Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Living Life in the Moment, Through Chocolate-Tinted Glasses

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February 19th is my brother George’s birthday. I can see him in the group room of his home in France. He is numb, clueless, forever waiting for nothing. His Alzheimer’s disease has made me question the supposed virtue of living in the moment, as George now lives, day after day, instant after instant. Tomorrow is his 64th birthday, and what is his greatest pleasure? Chocolate.

He does not know that on February 18th, his son had a baby boy. George probably doesn’t remember that he has a son. He doesn’t remember me. But he most definitely remembers chocolate.

Every other week or so, my sister, Vesna, goes to visit him in the memory-care home he now lives in, a facility in Southwest France that we were lucky to find given the outrageous cost of homes in the United States. And every time she visits, she brings him chocolate.

George remembers no one and nothing, but his eyes light up and he smiles when Vesna offers him chocolate.  For him, pleasure has narrowed its focus to what he can hear and what he can taste. He loves any kind of music, and he loves chocolate.

You may have indulged in chocolate, maybe on Valentine’s Day, maybe today or every day, savoring its intensity and its gift of subtle satisfaction. After all, very few people dislike chocolate. It dates back to Mesoamerica, but it was Cortez who brought it back to Spain, and it was the Europeans who sweetened it and made it a fashionable drink in the 17th century. The Mayans and Aztecs, on the other hand, thought the cacao bean was sacred, maybe even divine. They used it in many of their rituals of birth, marriage and death.

We use chocolate to make ourselves feel happier. Some say it has great health properties. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego even found that it contains substances that have similar effects on the brain as marijuana. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that chocolate addiction is common in both men and women. A high is a high is a high. And what’s wrong with that?

Because when nothing is left, no memory, no dignity, no independence, no freedom, no nothing, chocolate is still there. Chocolate brings joy to George as nothing else does. Maybe even more than Madonna and Lady Gaga do. Yet the true sadness remains: if he could only remember, he would rejoice that his first grandson was born just a day before his own birthday.

Who knows what similarities the little boy will have with his grandfather. Will he love to fish? Will he have a talent for languages? And who knows if he will ever know his larger family, or who his grandfather or great-grandfather were, or that those connected to him would love a chance to hold him and love him. Because that is what family is about: unconditional love. Who knows if that will ever happen for him?

My sister, Vesna, is a talented painter and a kind, kind person. In her latest portrait of George, she captures the emptiness, the layers of pain, and the simple joy of being alive in the moment despite the terror of nothingness. She captures the little smile he must proffer when he is given chocolate.  No, our brother is no longer the brother we knew. But he is still there, still breathing, still smiling.

 Vesna brings George chocolate, and he smiles. He had a pretty good life, all in all, and we all wish he could still be the person he was. But he can’t.  If he knew he was a grandfather, he would rejoice. Maybe he wouldn’t be the greatest grandfather, but he would love his grandson, just as his grandfathers loved him, just the way he loved and praised his daughter, just the way he loved and praised his estranged son, the son he tried so hard to bond with, yet never could.  George never learned how to show his love, but he did love.

And George always loved chocolate. In his last semi-independent days in Westchester County, New York, I would find chocolate and candies stashed everywhere in his apartment. I never called him on it, even though he has diabetes. After all, doesn’t everyone have the right to one last pleasure, one last addiction?

Maybe the Aztecs were right to view chocolate as a rite of passage, as a communion with eternity, be it life or death. George doesn’t have much life left in him, but chocolate still makes him smile. And that is enough for my sister.  And that is enough for me. But it is so sad that he will never know that he has a grandson, and never be able to rejoice in that milestone of life. That is the curse of Alzheimer’s.

I wish I could be there tomorrow and see the joy in George’s face as he tastes each morsel of bar or candy or cookie on his birthday. I wish I could be there sharing the pleasure with him.  In my depressed moments, I wonder why he is still alive. But in my up phase, I think how grateful I am for my beautiful, compassionate sister and her unconditional love for our brother George, my sister, who can see his essence and his soul while feeding him chocolate. And I must admit, I feel guilty not to be with the brother I love so much, through thick and thin, through ill and crazy, after so many years of trying. The distance is devastating, the guilt, immense.

A few weeks ago, my sister painted her latest picture of our brother George. He is smiling a tiny bit, maybe because she has just brought him chocolate. I can only imagine the big smile he would have if he knew he had a grandson. Even if he remembered it just for a moment.

SNOW, FAITH & CHRISTMAS

ImageThe first memory I have of snow is on Christmas Eve. I am sitting at the window of our Madison, New Jersey, flat, my face pressed against the cold glass as I watch the white flakes descend helter-skelter from the sky.  Outside, a faint street light illuminates their dance, some flakes flying back upwards, others suspended like tiny pillows in the breeze, still others rushing downwards like bombs on a mission. I cannot see where they land, only how they flutter or hesitate or careen in the golden glow. After what feels like an eternity in which time and space no longer exist, I hear my brother’s voice behind me.

“Did you see him?”

“Who?”

“Santa Claus,” George says, only we are speaking in French since we have not yet learned English, so what he says is “Le Père Noël.” Father Christmas.

I stare intently, but all I see are white crystals falling from a dark sky, briefly lit by light, then disappearing to the ground. I want to see Santa Claus.

“I saw him,” he says, pressing his face next to mine. “He’s there. He has a shiny sled and it’s filled with presents. He passes by quickly so you have to stare really hard.”

We are in the living room by the tree, which is decorated with just a few shiny balls and big colored lights. My parents don’t have much money, but they are determined to give their children an American Christmas.

It’s getting late. From the kitchen, I hear our mother calling that it’s time to go to bed or Santa won’t come. He only comes when little children are asleep.

“If you don’t see him,” whispers my brother, “It means you don’t believe. And if you don’t believe, Santa doesn’t come.”

I believe everything my big brother tells me. Our sister is already asleep, and I know Mom will shoo us to bed if we don’t go soon. I squint. I pray. I feel tears filling my eyes. I do believe! So why can’t I see Santa? There must be something wrong with me.

“Keep looking,” George says. “Just stare and stare. I swear he’s out there.”

My brother goes to bed and leaves me by the cold window, staring and staring. I don’t budge. My small heart is brimming with love and faith. I cannot fail to see Santa Claus! If I don’t see him, I will ruin everyone’s Christmas. None of us will get presents! I know if I wait long enough and try hard enough, I will see him. I beg my mother to let me stay up just a little longer.

After a while, all the colors of the rainbow pass through my tear-stained lashes. I strain to keep my eyes open, my tiny hands clasped in prayer. And then, like the most miraculous gift I can imagine, he is there: Le Père Noël. His clothes, his sled, his reindeer are all golden as he flashes above the street lamp, then circles back and dashes across the sky again.  The figures twinkle like stars, tiny on the immense black-and-white canvas of this snowy night. I run to the bedroom and say, “I saw him! George! I saw him!” But George is sound asleep.

Today I am in Westchester, New York, just a few miles from where George lived before I had to take him to a memory-care home in France. Outside my motel this quiet morning, what were at first fat snowflakes are shrinking and flying faster, sticking to the ground as the temperature drops. I haven’t seen a snowfall in quite a while, and I am mesmerized, sitting alone by the window and remembering that long-ago night when I saw Santa Claus, and I believed.

George himself remembers nothing and no one. I imagine him sitting in a chair in the group room with his eyes closed, his head drooping to the side, his mind empty. I long to be by him, to hold his hand, even if he doesn’t know who I am.

And then I remember a snowy day the winter before last, just before Christmas. I had come to take care of him for a week, but when I went up to his apartment, he had disappeared. It was snowing. He had a serious infection in his hand, and no idea how he got it.  The doctors had told me I needed to come because he was forgetting to go in for his antibiotic infusions and they would have no choice but to hospitalize him for his own safety. His car had been impounded, and he was wandering around at all hours, often forgetting where he was going or why. I drove slowly up and down the streets of Mt. Kisco in the dark, looking for him. I went to every CVS and stopped at every little restaurant he liked. No George.

I was about to give up when I glimpsed what looked like a homeless old man trudging through the snow on Kisco Avenue, a black beanie pulled over his ears, big rubber boots on his feet, and white plastic bags clutched in each gloved hand. I stopped and rolled down the window.

 “George? Is that you?” A pair of blank green eyes under snow-covered brows stared back at me. “It’s Maia, your sister.”

“Maia,” he said. “My sister! You didn’t tell me you were coming!” I saw a hint of the old George in his smile. Of course I had told him I was coming, over and over again. But I no longer felt a need to correct him, to try to force him to remember when he really could not.

I took him to Eduardo’s for his favorite Clams Casino and crème brulée. I let him drink wine, even though he wasn’t supposed to. He laughed and flirted with the waitress, happy at least for a little while.

Not even Clams Casino would rouse George today or bring him back to a semi-conscious state. Like a beautiful snowflake briefly illuminated in the cold, cold night, his life flutters downwards in a slow swirl of mistakes made and dreams unfulfilled, sometimes lifted by moments of joy or moments of awe, but destined sooner or later to fall, then melt and disappear. If I squint my eyes really hard through my tears, I feel the little boy he once was standing behind me and whispering in my ear: “If you really believe, you will see him.”  My heart soars with gratitude because I still believe that if I try as hard as I did that night so many years ago, if I have the pure faith and will of a child, the golden light of love and hope will surely flash by me again.  And perhaps I will see George above me in the night sky, sitting next to Father Christmas, waving good-bye.

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.

My Father’s Chicken Marengo

Image 2My 88-year-old father is making Chicken Marengo for me. He has made it many times before, but these days it is a labor of love, effort and infinite patience. I watch as he slowly debones and slices the chicken thighs, his head stooped over so he can see.

“Why didn’t you buy boneless thighs?” I ask.

“I couldn’t find them,” he answers, with that quiet, resigned smile he uses so often now.

I don’t know if he means the store didn’t have any or he couldn’t find where they were. Shopping is a daily ritual for Pavle, one that can take several hours, and the meat and produce he sometimes forgets disintegrate in the refrigerator until someone throws them out without a whisper of the deed.

I offer to help, but Dad says he doesn’t need any help. He tells me to go outside and relax, as if I could when I know he is sweating in the kitchen alone.

In Denver today, the temperature reached 100 degrees, and in the cramped kitchen, it is still 100 degrees even though it is past seven. My father doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Actually, he doesn’t believe in home improvement of any kind.

The screens are ripped. The carpets are stained and shredded. The wallpaper is peeling in every corner. The curtains sag from one or two stalwart rings, while the rest of the fabric hangs like a sail from a broken mast.

And yet Pavle is the most elegant man I know, even at his age. He wears dark slacks and a pressed collared shirt every day, often with a cravat tucked in at the neck. He doesn’t own a pair of jeans or shorts, and his white hair is carefully combed back from his high forehead. He has always been a handsome, well-groomed man. How is it possible that someone so formal and meticulous with his person can tolerate such abysmal surroundings? Maybe because people are full of contradictions. Or maybe because many men without women lose their sense of order.

To get to the garden, I must pass through what used to be an enclosed porch but is now a wasteland of junk and broken furniture. Around the outside patio, huge untrimmed juniper bushes hide the balding lawn below, where mushrooms sprout with abandon. The patio chairs are torn or sagging. The white siding on the house looks gray, and the wooden roof shingles are all askew, just waiting for the perfect storm to fly far, far away.

Which I will do in a week, leaving the scene of a disaster that would make my deceased mother, a lover of nature and beauty in all things, wail.

What became of her carefully tended flowerbeds?

Where has her beloved glass dining room table gone?

Pavle lives at that table, now buried under bills, papers, magazines, newspaper clippings, containers of nuts and random piles of crackers and cookies. Sometimes he sits at his computer writing his memoirs or trying to access his e-mail. Sometimes he scrutinizes his pile of junk mail as if it contained the secret to immortality. Helter-skelter files surround his feet and precarious bookshelves lean from the wall behind him, where an abstract oil painting has tilted up to the ceiling, caught by a wayward curtain.

In this dark room, the wrought-iron chandelier my mother found in Mexico is always on, but the ugly coils of low-energy bulbs have replaced the pink candle-shaped lights she favored, and their harsh, unforgiving glare intensifies the dusty chaos below.

Sensing that Pavle would enjoy my presence, and knowing how slowly he moves, I insist on coming inside to help him. I chop the garlic and parsley and boil and peel the tiny pearl onions as he sautés the chicken.

Both my brother and my nephew, who live with my father, have gone out this Saturday night, and the house is unusually calm and quiet. Outside, if I look up through the circle of trees at the waning silver light outlining the blue-gray clouds of a Colorado evening, I can almost imagine I have traveled back in time. I am still married, and my husband is pitching to one of the boys. The other children are shrieking as they slide down the Slip‘n Slide. My mother is cooking inside. My father is leading baby Malia around the patio by both hands, trying to teach her to walk.

Today is Malia’s nineteenth birthday.

As I set the patio table, I try to recall how Mom’s pink and white Iceland poppies swayed in the evening breeze. How her off-tune voice seeped through the open doors from the kitchen, where she sang in French as she cooked for her children and grandchildren.

Only the rhythmic hum of crickets and the poignant calls of birds remain the same, enduring talismans of those summer days. The rest is ruin and loss, neglect and decrepitude.

But in the kitchen, my 88-year-old father is alive, cooking Chicken Marengo, just for me.

I gauge his progress while I refill my wine glass. Here, wine is a necessity, a buffer against reality. It is still unbearably hot inside, and Pavle is trying to cool off with his second whiskey and soda. Meanwhile, the chicken and mushrooms are swimming in a broth that won’t reduce to a sauce, and he is worried.

“Stop worrying,” I tell him. “Sit down and let it reduce by itself.”

He has been standing for at least two hours, and he looks weary.

The kitchen is in shambles. Dad has left all of the drawers and cabinet doors open, and herbs, onion skins, utensils and dirty dishes litter the chipped brown Formica counters. As I clean, I try to imagine what this once-beautiful house might look like if anyone still cared.

When I am sure Pavle has gone back to his dining room headquarters, I sprinkle Wondra flour into the soupy broth and stir until it finally thickens. Through the kitchen door, I can see him hunched over the New York Times, munching on pita chips.

As requested, I make a plain green salad with a simple mustard vinaigrette. Anything else, he has told me, “just doesn’t go with Chicken Marengo.”

The baguette is already hardening in the dry air as I slice it. My father never eats a meal without bread, preferably warm. Maybe it’s bad for his health, but he is the one who is 88 and still reading the New York Times!

I shut off the television droning in the background for no one, and put on a Norah Jones CD. Her mellow voice fills the heated air. “I don’t miss you any more,” she sings, over and over again. The CD is a cheap copy and skips repeatedly. I think of my mother and my ex, my grandparents and my children, my friends and family scattered everywhere. I will always miss everyone who once mattered to me.

Norah sings, “What do you say when it’s all gone away?”

Nothing, I guess. There is nothing left to say.

“I’m starving, Dad!” I shout, knowing he is going deaf. When he doesn’t move, I feel bad and walk to him, then touch his shoulder gently and ask if he wants to eat. By now, it is dark and nearly nine.

“Yes, yes, darling,” he says, smiling that familiar, resigned half-smile as he rises painfully from his chair.

He makes his way ever so slowly across the family room and down to the patio as I add the olives and pearl onions to the perfect sauce, pour it into a bowl and top it with chopped parsley. The air outside has cooled, and we sit down together to eat.

Before we start, Pavle tells me his version of the history of Chicken Marengo. On June 14, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte won a narrow victory over the Austrian troops occupying Italy on the Marengo Plain. While he was waiting for the second half of his troops to arrive, late due to his own geographical miscalculation, he got really hungry. He sent his soldiers out to forage for food in the surrounding villages. They found chicken, olives, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Napoleon’s chef was on fire that night and created Chicken Marengo.

Fortified by a full belly and a second-wave of soldiers, Napoleon beat back the Austrians.

When he finishes his tale, my father takes the first bite and says, “Don’t you think it’s a little too salty?”

“Maybe a teensy bit,” I answer after I swallow, surprised that his taste buds are still as sharp as his memory for stories. “But I love it the way it is.”

And I do. Yet, as I sit under the infinitude of stars on this warm summer night, what I love most is not the taste but the sense of my father’s love in every delicious bite of Chicken Marengo. The dish he has made, just for me.

PAVLE’S CHICKEN MARENGO

Image3 TBS oil
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, whole or in pieces
1 chopped onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Bay leaves
1 TSP dry or fresh thyme
12-15 pearl onions or more, cooked and peeled
1 can chopped tomatoes or 5-6 fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
1-3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup black olives
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
3 TBS tomato puree or paste
2-3 TBS (or more) of Wondra flour
½ cup fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the onion until it is soft.
Brown the chicken in oil. Drain the fat before adding the chicken to the cooked onion.
Stir in herbs, broth, wine, garlic, tomatoes and tomato puree. Thicken with Wondra.
Add mushrooms and pearl onions and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
When the sauce has thickened, adjust seasonings and add the olives and parsley.

With due respect to my father, serve with whatever you think “goes” with the chicken!

And make sure to cook the dish with love for those who matter the most to you.

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

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.

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.

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

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Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

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

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