I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
I AM ALONE in my peaceful white kitchen. The pots and pans shine brightly. The curtains are gay. I who have lived behind an Iron Curtain, who have faced the accidental death of war and the purposeful death of assassination, have found sanctuary. My life has been spared often by what has seemed sheerest chance: the chance that the bomb fell in the other end of the trench where we crouched; that the Communist under anesthetic for an operation in my hospital babbled of the plans for its destruction. Now, in New England, the peaceful shadows are gathering outside as they also are gathering in the silent house, for I am alone, though not lonely; so many thoughts keep me company.
In this big, old New England house there are two rooms I would like to show you; two rooms which hold my present and my past, the substance from which I must create my future. Which will surprise you most—my shining modern kitchen, with every device for American housekeeping, or my bedroom upstairs, with its unrelated collection of things from another life? I do not know. I cannot judge how these things will seem to you.
Then at seventeen I visited the United States with my mother, reporters used to ask me, "What is it like—to be a princess?" and I could never think of anything to say to them in answer. How could I compare it with something else when I had never been anything except a princess? One is what one is; and it is not so simple to describe oneself as it is to describe one's surroundings! I can easily compare one place with another; one way of life with another. In Romania, for example, there was a trumpeter who blew a lovely call—a succession of quick, golden notes—when any of us entered or left the palace. Here I come quietly into my own drive; a passing neighbor may nod pleasantly, my key unlocks the door into my silent hall. In Austria a formal and official letter to me would be addressed: "Ihre Kaiserliche and Königliche Hoheit die Durchlauchtigste Erzherzogin and Frau"—"Her Imperial and Royal Highness the Most Illustrious Archduchess and Lady." Here the delivery boy says briskly and cheerfully when I open the door to his ring, "Habsburg here?" as he looks over his parcels. But these are outward things, and of little importance. How one is addressed is a matter of custom. Romanian trumpet and American doorbell both came into being without my advice being asked.
"What is it like—to be a princess?" Shall we find the answer in these two rooms I am inviting you to look at? Perhaps we shall, but there are reservations in that "perhaps." Let us suppose that you have two homes, one in the city and one at the seashore. Quite suddenly while you are living in your city home you are told that in twenty-four hours you must leave it behind you forever. You can take hardly more than you can literally carry—a few boxes perhaps; no more. And even so, some things you are forbidden to touch. Meanwhile at the seashore a few of your neighbors quietly and surreptitiously try to spirit away some of your possessions which they can hide until you come for them. When you have finally assembled again these treasures selected under the pressure of anxiety and grief you will sometimes wish that a few of the choices had been different ones.
It is so with me—and yet these treasures from another world, another life, look very peaceful here. There on one wall of my kitchen is a picture of my mother in Romanian dress among her flowers. For the background of the picture stands Bran, our fairy castle upon a rock, where once I lived. On another wall I have an old icon of Christ, the symbol of that faith which has carried me through all my troubles, and has landed me here on my feet in New England, with the strength to live again.
Yes, to live again, because after I left home, which for me has always been Romania, I was as one dead. Not circumstances alone were hard to bear, but the need to live at all. I did not doubt for a moment the physical necessity of my presence for my six children; my love for them was as strong and potent as ever. But inside, the "me" that was me independently of the mother, the wife, the friend—the essential "me" upon which all the rest is built—suffered a mortal shock when my life was severed from my people. So I had to start again, not only outwardly but especially inwardly. Getting down to brass tacks in my kitchen helped me greatly. The need to busy my hands quieted my mind. The effort to cope with simple things and to do them well helped me to start afresh.
How shall I ever forget that first day, when I stood in my grand, new kitchen with no earthly idea of how to cook a meal! I had no inkling of how things were either stewed, boiled, broiled, roasted, or baked.
"Ah!" you say. "That is what it is like to be a princess! Not to learn any useful work! What a life of leisure that must be—when one has never even learned to cook!"
It was some such feeling, doubtless, that made one of my recent American acquaintances say to me, "But how good it must feel to you—to know that you are at last leading a really useful life!"
