Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

On Being Depressed

 

IMG_4481I see her often at the gym, a tiny old woman who limps from machine to machine in bulky orthopedic sneakers fastened with Velcro. One foot turns in and the other twists and lags behind as she walks, as if the thick black soles of her shoes were as heavy as bricks. She leaves her walker in the corner as she makes her way down the row of machines. Her face and neck, her arms and hands, are covered with wart-like bumps that disturb me even as I feel compassion. I try never to look at her, especially when I enter that empty space of depression, that black hole that suddenly sucks away all joy and beauty, all hope and gratitude, all faith and desire, leaving nothing of me but a thin phony shell.

If depression has never dragged you down and held you underwater for days, sometimes weeks, it’s hard to describe. When it strikes, sometimes at dawn, sometimes in the middle of an ordinary afternoon, I feel it first in my heart, like a sudden constriction, and in my fingers, which tingle with a nasty electric pulse. My head starts to constrict, too, and my eyes refuse to meet the eyes of others.

I know if I talk to anyone, I will either lash out in anger or mutely disengage from the conversation.  No matter what is said, I will feel alienated, or attacked, or unable to stop my tears. I could simply be reading an article about a drive-by shooting, or watching a child laughing on a swing, when the enormous weight of life’s futility, its fleeting joys and mutilating failures, will suddenly crush my spirit.

I tell myself what not to do when I am depressed. Don’t call your children. Don’t see your friends. Don’t dwell on knives or razors or scissors. Don’t walk along cliffs or bridges or linger on high decks. Don’t drive fast on winding roads, especially those with a sharp drop. Don’t look at pictures from the past, especially of your children as babies. Don’t listen to music – the “wrong” song might make you break down for an hour. And, if you can help it, don’t ever look at yourself in the mirror.

When depression starts its slow strangulation, nothing tastes good any more unless it is extreme, like salty chips or mint chip ice cream.  Nothing feels good, not even a soft blanket or a silky robe. Taking a shower seems pointless, as does putting on makeup or changing clothes.  The goal is to fall asleep as early as possible and wake up as late as possible to minimize the hours of torture.  And since depression saps you of all energy and desire, it’s imperative to take a lot of naps or at least lie motionless for prolonged periods of time.

If you have obligations to others while you are depressed, you are grateful for the routines that force you out of bed. Drive the kids to school. Make breakfast and dinner. Do the laundry. Clean the kitchen. But if you have none, why bother doing anything for yourself? You are not worthy.

Everything that you know is bad for you is what you crave when you are depressed, anything that will knock out the bleakness. Or hurt you.  Alcohol. Cigarettes. Sleeping pills. Solitude.

You need to be alone in your misery, so you stay inside and hide or escape to where no one you know will be. Who would want to hang out with the person you have become anyway? And how selfish it would be to inflict your own sick sadness on the people you care for. But sometimes there they are, despite your efforts to hide, questioning you, bothering you, forcing you to tell lies in order to spare them.

Then one morning, after ten hours of sleep, you decide to go to the gym, wearing the same clothes you had on the day before, your hair unwashed, your face devoid of makeup. You can feel some crusty gunk in the corners of your eyes from crying, and you hope no one notices.

And who should be the first person you see as you settle into the inner thigh machine? Little old wart woman. She is making her slow, crooked approach to the chest machine that is right in front of you. For some reason, you force yourself to look at her, really look at her, past those strange ugly bumps that repel you. She is wearing a striped t-shirt and red lipstick. She smiles, and it’s as if God has smiled on you. Her smile is so sweetly bestowed, and her deep brown eyes behind their thick glasses radiate a kindness that cuts a small chink in your armor of despair.

And just like that a whisper of love sneaks into your heart. Oh, it’s not an instant cure. That could take a lot longer. But it’s a sign. Like finding a clean copper penny on the sidewalk when you are broke. Or seeing the shimmery red and green glow of a hummingbird as it whirs past your face. Or spotting the last cluster of blackberries on your hike and eating them, one by one, in the sun.

A sign that grace has come when you least expected it.  And surely after grace must come healing.

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Young Writers Program

Since my father died, my inner light, the one that helped me see and feel, went out. I lived in a dark space, not unhappy, really, just dim. Shapes had lost their outlines, love had lost its purpose, and all the things that used to matter to me no longer did. Like a moth at twilight, I flitted silently, aimlessly, looking for any bright spot to move toward, searching for a spark that would brighten, however briefly, the nebula of my inner space.

Then I met them, those vulnerable teens struggling to find meaning in a world of uncertainty, the sons and daughters of mostly Mexican immigrants attending SOS, an alternative Watsonville high school for children who would otherwise fail. The message they heard every day was one loud assault. You are not wanted. You are not loved. You are not smart enough, white enough, or rich enough. You don’t belong here. Go back to where you came from. An immigrant myself, I had heard similar messages as a child, but never ones as potent and deadly as those blasting through our country today, landing on young minds like missiles of hatred and defeat.

As part of the Young Writers Program, I was one of the volunteers asked to help the students write about, of all topics, social justice – something they had never experienced. But they had all endured social injustice, and their stories were poignant testaments to its belittling and bewildering consequences.

M was the youngest of thirteen children, a large boy with stooped shoulders and soft brown eyes that darted away when someone spoke to him. He had brothers who had been or were in gangs, and a mother determined to keep him from that path, a mother so strict that he seemed to flinch when the teacher admonished him in any way, in what had to be a learned reaction. He told me he couldn’t write, but then he did, about racism in law enforcement. It took a while for him to get started, and when he finished, after several weeks of effort, he was proud but reluctant to make many changes. Changes would have implied criticism, and criticism would have meant failure, a trigger to total shut down. So I let him shine, as he should but probably seldom did. “I am responsible for everything I do because I am a student,” he wrote, “so why not the police?” Proud that he had finished first, he opened up and helped his friends with ideas and suggestions.

Beautiful J, with long brown hair, chestnut eyes and an easy smile, usually sat next to M. I could tell that he liked her, a lot, and her cheerful banter put him at ease. His sarcastic observations, delivered in a random, laconic way, were funny, and she always laughed. She tried to explain the difference between a simile and a metaphor, which he already knew but pretended not to, and he made up silly examples to entertain her. I was startled when J told me that severe anxiety had kept her from attending a regular public school. Even here, she had started and stopped several times. Largely home schooled, she lacked grammar and spelling skills, yet excelled at expressing herself easily and fluidly. She, too, wrote about police prejudice: “One time my father got pulled over because he is the color of Nutella. The officer asked him, “Did you steal something today?” And my dad answered, “No, I’ve been with my kids all day.”” The police made them all wait in the car until they determined he was not “the dark man in his late 30s” they were looking for.

B, I was told, was “special needs,” and a solid-looking woman sat nearby in the classroom, assigned to him for what seemed to me no apparent reason. He had a mischievous smile and an innocent eagerness, the complete opposite of what I had been told to expect. He said he wanted to write a poem, like rap. He did several drafts, and I helped him find the words that rhymed and rearrange them in poetic order. He was thrilled to pour out his view of the politics of hate he sensed all around him, the reality of living in a community where a knock on the door could be the Feds, and no one was safe, not even in school. His pride in the poem he wrote was so real and so moving. On the last day, he read it out loud to the class. “We will rebel/We will never let them kill/What our people have done/And the freedoms we have won.”

When F joined our group, the session was almost half over. At first, he said nothing and sat with his head bowed, his golden-hued face and almond eyes half-hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt. As he slowly began to trust me, he poured out a story of his arrest for tagging, and how to him tagging meant freedom and excitement and self-expression. I suggested he write about it, as it was what mattered most to him, and he was surprised that I thought so. I sat next to him at first, and he dictated while I scribbled down his words. I told him writing was just that, putting on paper the words that come from your head and heart. This essay, he wrote to me later, was the first he had ever written:

“Instead of putting us young graffiti writers in jail or on pointless probation, why not encourage us to express ourselves by creating our art somewhere safe where we won’t be judged as criminals by authorities? Why not give us sketchbooks and pens and let us draw? We could spend probation hours drawing and learning instead of picking up trash. When we are treated as criminals, we eventually become criminals.”

If F fails to beat his second offense and gets charged as an adult instead of a juvenile, he will go to jail. What a terrible waste of a gifted and passionate artist. The path from drawing on a wall to surviving as a gang member is not that long when the odds have always been against you.

What these kids needed to hear was that their stories were unique and interesting. Their stories mattered. Their lives mattered. As the weeks went by, more and more students failed to show up for class. The fear of ICE in this farming community left a trail of shattered faith and family chaos. All the good done by Charmaine Ryan, the remarkable teacher whose whole life is dedicated to helping these most fragile of students, could not shield them from the forces of racism and hatred.

A was another beauty, intelligent and verbally engaging, but her haunted brown eyes held the secret shame of sexual abuse, the private injustice that cannot be rectified. Her mother left when she was four and never returned. Abandoned so young, she and her brother went to live with an aunt, and it was there that an uncle began molesting her. When she finally had the courage to speak up, no one took it seriously. No one wanted to believe her. After all, he was family, and you don’t expose family, especially in the Mexican culture, where family is everything.

The best educated of my group, A prided herself on being a good student. I asked her why she wasn’t at a regular high school. She told me that she, too, suffered from debilitating anxiety that made navigating a typical school environment, especially as a Mexican American, impossible. She had internalized fear, her own post-traumatic stress disorder, and it kept her trapped. “I wanted to leave/I wanted to fight/I knew it wasn’t right/All I feel as I run down the hall…/The fear of his hands on me as I fall.”

After the class ended, I would remember their trusting eyes as I read and reread their thank you card: thank you for your time and kindness, thank you for pushing me to do better, thank you for all the help…I needed it. What they didn’t know was that I was the one who needed help. They were the ones who made me feel alive again. They were the ones who helped me know that my own life mattered. Thank you, gentle souls, for letting me share your light.

To learn more about the Young Writers Program, go to youngwriterssc.org. Volunteers are always needed. You can also help by purchasing a book of students’ writing at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Stay Strong

Her name is Barbara, but she prefers to be called Bee. I see her at the gym, always with a smile on her face and a glow in her round chestnut eyes. She wears beige orthopedic shoes, black weight-lifting gloves, and matching polyester outfits in bright solid colors. When she sees someone working out on a machine or with weights, she ambles over, raises a tiny fist and says, “Stay strong!”

Bee is a cheerleader for anyone who needs cheering, including me. Most people she greets smile back and say thank you. A very few look embarrassed or annoyed. Who is this old lady smiling and talking as if she knew them? Is she crazy or senile?

No, Bee is neither crazy nor senile. More likely, she’s an angel of some sort, put on this earth to bring joy to others. I talk to her whenever I can, just to feel her goodness streaming toward me. Maybe it will penetrate somehow, and raise my own positive energy. Maybe I can absorb some of her simple essence and become a kinder person.

I believe in miracles.

Bee has translucent rosy skin with nary a wrinkle, and white hair in flat waves circling her small round head. She may not have a halo, but she looks like an angel to me.

When I haven’t seen her for a while, I get panicky. Angels can’t die! I need my angels! I have my dream angels, my mom, my dad, my brother, my grandparents, but Bee is right in front of me, alive with love. My spirits lift and my heart warms when I see her. She is like a happy pill, a gratitude pill, a determination pill, an excitement pill, and she doesn’t even know it. If I told her, she would laugh.

“Oh,” she’ll remark. “I’m glad you’re wearing blue today. You look so lovely in colors.” Suddenly, I feel pretty again. My angel has touched me.

If I don’t feel like working out, which is often these days, I will sometimes go to the gym just in case Bee is there. I need her like a dose of sugary optimism, especially during the holidays. My father died right after Christmas two years ago; my mother died in January almost fourteen years ago; and my first marriage crumbled during a last holiday hurrah . Succumbing to the tension of loss and longing, of expectation and disappointment, I sometimes feel I haven’t done enough, given enough, pleased enough, accomplished enough. My life can seem like a long series of failures.

Then I see Bee, smiling and waving from across the room. Floating on her tiny feet, she approaches and says, “This gym is the best playground in town!” For me, right then, it is the best playground in the world. With her sweet joyous smile, Bee has banished doubt and despair and restored my gratitude for life, just by being her kind self.

Around her neck hangs a long chain with a fat gold ring, a ring she sometimes rubs gently as if summoning a genie. I finally got the nerve to ask her about it. It was her husband’s wedding ring, she told me, her husband who died a long time ago.

“Was he a good husband?”

She tilts her head and looks so directly into my eyes that I feel a beam of light entering me. “He was the very best husband in the world,” she says. “The very best man.” The love in those words makes everything around us seem to pulsate.

Perhaps if we looked more closely, spoke more warmly, opened our hearts more easily, we would see living angels all around us, angels who might wake us from our dull sleep and show us the love that is always present for the giving and taking. I’m lucky I have had Bee to remind me that it is how we leave others feeling that matters most. Maybe some day that knowledge will become my constant star even without her shining example.

Soon the days will get longer and spring will revive us with its sudden bounty of life and beauty. But for now, with the holidays upon us and the world in seeming chaos, I can only borrow Bee’s words and hope their blessing works for you.

Stay strong!

The Last Light of Day

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A long time ago I read a short story in the New Yorker By Alice Elliott Dark called “In the Gloaming.” I have never forgotten it. It tells the story of Janet, a mother caring for her son, Laird, who is dying of AIDS, and the last evenings they spend together outside in the magical hour when dusk turns to dark. The gloaming is intimate and shadowy, a purple suspension between now and forever, a time when words touch what really matters and life stands, still and perfect, before it disappears forever.

My father was in his gloaming the year before he died. He wanted to talk and be heard. He wanted to know how each person in the family was doing. He wanted to see if we had become what his dream for us had been. In the summer evenings, after dinner, he would ask me to read something I had written, his eyes half closed, his head held to the side, resting on a blue-veined hand. I knew I had not fulfilled his dream for me, but he showed no disappointment, only love.

When my father died, all the words inside me disappeared.

Now I want to remember everything about him, but what I remember most clearly is how badly we treated him. He had become superfluous. He couldn’t hear well but refused to use a hearing aid. Instead of politely raising our voices, some of us would shout, while others just ignored his soft-voiced attempts to be part of the conversation. He couldn’t walk well but refused to use a cane. Everyone berated him, especially since he had had several bad falls. When I asked why he wouldn’t at least try, he cocked his head, gave me that small crooked smile I loved, and said, “That would be humiliating.” I never suggested it again.

My father was a proud man despite the many humiliations he endured in his last years. He treated everyone he met with politeness, curiosity and dignity. He cared. When he died, the church was packed with people I had never met: his plumber, his pharmacist, his grocer, his nurses, his doctor, his home workers, and all the parishioners he had helped in some way. “Your father was such a good man,” they told me. In his last years, he had reached out with more and more love as if giving thanks for his long life. He knew how to listen, and he knew how to make people feel valued. They never forgot him.

He would call his grandchildren, one by one, into the dining room he had turned into a messy office. The glass table was piled with mail, papers, books, magazines, photographs and newspaper clippings, the jumbled remnants of his passions and memories. Each child had a special folder where he kept cards, letters, articles and mementos. He would ask them what they were studying, what they wanted in life, speaking in the quiet voice that, without the cacophony of a noisy dinner, was perfectly clear. And he heard every word they said.

Why do we so often treat the old, the sick, the dying, with dismissive impatience instead of love and understanding? When Janet talks with her AIDS-stricken son in the shadowy twilight, she is happy, connected to him by the spark of eternal love. Their conversations are a parting gift, not a chore to be endured. But Martin, her husband, avoids Laird. Fear deprives him of truly knowing his son.

So many times I could have lingered a few moments more, listened a little more closely. Instead, oblivious to my father’s imminent departure, I hid inside a book or watched insipid television. Anything to blunt the reality of death.

The beautiful, mystical, ineffable gloaming is so brief that we often fail to see it. Instead of embracing its magic and meaning, I fled.

And then he was gone forever.

 

 

 

 

Refugees

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My father was a refugee. My aunt Billy was a refugee. My grandparents were refugees. They escaped from the former Yugoslavia during the brutal post-World War II Soviet invasion and Communist takeover. Did they want to leave? No, they had to leave or die. When I look at the Syrian refugees invading Europe, I feel sorry for the countries that have taken on such a heavy social burden, but I am reminded of one fact: refugees leave because staying is just not an option. These courageous people will risk their lives, abandon all their possessions and travel by foot to any safe haven rather than let war and oppression destroy them at home.

 My grandmother’s story, which she told me one summer day long ago in San Francisco, illustrates what a brave person will do to survive and find freedom.

In 1945, Mara, my Baba, was married to Chaslav Nikitovich, the Minister of Agriculture in pre-war Yugoslavia. He had escaped to Italy before the invading Soviet army and Tito’s Communist soldiers could capture or kill him and every other government official they could find. My father and his sister also managed to escape, but my grandmother chose to remain, convinced that the Communists would somehow lose and that the family would be reunited.

In April, my grandfather and his former colleagues wrote a letter to President Truman denouncing America’s recognition of Tito’s Communist government and revealing the atrocities that were being perpetrated in his name. The authors hoped to remain anonymous, but their names became public, and Mara got an emergency telegram from her husband warning that she was in danger, but not telling her why.

When she came home to Belgrade from a weekend in the country with friends, soldiers had seized and sealed her home. Not knowing about the letter, she went to the police to find out what was happening. The Organization for People’s Protection, really a secret police torture force, demanded information about her husband and children. She lied and said her sick husband was in Zagreb with their daughter, and her son was in the army (he was AWOL by then). They left her in the waiting room while men converged around her to stare and whisper. She asked for a glass of water, but they refused. The officer in charge reappeared with her son’s guitar and her husband’s writing set. Panic! My Baba realized in one second that she would lose everything that day.

“Your husband is a bandit and a traitor,” the officer said. “Even worse, you have given birth to two more bandits!”

Baba was incensed. “My husband is an upstanding patriot, and my children are fine, courageous young people.”

“Your husband has denounced us to the American people!”

He told her to get out and, to her surprise, escorted her to a parked car. She was sure they were sending her to jail.

“Go home!” ordered the officer.

“My home?”

“Yes,” he said, slamming the door.

She ran to her neighbors and best friends for advice and solace. My grandfather’s younger brother Miroslav arrived and said, “Come quick, Mara. They are taking everything. We must try to stop them.”

“I cannot stop an army,” said my Baba.

