Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “family”

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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Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go home!” ordered the officer.

“My home?”

“Yes,” he said, slamming the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a Name?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Born to Be Happy

The story of a remarkable woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After nine months of obedient suffering, Billy finally rebelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Requiem for My Brother George

George

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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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.

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