Remembering ‘Bunelu the Bear’

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a story or two here by the candlelight, so it feels good to return to form. Today, we’re not talking politics or world issues, in fact, nothing of the sort.

No, today, we’re going to talk about Constantin (Costache) Buhaceanu, known to me as Bunelu, or, in rough Romanian translation, grandpa. Today marks seven years since his passing away in 2015. He was 76.

Last week, I had a dream about him.

My grandpa and I were standing near the top of a small grassy hill, with trees surrounding us, and I recall there were other people around, though I didn’t know their faces, or who they were. I remember turning towards Bunelu, who, as I remember him, retained a slightly shorter stature than me, yet had a beefy frame, like that of a wrestler, or a tank. He put his arm on my shoulder and looked at me; his expression had that same warm, beaming pride he had every time I came to visit him. I’m a little fuzzy on what he was wearing, but I do recall him having his gray black-banded fedora on.

I then remember hugging him very tightly, like you would hug someone you have greatly missed or have been apart from for a very long time. I recall shortly bursting into tears, the kind of crying that requires a really deep intake of air as your vocal chords prepare to unleash a near-primal howl of emotion. After my second “intake” I abruptly woke up. I was neither startled, nor shaken, scared, or unsettled, but the remnants of whatever emotions I experienced in that moment remained with me; in many ways, they were as real as the streaks of the morning light passing through the window.

I’m not a big believer in things like this, but I do like to believe sometimes that grandpa comes and says hello every now and then.

“Flacaul lu bunelu,” he used to lovingly say, translating roughly to, “grandpa’s handsome young man.”

Grandpa was not what I’d call an intimidating man; much how like one could argue a grizzly bear isn’t intimidating when it’s not angry. And, much like the bear, grandpa would not use his strength or force for nefarious purposes; only if threatened or pressed by the wrong folks.

I’d recall stories how he’d chase the bullies who tormented my mom and my aunt around the school when they were young- not so much with the intent to beat up a bunch of children, but to put the fear in their bones that if they lay another finger on his girls, the bear would return and eat their heads. He chased a few parents around too. At least one even went home without some of his teeth.

Bunelu proudly dancing with my mom at a university ball

Yet grandpa wasn’t renown for violence, not by his family, friends, neighbours or the townsfolk. He loved his family fiercely, and always did everything in his power to ensure their wellbeing and safety, even often at the cost of his own.

Grandpa’s rituals were simple, but wholesome. At the end of each day, he would come home from the farm, drop off his bike and work stuff, change, and head across the street to the pub. He’d have a couple of cherry liqueur or brandy shots, just enough to get the digestive system running, and when he got back, he’d have another shot or two of homemade plum moonshine. Of course, the average person would be half cut or completely lights-out wasted by this point, but not grandpa. In fact, his pre-dinner warmup was just getting started. He’d pick up his accordion and unleash some traditional whistling, foot-slapping Romanian tunes in the veranda, an event passersbys on the street would often stop and listen to in the evenings. In the summer, he’d have the veranda door open, letting in the warm, inviting air as he played, sometimes a little later than grandma would’ve liked. Townsfolk and colleagues who knew him often saluted him as “Domn’ Buhaceanu! Sa traiti!”

From the outside, domnul Buhaceanu (Mr. Buhaceanu) had it all; a gorgeous home, a fertile piece of land with a nice little vineyard and a beautiful family. But grandpa often protested at those who marveled at most of those things, insisting that it was not his home, his farm or his small fortunes that made him rich, but his kids, his wife and his grandkids.

Grandpa with me, my cousin and my grandma in an undated photo

It was in those moments that I saw grandpa truly at his happiest ever. Every time me and my cousin would come down to stay with him and grandma for the summer, both would be over the moon. I remember I loved going with him on random errands into town, whether to pick up groceries or drop off tools to the local machine shop for repairs. He loved when I came too, as he’d introduce me to just about everyone he came across, every time gushing with pride: “he’s my eldest daughter’s boy.”

Grandpa and me at the farm house sometime in the early 90s. I loved camo and that hat, okay?!

As the years went on, and after me and my parents permanently moved to Canada, grandpa’s joie de vivre began to fade. I would visit Romania every two years or so, but even that started to change as life got more and more busy.

