A Golden Journey
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s the speech I delivered at my in-laws 50th anniversary party a couple of weeks ago. It’s anecdotal, but I think social science fans will enjoy it.
On New Year’s Day, 1968, a young couple married in Bucharest, Romania. Their names were Corneliu Dumitru Mateescu and Maria Teodora Ghitza. I wasn’t there, but I hear it was a three-day Old World extravaganza of feasting and dancing. Despite disapproval from the Romanian Communist Party, Cornel and Maria celebrated an old-fashioned church wedding. At the time, I suspect that loyal Communists were saying, “Well, it’s only a wedding. It’s not like they’re going to reject everything we stand for.”
But let’s back up. Corneliu, the groom, was born in the mid-1930s. He was the cherished only child of two loving parents who worked hard to give him an idyllic childhood. But then the war came. Daily life was a struggle. By the war’s end, young Corneliu was a refugee – fleeing the city to escape the bombing. When peace finally came, it was the peace of the Red Army. The Communists soon closed Corneliu’s school, where he had been educated by German monks – “the Brüder.” When he reached adulthood, Corneliu was drafted and sent away from home. But he persevered, eventually earning a top job with the electric authority – about as high as anyone in Romania could rise without joining the Communist Party.
Maria, the bride, was born in 1948. She missed the war – and had no memories of pre-Communist Romania. She grew up with her mom, a schoolteacher, and her little brother Alecu. They didn’t have their own television set, but a relative did. When Maria was in her late teens, that t.v. malfunctioned. Now, you may ask, where in Communist Romania do you go to get your t.v. repaired? Well, it turns out that a charming young man with the electric authority repaired t.v. sets after hours. He showed up and went to work. And who happened to be visiting her relatives that day? Young Maria Ghitza!
Cornel’s electrical skills must have been awesome, because they were soon the stars of a three-day wedding. Three years later, they were parents of a lively, adventuresome, determined, adorable little girl, Corina Ruxandra. Cornel’s parents were on site to help raise her in the family home. Cornel, Maria, and Corina hiked together through the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. But as their daughter enjoyed the great outdoors, her parents couldn’t help but realize that as long as they remained in Communist Romania, most of the world’s beauty and opportunity would remain beyond her reach.
So in 1974, Maria made one of the hardest sacrifices a mother can make. When she received permission from the Communist government to visit the West, she saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give her daughter a better life. The Communists assumed that a mother of a young girl would return. Instead, Maria reached America – and Cornel began stubbornly asking permission to follow her.
It was a sad time for the Mateescu family. Maria had to make her solitary way in the United States by the sweat of her brow. While learning English, she worked as a nanny. She worked on a lunch truck. And she kept sending money and gifts home to her family. Cornel and his parents had to raise Corina alone. Corina spent years without her mother to guide and comfort her. She was even sent home from school for wearing one of Maria’s gifts – a lovely but forbidden “capitalist dress.”
Communist officials felt sure that Cornel would eventually stop asking to reunite his family. But there was one thing they didn’t count on: the stubbornness of a Mateescu. Despite years of bureaucratic abuse, Cornel kept asking to leave. He refused to give up. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. In 1978, he won. Cornel left Communist Romania with his daughter. After six more months as refugees in Italy, Cornel, Maria, and Corina were reunited right here, in Southern California.
The Mateescus were now a family of immigrants – and lived the full immigrant experience. Finding work. Learning English. Exploring a magical new country. Teaching their daughter to excel in life – and to blend the best of two sharply contrasting worlds. Corneliu eventually reentered his chosen profession – electrician – for JPL. Maria became a skilled draftswoman in the prosthetics industry. Corneliu’s parents were finally able to join them as well. All four elders poured their love and encouragement into young Corina Mateescu. And that little girl from Bucharest, who didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived at LAX in 1978, became the valedictorian of her high school – and a student at UC Berkeley. Dreams do come true.
When Corina went off to college, her father made some dire predictions about the first boyfriend she’d bring to meet the parents. Though she’d given him little cause for pessimism, he announced that she’d fall for a Communist… Berkeley… hippie. Imagine his delight, then, when I showed up! I did live in Berkeley, but my hair was short – and my anti-Communist credentials were rock solid. Well, he may not have been absolutely delighted at first, but Maria reminded him that things could be worse. And when Corina and I got engaged in late 1993, today’s honored guests gave us their blessing.
Much has happened since then. Cornel and Maria are now grandparents four times over. Their grandchildren are all here today. Aidan and Tristan, the twins. Simon, our younger son. And Valeria, named after Corneliu’s beloved mother. And of course, Cornel and Maria’s daughter Corina, their most precious jewel and the organizer of tonight’s festivities, is here by their side. This party won’t last three days like it did fifty years ago, so please try to squeeze three days worth of revelry into the next couple of hours. But first, friends and family, let’s all
raise our glasses to a special couple and the courageous and bountiful life they have made together.