It is difficult for me to think of words positive enough to explain how wrong such a viewpoint is in my case. I was born to the sound of the twenty-one gun royal salute to the daughter of a long line of kings and emperors; therefore, it is true that I started life in one sense from above—from the top, you would say. But the twenty-one gun salute meant also that I was born into an occupation already established for me. Duty was the keyword of my childhood and youth. I was trained to do my duty to my country in all things, to be respectful and loving to my parents, to be loyal to family and friends. "Princes are born in public and die in public"—and between those two occasions they live in public. It was my duty to serve others along the lines rigidly laid down for those in my station: to be there when called upon; to listen to the needs of others; to weep with them or to rejoice with them, as they might require. It is only now, when I have lived in other countries, that I can look at all objectively at my training; that I can see how anyone might think it odd that 1 would feel I must attend a scheduled state banquet on one special evening when, as a young girl, I thought my heart was broken; or that I would drive across the city of Ploesti during a bombing raid to keep an appointment at an important school function where I had promised to preside. These things were duties, but housekeeping was not included in those duties. It would have been egotism on my part to take the time that belonged to the country in order to learn to do things which were already being done efficiently and well by others. Royalty has always got into difficulties when it insisted on leaving its prescribed duties for something it chose to do for its own pleasure.
It is true that I had some leisure time—not much, but a little—which I could spend as I liked. During some of their leisure my older sisters had toyed with cooking. I smile when I think of the paraphernalia brought up to their rooms upon silver trays carried by liveried footmen: the spirit lamp, the dishes, spoons, and utensils; the collection of ingredients properly washed and prepared. But it was only a game, and one that did not happen to interest me as much as it did them. I spent my own leisure in other occupations: learning something about painting and sculpturing, and beginning those activities which led later to my serious training in nursing. Even after my marriage, when I found it difficult to cope with the cooks and servants of a strange country, my duty seemed to lie with my children and with my little infirmary, which served the neighboring villages. I solved my housekeeping problems then by bringing in Romanian servants to help me—and that is why, in spite of a disciplined and busy life, I could stand in my shining Massachusetts kitchen utterly ignorant of cooking. Fate had brought me into a new situation. "Duty" had completely changed its face. Lunch for six hungry children had to be served.
Perhaps because as a child I always had a governess near me to remind me of my duty if I forgot it, or to scold me if I failed in it, I have the habit of talking to myself—of encouraging or reproving myself in what I am doing.
"Well, Ileana, my girl," I said to myself, "what now? Let's see what you can do. There was a time when you might not have believed you could face bombardments—but you learned. When you first studied nursing it would have seemed incredible that one day you would desperately but quite calmly operate on patients in need—but you did. And the patients lived, too! Come! Surely you are not to be stumped by a kitchen stove!"
A kind friend had left me ingredients. I had an old cookbook, and I made a stew and it was good. The family approved. Thus I embarked upon my career as a cook. Old memories of appetizing dishes served from my mother's kitchen came to my mind. By dint of thought and other recipes, these slowly took shape. At first I was overwhelmed by all I had to do. Fatigue took possession of my body and my mind. A hundred times I ran up and down stairs; I made the wrong gestures; I burned my hands and arms.
This sounds as if no one had wished to help me, but many did. The kindness that was shown me, the presents I received to start with, were heartening indeed. But I felt I had to stand on my own feet and learn the hard way, for the hard way is the only way. I know from bitter experience where it leads to, to lean on others. It is only when one has learned to stand on one's own feet, when one has found a solid foundation, that it is wise or good to accept help. So I declined much of the kind assistance offered me. I determined to make a home for my children by myself with my own efforts, to be steadily cheerful, and to make them want to help and be part and parcel of this united effort to start living again in a new world. An ambitious undertaking, but the first steps could be taken in my kitchen. So, leaning upon God alone and using those wits He had given me, I pulled through—not only through that first meal and that first day, but through the succeeding meals and days. I learned the ways of the white stove, and then I dared to tackle the automatic laundry machine and the electric mangle.
