Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “childhood”

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.

Advertisements

Beautiful Dancer

Scan 3Passion is a gift, one that lends grace and meaning to life. It doesn’t matter what someone has a true passion for — art, dance, music, writing, science, sports, charity, politics, or even another person – it is the passion itself that transforms a journey into a quest.

Too impatient to wait for her due date, my sister, Vesna, arrived suddenly and full of passion in the back seat of a patrol car, summoned in panic by our mother. “Please don’t do this to me, lady,” the officer begged. “Please wait!”

Everything Vesna did as a child was intense, focused and all consuming. She didn’t have bad dreams, she had nightmares. She didn’t play with dolls, she chopped off their hair and redid their wardrobes with our cut-up curtains. She didn’t walk, she ran and twirled and jumped, a graceful sprite, who, if she fell, got up again with bleeding knees and kept right on going.

When she discovered ballet, her passion blossomed into an obsession. After school, she would head straight to ballet class. On days without a scheduled class, she would practice in our shared bedroom in her satiny pink toe-shoes, lifting a leg to her ear or balancing on one foot with the other foot pointing behind her, straight up to the sky. While I was going out with boys and getting into trouble on weekends, Vesna was taking the bus to New York City for more and more advanced classes. At night, she would do her homework and wash her tights no matter how tired she was.

I liked to watch my sister sleep: the perfect pale skin, the full lips, the lids of her big brown eyes trembling in dream. Her light brown hair, pulled in a tight bun during the day, flowed in waves around her long neck and thin shoulders. She was so very beautiful.

Our father made her attend Barnard College, even though by then she was apprenticing with American Ballet Theatre. She made it through a year before she stood up to him and declared, “I only want to dance.” College was holding her back from her true passion.

At night, Vesna worked as a waitress. An armed robber once broke into the restaurant and locked all the employees in the freezer. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her. “No,” she said with utmost sincerity, “I was too worried that I wouldn’t have time to wash my tights!”Scan 2

Her passion for dance led to a position with the Hamburg Opera Ballet under John Neumeier, whom she revered. She moved to Germany and toured with the company, but her body, always frail and prone to injury, began to betray her. For a year, she wore a back brace when she wasn’t on stage. She continued to dance no matter how severe the pain until, one sad day, she realized she no longer could. She was not yet thirty.

Married and settled for good in Hamburg, Vesna turned to Pilates, which she had discovered to be an antidote to the injuries common to dancers. She flew back to New York and trained with the formidable Romana Kryzanowska, successor to Joseph Pilates himself. Vesna’s Pilates studio, Studio fur Korper Training, was the first one in Hamburg. In the mornings, she would get on her bicycle, rain or shine, with her brown Labrador alongside, and ride to work with a smile on her face. She loved helping others get well, sometimes at her own detriment, lifting and crouching and bending and adjusting bodies for hours on end.

Vesna also became an avid sailor. She and her husband sailed the Baltic Sea in their boat, cruising around the islands of Denmark every summer. But just knowing how to sail wasn’t good enough for her. She had to prove herself and earn her captain’s license, too. After her son grew too big to be safely restrained while sailing, they sold their boat and bought a vacation home in Southwestern France.

Although she loved Pilates and sailing, nothing could replace her passion for dance. Nothing, that is, until she discovered dressage, the art of dancing on a horse. Vesna trained every day until she was skilled enough to compete. She bought one horse, then another, and drove to the country early in the mornings, sometimes in freezing rain or snow, to ride them and care for them.

I saw Vesna compete only once. In her black top hat and fitted jacket, her back straight and her lovely face lifted, she looked so graceful and composed, so calm and connected, that tears filled my eyes. My beautiful sister was dancing again.

The back problems that had plagued her earlier grew more and more painful until doctors told her the only solution was to insert a metal rod along her lower spine to hold the vertebrae in place. Then her right leg began to hurt. When I saw her in 1997, she shuffled forward in tiny steps, smiling through the pain. A hip replacement followed. Then another.

