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…”