Yes, I have spent a lot on this kitchen. It may perhaps surprise you to find such complete equipment in a house for which I had at first no furniture outside the kitchen except seven beds and seven chairs. (And—which seems to amuse some of my new friends—a large Oriental rug which was a wedding gift to my mother from her uncle, Czar Alexander III.) But in making my new life I meant to have the best tools from the start, and to wait patiently until I could get other things less essential. Did not your pioneer ancestors do the same when they began their new life in a new world? Tools were the important things for them too. Indeed, in many ways I think they would more easily understand my problems than you do. For they left a civilization dear and familiar to them in order to find something still more precious—the freedom that men down through the ages have discovered must always be pursued, attained, and then defended! Those men and women who stood on the shore at Plymouth, watching the Mayflower disappear over the horizon on her return trip to Old England, would understand how one may love the present while still cherishing the past. They who with unaccustomed hands used strange tools to conquer a new land would understand my white and shining kitchen! I feel very close to the spirits of those ancestors of yours, who also learned to live again, as I sit hack and gaze upon this cheerful, practical room in which I began a new life by starting quite naturally from the simple essentials of life and of every day's need. Soon I shall gather up and wash the dishes of my frugal meal and go into that other room to which I have invited you.
There, too, I feel close in spirit to your ancestors—those who brought across an unknown ocean a cherished bit of china, a piece of silver, a family miniature—for there I have gathered a few precious belongings from my other life. Come and look at it with me, for the bedroom with its white walls is my castle, and it. is also the whole story of my life.
Over my bed hangs a beautiful Spanish crucifix my mother left me in her will. It had remained in Sonnberg, my home in Austria. A Russian soldier during the occupation threw it out the window; a peasant child found and hid it for me, and finally it came back to me. Here I have also the icon my mother was given at the time of my youngest brother's death. She carried it always with her, and since her death it has never left me—although only through the unexpected sympathy of one of my Communist guards was I finally permitted to take it with me when I left Romania.
In this room I draw the curtains, which are yellow with large blue-brown designs. How strange to look out between them on twilight in an American town! They come from the very first house I ever arranged—a hunting lodge in faraway Moldavia which was left me twenty-three years ago by my father. How it shocked the old caretaker to have the heavy plush draperies replaced with such bright ones! The little rug on my floor is an old Chinese one —a soft, perfect blue—which used to lie on the floor of my mother's room in the castle at Bran. From the wall, looking down on her rug, is a water color of tulips painted by my mother, who loved flowers; and there is also a wonderful print of the sea. This is both old and new. I once had the same picture, and found a print of it here in the house of one whom today I call friend, and who gave it to me; and thus it is a tie with what was and what is.
Guardian of my days and nights stands a carved statue of St. Benedict, bent in reverent and dignified prayer. Once he stood in a blue-tiled room in the castle at Sinaia beside a marble fountain gushing mountain waters. The windows behind him looked out upon the Carpathians. As a little girl, after bidding my parents good night I always paid a visit to St. Benedict, whose perfect impassive face fascinated me. Did he know that the child who with awe-filled love kissed him good night would one day wrap him in window draperies and desperately win permission from the Russian invaders to take him across an ocean, to a strange continent? So he came here with me, and is as a living presence in my room.
On the mantelpiece are a few beautiful jades—hidden from the Russians in a chimney in Austria for four years. Beside them is a round, flat, gilded box. This holds my greatest treasure—a handful of Romanian soil brought over the Romanian frontier past Romanian guards who had betrayed their country, and who turned away and could not face me when I showed them what the little box contained.
Around me tonight there is peace, contentment: so much to look back on, so much to be grateful for, so much to look forward to. I am not, then, lonely, even though I am alone in this house I have invited you to visit. Besides, tomorrow the children come back from school. There will be happy cries, rushing and stamping up and down stairs, radio and gramophone going, questions and demands, arms entwined around my neck, laughter—and probably a little scolding! It will be home and a happy family life. And there are friends old and new within reach. I can call them if I choose, or they may call me.
But tonight I would rather be still and pause a moment before I look forward to the future or backward at the past. Like Brother Lawrence, "I have need to busy my heart with quietude."