I tore down the corridor frantically, the pushchairs becoming almost air-borne, and ran out onto the airstrip.
“We were waiting for you, Mrs. Graham,” greeted the cheery pilot as I boarded the tiny plane to Nelson. Only in New Zealand, I thought.
My babies cried and I was choking back tears of suppressed excitement on seeing the lush green hills and sparkling mountains, and hearing a familiar language in a place where people smiled. I’d spent nine weeks away in a world totally different from anything that many Kiwis would encounter in a lifetime.
“Can I help you carry one of those darling babies off the plane?” a passenger offered as we began taxiing down the runway.
“No! Please don’t! I’ll manage, thanks.”
I wanted to live out the fantasy that had sustained me when everything felt hopeless. That I would walk out with a baby in each arm, and that Bryan would walk out onto the tarmac too, his arms outstretched and beaming. And that is exactly what happened.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem