Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “Yugoslavia”

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.

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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

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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The Empress of Cakes

rozen1When I think of those I love who are no longer here, I often remember what they cooked for me, or what they liked to eat, or a special restaurant meal we shared. Not what political party they belonged to. Not what religion they followed. Not what they did for a living. No, I immediately glimpse a moment when simple sustenance was a quiet celebration of being alive, and being alive was a sensual sharing that needed no words.
My paternal grandmother, Mara Nikitovich, was born in Montenegro. She had worked as a science teacher, but after she married my politician grandfather and had two children, she devoted herself to the domestic arts. When the Communists took over Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, they all managed to escape, first to Paris, then to the United States. My grandparents eventually settled in New Jersey, where a life of struggle awaited. But one thing never changed: food in all its delicious guises held the family together.
Baba had hands that could do anything, hands as strong and nimble as mine are weak and clumsy. Knitting. Crocheting. Embroidery. Gardening. She could do it all, but she never scolded me for failing at them and not really caring.
Of course, Baba was also an excellent cook. Even when she came home after a grueling day crocheting silk ribbon dresses in a New York City sweat shop, she somehow found the energy to prepare djuvec, a chicken and rice casserole, or passoulj, a white bean and pork stew, or sarma, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice. I watched as she put cabbage leaves in a barrel of brine in the basement so she would have them all winter, made jam out of plums, rose petals or sour cherries, and cultivated her own yogurt, sour cream and caymac, a cross between butter, yogurt and cheese that required layers of cheesecloth and infinite patience.
My Baba made rich Eastern European meals every night, and after each one, my grandfather would kiss her hand and tell her it was the best meal he had ever had.
I inherited her ability to cook in all ways but one: the art of baking. (Okay, I don’t make jam or yogurt either, and you will not find a barrel of brined cabbage in my basement…) She made her own filo dough, stretching it across the kitchen table before cutting it into thin sheets. I was mesmerized. Brioche, bread, meringues, jam-filled butter cookies. It seemed there was always something baking in her kitchen. When I think of her, the scent of butter and vanilla fills me with warmth.
But it is my Baba’s cakes I remember best. Watching her create them while I sat with my book at the kitchen table was like observing an artist at work. These were not simple two-layer American-style cakes. No, they were masterpieces, with six or eight or more layers, each layer smothered in butter cream, crowned by caramel or chocolate or coffee glazes. In addition to nine or ten egg yolks, the batter might call for finely ground almonds or walnuts, with no food processor to help grind or mix or whip. When Baba said beat the eggs and sugar until light, she meant for half an hour by hand until the mixture was almost white. She would sometimes split the cooked cake layers evenly by deftly pulling a thin string through them in one quick sweep, a maneuver that to me seemed worthy of a surgeon.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, especially not for cake, but Baba’s cakes were the exception. One in particular was so complicated, and so delicious, and so very beautiful that some day, maybe, I might try to make it, even though I lack the patient, rule-obeying temperament such a feat requires. This Empress of Cakes is called “Rosa Torta” because of its rose-pink glaze. Just remembering biting into a piece makes my mouth water.
My sister and my cousin, my mother and my Aunt, all mastered it (or so they claim). Even my dad has made it (or so he claims). Somewhere out there is a brave reader who will succeed and, I hope, send me a picture, a story, and, if at all possible, a small piece. Here is the recipe for Rosa Torta, courtesy of my cousin Vesna in Holland and edited a bit for language. I am sure there are other versions out there, but if the cake is not pink, it cannot be the Empress.

Rosa Torta
The Batter
5 egg yolks
200g sugar
20g vanilla sugar or 2tsp vanilla
Around 700g of flour
A pinch of baking soda (the recipe says “on the tip of a knife”)
250g butter at room temperature
300ml milk
With a mixer, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add the butter and whisk until incorporated. Add 500g of flour, baking soda and milk and whisk until the batter just comes together. Put aside the mixer and work in 100g of flour with your hands. The dough will be sticky and should just come together. Do not knead it as you would bread dough or punch it down. This dough needs gentle handling.
Now place the dough on a work surface and sprinkle it with the remaining 100g of flour or less. Use the palms of your hands to stick the flour to the surface of the dough and fold it in. The dough should stay soft and a bit sticky but should form one compact mass. Do not add too much flour or the layers will be hard. Weigh the dough – it should be about 160g – and divide it into 7 pieces by forming it into a log shape and cutting it into discs.
Cut out 8 rectangles of baking paper, 24x30cm. . The dough will be sticky and should be that way. First just place one disc on the paper and press it with your hands into a small rectangle. Then roll out each disc so it covers the entire surface of the paper. If the rolling pin does not stick to the dough, you have used too much flour. Sprinkle just enough flour on the dough so you can roll it to fit the paper. Cut off extra pieces and stick them to places where the dough was not enough. Keep rolling, cutting, and sticking on pieces. When you are done with one layer place it paper-side down on a baking pan.
With a fork make around 50 pricks on the surface of the layer so that bubbles will not form during baking. Have two baking pans ready so you can rotate them, and never put a layer on a hot pan. Put one pan in the lower middle half of a preheated oven at 160°C (320°F and no fan!) for 6 minutes. Bake one layer at a time, and stack the cooled layers with the paper one on top of the other, covered with a kitchen towel, while you make the filling.
Creamy Walnut Filling
400g finely ground walnuts
20 tablespoons hot milk
250g butter at room temperature
5 egg whites
200g powdered sugar
20g vanilla sugar
Pour hot milk over ground walnuts so you get a nice, thick, creamy paste. You might need a little more milk depending on how dry the walnuts are. Whisk the butter and add it to the walnuts. Whisk some more. Beat the egg whites into stiff peaks, and then slowly add in the sugars. Fold the egg whites gently by hand into the walnut cream.
Assembly and Softening of the Layers
Divide the walnut filling into 7 equal parts. Take a serving tray and place the first layer on it, removing the paper. Warm a cup of milk and sprinkle the layer with drops of milk. Not too much, or it will be soggy. Cover the layer with filling, then place the next layer over it. Repeat the process. Cover the last layer, smooth side up, with paper and put a tray over it. Now comes the trick. Place something heavy over the entire torte and place the torte like this in the fridge for 12 hours or more so it evens out.
Pink Sugar Icing
250g powdered sugar
2 egg whites at room temperature
8 teaspoons sunflower oil
Juice of one lemon
A couple of drops of red food coloring
Take the torta out of the fridge 3 hours before placing the glaze on it. Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks. Set 2-3 tablespoons aside for later. Add half the sugar, the lemon juice, the sunflower oil and the food coloring and mix well. If the mixture is too dry, add in the reserved egg whites. Using a long and wide knife that you have run under hot tap water spread the pink glaze over the top layer of the cake. You will probably have some icing left over, but that’s better than not having enough. Place the torta in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 hours or until the next day before serving. Cut off the uneven sides before carefully cutting the cake on a 45-degree angle into small rectangles.

With a smile masking your fatigue, serve perfectly cut pieces of Rosa Torta to your coterie of friends and admirers and hope that they realize what an amazing person you are.
When they finally leave, praising you effusively, of course, take a long hot bath, have a glass of wine, then fall, satiated and exhausted, into a soft bed and dream of an all-inclusive tropical resort where sun and service rule the day. Or, if you have not been fazed at all (I hate you!), try your hand at Dobos Torta or Walnut and Coffee Torta or Raspberry Torta. After the Empress, those will seem like a piece of cake.

Chaslav Nikitovich: Serb, Yugoslav, Loving Grandfather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scan 18

What is Happiness to You?

ScanA friend recently asked me why I never write about happy things. I wonder too. So I started to think about my memories of perfect happiness. And surprise, surprise, they were all quiet moments of reflection when a scene, a feeling, a thought or an experience was suddenly stamped into my consciousness, never to be forgotten.

The first imprint on my mind seems cosmic and invented, but to me it has always felt real: a man with a beard and kind eyes turning his palms up to me. They have holes in them, and he says, “Don’t worry. They don’t hurt at all.” He smiles, and I feel safe and loved.

Another is waking up as a tiny child on the sofa in my grandparents’ New Jersey apartment under a multi-colored patchwork blanket my Baba has crocheted. It’s a small apartment, a poor apartment, and they are refugees from Yugoslavia, but it is warm, and I can smell something sweet and yeasty baking in the kitchen. My Baba makes me eggs scrambled in brown butter, my Deda tells me a story in Serbo-Croatian, and I feel safe and loved.

I am ten years old, spending a year away from my parents and siblings to stay in France with my mother’s parents. They have a country house in Barie, a tiny village in the Gironde, and going there on weekends is what I love most about France. It is June. The sun is setting over the flat cornfields and beyond, over the Garonne river. I am sweeping the narrow back deck and stairs while the sky slowly turns orange and purple. I am sweeping and sweeping, sweeping myself into the future, as only a young romantic girl can, sweeping myself into the arms of my prince charming, into an imagined world of perfect love. I feel the ecstasy of being alive, safe and sure that great love awaits me just over the horizon.

Then I am on a train with my brand-new all-American, now ex-husband, speeding from Paris to Bordeaux and deep into the countryside to introduce him to my French grandparents. He is asleep on my shoulder. My nose presses against the window, and when I see the colors start to mellow into soft silvery greens, I feel an overwhelming gratefulness and happiness. I am bringing my beloved into my past so he can be a part of me. In this intimate union, I feel safe and loved.

It is July in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains. My oldest son is almost seven, my daughter is almost five, and my newborn son is a month old. I am walking with my mother in a field of wild flowers. The baby is bundled against my chest, his small sweet-smelling head warm under my hand, and the two eldest are running and laughing and picking flowers. My daughter comes to me with a bouquet, and my son presents another to my mother. They are smiling, their faces glowing in the light of the summer sun, so beautiful, so young, so sweet. I think: this has to be a moment of perfect happiness. And I thank God for keeping us safe and loved.

Buying our first house and sitting on the front steps in the gloaming of an August day, thinking, this is really happening, as we hold hands and smile at each other, is as memorable as anything I have lived. Perhaps not feeling safe, but surely feeling loved.

Hiking all the way down Vail Mountain in Colorado with my ex-husband is an unforgettable memory of joy. Jumping across streams and bounding across fields of wildflowers and through groves of shimmering Aspens, and finally, finally, getting all the way down the mountain, then drinking the best beer in the world at an outdoor table, looking up at our conquest, delirious with fatigue yet as happy as children.

And then there was the first day I ever went camping with my new boyfriend and woke up in Utah under the most brilliant blue sky I had ever seen, with the scent of sweet pines and rich loam filling the air. It was a moment of pure ecstasy, a moment when the beauty of nature suddenly saturated me with love.

But for me, the one highest defining moment of happiness, the one space where nothing comes between me and the infinite joy of being, is lying next to someone I love and who loves me, encircled by warm arms, soothed by gentle hands, feeling beautiful and appreciated. For me, that is the ultimate happiness, the ultimate feeling of being safe and loved. And yet, sadly, those moments are always too few.

As I get older, I don’t take as much time to appreciate the life around me or feel thankful for moments of grace. I get too busy working and caring for others and rarely pause to register moments of happiness. Thank you, my friend, for nudging me to remember what makes me happy instead of dwelling on life’s inevitable suffering and disappointments.

When I think of those poor parents who lost their children in such a senseless school massacre, in a place where feeling safe and loved should be, and used to be, taken for granted, I wonder if the pain will erase their happy memories or if their happy memories will deepen the pain. I pray instead that the memories of the short time they were blessed to be with their children will sustain and comfort them as they grieve.

For in the end, memories are all we have, yet even those can be snatched away by trauma or disease. Treasure your happy memories this holiday season and pause, often, to appreciate the moments that give life meaning. Those are truly the gifts worth sharing.

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