Still, Vesna kept riding, fearless and determined. When her husband retired, they took the horses and moved to their house in France, where she had installed a stable and a state-of-the-art riding ring. She hired no one to help her, hauling hay, cleaning the stables and exercising her horses every day. One day last month, during a dressage maneuver, her horse balked and she fell hard, harder than she had ever fallen before.

Vesna said she cried out for help but no one heard her. After what felt like forever to her, she crawled back to her horse, managed to get on, and rode back to the stable. I asked her why. “Because,” she said, “If you don’t get back on right away, you’ll be too afraid to ever ride again.”

Four weeks went by. Doctors said not to worry, that her leg couldn’t be broken if she could still walk on it. They obviously did not know her… She flew to Germany for a reunion of the Hamburg Opera Ballet. In ever-mounting pain, she finally went for an x-ray. Her right leg was broken clear through the thighbone, just two inches above where her implant ended. She would have to have another hip replacement.

On crutches, Vesna attended the anniversary performance of the Hamburg Opera Ballet just days before her operation. John Neumeier came over to chat with her at the after-party. “You always told me I needed to dance more with my legs than my heart,” she reminded him. “Now I have nothing left but my heart.”

And that heart, full of passion and determination, will carry her through her recovery and back to her beloved horses. No matter what anyone tells her. No matter what the risk. No matter how long it takes.IMG_1929

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

French Lessons

Scan 10He had been a difficult man, my grandfather, or so my mother and grandmother had always told me when they recalled the many days the two of them had spent alone while he disappeared from dawn until dinner to hunt or fish in his beloved Gironde countryside. I called him Papi, and when at nine I was sent back to France for a year, I did not find him difficult to love. The difficulty, I thought then, was proving myself worthy of his love, and it was only much later that I understood what Mami had gone through, living with a man who would never change a single habit to accommodate woman, child or society.
My grandparents were to meet me when La Covadonga, a rusty Spanish freighter my parents had been misled into believing was a safe luxury liner, docked in Bilbao, Spain, after twelve days at sea. Since I had traveled alone save for a promiscuous French chaperone, who never slept in the cabin or ate with me or watched me at all, Papi had agreed to fetch me by car, but he had lost his nerve at the Spanish border, and Mami had come the rest of the way by train. He was, she told me fretfully, an impossible, stubborn man. Could I imagine, she asked, that the one time he had gone to Paris with her and my mother, he left the very next day because he claimed hotels made him sick?
What I could imagine, after just a few days in France, was why he would not want to leave a perfect place. Never had I had a garden from which to pick strawberries, or cornfields in which to play hide-and-seek, or doves and rabbits to feed.
With great patience but stern discipline, Papi set out to teach me everything I didn’t know, and that, he said, was a lot. Every afternoon that summer, he would close the dining-room shutters, and, in cool semi-darkness, I would study reading, writing and recitation with him. He had been a teacher all his life, as had Mami, and he spoke in a loud, clear voice, enunciating every syllable and defining each difficult word. My American accent irritated him even more than my American ignorance, especially since my first language had been French. He made me repeat sentences, often tongue-twisters, endlessly, and memorize and recite all of his favorite fables by La Fontaine. I imitated his rolling Southern intonations so assiduously that to this day, I speak French with the inelegant and provincial “accent du Midi.”
Since Papi scorned those who slept late, I learned to wake up by seven. He was up at six, working in his garden before it was too hot, and I would run down the sloped garden path to see him after I had gulped down my café au lait. When I kissed him, his cheeks were rough and fresh with the scent of lemony cologne and dew.
In those days, Papi kept two gardens, one in La Réole, the small town we lived in, and one in Barie, Mami’s childhood home in the country, where we often spent weekends. There, he had plum, pear, apple and apricot trees. He kept bees, too, handling the hives with his bare hands, and he made me swallow a teaspoon of honey, which I hated as a child, every morning, for long life and health.
In one of Barie’s many attic rooms, Papi kept pigeons trained as tree decoys for hunting palombes, the wild pigeons that flew up from the Pyrenees every fall. He and his friends built elaborate fern tunnels and hunting cabins in the woods and spent every autumn day waiting for the birds to alight in the specially cleared trees, a wait that would prolong itself as both the woods and the hapless birds dwindled over the years.
When it wasn’t hunting season, it was fishing season, a time of lazy late afternoons by the Garonne river, where, if I was allowed to tag along, I had to be perfectly quiet amongst the flies and tickling weeds and smells of cow dung and rotting fruit, my small bamboo pole in hand, praying with fervent concentration to catch a fish and prove my worth.
For Papi was my hero, unlike anyone I had ever met in America. A short man, he appeared tall because he was compact, trim and strong. He preferred old comfortable clothes, a beret, worn boots and baggy brown pants, and he insisted on using the same soap to wash, shave and shampoo.
One night, as I lay under a lofty white eiderdown beneath a distant ceiling, I heard him telling Mami that I looked more like my father than did my sister and brothers. Since he had never forgiven my Yugoslav father for taking away his only child and for being foreign and dark-eyed and for eating delicately and sleeping late, I took his comment as a sign of disfavor. To win his approval, I tried to be the perfect student, and I was, except when it came to the violin, the instrument he played so well. Having failed within a month to sense any progress in my playing, he declared, wrongly, that I was tone-deaf, just like my mother and grandmother, and he took back the tiny violin he had given me.
Whenever we ate, Papi observed everything I did and commented, often unkindly. His eyes were very round, nut-brown and deep-set, and his mouth, tightly modeled, was quick to move. “You must take a bite of bread after every morsel of meat and salad,” he would say. “You must not trim the fat off your meat. It reminds me of your father picking the fat out of his salami.” He complained that Mami ate like a bird and was far too skinny, not like she was when he married her.
I learned to eat the way he ate, the French way, and I would flush with pride if he said I had eaten well: chewing the little bones of the birds he roasted in the fireplace, or crunching the heads and skeletons of fried “ablettes,” the tiny fish he caught in quantity in the springtime.
Once, I displeased Papi by refusing to finish my meal. I had choked on my lunch after learning it was my pet rabbit, Annie, my Easter present, butchered and baked without my knowledge or consent. As a Frenchman, he believed that such pets were meant to be eaten when full-grown, and that I should have learned that by now. Though he seemed contrite afterwards, and tried to comfort me by playing a violin jig in front of my locked door, he did not hesitate a few weeks later to dispatch my two pet ducks.
In school, Papi expected me to be first, and after a dismal and difficult start as fourteenth, I studied my way to third, second and finally first. He was proud of me, he said, very proud.
Then summer came, and my mother arrived with my brothers and sister, and Papi no longer bothered to scold me or even correct me. My French lessons had ended.

