Conquering Countless Admirers, Having a Friend for 72 Years that You Never Met, Flying Solo to the USA at 86, and the Importance of Daily Routines: the Incredible Journey of 98-year-old Mara Bozhilova-Popova ’38
February 1, 2017 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97
98-year-old Mara Bozhilova-Popova is the oldest American College alumna I’ve interviewed. Her daughter Doriana contacted me a few months back in response to a greeting card our office sent to Mara and the rest of our pre-war alumni. Mara was convinced it was sent by current ACS students (“The style seemed that of kiddies.”) Kiddies we are, even if almost middle-aged. Doriana shared with me how excited Mara was about the opportunity to meet younger American College alumni and how she would love to find out whether she is the oldest graduate. While I could not confirm the latter – we do not always hear back from the pre-war alumni we send post to, so we don’t know who is still around – we did manage to carry out the interview on the morning of November 10th. At the door of their cozy flat in the heart of the old Sofia center, I’m met by a mother and daughter. Mara doesn’t look her 98 years at all – she walks on her own, occasionally lights a cigarette, has a great sense of humor, flaming red hair, and a youthful twinkle in her eye. I become her life-long fan when I realize she recalls my ACS admissions exam essay: it got published in the newspaper where she read it and it made an impression. The essay question had us choose one person, anyone in the world, to spend a day with, and I chose the handsome stranger sitting next to me at the admissions exam. As it turns out, Mara, Doriana, and I, all three of us, believe in fate. Also, we like talking, which we do plenty of on that autumn morning.
Mara, how did you end up enrolling at the American College? How did you and your family find out about the school?
I’m originally from Varna. Not many knew of the College there or elsewhere outside of Sofia, I suppose. When I was done with junior high school, my parents were wondering where to send me. Тhere was hardly any choice in Varna, just the High School of Commerce. Right about then a family friend, who was the Minister of Education, said to my parents: “There’s no question. Of course you should send her to the American College.” We flipped, what did he mean ‘the American College’? Keep calm, he said. He had met Mr. Black on business, and they had become friends too, so he had a lot of positive things to say about both him and the school. I was a good student even if a tad absent-minded. Upon sending us off to the College, our mothers’ eyes were full of joy and laughter, wishing us all the best. They were glad because they knew exactly where they were sending us – to a place both famous and good. I was very happy myself.
Wasn’t it hard for you to move from Varna to Sofia, so far away from family and friends?
Not at all. I am very sociable. As soon as I entered our sleeping quarters, the teacher responsible for us girls brought in a Jewish girl named Beraha. Our beds were allotted by names in alphabetical order: Bozhilova, Beraha, etc. So she was crying, even though she was from Sofia. I left my luggage and everything, turned to her, and started convincing her how yes, it was possible, it would be fine, see how far I come from. Others joined in, and we managed to comfort her in the end. She became my first friend at the College, the first of many.
I recall an American College alumni gathering some ten years ago and a dear friend of mine from my class was there, so was Maria-Louisa, the sister of exiled Tsar Simeon. My friend was speaking to some girls from a lower grade, and the first thing they asked her was: “Where is Marcheto?” Everyone knew me, you see, I was very popular, maybe because I was so sociable.
How often did you get to see your parents while you were a student at the College?
I saw them only during the breaks. Or when they happened to have business in Sofia, they would come visit for an hour or so. But that was once a year, at most.
What are your most vivid memories from the College that you’ve held on to all these years?
Мara: We didn’t have parties often, usually only on the days of sports events like Mountain Day or Field Day, but those were just once a year. If there was a more interesting match, we would come watch and chat with the boys. Otherwise, it was just little letters and notes. Many were in love with me. In that period I was a little infatuated with someone myself, a guy in Varna actually, who had seen me, liked me, and sent me a message through someone else. So I was thinking about this guy, but nothing along the lines of love with a big ‘L’. At the College, I had admirers in every grade level. What did they all find in me? Looking at myself in the mirror, I saw no beauty queen.
Doriana: It’s her being so cheerful and outgoing.
Mara: One of the funniest memories I have – well, I don’t know if it’s that funny – in junior or senior year, a new American teacher arrives, I think he taught Sociology, a guy with authority. And I can’t understand a single word he says – not the content and not the language either, it was as if he was doing it on purpose, making everything sound more complicated, incomprehensible. Can you imagine the embarrassment to not be able to understand him after so many years of studying English?
And something else, we had this PE teacher, Ms. Faye Tobias, she was cute but sort of wicked, too. So, we were having a written final exam. I had no clue what to write, so I was trying to cast an eye on the sheet of the girl next to me. I thought I saw the teacher keeping a close watch on someone else when in fact she had been watching me. So she scolded me, I apologized, looked humbly, and promised never to do it again.
And another case: why I wanted to get to Sofia so badly, I don’t recall anymore, but it wasn’t on one of the designated days when it was allowed, yet I was determined to go. At the College gate there was a guard in uniform, so I had to leave from somewhere else to avoid being caught; I had chosen the fence at the back. I had to do it outside lunch hours, too, so that most students would be in class. So I arranged with a friend of mine to skip foreign language class – she studied German and I French – and to meet at the chosen spot by the fence a little after 3 o’clock. How would I jump over the fence? She would help me up. I jumped over and picked up my bag. How I got to Sofia I don’t recall but I must have taken a cab. And the way back? There was a regular bus line going to the College, but the horror I went through, afraid some of the College employees would be on the bus, see me there, and recognize me! I got on without looking around, huddled myself on one of the back seats, my heart about to burst the whole time. Not even when I was through the gate and in our building did I look up. I ran to our bedroom, took off my coat and ran to the dining hall, where I finally calmed down. How I pulled all this off without fainting! And nobody found out.
What were your favorite school subjects?
I’ve always had a thing for History.
Tell us a bit about your teachers.
The teachers who came from afar got bigger salaries. There were some very young ones among them. It must have been in our second or third year at the College that romantic love started to occupy our thoughts and we were all in love with Mr. Linder who taught English to the three youngest grade levels. Poor Mr. Linder dreamed of studying Medicine but didn’t have the means for it, so he became teacher here to save some money and go back to pursue his dream. Once I saw Elena, one of my friends, lying in bed scratching an “L” on the bedside with her necklace. “Lenche, got you,” I told her, “L for Linder.“
There was another very handsome young teacher, an American College alumnus from the Class of 1931, his name was Krum Konstantinov. I don’t know whether he studied Sports after graduating the College, but either way he returned to the College as a PE teacher. He taught only the boys but many of us girls liked him. He fell for his colleague PE teacher from the United States Ms. Tobias, and the two of them later moved there and got married. In the United States he had no contact to Bulgarians so he had forgotten his mother tongue, some of my classmates told me after meeting him there.
Did you play some sports while at the College?
Yes, volleyball. (The 1938 Yearbook tells me Mara was also on the girls’ Carnegie Club. She was the President of the Much Ado about Nothing Club, too.)
You know the Carnegie Club, right? So this representative of the Club comes to the College where a representative of the school’s boys’ Carnegie Club is his host. They take him to the dining hall for dinner, only one table is set and they look for someone to wait on them – girls, of course – and a friend of mine says to me: “Come, let us go.” And I agree. So the two of us show up and at some point she comes to me, “Come, help me out. This guy wouldn’t stop talking and I can’t get to his plate without interrupting him.” I tell her to calm down, go up to the guest in question, and tell him in a kind and polite manner, “May I?” “Yes, of course,” he says, and I clear the plate. The story ends there for the time being. Later it comes out that right then the College Carnegie Club host had fallen in love with me, at first sight. I don’t recall on what occasion – a sports match probably – but at some point later on he came to me to introduce himself, Pencho Hadjigenchev, Class of 1935. The purest human being in the world, and so smart. I wasn’t in love though, even if he thought I was.
After graduating the College, he decided to study at the Higher School of Commerce. I stayed on in Sofia and had other people on my mind he didn‘t know about. He then came back to Sofia and was to leave for Germany for a specialization. Can you imagine, he already knew English fluently, now German, too! I think he got a PhD. I saw him when he was about to leave for Germany. He said he had to pick up a document of some kind in Shumen and asked me to come there and meet him. I thought what the heck, I’d go. And there, while saying goodbye, we kissed each other halfway between the cheek and the mouth, an innocent kiss showing he was hoping for more. By the time he came back, I had already had a couple of other sweethearts. I started at the Higher School of Commerce in Varna myself, so that I could be close to my mom. The love between my mother and I was proverbial. (tearing up)
Doriana: Indeed exceptional. It may have to do with my mother marrying and moving to Sofia later. After her mother had been her guiding light for so long, she missed her all the more. It’s as if this love intensified with the years even if my mother visited Varna every summer for a month or as long as she could. They exchanged letters, every single day they wrote to one another.
Mara: I was famous for my correspondence with my mom at the College. Our class representative was the one to deliver the letters to us and she brought one for me every single night. Who distributes the mail to you nowadays? (I explain how the letter writing has become sort of obsolete.)
Doriana: My grandmother was a Literature major, she enjoyed writing. Indeed, those two had a very strong relationship and every time Grandma’s name is mentioned, my mom starts crying.
Mara: So, upon his return from Germany, Pencho contacts me to tell me he is appointed at the National Bank in the town of Haskovo. I thought, “Is he delirious? Varna won’t do for me, and he wants to take me to Haskovo. Forget about it.” I said nothing. And I didn’t go. And that was that.
He thought I would come to him in Haskovo. It was through the newspaper he found out I was getting engaged to someone. I received this two-word telegram: “Why, Marche?” What answer could I come up with? None. How to tell him? That was the end of our story.
So who does a girl with so many admirers choose to marry in the end?
Some things are just meant to be… My friends from the College were all from Sofia and we kept our friendship even after I moved back to Varna, where I wasn’t really happy. In Sofia, I had relatives, too. I had a place to stay. My intentions were definitely to move to Sofia for good. So one summer, no, I think it was fall, my best friend Beba (Alexandra Avramova) invites me to come stay with her for a while. And I come. On my way to the train station in Varna, I realize I’ve left my brand new and very fancy suit at home by mistake and right then, we run into an acquaintance, give him the key to our house, and ask him to run home, get it, and catch up with us at the station which he does. So, this crisis gets averted.
I was taking my time in Sofia, but it was time to go back to university. What could I do to stay around some more? I enrolled in a stenography and type-writing course to make it look like I was working on my education. In that course I become friends with a girl. One day, we are on our way out of the course building and we start discussing where we’re from. I say I’m from Varna, and she says she has a cousin there but also a cousin here in Sofia who likes blonde girls, just like me. I think she arranged that we would meet there a few days later, because that’s what happened. And so we were introduced to one another. And he took a liking to me. That didn’t mean much, of course. So he asks me out on a date and it turns out that he borrowed a bicycle for me from the shop of one of his father’s employees. How did he know I could in fact ride a bicycle, did he ask me first, I don’t know. So we were walking about talking and we found out we were in love…
Doriana: … and that he is a resident of Sofia.
Mara: He was very handsome and successful too, and I was impressed by men of high standing, (turning to me) aren’t you? (Not as much as expected, I suppose.) And when I learned of his standing I fell in love even harder (we’re all laughing). We had a big age difference though; he was 14 years my senior. He thought that was too great a difference. I said, “Forget about it, I will always, always love you.” But he was really worried.
And so the time came that I had to leave and he was sending me off at the train station with a flower bouquet this big (forming a full circle with her arms). Trains had to travel at night only, because of the air raids. So we kissed and I was thinking how I should hit him on the head with this bouquet so hard that I would break his stupid head… And over it was. In Varna, I was desolate, I spent a lot of time sobbing but said to myself in the end “Let bygones be bygones.” It’s over and I go back to being my old self, having fun, being friendly and open to girls and to boys, too. Years went by, there were other boys in my life but I kept thinking of him. One day my mother tells me, “Marche, why don’t we bake the guy a kozunak аnd send an Easter package to him up in Nish.” That’s where he is mobilized. And we do. So he gets the package from me, no other woman has done this for him, and that’s when he finally believes that I do love him, and tells me: “I will come see you.” And he does.
Doriana: Can you imagine what he’s had to go through to do that? It takes place in 1944. They get married on 3 September, so this is in the end of August, the Russians are on their way over and it’s no secret what’s about to happen and how it will happen, so all people of high standing are gradually making their way out of Sofia and the country. And he is heading the opposite way. At the train station in Nish he runs into colleagues of his, you know, from the Chamber of Commerce he is vice-chairman of, and they go, “Popov, where do you think you’re going? Turn around and save your neck!” They are saying he should go to Germany, after all he had studied there and knew the language. It wouldn’t be so hard to reach Germany from Nish. “I can’t,” he replied, “I’ve made a promise, I’m getting married!” “Are you crazy? A wedding now! It will get ugly there, go back!” “No, I’ve made a promise.” And he returns on 1 September. He catches a terrible cold on the road; he had his tonsils so he was apt to catching colds and having anginas. On the day of the wedding he has a 40-degree-Celcius fever but returns to say ‘yes’ to this lady here. They get married at the cathedral in Varna. A lot of people come to the big wedding. My mother has organized the whole thing as soon as she has found out it’s really happening. His parents are there, his brother lives in Varna already, where he also gets married later, so many relatives are there anyway. I don’t know much about the wedding but knowing my mother, the dress must have been ready a year prior to the proposal.
(Mara lights a cigarette.)
Mara, what happened to your husband who, as you said, ‘had a high standing’ before 9 September 1944, and what happened to you as an American College alumna?
My husband lost his job overnight. The things that happen in one’s life, the fortuities, there’s no end to it.
Doriana: It’s as if nothing happens by accident.
Mara: As per my career, I met a fellow alumna from the Higher School of Commerce and she told me that there were vocational retraining courses for teachers at the High School of Commerce. And I thought, this sounds like the right job for me, after all I studied Commerce after the American College. So I enrolled and completed the course. But the things I had to go through to get all the signatures on my certificate of completion in the end, the number of times I had to come back and beg, the number of questions about the College I had to answer. There was this doorman who asked me once: “What’s wrong with you? You keep showing up here.” But it was great that I took this retraining course, because later it allowed me to give private English lessons and so made it possible for us to get by financially.
My younger sister studied at the College, too. She was 6 years my junior, so she started the year after I graduated, Class of 1945, so they couldn’t complete the full course of their studies at the College.
Doriana: The odyssey with my mom’s jobs is endless – one month here, half a day there, same at the next place. My father, unemployed. At first, they were searching for him and he was hiding.
Mara: His father hired him to work for the Commercial Newspaper as commercial manager. That was his ‘big’ office, 80 leva monthly salary, you really don’t want to know. His family used to be rich and influential before. Then they had to discontinue the newspaper, as well, so he joined the Municipality as a craftsmen inspector, on account of his previous Chamber of Commerce experience.
Years later, my son applied to be a member of the Communist Party, which was a must for some higher positions, and he was denied membership because of his parents’ Western education, mine at the College and his father’s in Germany.
Doriana: Only a handful of us could keep leading a decent life during communism. Everybody else – in the sticks, no matter that they were intelligent, had higher education and professions.
Mara, did you stay in touch with your classmates?
Yes, I stayed in touch with everyone in Sofia. Two of the boys in our class kept inviting the whole class over. One of them was famous basketball player Bozhidar Takev. At the College he used to date my best friend Alexandra Avramova. Bozhidar and I weren’t close back then, he and Beba were always together, and three’s a crowd. I was close to his wife later though, Dancheto, also an American College alumna, Class of 1940. Dancheto and Bozhidar came from the English Junior High School and skipped a year upon enrolling at ACS. I think she fell in love with one of the young male teachers at the College in our senior year. She lived close by. On the other hand, Bozhidar’s older sister had studied with my husband.
Some years ago, it was election time and I was on my way to our polling station when I ran into Bozhidar and Dancheto on the street (we were neighbors), so I asked them to vote wisely. A few days later I saw the announcement that she had passed away. They only had one child (she miscarried several times). I heard Bozhidar dreamt of having a Bozhidar Junior, which didn’t come to pass. They have one son, Alexander. He grew up abroad and works and lives abroad now. He isn’t a basketball player.
My closest friends were Beba (Alexandra) Avramova, she was the granddaughter of Sofia’s first mayor, and Beba (Evdokia) Balamezova, the daughter of Professor Balamezov, Dean of the Sofia University Law Department who later became rector of the university. We called both of them Beba because they both had older sisters, in those families they endearingly called the younger baby girls Beba.
(Mara leaves the room and I use the opportunity to ask her daughter about the relationship between the two of them.)
Doriana, you mentioned the strong bond Mara had with her mother. It seems to me that similar closeness and warmth characterizes the relationship between you and your mother.
Doriana: She is sort of my baby now that my granddaughter is 17 already. I lost my husband 11 years ago and my mother is the person to take care of now. I’ve devoted myself to her. It’s an attitude you have. The example you see growing up is what you know, what remains at the end of the day.
My mom was the one who came up with my rather unusual name, of course. I rejoice at her vitality, her typical Capricorn clearness of purpose: she is always right, you know. We have a daily routine, her longevity may very well have to do with that routine – everyday at least a half hour of walking.
Mara: Yes, I’m a Capricorn, I was born on January 9. My General Practitioner’s assistant calls me Mary Christmas – I’m merry and I’m Mara – Mary, born on Christmas according to the Julian calendar.
I’ve been wondering whether I would be able to come visit the College sometime soon. If Bozhidar were still around… He would come pick me up in his car whenever there was a celebration of some kind there, and we would gladly keep each other company to the College and back.
(I’m standing up to leave when the topic of the newly elected 45th President of USA comes up. “I’m in shock since yesterday with this idiot elected,” Mara says and then she is reminded of something so interesting we have to sit down again.)
I nearly forgot to tell you the story of how I went to the USA when I was 86. All by myself. So, in freshman year at the American College, I start corresponding with an American girl named Alice. Is this still done at the College? Like I said, we started in freshman year, so we would have a sort of decent vocabulary and get a chance to practice it. Our whole class would write letters to a whole class of kids our age somewhere in USA. I’ve received letters from others too, but only my letter exchange with Alice grew into a life-long correspondence. We created a bond that lasted from my third year at the College, that is 1934-35, until I visited her in 2004, and afterwards, too. She came from North Dakota but she was married to a pastor and they moved a lot. As high school students we would write to each other about our friendships, our romantic relationships, the things that moved or excited us. I recall how at some point, facing the prospect of their next move, this time to Minnesota, Alice was filled with indignation: “Instead of sunny California, I’m to roam the freezing cold here.” After retiring, they bought their own place in Battle Lake, Minnesota, where they would hold yearly extended-family gatherings: they would set a weekend to meet up and it was a large family, you know, they had four kids of their own and adopted a couple of black kids.
So how did this idea of you going to the USA at 86 come about at all? How was it carried out?
At some point Alice wrote to me that her youngest daughter’s husband, also a pastor, is appointed the head pastor for the KFOR in Kosovo during the war there, and Alice’s daughter Donna had the right to fly to a safe country nearby, like Bulgaria, and pay him a visit. She decided to use the opportunity and come meet with her husband in Sofia. We discussed this in a series of letters. “Don’t you worry, I will be her hostess,” I told my friend.
The KFOR forces were based in the Rodina Hotel which is not far from our place. When the day of Donna’s arrival came, I went to the hotel and asked about her at the reception desk. They called her room, went up and checked in person, she was out. How could that be, we had arranged a meeting! I didn’t know what to do and went back home in the end, desperate. And who do I find there? Donna with her daughter. They visited our home a couple of times during that week, my son took them to the Rila Monastery, we traveled around the country a bit, and then they left.
A year later, Donna calls me on the phone: „Mary, want to come to America?” I stand there with the phone receiver in my hand, speechless. „What do you mean, America? There’s no way I can afford the ticket.“ „Forget that, she says, my brother and I are paying. You see, we have decided to surprise our mother for her birthday. You’ll be the surprise!“ And indeed, they arrange the tickets and one fine day, my 86-year-old self sets off on a journey, alone. Crazy, the fear I felt, I was terrified! It’s not just crossing the ocean and landing over in America: one flight to New York, then the next one across the country to Arizona. At the airport they were waiting for me with posters saying „Welcome, Mrs. Mary.” There were even journalists from the local TV station.
Doriana: Alice and her husband traveled to Arizona to escape the Minnesota winters, too cold for them. They stayed in a house perfect for retired people, with social workers assisting them with the daily tasks. My mother was very satisfied with her visit. She stayed less than 2 weeks, though it seemed long to her, but she saw all the must-see sites. They even took her to a casino.
The journalists from the TV station were impressed with the longevity of this friendship; they kept it up 72 years, from the time they were 14 to the present, both of them 86, only through exchanging letters, without meeting each other. They knew everything of importance about each other, they shared a lot – l gave birth, my son this, your daughter that, who married whom and does what for a living.
Mara: Arizona is sort of the southernmost state in the western part of the USA, almost in the desert. It is the state with one of the largest percentages of Indians in the USA, a big part of the area of the state is reservation land. I was surprised to find out that Indians were in charge in the commercial and building sectors there. When we went to the casino, to which I was initially reluctant, I even won a dollar; I still keep it. I recall seeing this super old Indian in a wheel chair pushed by a young white guy, the Indian waving his cane around as if he owned the place.
My hosts took me to church too, of course, at Sunday mass. Everyone stood up to greet me because the pastor had told them about the 86-year-old guest coming all the way from Bulgaria. The whole congregation stood up and out of nowhere I heard myself singing the psalm with them. We must have studied it at the American College. They were stunned, they even gave me the floor afterwards so I could tell them about myself. I held my little speech.
Doriana: Oh, my mom has the gift of speech. Next, the media here in Bulgaria heard of the old lady that went to meet her American pen pal after 70 years. One day we get a call from Slavi’s Show; they even came over to discuss inviting my mother as their guest so she can tell the story of her friendship with Alice. And so, we went, my mom was on Slavi’s Show alright. Next, the newspapers wrote about the show. But the best part was that during the show they rang up Alice and the two friends spoke to each other on air. After that my mom was a little disappointed that she wasn’t treated like a media star. “They keep mentioning Petko Bocharov but not me. Am I not a media star too, now?”
Mara: Sadly, both Alice and her husband died the year after my visit. I’m glad we did this in time, you know.
Do you have a message to current students at the College and younger alumni?
Oh, yes, I even drafted something here.
Doriana: She dictated this to me when you called the first time, you know, before we knew you would come.
Mara (reading): „Dear young people, I see that my favorite old College, where I spent the happiest years of my youth, continues to give you new goals, just as it did with us once.”
Doriana: She means how you take care of the bond between the school and its old alumni.
Mara (continues reading): „Follow these objectives diligently and you will find yourselves turning into strong and good people in the process.”
In January, a couple of weeks after Mara has turned 98, we talk on the phone and she tells me it was a great celebration. Her best present – a letter from her friend’s daughter Donna that arrived on her birthday. Coincidence?
Editors: Georgi Iliev, Jaime Pindur