Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “women”

What’s in a Name?

IMG_6445-2

 

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…”

Advertisements

On Being Depressed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Mothers

IMG_3884I heard an awful story the other day. A mother, on her deathbed, whispered to her daughter, “You came into this world to make my life a living hell.” I cannot imagine how terrible that daughter must have felt, or just how cruel the woman who uttered those words had to be, with no chance to ask for forgiveness or to make amends.

As mothers, we have all made hasty and thoughtless comments to a vulnerable child. Perhaps we regretted it and later apologized. Perhaps we live with the memory, like a thorn in the heart. Or perhaps we don’t remember what we said at all because we were too busy doing a million other things. But the child always remembers.

My mother, who was unusually kind, once remarked that my new very short haircut looked like a Brillo pad (it was a terrible mistake for someone with curly hair…but the bleached greenish blonde disaster before it was even worse). I wore scarves for months, going for the gypsy look. Now when I see pictures of myself I think I actually looked kind of cute. The comment still hurts, though, even if I admire the young teenager who, on pure impulse one stifling day in New York City, let a student at Vidal Sassoon cut off all her hair.

But that impulsive streak has worked against me with my own children. I wish I could take back so many things I said and did. I am sure each of my children could tell a horror story or three that would bring tears to my eyes and a raw clenched feeling to my heart. And I am truly sorry for the damage done.

We mothers spend a lot of time feeling not good enough, no matter how much we do for our kids. We drive them to piano and swimming and soccer and gymnastics. We arrange play dates and overnights and birthday parties. We take them on family vacations and read to them every night. We cook their favorite foods and get up at dawn to pack their lunches. When my first son told me he hardly remembered anything before he was ten, I was shocked. All that work for nothing?

But I don’t really care if they remember or not, or if they thank me or not. When they were happy, I was happy, and I never thought of those duties as sacrifices. They were blessings because they gave my life meaning. I am convinced that what you do for and with your children makes them better people. The trouble starts when you do too much and expect too much, packing their days with so many activities that you rob them of dream time. I was guilty of that at the beginning, but by child number five I had realized that trying to mold children into society’s model of perfection — studious, attractive, athletic, artistic and ambitious — was misguided and usually backfired. After all, we didn’t order them from a catalog, and they didn’t come with instructions.

When my youngest said “no thank you” to soccer, ballet and piano, I admit I was relieved. She liked to read and write in her journal and play in her room. Nevertheless, I did feel a wee bit guilty, as if it were my fault for not encouraging her enough.

Sunday is Mother’s Day, but if you are a mother, every day is mother’s day, whether you are lauded or not. Of course you make mistakes. Sometimes you nag. Sometimes you say the wrong thing and hurt a young soul without realizing it. Sometimes you over-schedule your child and create anxiety rather than pleasure. Sometimes your children do put you through hell. But if you love them, and if they feel it, you have done your best at a very difficult job. And in the end, knowing that you loved and were loved is all that really matters.

Books, Brains & Breasts

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” I begged. “Please stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Navigation

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

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

Crafted in Carhartt

about women who do amazing things

%d bloggers like this: