A Eulogy for Corneliu Mateescu
My father-in-law, the little boy in the late-1930s picture below, died last week. Here is the eulogy I just delivered for this courageous and determined family man.
Today we come together to honor the memory of Corneliu Dumitru Mateescu. He was the husband of the loving and devoted Maria Mateescu, and the father of my wife, Corina Caplan. Cornel and Maria have four grandchildren, all of them here with us today: grandsons Aidan, Tristan, and Simon, and granddaughter Valeria – named for Cornel’s dear mother. Last January, Cornel and Maria celebrated their Golden Anniversary. Many of you were there to celebrate that happy day with us, and we’re honored that you joinus on this sad day just three months later.
Cornel was born in the mid-1930s. He enjoyed an idyllic childhood with his loving parents… until the war came. Before long, young Cornel became a refugee for the first – but not the last – time in his life, as his family fled Bucharest to escape the bombing. When the war ended, Cornel endured the tyranny and privation of Communist rule for decades. But he made the best life an honest man could make for himself in such a system, working as an electrician, marrying in 1968, and becoming a father in 1971.
The defining period in Cornel’s life began just three years later. Maria received permission from the Communist government to travel outside the Eastern Bloc, leaving herhusband and daughter behind as hostages. When Maria reached the United States, Cornel requested permission for the whole family to join her. As usual in such cases, he was not merely refused, but insulted and threatened for his counter-revolutionary request. Unlike most people in his position, however, Cornel stood firm. He asked again. Again he was insulted and threatened, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Year after year, he demanded freedom for himself, his daughter, and his parents. In the end, his amazing courage and determination paid off. In 1978, Cornel left Communist Romania with his daughter – and never returned until their dictatorship was no more.
At this point, Cornel became a refugee for the second time in his life. After reaching the way station of Italy, the American government didn’t feel ready to grant him permission to rejoin his wife, so they kept him waiting in bureaucratic limbo. Cornel and Corina had to make a temporary home in an special building for Italy’s refugees. Cornel, speaking no Italian, found a job in a bottling factory to support himself and his daughter. I still remember Cornel telling me that they ate so much macaroni during those months that he never wanted to eat pasta
again as long as he lived.
About six months later, the U.S. bureaucracy finally gave Cornel and Corina a green light to rejoin Maria in Los Angeles. It was a joyous reunion, but another hard chapter in Cornel’s life. Almost as old as I am today, he had to learn a new language and start over. In Romania, he was a managing electrician. In America, he became ajanitor. But over the years, with his
famous determination, Cornel’s English improved – and he was able to return to his chosen occupation, working for JPL for many years. In time, Cornel brought his beloved parents
to join the family. With faith and hard work, the Mateescus carved out their slice of the American dream, buying a house right here in sunny California and sending their daughter to the top public university in the country, UC Berkeley. Cornel and Maria found the time and money to travel to Europe, and even revisit Romania.
The highlight of Cornel’s golden years, though, were his grandchildren. Cornel was an only child, and Romanians have grown used to small families. Imagine his delight, then, when he learned that he would soon be the grandfather of two twin boys! Cornel and Maria spent many months with us during Aidan and Tristan’s early years – and our sons spent many months in California in their grandparents’ loving care. I’m not sure if Cornel ever changed a diaper, but he fed them, watched them, joked with them, told them stories, played with them, and put endless batteries into their toys. When Simon came along, Opapa (as he liked to be called) was eager to do it all over again. By the time that Cornel met his first granddaughter, he was already slowing down, but whenever they were together, little Valeria was the center of his world.
All of us who knew Cornel know that he could be stubborn. But when you reflect on his long life, it’s clear that his stubbornness is the root of all he accomplished. Almost anyone else would have accepted the hopelessness of reuniting his family, of trying to give his daughter a better and freer life. Almost anyone else would have cowered at the insults, and caved in to the threats. But Cornel endured his staring match with the Communists year after year until they blinked. How many of us would have made it as refugees? Cornel did it twice. Imagine trying to learn a new language and find a job – any job – in your forties. Cornel did it. Twice. We can all use some of his stubbornness to help us through the adversities of life.
But the greater lesson of Cornel’s life is the value of family. Cornel was a truly devoted son, husband, father, and grandfather. He loved them all – and was not afraid to show his feelings with hugs, kisses, and tears. When they needed him, he gave them his all. Without his love and determination, my wife probably wouldn’t even be in this country, much less in my life. Our children never would have been born. We owe Cornel all that we have, and we will never forget him.