She did not want to see her cherished belongings broken and abused, then taken away, but she went anyway. By the time she got there, men were carrying out her few remaining things. She remembered that the whole house smelled like Chanel No 5. Tito’s soldiers had broken all her bottles and splashed the walls with perfume. They had torn the curtains, ripped out the light fixtures, and taken everything except the paintings and sculptures. An Albanian chauffeur and loyal friend came to help her and packed everything left in his car. Many years later, he helped send the art to my grandparents in New Jersey.

Now my grandmother was desperate. She had nothing – no money, no papers, no home, no belongings. She knew she was being watched. Every night, she slept in another friend’s home. One day in transit, she spotted an ex-teacher sitting on a terrace with her sister. This teacher lived in Ljubljana, now the capital of Slovenia, not far from the Italian border. She asked if they would take her home with them, and they agreed.

Once there, she needed to find a way to get across the border. She decided to join on an excursion for a saint’s celebration in a small town closer to Italy. Two young men would be her companions. The teacher’s husband wrote a phony letter of introduction in English for her to present to the English border police, if they got that far.

Something went wrong. The train stopped miles from their destination. She later learned that the doctor who was supposed to meet them had denounced them instead.

Mara and her two young men were on their own. It was dark, in high mountain country, and no one would give three ragged refugees a ride.

So they walked. For three days and three nights, they walked, jumping over rocks, hiding in ditches, eating nothing. Sometimes they would trust a peasant with directions. Other times, they followed false directions and walked in circles. They stumbled upon a camp of Tito’s troops preparing a military campaign in Trieste, but escaped undetected.

It was July, yet my Baba wore layers of clothes. She carried men’s underwear in case she was caught, so she could say she was bringing the underwear to her soldier son.

Somehow, on the fourth day, they reached a remote cottage and were told they were in Zone A, the Italian side of the border. By then, my grandmother had lost all of her toenails.

But the journey was not over. They took a small local train as far as Trieste. When they arrived, they learned that without lire they could not get rail tickets to continue. Undeterred, they hid in a brakeman’s compartment, but the train conductor found them, and they ended up in the local jail.

My grandmother took out her English letter and asked to talk to an English policeman.

“Where did you get this?” asked the icy officer.

“Sir,” my grandmother, always quick-witted, answered, “I’m afraid I can’t divulge such a secret.”

To her surprise, he said, “We should have more people with your sense of honor.” He was appreciating her refusal to lay blame in a very touchy diplomatic and military situation, never suspecting that the letter was not from a British or American embassy official at all.

The officer directed her to an Italian police chief, who was of Slovenian origin and guaranteed her a free and safe transit. He asked her what he could get her.

“Coffee, cigarettes, and my two young friends,” she said.

Reunited, the three refugees left in a military jeep with a soldier armed with a machine gun. They drove through raging Communist riots and climbed aboard a safe train to Paris.

Refugees don’t have an easy ride to freedom. No, they toil and struggle and often live in poverty. They must learn a new language and endure the prejudice of ignorant people. Their children go to school alone and bewildered. And if they are to succeed, they must work twice as hard and as long as anyone else.

In Paris, my grandparents learned to weave leather shoes, and my grandmother cooked on a single burner in a tiny hotel room. After six years, they finally got a sponsor in the United States and left, once again, in search of a safe home, with nothing but hope to guide them. My grandmother, who had been a professor of physics and chemistry, crocheted silk dresses in New York for Saks Fifth Avenue. Yet my grandparents never felt sorry for themselves. They, like most refugees, were grateful for a second chance.

When we see the Syrians streaming into Turkey and Greece, walking across Europe, holding their children and their few belongings as they struggle to maintain hope and dignity, we must remember that they left because if they stayed, they and their families would face war, starvation and certain death. We must not forget that most Americans, either now or years ago, were either immigrants seeking a better life or refugees escaping persecution at home.

All human beings have the right to seek a better life for themselves and their children. We would do the same in similar circumstances. When the arrival of refugees stirs our innate fear of what is foreign and our anger at the prospect of having less for ourselves, we can do our best to summon the love and compassion we have buried in our haste to judge. And try to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

What’s in a Name?

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Ever since I found out I was going to be a grandmother this coming June, I have had an escalating fascination with names. Well, I already had a bit of an obsession. Naming five children was not easy, especially when two stubborn parents had opposing views (thank goodness for the mediating power of middle names). One of my children, who need not be reminded once again of our sorry lapse of judgment, remained nameless for several days while we battled. Exhausted, we finally settled on an overused family name, which sounded melodious with “Madden” and has served him well so far. But when my Aunt Billy recently sent me a photo of her father and his siblings, I realized just how boring our choice of English names had been when compared with the brilliant idiosyncrasy, not to mention intentional cruelty, of my Nikitovich forbears’ names.

 

In the center of the photo stands Chaslav, my grandfather, the first-born male child and thus the pinnacle of achievement for his tiny mother, Roxana, who is seated below him to his left. His name means honor and glory. Then came a girl, Slavka, to his left, which means celebration. I guess the first girl deserves a party. And then another girl, Radmila, to his right, which means hard-worker, which she would have to be to make up for not being a boy.

 

So far, so good. Daughter number three, just to Radmila’s right, was not so fortunate. They named her Stamenka, which means stop, as in please, lord, stop with the girls! Roxana’s husband, my tyrannical great-grandfather Milisav, was even less amused when along came another girl, the sweet-looking blonde with the big bow who is standing just below her big sister Slavka. For her, he chose the name Zagorka, which means the one who brings bitterness.

 

I can only imagine what poor little Roxana was put through for the sin of bearing four girls in a row. Then came redemption: three boys! Miroslav, which signifies peace, is standing right below Zagorka; Ljubisha, the loved one, is leaning against the older seated woman; Miodrag, the precious one, who died in infancy, is not pictured.

 

No one remembers the last name of that older woman. Her first name may have been Katarina, but the children called her Manta, their version of grandma. Only she wasn’t. She was the leftover mother of Milisav’s first wife, who died after just one year of marriage. Manta stayed on to take care of the widowed husband, then of the new wife, then of their eight children. My Aunt Billy remembers that Manta, who always dressed neatly and wore her long hair in a braid wrapped around her head, was a simple yet wise woman who poured all her love and energy and encouragement into the children and grandchildren. She had a litany of pithy sayings that echo in Billy’s head to this day, such as “Keep your business and your family’s business to yourself, “ and “Don’t let anyone see your weaknesses.” When the children finished primary school, she actually moved to an apartment so they could live with her instead of having to trudge ten kilometers from home to their high school.

 

What is sad is that her son-in-law, Milisav, never thanked her or spoke kindly to her. In fact, he never spoke to her at all. But Manta didn’t need praise or even acknowledgement to sustain her. Beloved by the children, she left a legacy of strength, humor and selfless service that would stay with them for life, a gift far greater than their father’s legacy of fear, anger and unrelenting male pride. And far more memorable than any name could be.

 

Despite the family preference for male heirs, and Milisav’s disdain for girls, all the daughters graduated from the University of Belgrade. Was it Manta who encouraged them? Slavka was a high school teacher who died before my father and my aunt really knew her. Radmila, the hard-working one, became an engineer, Stamenka, a university professor, and Zagorka, that bitter little pill, a chemist.

 

None of the sisters had children. I suppose you were either a workingwoman outside the home or a workingwoman inside the home. To do both jobs in that culture could have meant an early death. Their own mother, Roxana, remembered for her quiet, kind nature, was able to teach only because Manta lived with them, and when she wasn’t teaching, her husband Milisav treated her like his personal slave. My favorite story is the water tale, when Milisav, napping under a tree, roared to Roxana that she must come immediately. She ran as fast as her little legs could take her, and when she arrived, exhausted and sweaty from the summer heat, he ordered her to pour him a glass of water. The water jug was on a table just a few feet from where he was dozing.

 

With memories like that, and in a culture of absolute male dominance, it’s no wonder the sisters chose to avoid marriage and motherhood (except Rada, who married a kind, older man with grown children of his own). Family lore has it that Milisav thought no man was good enough for a Nikitovich. But I can think of another explanation: perhaps their names, like invisible armor, actually protected them from undesirable suitors.

 

The sisters, at least the ones who survived, formed tight bonds. After Radmila’s husband died in 1960, Zagorka (Zaga) gave up her own ambitions to live with her. True to her name, Radmila (Rada) worked hard and successfully as one of the first female architectural engineers in Yugoslavia. Zaga became Rada’s ersatz wife and took care of her for more than twenty years.

 

I met Zaga when my father took me to Cacak, in the former Yugoslavia, to the home his family had used on weekends. Cacak had grown into an ugly, sprawling town filled with the stench of car exhaust, and the house itself was dusty and tomb-like, nothing like it looked in pictures. But the yard was still lovely, and we ate outdoors under a huge oak tree. Along with a horde of relatives I had never met was the last living son, Miroslav, with his wife, daughter and grandson, and the last remaining sister, Zaga, who presided over a picnic table laden with cheese pita, roasted peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, homemade cornbread and, the pièce de resistance, a whole suckling pig, its mouth stuffed with a red pepper that looked like a bloody tongue. Zaga’s lively stride, mischievous smile and warm brown eyes made her seem anything but bitter. She was so excited to meet “the Americans” that she kept hugging my father, my husband, my daughter and me.

 

After dinner, Zaga expertly rolled some slim cigarettes and offered me one. When I declined, she asked, “You don’t smoke? Why not?” One doesn’t tell an eighty-year-old smoker that cigarettes are bad for you, so I told her I didn’t smoke because it was too expensive. Without missing a beat, she gave me a bemused look and said, in Serbian of course, “Maia, everything good in life is expensive!”

 

I am not about to suggest names for the new baby, but I would be a wee bit upset if they pick a name such as Apple or West or Blue or Blanket. Life is hard enough without the burden of a ridiculous name. If, however, I had to translate my Serbian ancestors’ names into English, they would sound equally ridiculous. For a girl: Party, Worker, Stop or Bitter. For a boy: Honor, Glory, Beloved or Precious.

 

Of course, none of these can match a name I once heard in Florida: Placenta. I guess it sounded lovely to the mother after all that pushing. I can hear the doctor, unaware of the power of his words, exclaiming, “Here comes the placenta!” And the mama thinking, “That’s it! The perfect name…”

Born to Be Happy

The story of a remarkable woman

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My Aunt Billy, my guru of optimism, told me not long ago that she had been “a little down lately.” Dr. Miroslava Biljana Nikitovitch-Winer, or Billy for short, has always been my idol, a woman who lived like a true feminist long before that term became pejorative. She has had a career as a research scientist, as a medical school professor and as chair of the University of Kentucky’s Anatomy and Neurobiology departments. After retirement, she became an accomplished potter and sculptor. She is the mother of two successful children, the grandmother of two boys and two girls, and an aunt and great-aunt who is always available to talk, to tell a funny story, or to listen and offer encouragement. During my darkest times, it was Billy who comforted me, Billy who advised me, Billy who helped me get up and start over when all I wanted to do was disappear.

“Depression is my territory,” I said to her. “You are not allowed there.”

Billy rarely complains or feels sorry for herself. Even now, at 87, she is not down because of her own aches and pains. She is sad because Al, her beloved husband of sixty years, is slowly declining. And she, a woman of action, can do nothing about it.

I am sure the daily travails of a weakening body do bother her. She always says, “Aging is not for sissies.” But to a woman of such strength and accomplishment, who fled from Yugoslavia after World War II and overcame the barriers of war, sex, culture, and language to rise to the top of her field, what has always been of utmost importance is her husband, her family, her many friends, and the countless students whom she has taught and nurtured through the years. She needed no near-death experience to know that what matters most in life is love.

As the essence of the man she loves dissolves a little more each day, Billy can no longer keep the demons of depression at bay, the demons she has fended off, usually with success, in the face of obstacles that would have felled a lesser soul.IMG_0701

In 1937, a ten-year-old Biljana stared at the ceiling of her room in Skoplje, Macedonia, and wondered when her parents would let her get up. It had been almost three months of lying on a wooden board without so much as a pillow, three long months of no school, no play, no exercise. She read on her back, wrote on her back, ate and drank on her back. The wooden board pressed into her flesh and her slack muscles, reminding her that her body was no longer her own. She was a guinea pig in an experiment suggested by a quack and embraced by her father, a treatment without any scientific proof of success, a torture meant to prevent a suspected curvature of her spine.

When the three months were up, my Aunt Billy was so weak she could hardly stand up. Her spinal curvature was now pronounced, and the doctor ordered another three months of plank rest, which she endured, which condemned her to an even worse back. Unbelievably, her father then agreed with the doctor that still another three months would be necessary.

After nine months of obedient suffering, Billy finally rebelled.

But she would never be the same. She was no longer the lively, confident girl with the big green eyes who loved to laugh and tell stories. She was no longer the girl with the strong slim body who loved to put on a bathing suit and go swimming with her friends. She was now the girl with the crooked back, withdrawn and self-conscious, hiding her body from the world. Her father called her chubby and her mother called her Quasimodo. She was damaged, and she knew it.

Yet despite the blow to her physical confidence and the pain she would endure every day of her life, her spirit remained unscathed. Billy has never let her back define or limit her. She has never let any obstacle stop her from achieving her dream of studying medicine and becoming a research scientist in America. “Serbs,” she told me when we were working on her autobiography, “were born to be happy.” No, I thought, you were born to be happy because optimism runs through your veins as surely as it drains from mine.

Born in Kraljevo in 1927, Biljana came into a family of male chauvinists so entrenched in their supposed superiority that her grandfather would summon his wife to run down a steep hill on a hot afternoon and pour him a glass of water. The pitcher stood on a table just inches from where he was napping in the shade of his favorite tree. Another time, Billy heard a neighbor of her grandfather’s in the village of Vranici say he had no children. Then who was the little girl she played with? Her parents explained that only boys counted as children. Still later, she learned that pre-arranged marriages were customary in the rural villages of Serbia, and that the future husband had the right to test a girl’s bedroom skills before marriage. If rejected, the girl faced a bleak future indeed. No wonder Billy became a crusader for equality and women’s rights.

When asked about her childhood, Billy will say it was idyllic, for the most part. She chooses to remember a garden filled with the fragrance of freshly watered flowers and the sound of a street merchant calling out “kiselo, veselo” as he peddled kaymak, a kind of sour cream she loved. But what about Flokitsa, the little dog she and her brother adored? Didn’t her father give it away without telling them because he was horrified when a silly neighbor boy licked the hapless creature’s groin? Or their pet lamb that suddenly appeared on the Easter table? Or the time her mother packed food in red scarves tied to sticks, hobo style, then told them to leave, locked the garden gate and left them crying outside for what felt like forever? Billy doesn’t even remember what they had done that was so wrong. I guess if you are born to be happy, you don’t hold on to bad memories.

Billy especially loved Skoplje, where her family moved when she was five to be close to the district her father represented in the Yugoslav Parliament, even though he spent most of his time in Belgrade. With her mother and brother and friends, they had parties and picnics in the mountains. Orthodox by faith, they nevertheless celebrated holidays with both Muslims and Catholics. In the summer, the scent of cevapcici, small oblong meatballs, half lamb, half beef, cooked on open fires, wafted through the streets. They had a live-in French nanny, Mademoiselle Louise, who taught the children to speak French and have good table manners. Billy remembers how happy they were, especially her mother when her domineering husband was away.

Of course, there was the back incident, and the time her brother broke her nose when they were playing cowboys and Indians, and the time a cruel teacher told her that her official name was Miroslava, not Biljana, something her parents had neglected to reveal. But good times have always outweighed bad times for Billy, at least until now.Scan 63

Back in Belgrade after her father became Minister of Agriculture, Billy, now a young girl of fourteen and tall for her age, awoke to an eerie quiet. It was March 28th, 1941. Suddenly, a terrible noise shook the house and German bombs plummeted from the sky. Everyone ran to a neighbor’s basement and waited in the dark for the bombing to stop. The night felt interminable to Billy, who coughed uncontrollably due to the dust, the fear and the lack of water. Suddenly, a hard blast of wind accompanied by a deafening bang shook the ground. Then silence. And more silence. When they dared climb out into the light, they saw a huge hole in the street right next to the house where they had been hiding. Smoke rose in the distance and buildings and homes as far as Billy could see looked like metal carcasses, yet the apartment building her family lived in was still standing.

Chaos reigned under German rule. Because there was no food, her mother would sneak out to the countryside to forage for potatoes and vegetables. No one was allowed out after 10pm, and the schools served as army barracks.

First Billy’s beloved German tutor disappeared. Then her best high school friend showed up with a big yellow star on her sleeve. Since Jews were forbidden to walk on the sidewalk, Billy walked with her in the gutter. After a few weeks she, too, disappeared.

In 1943 the Allies started bombing Belgrade, and the family fled to a nearby village for safety. Billy remembers watching the bombs tumble from the sky, shining in the sun like silver bullets, and wondering which part of Belgrade they would destroy next.

When the Germans retreated and the war finally ended, everyone expected the Americans to come to the rescue of Belgrade. Instead, in February of 1945, Europe was divided at the Yalta Conference, and the Russians arrived as the so-called liberators of Yugoslavia.

Barely 18, Billy was now a prisoner of the Russian occupation, and another reign of terror began as Communism took hold, with no effort by the Allies to help. Her father fled in the night, afraid for his life, and her brother Pavlé was immediately drafted into Tito’s Communist army. Because the universities admitted only the children of members of the Communist Party, Billy’s education came to a standstill.

At midnight on a cool October day, a young woman in a borrowed khaki uniform and her brother in his Communist army uniform jumped on a moving train with Mita, the man who had provided them with phony papers and promised to help them escape to Italy. In Zagreb, they boarded another train, a cattle car that stank of dung and urine, and, standing the whole way, arrived in Riyeka in Istria. Across the river was Italy.

Between hell and freedom stood a dozen checkpoints. Mita talked his way through all of them, and when they passed through the last American checkpoint into Trieste, where their father was waiting, they were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.

Billy and Pavlé traveled to Milan with their father, who gave them 1,000 lire, then left them alone while he went on to Paris. He assured them that he had a friend in Nervi who would help them out. The friend did not. Instead, he sent them to a hotel without any dinner. Starved after a day without eating, they dined at the hotel, not realizing how expensive it would be, and managed to spend almost half of their money. Desperate, they then rented a cheap room with a shared bathroom in a flat above a movie theater, where Billy would fall asleep to the sound of Gary Cooper shouting through the floorboards. She didn’t mind because by then she had already fallen in love with anything American. In her heart, she knew that some day destiny would take her to the United States.