The year after we got married, I took my now ex-husband to France to meet my grandparents. I had been there several times since that childhood year and had noticed Papi’s gruffness turning to rancor, his dislike of socializing turning to misanthropy. He drove less and less. He abandoned the garden and orchards of Barie. He cursed the modern world, the church, the government, crime and industry, and in his escalating stinginess, begrudged every franc Mami spent on what he called “frivolities.” He had become an old man, more difficult than ever, a man afraid of death and shattered by the indecencies of a weakening mind and body.
Never sensitive to anyone’s feelings, Papi now demanded sensitivity to his. One day, Mami took us to Bordeaux by train, and we arrived a little later than planned. We found Papi at the window, cradling his round head in his hands, crying. “He’s always afraid I won’t come back,” Mami said.
When he forgot something, Papi would sit at the kitchen table and rub his temples with his calloused thumbs, until he was so frustrated that he would shout, “What did I go out to do, anyway?”
The day we left La Réole was a warm September morning, soft with the silvery light of Gironde. From the train station, we could see the wide Garonne river, twisting, brown and treacherous, through the rich valley of small farms, the land rising gently into hills of green and purple vineyards and patches of just-fading trees. Large cranes bordered one side of the river, and Papi told us they were dredging all the gravel, making the river a deathtrap of whirlpools. He pointed to other factories along the banks and said they had killed all the fish; it was no use fishing any more. He repeated how much he hated the modern world — he couldn’t understand why it destroyed everything. As for hunting, it had become a farce, the way they fattened up the partridges and released them for slaughter by weekend amateurs.
Everything had changed, he said, everything but him.

Post Navigation

Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

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

%d bloggers like this: