Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “aging”

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.

 

 

 

 

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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

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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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Living Life in the Moment, Through Chocolate-Tinted Glasses

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February 19th is my brother George’s birthday. I can see him in the group room of his home in France. He is numb, clueless, forever waiting for nothing. His Alzheimer’s disease has made me question the supposed virtue of living in the moment, as George now lives, day after day, instant after instant. Tomorrow is his 64th birthday, and what is his greatest pleasure? Chocolate.

He does not know that on February 18th, his son had a baby boy. George probably doesn’t remember that he has a son. He doesn’t remember me. But he most definitely remembers chocolate.

Every other week or so, my sister, Vesna, goes to visit him in the memory-care home he now lives in, a facility in Southwest France that we were lucky to find given the outrageous cost of homes in the United States. And every time she visits, she brings him chocolate.

George remembers no one and nothing, but his eyes light up and he smiles when Vesna offers him chocolate.  For him, pleasure has narrowed its focus to what he can hear and what he can taste. He loves any kind of music, and he loves chocolate.

You may have indulged in chocolate, maybe on Valentine’s Day, maybe today or every day, savoring its intensity and its gift of subtle satisfaction. After all, very few people dislike chocolate. It dates back to Mesoamerica, but it was Cortez who brought it back to Spain, and it was the Europeans who sweetened it and made it a fashionable drink in the 17th century. The Mayans and Aztecs, on the other hand, thought the cacao bean was sacred, maybe even divine. They used it in many of their rituals of birth, marriage and death.

We use chocolate to make ourselves feel happier. Some say it has great health properties. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego even found that it contains substances that have similar effects on the brain as marijuana. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that chocolate addiction is common in both men and women. A high is a high is a high. And what’s wrong with that?

Because when nothing is left, no memory, no dignity, no independence, no freedom, no nothing, chocolate is still there. Chocolate brings joy to George as nothing else does. Maybe even more than Madonna and Lady Gaga do. Yet the true sadness remains: if he could only remember, he would rejoice that his first grandson was born just a day before his own birthday.

Who knows what similarities the little boy will have with his grandfather. Will he love to fish? Will he have a talent for languages? And who knows if he will ever know his larger family, or who his grandfather or great-grandfather were, or that those connected to him would love a chance to hold him and love him. Because that is what family is about: unconditional love. Who knows if that will ever happen for him?

My sister, Vesna, is a talented painter and a kind, kind person. In her latest portrait of George, she captures the emptiness, the layers of pain, and the simple joy of being alive in the moment despite the terror of nothingness. She captures the little smile he must proffer when he is given chocolate.  No, our brother is no longer the brother we knew. But he is still there, still breathing, still smiling.

 Vesna brings George chocolate, and he smiles. He had a pretty good life, all in all, and we all wish he could still be the person he was. But he can’t.  If he knew he was a grandfather, he would rejoice. Maybe he wouldn’t be the greatest grandfather, but he would love his grandson, just as his grandfathers loved him, just the way he loved and praised his daughter, just the way he loved and praised his estranged son, the son he tried so hard to bond with, yet never could.  George never learned how to show his love, but he did love.

And George always loved chocolate. In his last semi-independent days in Westchester County, New York, I would find chocolate and candies stashed everywhere in his apartment. I never called him on it, even though he has diabetes. After all, doesn’t everyone have the right to one last pleasure, one last addiction?

Maybe the Aztecs were right to view chocolate as a rite of passage, as a communion with eternity, be it life or death. George doesn’t have much life left in him, but chocolate still makes him smile. And that is enough for my sister.  And that is enough for me. But it is so sad that he will never know that he has a grandson, and never be able to rejoice in that milestone of life. That is the curse of Alzheimer’s.

I wish I could be there tomorrow and see the joy in George’s face as he tastes each morsel of bar or candy or cookie on his birthday. I wish I could be there sharing the pleasure with him.  In my depressed moments, I wonder why he is still alive. But in my up phase, I think how grateful I am for my beautiful, compassionate sister and her unconditional love for our brother George, my sister, who can see his essence and his soul while feeding him chocolate. And I must admit, I feel guilty not to be with the brother I love so much, through thick and thin, through ill and crazy, after so many years of trying. The distance is devastating, the guilt, immense.

A few weeks ago, my sister painted her latest picture of our brother George. He is smiling a tiny bit, maybe because she has just brought him chocolate. I can only imagine the big smile he would have if he knew he had a grandson. Even if he remembered it just for a moment.

SNOW, FAITH & CHRISTMAS

ImageThe first memory I have of snow is on Christmas Eve. I am sitting at the window of our Madison, New Jersey, flat, my face pressed against the cold glass as I watch the white flakes descend helter-skelter from the sky.  Outside, a faint street light illuminates their dance, some flakes flying back upwards, others suspended like tiny pillows in the breeze, still others rushing downwards like bombs on a mission. I cannot see where they land, only how they flutter or hesitate or careen in the golden glow. After what feels like an eternity in which time and space no longer exist, I hear my brother’s voice behind me.

“Did you see him?”

“Who?”

“Santa Claus,” George says, only we are speaking in French since we have not yet learned English, so what he says is “Le Père Noël.” Father Christmas.

I stare intently, but all I see are white crystals falling from a dark sky, briefly lit by light, then disappearing to the ground. I want to see Santa Claus.

“I saw him,” he says, pressing his face next to mine. “He’s there. He has a shiny sled and it’s filled with presents. He passes by quickly so you have to stare really hard.”

We are in the living room by the tree, which is decorated with just a few shiny balls and big colored lights. My parents don’t have much money, but they are determined to give their children an American Christmas.

It’s getting late. From the kitchen, I hear our mother calling that it’s time to go to bed or Santa won’t come. He only comes when little children are asleep.

“If you don’t see him,” whispers my brother, “It means you don’t believe. And if you don’t believe, Santa doesn’t come.”

I believe everything my big brother tells me. Our sister is already asleep, and I know Mom will shoo us to bed if we don’t go soon. I squint. I pray. I feel tears filling my eyes. I do believe! So why can’t I see Santa? There must be something wrong with me.

“Keep looking,” George says. “Just stare and stare. I swear he’s out there.”

My brother goes to bed and leaves me by the cold window, staring and staring. I don’t budge. My small heart is brimming with love and faith. I cannot fail to see Santa Claus! If I don’t see him, I will ruin everyone’s Christmas. None of us will get presents! I know if I wait long enough and try hard enough, I will see him. I beg my mother to let me stay up just a little longer.

After a while, all the colors of the rainbow pass through my tear-stained lashes. I strain to keep my eyes open, my tiny hands clasped in prayer. And then, like the most miraculous gift I can imagine, he is there: Le Père Noël. His clothes, his sled, his reindeer are all golden as he flashes above the street lamp, then circles back and dashes across the sky again.  The figures twinkle like stars, tiny on the immense black-and-white canvas of this snowy night. I run to the bedroom and say, “I saw him! George! I saw him!” But George is sound asleep.

Today I am in Westchester, New York, just a few miles from where George lived before I had to take him to a memory-care home in France. Outside my motel this quiet morning, what were at first fat snowflakes are shrinking and flying faster, sticking to the ground as the temperature drops. I haven’t seen a snowfall in quite a while, and I am mesmerized, sitting alone by the window and remembering that long-ago night when I saw Santa Claus, and I believed.

George himself remembers nothing and no one. I imagine him sitting in a chair in the group room with his eyes closed, his head drooping to the side, his mind empty. I long to be by him, to hold his hand, even if he doesn’t know who I am.

And then I remember a snowy day the winter before last, just before Christmas. I had come to take care of him for a week, but when I went up to his apartment, he had disappeared. It was snowing. He had a serious infection in his hand, and no idea how he got it.  The doctors had told me I needed to come because he was forgetting to go in for his antibiotic infusions and they would have no choice but to hospitalize him for his own safety. His car had been impounded, and he was wandering around at all hours, often forgetting where he was going or why. I drove slowly up and down the streets of Mt. Kisco in the dark, looking for him. I went to every CVS and stopped at every little restaurant he liked. No George.

I was about to give up when I glimpsed what looked like a homeless old man trudging through the snow on Kisco Avenue, a black beanie pulled over his ears, big rubber boots on his feet, and white plastic bags clutched in each gloved hand. I stopped and rolled down the window.

 “George? Is that you?” A pair of blank green eyes under snow-covered brows stared back at me. “It’s Maia, your sister.”

“Maia,” he said. “My sister! You didn’t tell me you were coming!” I saw a hint of the old George in his smile. Of course I had told him I was coming, over and over again. But I no longer felt a need to correct him, to try to force him to remember when he really could not.

I took him to Eduardo’s for his favorite Clams Casino and crème brulée. I let him drink wine, even though he wasn’t supposed to. He laughed and flirted with the waitress, happy at least for a little while.

Not even Clams Casino would rouse George today or bring him back to a semi-conscious state. Like a beautiful snowflake briefly illuminated in the cold, cold night, his life flutters downwards in a slow swirl of mistakes made and dreams unfulfilled, sometimes lifted by moments of joy or moments of awe, but destined sooner or later to fall, then melt and disappear. If I squint my eyes really hard through my tears, I feel the little boy he once was standing behind me and whispering in my ear: “If you really believe, you will see him.”  My heart soars with gratitude because I still believe that if I try as hard as I did that night so many years ago, if I have the pure faith and will of a child, the golden light of love and hope will surely flash by me again.  And perhaps I will see George above me in the night sky, sitting next to Father Christmas, waving good-bye.

My Father’s Chicken Marengo

Image 2My 88-year-old father is making Chicken Marengo for me. He has made it many times before, but these days it is a labor of love, effort and infinite patience. I watch as he slowly debones and slices the chicken thighs, his head stooped over so he can see.

“Why didn’t you buy boneless thighs?” I ask.

“I couldn’t find them,” he answers, with that quiet, resigned smile he uses so often now.

I don’t know if he means the store didn’t have any or he couldn’t find where they were. Shopping is a daily ritual for Pavle, one that can take several hours, and the meat and produce he sometimes forgets disintegrate in the refrigerator until someone throws them out without a whisper of the deed.

I offer to help, but Dad says he doesn’t need any help. He tells me to go outside and relax, as if I could when I know he is sweating in the kitchen alone.

In Denver today, the temperature reached 100 degrees, and in the cramped kitchen, it is still 100 degrees even though it is past seven. My father doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Actually, he doesn’t believe in home improvement of any kind.

The screens are ripped. The carpets are stained and shredded. The wallpaper is peeling in every corner. The curtains sag from one or two stalwart rings, while the rest of the fabric hangs like a sail from a broken mast.

And yet Pavle is the most elegant man I know, even at his age. He wears dark slacks and a pressed collared shirt every day, often with a cravat tucked in at the neck. He doesn’t own a pair of jeans or shorts, and his white hair is carefully combed back from his high forehead. He has always been a handsome, well-groomed man. How is it possible that someone so formal and meticulous with his person can tolerate such abysmal surroundings? Maybe because people are full of contradictions. Or maybe because many men without women lose their sense of order.

To get to the garden, I must pass through what used to be an enclosed porch but is now a wasteland of junk and broken furniture. Around the outside patio, huge untrimmed juniper bushes hide the balding lawn below, where mushrooms sprout with abandon. The patio chairs are torn or sagging. The white siding on the house looks gray, and the wooden roof shingles are all askew, just waiting for the perfect storm to fly far, far away.

Which I will do in a week, leaving the scene of a disaster that would make my deceased mother, a lover of nature and beauty in all things, wail.

What became of her carefully tended flowerbeds?

Where has her beloved glass dining room table gone?

Pavle lives at that table, now buried under bills, papers, magazines, newspaper clippings, containers of nuts and random piles of crackers and cookies. Sometimes he sits at his computer writing his memoirs or trying to access his e-mail. Sometimes he scrutinizes his pile of junk mail as if it contained the secret to immortality. Helter-skelter files surround his feet and precarious bookshelves lean from the wall behind him, where an abstract oil painting has tilted up to the ceiling, caught by a wayward curtain.

In this dark room, the wrought-iron chandelier my mother found in Mexico is always on, but the ugly coils of low-energy bulbs have replaced the pink candle-shaped lights she favored, and their harsh, unforgiving glare intensifies the dusty chaos below.

Sensing that Pavle would enjoy my presence, and knowing how slowly he moves, I insist on coming inside to help him. I chop the garlic and parsley and boil and peel the tiny pearl onions as he sautés the chicken.

Both my brother and my nephew, who live with my father, have gone out this Saturday night, and the house is unusually calm and quiet. Outside, if I look up through the circle of trees at the waning silver light outlining the blue-gray clouds of a Colorado evening, I can almost imagine I have traveled back in time. I am still married, and my husband is pitching to one of the boys. The other children are shrieking as they slide down the Slip‘n Slide. My mother is cooking inside. My father is leading baby Malia around the patio by both hands, trying to teach her to walk.

Today is Malia’s nineteenth birthday.

As I set the patio table, I try to recall how Mom’s pink and white Iceland poppies swayed in the evening breeze. How her off-tune voice seeped through the open doors from the kitchen, where she sang in French as she cooked for her children and grandchildren.

Only the rhythmic hum of crickets and the poignant calls of birds remain the same, enduring talismans of those summer days. The rest is ruin and loss, neglect and decrepitude.

But in the kitchen, my 88-year-old father is alive, cooking Chicken Marengo, just for me.

I gauge his progress while I refill my wine glass. Here, wine is a necessity, a buffer against reality. It is still unbearably hot inside, and Pavle is trying to cool off with his second whiskey and soda. Meanwhile, the chicken and mushrooms are swimming in a broth that won’t reduce to a sauce, and he is worried.

“Stop worrying,” I tell him. “Sit down and let it reduce by itself.”

He has been standing for at least two hours, and he looks weary.

The kitchen is in shambles. Dad has left all of the drawers and cabinet doors open, and herbs, onion skins, utensils and dirty dishes litter the chipped brown Formica counters. As I clean, I try to imagine what this once-beautiful house might look like if anyone still cared.

When I am sure Pavle has gone back to his dining room headquarters, I sprinkle Wondra flour into the soupy broth and stir until it finally thickens. Through the kitchen door, I can see him hunched over the New York Times, munching on pita chips.

As requested, I make a plain green salad with a simple mustard vinaigrette. Anything else, he has told me, “just doesn’t go with Chicken Marengo.”

The baguette is already hardening in the dry air as I slice it. My father never eats a meal without bread, preferably warm. Maybe it’s bad for his health, but he is the one who is 88 and still reading the New York Times!

I shut off the television droning in the background for no one, and put on a Norah Jones CD. Her mellow voice fills the heated air. “I don’t miss you any more,” she sings, over and over again. The CD is a cheap copy and skips repeatedly. I think of my mother and my ex, my grandparents and my children, my friends and family scattered everywhere. I will always miss everyone who once mattered to me.

Norah sings, “What do you say when it’s all gone away?”

Nothing, I guess. There is nothing left to say.

“I’m starving, Dad!” I shout, knowing he is going deaf. When he doesn’t move, I feel bad and walk to him, then touch his shoulder gently and ask if he wants to eat. By now, it is dark and nearly nine.

“Yes, yes, darling,” he says, smiling that familiar, resigned half-smile as he rises painfully from his chair.

He makes his way ever so slowly across the family room and down to the patio as I add the olives and pearl onions to the perfect sauce, pour it into a bowl and top it with chopped parsley. The air outside has cooled, and we sit down together to eat.

Before we start, Pavle tells me his version of the history of Chicken Marengo. On June 14, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte won a narrow victory over the Austrian troops occupying Italy on the Marengo Plain. While he was waiting for the second half of his troops to arrive, late due to his own geographical miscalculation, he got really hungry. He sent his soldiers out to forage for food in the surrounding villages. They found chicken, olives, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Napoleon’s chef was on fire that night and created Chicken Marengo.

Fortified by a full belly and a second-wave of soldiers, Napoleon beat back the Austrians.

When he finishes his tale, my father takes the first bite and says, “Don’t you think it’s a little too salty?”

“Maybe a teensy bit,” I answer after I swallow, surprised that his taste buds are still as sharp as his memory for stories. “But I love it the way it is.”

And I do. Yet, as I sit under the infinitude of stars on this warm summer night, what I love most is not the taste but the sense of my father’s love in every delicious bite of Chicken Marengo. The dish he has made, just for me.

PAVLE’S CHICKEN MARENGO

Image3 TBS oil
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, whole or in pieces
1 chopped onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Bay leaves
1 TSP dry or fresh thyme
12-15 pearl onions or more, cooked and peeled
1 can chopped tomatoes or 5-6 fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
1-3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup black olives
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
3 TBS tomato puree or paste
2-3 TBS (or more) of Wondra flour
½ cup fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the onion until it is soft.
Brown the chicken in oil. Drain the fat before adding the chicken to the cooked onion.
Stir in herbs, broth, wine, garlic, tomatoes and tomato puree. Thicken with Wondra.
Add mushrooms and pearl onions and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
When the sauce has thickened, adjust seasonings and add the olives and parsley.

With due respect to my father, serve with whatever you think “goes” with the chicken!

And make sure to cook the dish with love for those who matter the most to you.

Chaslav Nikitovich: Serb, Yugoslav, Loving Grandfather

Scan 15Chaslav Nikitovich, my grandfather, loved words. He loved to speak them, in English, in French, but especially in Serbian. He loved to sing them; he loved to write them; and he loved to read them. I learned from my Deda the solitary joy of books: their dry smell, their weight blunting the present, their intense drama so much richer than life in Roselle, New Jersey. In the humid summers we sat together in front of his beloved air conditioner and read, while my grandmother cooked and crocheted and watered her tomatoes.

Deda loved books on politics and history, especially anything about World War II. He loved plays, magazines, Serbian poetry, the New York Times, obscure newspapers printed in Cyrillic, which arrived in tight, foreign-smelling wrappers, and an occasional novel, if it was by a Yugoslav or about one. With his astonishing memory, he could recite his favorite poems and passages by heart and remember dates and facts it would take me hours to memorize (and just a few days to forget). He might interrupt my reading and declaim, with the voice of a fine orator trained by years of political speech making, the Serbian version of Cyrano de Bergerac’s famous nose soliloquy. He would then repeat it in the original French, stop with a dramatic pause, and say, “You can hear how great the Serbian language is. In French it is beautiful, but in Serbian it sings.”

In the small house my grandfather managed to buy and pay for before he died, books were the focal point. They filled an entire wall in the red-carpeted living room, an eclectic collection that included the Encyclopedia Britannica, the works of Nobel Prize winners, and the latest Reader’s Digest condensed books (for me), but was unique in its emphasis on Yugoslav history. There were obscure, carelessly bound French treatises on the Balkans, all sorts of books about Yugoslavia, including his own, Yugoslavia in Crisis, 1934-1941, published by Columbia University Press in 1962, and books by American and British historians, even several by “that traitor Churchill,” who, according to Deda, had blithely sacrificed Yugoslavia to the Communists.

Sometimes it bothered Deda that his English was not always accurate. To improve his vocabulary, he bought himself a huge Webster’s dictionary, which rested like an icon on a pedestal in his study. “Someday,” he would say, “when you become a writer, this dictionary will be yours.” Deda believed that books, unlike other things, survived.

Dr. Nikitovich, as his many admirers addressed him, was a man who looked tall despite his stooped shoulders, the legacy of childhood scoliosis. He had thick, brilliant white hair combed straight back from a high forehead, prominent blue eyes and a somewhat bulbous nose. His smile was quick and sweet, almost naive-looking, but his voice was commanding. He loved to sing, loudly, old Macedonian folk songs or heart-wrenching Serbian laments: “Tamo daleko…there, far away, far at the end of the sea, there lies my simple farm, there lies my Serbia.”

Deda was also a great storyteller. He regaled us with elaborate tales of the wicked Turks, who ruled the Balkans for centuries, and the noble Serbian rebels, especially the legendary Karageorge (Black George), who helped overthrew the invaders. While my classmates heard the tales of Winnie the Pooh or Peter Rabbit, I listened in spellbound horror to the story of Cela Kula, Head Tower, erected by the Turks in 1809 with the heads of one thousand Serbs who chose to die rather than surrender. “It stands to this day,” Deda would say with unfeigned pride, “to remind us how much we were willing to sacrifice for freedom. Something our people have forgotten under Tito.”

In my childhood universe Tito and Communism were the arch-villains. It was they who had somehow stripped my grandparents of a rich, exotic life Scan 14in a land I could only imagine. Deda had been Yugoslavia’s Minister of Agriculture and before that, a representative to Parliament from Skopje, Macedonia, who campaigned from village to village in a chauffeur-driven car. My grandmother, Mara Miletich, had been a science teacher before she married, although I could never imagine her as anything but a grandmother. She became a socially prominent politician’s wife, ready at all hours of the night to serve Deda and his coterie of friends a late supper, which might have included stuffed cabbage, slow-cooked pork, roasted pepper salad, tomatoes and onions in oil, hunks of thick bread with kajmak, a cross between cheese and sour cream, and for dessert, sweet Turkish coffee perhaps accompanied by slices of her ten-layer cake filled with chocolate butter cream and topped with crackling caramel.

Baba and Deda had lived in Belgrade and Skopje during what must have been the halcyon days, when Yugoslavia had become a union of disparate Slavic states. Deda was part of an exciting era, the making of a nation, and it was only later that I learned how fraught with intrigue, argument, and even assassination this “good” period of Yugoslav history had been.

When civil war between the Communists and the Chetniks, supporters of the old parliamentary government under Prince Paul, broke out as the German occupation ended, my grandfather managed to escape to Paris, where he had studied law at the Sorbonne. My grandmother stayed on, clinging to her home even after my father, Pavlé, and my aunt, Biljana, escaped to Italy. Finally, Communists ransacked the house and took everything but the paintings and a few sculptures, which Deda’s Albanian chauffeur managed to smuggle out. Defeated, my grandmother made her way by train toward the Italian border, then walked for three days and nights through the mountains to the safety of Trieste, losing her toenails on the way. When she told her story, I always stared at her feet and recalled those nails, which had grown back very thick and tough, like wounded soldiers.

The scheming of loyal friends eventually helped bring the paintings and sculptures to New Jersey, where they transformed the square rooms of a squat house into jumbled shrines. Hanging on the living-room walls were pictures of the wide Serbian sky above the dark Danube river, of the sad faces of peasants and gypsies, of Deda as a thin-faced young man and Baba as a wily young woman, and of the old country home in Cacak, with my father and his sister perched on a white porch railing, smiling. Two black iron busts, one of a heavier Deda, looking serious and successful, one of his stern, mustachioed father, sat on cheap coffee tables stacked with newspapers and balls of yarn. On the dining-room buffet was a lovely reclining nymph whose nude body seemed to hover over the table, while across from her, in a dark corner, a carved wooden saint, ancient, serene, and missing half a nose, raised his hand in blessing beneath a hanging votive candle that glowed a mysterious red.

Whenever I could, I walked the three blocks from my tumultuous home to that of my grandparents’ and entered a Byzantine world where life was lived passionately yet in orderly rhythms. Deda had a roaring temper, which receded easily and without grudge. “Mara, why must you nag me about one little whiskey? I’m still a young man but your nagging makes me old.” Half an hour later, after a feast of stuffed peppers and a salad of cucumbers and raw green onions (which he urged us to eat to improve our weak American memories), Deda would grab Baba’s hand, kiss it and say, “That was the best meal I ever had. Thank God I found you!” Baba would smile, and Deda would launch us into discussions that we were expected to participate in fully and only in Serbian. “Speak Serbian that the whole world might understand you,” he would proclaim. We thought that was very funny. But to Deda it was a childhood saying with the emotional truth of his whole heritage, a Slavic declaration of pride and self-importance and the reckless individualistic denial that has always dumbfounded and irritated Europeans.

On Saturdays we attended Serbian Orthodox Church Sunday school, where we learned to dance the kolo, to read Cyrillic, and to recite endless poems, usually about battles and feats of Serbian bravery. Deda coached us after dinner until our declamatcia was perfect. Yet on opening night in the church hall, my sister Vesna would clam up, I would recite much too fast, and little Paul would make everyone laugh. Big brother George, with his perfect accent, excelled, which earned him the reputation as best linguist.

According to Deda, we were all the best at something, simply because we were Nikitoviches. He lavished praise and encouragement on his grandchildren and proudly introduced us to the endless stream of guests, visitors and newly arrived immigrants who flocked to him for help, advice, good talk and Baba’s great food. “This is Maia, our brilliant little poet,” he would say, as I stood, mortified, fearing he would recite my latest ode to a robin. “And Vesna, our Vesna is already a great ballerina.” After Deda died, I realized that no one would ever believe in me quite so completely again.

Going to church with Baba and Deda was a five-hour ordeal. First there was the service: pungent incense, jeweled icons, deep harmonious singing, the opening and closing of gold-painted doors, which signified a baffling series of sitting, standing and crossing ourselves, and, finally, the sermon, usually having more to do with history or politics than pious living. We would then emerge, giddy with ritual, into the run-down world of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and endure at least an hour of kissing, patting and affectionate ear-pulling from a parade of bright-lipped women with thick, lustrous hair, and big-boned men who all seemed to smoke, sport dark mustaches, and wear pointy black shoes. Deda, elegant and well groomed in his navy suit and maroon tie, reigned like a godfather over this horde of sometimes vulgar but always high-spirited Serbs.

After the mingling and endless gossiping came great feasts prepared by the women in a church basement dominated by a full bar, where the accordions and balalaikas almost drowned out the loud voices and laughter. We children would weave in and out of long lines of dancers, who would sing and stomp their feet and pause only long enough for another drink or one more bite of baklava.

It never occurred to me that my grandparents lived a hard life or lacked money. After all, Deda had so many books, and he seemed so important. What I didn’t know until I was almost a teenager was that during the day Deda held a mediocre job as a lower-level manager in a small company. I remember being shocked that the office girls called him “Charlie.” But Deda didn’t mind. They were simple and sweet, he told me, and if it made them happy, why should he mind? Baba worked in New York City crocheting $250 silk dresses for, at the most, $2 an hour, dresses she once showed me in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. Yet on Friday nights, before boarding the bus home, she would often spend her meager salary on caviar, bread, salty black olives and a bottle of good vodka. Meals were always celebrations at my grandparents’ house, and no matter who showed up, food was somehow plentiful.

Sometimes Baba would complain about all she had lost, but Deda never did. He was too busy writing articles, making speeches, and corresponding with professors, politicians and old associates. An outspoken Republican, he was a grateful supporter of an American system that had allowed him to buy a house, gather his family, and create a miniature Serbian kingdom free of his old country’s Communist strictures. To him it was a great improvement over making woven leather shoes in Paris, a temporary trade that had left both of my grandparents with gnarled fingertips.

In one of his frequent philosophical asides, Deda warned me not to lust after things. “It will only bring you discontent, and when you lose those things, as I did, you’ll realize how much time you wasted getting them.” He would tap a bent yet elegantly long finger to his forehead and say, “Concentrate on what you can take with you, up here.” How prophetic those words turned out to be.

When I decided to attend New College, a small alternative school in Florida that my father disapproved of, Deda did not criticize or object. “If you’re not a radical at twenty,” he reasoned, ”you’re probably dull. If you’re still a radical at thirty, you’re surely a fool.” He wrote to me every week, long letters full of advice in Cyrillic, letters it would take me hours to decipher. After I finally begged him to write in the more familiar Latin alphabet, he never wrote to me in Cyrillic again.

After a too-early marriage, I settled in San Francisco, and Deda was ecstatic. “You’ve picked the best city in America!” He knew Serbs everywhere, it seemed, and when he visited, he went to the Serbian Orthodox Church on, of all places, Turk Street.

During one of Deda’s visits, Dr. Dravskovic, an old friend who was now the head of archives at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, invited him for a private tour. I went with him to Palo Alto to view a special display of rare documents. Deda was in his glory, surrounded by books and papers, hosted by a man who was, in a sense, an official guardian of history, and a Serb to boot. The display, in a lofty room decorated with rare icons and portraits of Russian royalty, was magnificent: a draft of Czar Alexander’s abdication, Russian prison-release forms, tiny “spy” notebooks, President Hoover’s report on the Russian famine, pictures of Mao Tse-tung taken by Edgar Snow’s first wife, and much more that to my untrained eye seemed unfathomably mysterious. Deda examined and read each paper, talked with the enthusiastic young archivist who had prepared the collection, and seemed, more than ever, a man shaped by a Slavic past from a place he had never truly left.

Both Columbia University and Stanford has asked Deda to leave them his papers and books. He had also been writing his memoirs. As we left the Hoover Institute, he said, “I’m leaving everything to Stanford for sure.”

For some reason, I felt compelled to visit Deda in October of 1978. He met me at the airport, jauntily dressed in jeans, which I had never seen him wear before, but his gait was slow and his manner dreamy. He was nearing 80, and his heart had begun to give him problems. Like most Serbs, he had relished food and drink and had never exercised, but now he watched his diet obsessively and read strange medical books. I brought along my one-year-old son, whom he insisted on calling Ivan, even though his name is Evan. “In Serbian, he is Ivan,” Deda said, and that was that. He asked me to translate a presentation he was supposed to make that weekend, and while I worked, I heard him singing to Evan and teaching him Serbian. “Say Deda,” he repeated. “Deda,” Evan parroted. “Say, ‘Volim Deda.’” Evan repeated an approximation of “I love Deda.” “This child is a genius,” Deda roared. “A true Nikitovich! He’ll speak better Serbian than his mother.”

My Serbian had grown progressively weaker, to Deda’s dismay. We had a mini-lesson the next day, and Deda, pointing to the massive Webster’s, said, to rouse me, “English has so many words because it’s not a precise language. We have better, more specific words, and we have declensions. Serbian is logical, like Latin, not confusing like English. If you studied for just one month, you would master it.” I had heard this so many times, yet I had never bothered to practice, let alone take a class.

During the next few days we drove to my childhood haunts, past our first one-bedroom apartment above a bar in Westfield, which seven of us managed to share for a full year. We went to our old favorite park and sat by the lake. The air smelled of lightning, and the trees shone with the first light gold of autumn.

That night, Deda did not read. He fell asleep in front of the television. The next morning he drove us to Manhattan, singing the whole way, dodging taxis with insouciant good humor. It was the last time I saw him well. The following day he suffered a heart attack.

Deda asked me to bring his Old Spice deodorant to the hospital. He didn’t want to smell bad for the nurses, he said. What frightened me was that he smelled of nothing at all. When my aunt arrived from Kentucky, he introduced her to everyone. “This is my daughter, Dr. Nikitovich-Winer, chair of the anatomy department at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.” He introduced all of us in turn, exaggerating our merits as only he could. “I guess you must be important,” a nurse said. “Well, at least to some people,” Deda laughed.

When we were alone, he grabbed my arm to remind me of his unfinished memoirs. Then he slept and slept. At dinner he couldn’t eat. “I’ve lost my appetite for the first time,” he said. “I can’t taste anything. It’s a terrible thing.” He closed his eyes and smiled, his lips dry and apologetic. At noon the next day, October 14th, he died.

After a service in Elizabeth, with many eulogies and much sobbing in front of an open casket, we buried Deda in the cemetery of St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, Illinois. My grandmother, lulled by Valium, went to live with my aunt in Kentucky. The house was sold, the paintings hastily divided. There had been no will because, like a true Serb, Deda was superstitious. So the books, the papers, the photos, the half-written memoirs, were all packed and sent half to Lexington and half to Denver. The memoirs are in Cyrillic, and no one has had either the time or the knowledge to translate them. The papers are not at Stanford but in my father’s study, waiting.

I didn’t have the nerve to ask for the dictionary. The last time I saw it at my aunt’s house, it was still open on its pedestal, standing expectantly near the guest bedroom. Deda’s magnifying glass rested on a smooth white page, enlarging the tiny words for no one.

Scan 18

Books, Brains & Breasts

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When I was in college, no one talked about sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. And if it did happen, who would have believed a woman anyway? And yet even one incident can remain embedded in memory for life. For me, that incident had the power to make me doubt my intelligence and writing skills for years. No, decades. Maybe still.

My advisor and professor of literature in college was Dr. K. He was my teacher, my mentor, my god, and not a weekday went by that we didn’t meet in his small wood-paneled office, its walls a tapestry of books, a sanctuary of thought and feeling and trust.  For three years, I listened to his voice, low, lilting, Southern honey, urging me on. “Your poetry is so vital,” he would say. “Your critique is so brilliant.”

Oh, there were signs that last year: a brush against the thigh as he, always courtly and formal, pulled out the leather armchair to seat me before he took his own place. His gentle eyes, rheumy behind their thick rimless glasses, may have peered a bit too intently at my breasts as I leaned to pick up my notebook. But I would quickly sit up straight and fix my gaze on the seabirds circling above the bay.

But the talk, the talk was always clean. No signs there, no froth. We swept through Faulkner and Hemingway and Melville, Whitman and Eliot and Pound. He told me he was finishing his book on Faulkner, the definitive study, fifteen years in the writing, and his own novel, on hold for now, but destined for greatness.

My thesis, a study of modern female voices in American poetry, was almost finished, my orals scheduled for the end of May. It was a bittersweet time, the years of study and writing bearing fruit in my confidence and mastery, while the knowledge that this was my last and finest hour shadowed me from dorm to library to classroom to Dr. K’s hallowed office.

As the date of my last literary examination approached, the Florida heat became more and more brutal. Each day was a hurdle toward graduation, the ultimate goal, the ultimate validation, but also the severance of youth, with an abyss beyond which I refused to contemplate. I put aside my fears of the bleak workaday life that seemed to be an adult’s destiny and soared in the reaches of pure thought, then plunged into my writing as if to penetrate the deepest secrets of my heart and soul.

The scent of jasmine permeated Dr. K’s office, and each day, he shifted closer, as if to say, our communion is complete. Perfect and complete.

Sometimes his fingers would land awkwardly on my bare shoulder, or linger too long on my upper arm, gently kneading the flesh. His balding head would bead with sweat, and his half-closed dull blue eyes would slide back and forth behind his glasses. Yet I didn’t let myself see or feel anything but the restless shimmer of his brilliant mind.

The day of my orals was so thick with heat that my clothing clung to my skin the minute I stepped outside. I wore a short white skirt, a white halter-top and leather thongs, a typical outfit for a sweltering day.

The bay was opaque, a flat green. The clouds were ominous. Students moved as if slowed by time, unwilling to release themselves from the final throes of childhood.

Dr. K opened the door for me and took my hand in his. I was as tan as he was pale.  Moving toward my usual place, I felt his moist fingers on my neck. “You’ve pulled your hair up,” he whispered. “You have a beautiful nape.”

I stood still. “Thank you,” I said. “Shall we begin?”

His fingers caressed my back and his bony hips pushed into my buttocks, hard and insistent. He didn’t pull out the chair, just stood behind me breathing on my neck. “Your skin. You have the most beautiful tawny skin. I’ve always wanted to touch it.”

“What are you doing?” I turned and backed away toward the bookshelves. “Please, Dr. K, don’t do this.”

But he was like a deaf and blind man. He followed me and pinned himself against me and thrust his tongue into my mouth. I whipped my head from side to side as his hand reached my breasts under my halter.  He swept his clammy fingers down across my midriff and almost seemed to whimper.

“Please,” I begged. “Please stop.”

In a short story I later wrote, the girl being harassed grabs her professor by his bony shoulders, calls him a dirty old man, and shoves him so hard that he falls backward and hits the edge of his desk. His glasses fly off his nose and he crumples to the ground, dead.

But that is not what happened. Dr. K looked so pathetic that I felt sorry for him, standing there with his shoulders stooped and his eyes fixed on my breasts. Slowly, I turned and walked toward the door. He followed me, reaching for my naked arms. I recoiled but said nothing in protest. Instead, I reached for the doorknob before he could say or do anything else and left, not even slamming the door behind me.

Outside, seagulls screamed and the air was so thick that I felt as though the sky were crushing me, suffocating me under the relentless weight of this awful day. Had I been his joke, then, his private avatar, his dreams made flesh, all of my work laid bare to mockery, signifying nothing more than the perturbations of his middle age? Now it seemed Dr. K had praised my writing and my papers not because I was a good student but because he found me attractive. That’s what it would always be in the man’s world I was about to enter: attraction would always trump intelligence.

He had tricked me into believing I was so smart, so gifted, a budding writer coddled by the lord of professors, honing me like a literary weapon to cut through the dross of his own stale perceptions.  But maybe I wasn’t as smart as he had led me to believe.  Maybe he had always had something else in mind.

I didn’t report Dr. K. The thought never even crossed my mind. And I didn’t tell anyone except my best friend. Instead, I changed into my bikini and went to the beach, where I floated in the salty water, baptized by reality.

About fifteen years later, Dr. K called me at home, his voice a little slurred and hesitant. He said he was contacting all of his favorite students to find out where life had led them. My life had led me to marriage, motherhood and mundane editing jobs, which I glamorized a bit to impress him. He never mentioned our last meeting. Now would have been my chance to tell him how his advances had pounded the nail of self-doubt into my heart. But I didn’t. By now, I understood men better and felt even more sorry for him. I imagined him on the other end of the line, an aging man devoid of all sexual appeal, grasping for remembered fantasies.

Sometimes I wish I had yelled at him in his office and demanded an apology when he called. I would hope my two daughters would do that if the same thing happened to them. But the woman I am today would still not have the courage to protest, let alone report, a man who had taught her so much. He was, after all, just an ordinary, imperfect man, and I was just a naïve young woman, oblivious to the lure of youthful flesh.

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