By the time their father sent them train tickets, Billy and Pavlé were surviving on oranges stolen from a nearby orchard. In Paris, they immediately enrolled at the Sorbonne University, which was overflowing with students from anywhere and everywhere, all eager for the educations World War II had postponed. At the end of the year, both passed their exams, and Billy moved on to medical school.

But not without trauma. At twenty, she endured a painful, botched operation to put a bone from her tibia along her vertebral column. Instead of straightening her spine, the procedure resulted in a greater curvature, and she lost five inches in height.

Even that could not deter my Aunt Billy. She found work as a receptionist in the American house at the Sorbonne and made friends with the fun-loving students, most of them studying “art” or “culture.” She loved the Americans because, she said, they, too, were born to be happy.

After she finished medical school, the father of one of her American friends sponsored her to come to the United States. She was the first in her family to leave. It was the middle of winter, and the ship, crowded with emigrants, rolled through storm after storm. She was alone, with no papers and no passport, and she was horribly seasick. When she saw the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline after two long weeks at sea, she cried.

Settling in New York, Billy found a job as a research assistant for the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. She fed and tested mice for various diseases, not a very glamorous job, but one that allowed her to pay her own way, with money left over for buying clothes and enjoying the city. Then she heard about a new program at Harvard University. She applied, oblivious of what Harvard represented in American education, and was accepted with a full scholarship from Radio Free Europe.

It was at Harvard that Billy met a fellow medical researcher, Dr. Alfred Winer, the man she was to marry. He was Jewish, and his Bostonian family disapproved of his choice of a wife. They married anyway, in the backyard of her brother’s house in New Jersey. By now, Pavlé and his family as well as their parents had found sponsors and settled in the United States. She and Al honeymooned in Ocean City before returning to Duke University, where Al had transferred. Billy followed him and graduated with a PhD in anatomy and neurobiology.

Post-graduation, Billy stayed at Duke to do research in a new field called neuro-endocrinology. She did research on rats, fashioning her own curved tool from the metal strips used to close boxes. With that tiny tool, she was able to lift a rat’s brain, cut the stalk that attaches the pituitary gland to the brain, and remove the pituitary all in one piece. She then grafted the gland under the rat’s kidney capsule, where it became re-vascularized. Her experiments led to her discovery of how the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to release the LH hormone that results in ovulation.

Billy and Al continued their research in Sweden and London. They had two children, Nikola and Alexandra. They were then recruited to join the founding faculty of the University of Kentucky Medical School in Lexington. For more than three decades, Billy taught anatomy and Al biochemistry while they both continued to do research in their fields.

After retiring, Billy took up pottery, which she had always wanted to do. She brought the same passion to art as she had to medical research, taking courses at the University and workshops with professional sculptors. She even installed her own kiln and pottery studio in Lexington, where she still loves creating pots, vases, sculptures and other objects.

Billy has survived breast cancer, two shoulder operations, a knee replacement, breathing problems and constant back pain. Yet she is always impeccably coiffed and dressed, elegant even under duress. When I ask her how she is, she jokes, “Fine, or would you prefer an organ recital?”

Through the good times and the bad, Billy’s gentle, loving husband has stood quietly behind her, giving her strength, letting her shine, and expecting nothing in return.

Perhaps Billy was born to be happy. But perhaps it is Al who has allowed that happiness to flow the way it has through their years together. Now the Al she knew and loved is fading away as she watches. Yet no matter how down she feels, I am sure that she never lets him see her cry. No, she smiles lovingly and continues to project the happiness that will comfort him, even though that happiness sometimes eludes her. That’s what people who were born to be happy do.IMG_0700

Requiem for My Brother George

George

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I look out at these gentle French hills,
The silver greens you thought so lovely,
The cloudless blue sky framed by waves of vine,
The dark dense patches of trees
In patterns of repose,
So still this morning,
As you are in your coffin, George,
My beloved brother.

No longer will you see the streams and rivers
That enlivened you, nor feel the sacred space
Where you and sky and water joined,
Where you found peace in a heart
Agitated by ancient loss, a heart
Capable of selfless love
Only for the trees and rivers and oceans
You fought hard to protect.

I see you standing by a Colorado stream,
Fishing rod in hand, casting
As if in prayer,
Casting for joy, casting for freedom,
Casting for the stillness that came
With the roar of water rushing over rocks,
Rocks you collected
Like tokens of eternity.

The trees soothed your soul
As you strode thigh-deep into streams and rivers,
From Russia to Canada,
From New York to California,
And here, in Gironde, where once upon a time,
The grandfather you loved, who loved you as his one true son,
Placed a bamboo pole in your small hand,
And taught you how to fish.

Side by side you stood in silence
On the muddy banks of the Garonne,
Until your pole wobbled and you raised it
In triumph, a small silver fish dangling in the air.
How powerful you must have felt,
How complete, how proud,
When your Papi
Smiled and hugged and praised you.

You never forgot that joy.
It was the one true thing that gave meaning to your life,
That led you and sustained you.
But the rest, oh, the rest, how sad you were,
Beneath those water-green eyes,
Eyes the color of the Garonne
When the sun slants across
Its wide, sullen surface.

That river frightened me,
But not you.
It was as though you had risen from it,
Born from its restless tides,
Sometimes silent, sometimes agitated,
Sometimes as angry as its currents when storms
Ruffled its surface,
Like the surface of your life.

We saw only the surface.
What lay beneath? What depths of sorrow,
What pools of unrequited love
Hiding from the violence of currents
You could not control?
Your eyes, once full of emotion,
Grew dull as your mind dissolved
Into the murky present.

Emptied of your essence, wounded by disease,
You saw only terror,
The terror of reality slipping away,
Thought by broken thought,
The terror of pain and confusion and helplessness,
The terror of memory battered
As if flung into a raging river,
Engulfed by useless anger.

In the end, your eyes saw nothing at all.
They closed, and you slept,
Without pain or desire,
Accepting the abyss until, finally,
Death set you free.
And all that remained were your ravaged bones,
Your skin stretched paper-thin over wasted flesh.
Today, we will burn you.

Once your face was plump
With the excess of your desires,
For food, for drink, for money, for clothes,
For possessions so numerous that you collapsed under the weight,
Lost like a little boy in the rubble of an unkempt life,
With a measureless need for love that no one and nothing could fill,
An emptiness you felt but never understood,
And never tried to heal.

I will remember another you,
The man of rivers and forests,
The lover of beauty in all of its guises,
The young soul who laughed and danced,
Who loved art and music and books,
Who spoke four languages with ease,
The man who cherished cats and children,
The brother who loved me.

You wanted chocolate, always chocolate.
In the end, your sister Vesna fed you piece by piece,
Watching you smile as chocolate melted in your mouth.
Chocolate was the vestige of your senses, the final pleasure,
The last rite offered by someone who loved you,
Because we did love you, my lost, lonely brother.
We will always love you,
Our beloved brother George.

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich.

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich

 

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Many years ago, Pavlé Nikitovich, my father, saved four Frenchman he had never met before from a Russian death squad. It was a random act of kindness, perhaps a foolhardy act of heroism, but an act that rippled down through time and saved generations of unborn children.

 

As World War II drew to a close, the Soviets invaded Yugoslavia, which had already endured three years of brutal German occupation. After a two-day battle, the Soviets took Belgrade and soon drafted all able-bodied Yugoslav men into the Communist army. Just nineteen, my father walked the docks of Belgrade’s port on the Danube with the other recruits and watched as the Soviets forced the Germans, now prisoners-of-war, to unload Russian ships arriving from the Black Sea.

 

Sometimes the Soviet soldiers would pass around a bottle of vodka and play a macabre little game. They would force the German prisoners to walk up the plank to one of the ships while they took turns shooting. The officers cheered when one of them managed to hit a German in the head on his first try. As the body hit the water, the soldiers would laugh and toast the winner with another shot of vodka.

 

When a new batch of prisoners arrived, the Russian Communists would select the prisoners who had been there the longest and send them off to the firing squad in order to make room for their replacements.

 

My father had already witnessed what happened to German prisoners-of-war. On the day the Soviets marched into Belgrade, he watched from the window of his family’s apartment as more than 300 vanquished Germans walked up to a table where a Soviet soldier armed with a Kalashnikov stood above them and shot them one-by-one through the head. When the pile of dead bodies grew too big, the Russians would move the table. The Communist soldiers, wearing red armbands, then ordered a dozen young local men, including my father, to pick up the dead bodies and throw them into trenches in front of the church. In groups of four, they lifted the cadavers by the arms and legs and dumped them into the trenches, ignoring the brains spilling from shattered skulls and the blood gushing onto their hands and shoes.

 

But what my father remembered most clearly were the pictures and letters sliding from the left-side pockets of the dead soldiers’ uniforms when the bodies bounced and shifted, mementos placed on their hearts to remind them of love and give them courage as they bravely walked to their deaths. My father understood then that the German soldiers were just young men like him, obeying the orders of one dictator only to be murdered by the orders of another. There were no longer good guys and bad guys in those confusing post-war days, merely one horror following another.

 

It was before a scheduled execution day in October of 1944 that a young man in a German uniform approached my father and asked him if he spoke French. Why he asked Pavlé and not one of the other Yugoslav guards is a mystery. Perhaps he had tried others only to receive a blank stare in response. In any case, this was his lucky day. My father spoke fluent French.

 

Pavlé listened as the man, Pierre Ambiehl, explained that he and his three buddies were French, not German, and had been drafted into the German army after the Nazis occupied and annexed the French province of Alsace. Taken prisoners by the Soviets, they ended up on the docks of Belgrade awaiting death by firing squad. Since none of them spoke Russian, they had no way of telling the Soviets they were French, and thus allies, not enemies. They were scheduled to die the very next day, and Pierre pleaded for Pavlé to help them.

 

Vowing to try, my father went to a Russian soldier he had befriended and told him about the Frenchmen’s plight. The Russian said that since the four had fought with the Germans against his countrymen, they deserved to die. But Pavlé somehow managed to persuade him to ask his Soviet superiors to delay their execution by a few days.

 

Then he did what only the young, the fearless and arguably the foolish would do. He snuck out of the military zone with the French identity cards of all four men and walked to the French embassy, where General Charles de Gaulle had established a delegation.

 

The next morning, two French officials came to the port with all the necessary documents to free the Frenchmen. Right before they left, one of the embassy envoys had the foresight to take a photo of the four liberated friends flanking their hero, my father, a handsome young man with a dark mustache and a hesitant smile.

 

Pierre Ambiehl kept that photo for sixty-five years, knowing only the name of the young man in the middle, Pavlé Nikitovich. Now 84, Pierre asked his son André if he would help him fulfill his dream: to find the hero who had saved his life so he could thank him.

 

As serendipity would have it, André had worked at the Peugeot factory in Alsace for many years alongside his Serbian friend, Stanko Yotsitch, who subsequently moved back to Serbia. He asked Yotsitch to help him in his search. Yotstich told the story to journalist Mirko Prelevitch, who then wrote about it in Belgrade’s “Novosti” newspaper, asking readers to contact him if they knew what had happened to Pavlé Nikitovich, the man in the photograph.

 

Meanwhile, a few months after the Frenchmen were freed, my father and his sister managed to obtain fake documents and escape, first to Italy, then to France, and eventually to the United States. After a few false leads, and a little help from Google, Prelevitch finally found a Paul Nikitovich living in Englewood, Colorado. When my father received Prelevitch’s call and heard the story, he was stunned. While Pierre Ambiehl had lived with the memory his whole life, my father had forgotten the incident until that moment. His brave and generous gesture had truly been a random act of kindness, the kind that changes lives forever, even though at the time it had not registered as heroism to a young man who was merely following his human instinct to help those in need.

 

The story doesn’t end there. André Ambiehl invited my father to come visit the family in Alsace. He flew to France, and on October 27, 2010, attended a special ceremony for World War II veterans in Ensisiem, Alsace. Pavlé Nikitovich and Pierre Ambiehl were the guests of honor, two men whose destinies had crossed decades before and sent ripples into a future that would not have been possible otherwise.

 

My father recently celebrated his 89th birthday. André and his wife have visited him in Colorado several times, and he speaks to them and Pierre often. By choosing to help a stranger, Pavlé Nikitovich left a legacy of life, love, respect and gratitude. And he did it neither for personal gain nor to show off nor to curry favor with his captors. He did it because he is just that kind of man.

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Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four

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