Chaslav Nikitovich: Serb, Yugoslav, Loving Grandfather
Chaslav 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 overthrow 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 in 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.