Yet, not matter what, he kept busy. He used to love working the land, it was almost like a hobby. Every grapevine, every vegetable and fruit he got out of it tasted fresher, more delicious than anything else from anywhere else. It’s true – I don’t think I had better fruits or veggies anywhere else in the world. Though there was a time when Bunelu almost lost his whole crop of onions for a whole year. When I was five or six, I remember I liked playing “soldier” in the garden – that year, there were these tall onion plants sticking out, with the seedling parts at the tips, which, to my rich childhood imagination, were kind of like the head of enemy soldiers. So, I grabbled a sickle and one by one, ‘ffffsshhhhhh, off with your head!’ went grandpa’s onion crop for the year. When he discovered what I had done, I hid in the vineyard, terrified of what he’d do if he caught me. Though this was never the case, as grandpa never got angry at me, and would never lift a finger at me. Looking back now, I’d say I should’ve gotten an ass kicking – I mean, you could hear the poor man almost in tears from a mile a way, crying, ‘Dumezaule Doamne, oooph, Doamne!’ or, “oh god, why oh god.” These are all seeds he sat in his knees beneath the blazing sun and cold rain planting, so of course, I would cry too if my grandson pulled such bullshit.

Yeah I was a little shit sometimes. But never once did grandpa hold it against me. He still loved his grandkids and his family, no matter how shitty they got.

He also knew the importance of sticking to something through to the end. In his youth, he worked the land, a small plot in his hometown of Hanesti that his parents owned before the Second World War began. By that point, Nazi Germany had invaded Romania, forcefully assimilating its people into military service. My great-great grandfather, Bunelu’s dad, was among the millions of Romanian men who were drafted into the German army. In 1945, the Soviet Union, along with the Allies, declared victory over Hitler’s forces, which also left Romania open for the taking as well. Yet the victory in Europe was not enough to save his dad’s life; just days before all Romanian soldiers were moving to meet with the allies and surrender to the Americans, he and several German commanders were captured by the Red Army and were taken to a remote gulag in Siberia. Last known condition of his whereabouts was that he starved and froze to death, along with many other POWs under Stalin’s regime.

As the eldest of five kids, Bunelu had no other choice but to continue working the land and help his mother, now a widow, provide for the family. And as tough as life got, he managed to push through. In his late 20s, he got a job as a mining supervisor for the uranium mines deep in the Carpathian Mountains. He spent 30 years working in those mines, and moved his family to the mountains in the small town of Crucea to try and build a better life for them. Both my mom and my aunt had lived in this beautiful place, which was nestled at the feet of the legendary and timeless Carpathians.

Bunelu with baby me and grandma in Crucea

Eventually, he got tired of the hard and dangerous work in the mines, and decided to retire early at the age of 58, moving his whole family back to Hanesti and using what he’d saved up to build a new home for his kids, as well as purchase a new plot of land where he’d have his own vineyard.

Grandpa crushing the grapes for making wine, a yearly October tradition.

He’d often say to me, especially in his later years, “mai baiete, am avut o viata frumoasa; am avut tot ce am vrut,” meaning, “my boy, I had a beautiful life… I had everything I always wanted.”

His mantra would not go unscathed however, and in 2003, Bunelu’s life changed forever. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and was warned that its effects and symptoms would only worsen over the years. With terrible accuracy, they did. By 2010, he had lost a good portion of his mobility, barring him from being able to work at the farm and maintain the family vineyard. Though he didn’t explicitly say it, the notion of being unable to do the things he loved were emotionally devastating. In 2011, he came to visit Toronto with grandma, a visit that he wasn’t super fond of. I recall we were right beside the CN Tower, saying, “look Bunelu, the CN tower! It’s cool right?” – to which his response was that he wanted to get home. While the disease was making everything worse for him, the inherent truth is that grandpa loved his home; his toolshed, his farm and his vineyard. It was a simple, humble life, and it was all he ever needed.

In 2015, his condition had worsened beyond the point of no return. Already weakened, an infection he contracted while in hospital terminally sealed the deal, leaving our family without its main patriarch; the heart of a bear that had kept it going for so many years.

Today, I don’t remember Bunelu, grandpa, as a man pushed down by Parkinson’s, because that would be saying this evil disease has won. No – today I’m here to remember Bunelu as the man that he was, a man with an incredibly large heart, a man with a tough outer shell who was capable of so much love and so much compassion.

Miss you Bunelu, and thank you again for everything you’ve done for your family. None of us would be where we are without you. May we meet again in our dreams.

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