January 19, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sam!

Posted in Children, Family tagged at 8:11 am by Liliana

Sam - 18 years old today

Sam - 18 years old today

Today is Sam’s 18th birthday.

I wish him all the best that this world has to offer.

Love and hugs to my youngest child!

 

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January 17, 2011

My Sheltering Chair

Posted in Books, Children, Family, Home, Weather tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:49 am by Liliana

My Reading Chair

My Sheltering Chair

All around the world, people have been assaulted with extreme weather. Snowstorms on the East Coast, ice storms in the South. Intense cold in Europe, terrible floods in Australia and Brazil. Warming temperatures in Antarctica.

We, here in Michigan, have been dealing with darkness, low temperatures, snow and ice. Driving on dark, snowy, ice-patchy  highway every morning has been taking its toll on my nerves.

In this kind of weather the large, cozy, green chair in my living room is my favorite place in the world. Sitting in the confines of this sheltering chair is like being embraced by my grandfather.

We bought the chair years ago, when the kids were little and it has withstood years of use and abuse. One arm has been noticeably bent since Mike, Sasha and Sam wrestled on it and caused a bit of damage to the frame. The silky velor fabric has thinned out in most used places. The back pillow has lost some of its feathers.

Still, the chair is as soft, warm and comfortable as a beloved old robe. It sits in front of a shelf of books that covers one wall of our living room. Books that various family members have accumulated over many years line the shelves. Jeff’s college editions of Plato and Nietzsche are there. Mike’s South American history and travel books. My childhood paperback copies of Mark Twain and a hardcover collection of Pushkin. Nena has lately been buying books for the beauty of their covers so we have some unusual editions of Emily Dickinson, John Cheever and Dostoevsky.

In front of the books are many framed pictures. There is one of Mike as a young boy carrying baby Sam on his back. Sam is dressed in a clown costume. There is one of five year old Nicky and her uncle Jeff, the niece lovingly holding her head on her uncle’s shoulder. From a light wooden frame, six year old Nena is grinning while swinging a baseball bat. She is wearing an official team t-shirt and ruffled polka-dot shorts. Sasha and his mother are smiling from a graduation photo. My mother is dreamily gazing into the distance as a sixteen year old girl in an old black and white photograph.

When I sit in that chair with a cup of coffee in my hand, I feel I can face the day. The shelf behind me, and the memories it holds, gives me energy and the courage to forge ahead into the darkness of the cold morning.

 

January 3, 2011

Dinner Table Conversation

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Home, Work tagged , , , , , , at 7:51 am by Liliana

Sasha, Nena and Sam

Sasha, Nena and Sam

A few nights ago my family gathered around our dining room table.

It was not a large group by our standards: Branka, Joe, Jeff and I were on the adult side of the table; Sam, Nena and Sasha on the young people’s side.

Branka had made fried chicken, curried rice and salad.

The atmosphere was unhurried, light and relaxed. The conversation meandered in all directions. We talked about people’s plans in the new year, resolutions, or lack of both.

At one point, Sasha brought up the question of balancing one’s life, of not getting caught up in the never ending need for more things. Of knowing the meaning of enough. Of the possibility of living in Hawaii and taking pleasure in simplicity and doing what one really wants to do. Of being free.

Nena and Sasha graduated from college last summer, and they are trying to figure out what to do next.

Nena is still looking around, thinking, considering, experimenting with different prospects and possibilities.

Sasha has always been the kind of person who needs a more solid footing. Right after graduating, he got a job as a community organizer. It is a difficult and demanding job, but Sasha has given it all he has and has done well.

When he moved to Ohio, he lived in a tiny studio apartment with minimum amount of furniture. He wore his dad’s suits, which did not fit perfectly.

Now that Sasha got a raise, he moved into a larger apartment. His parents rented a U-Haul truck and transported some nice furniture to furnish the new apartment. He bought a vacuum cleaner and other necessities to take care of his new dwelling.

Then, Sasha bought a number of expensive new suits. He wants to project a sense of respectability and trustworthiness.

Money was spent.

But for a twenty two year old, Sasha is amazingly aware of the slippery slope of life. He has plans. He wants to travel to South America and go to graduate school. He wants to be in charge of his life. But he also sees clearly how easily it is to lose one’s compass and get caught up into the hamster wheal of everyday consumerism.

Nena said that, for her, growing up means participating in the larger experience of one’s community and culture.  To check out and criticize from the sidelines while benefiting from the effort of others, seems like a copout to my daughter.

Sam commented that he could see how easy it would be to forget (or even to learn) what really matters. Full of energy and hunger for life, he delights in pleasures that good things in life can offer. We all do.

How does one know when to stop?

I don’t know.

But I do know one thing. These kids are all right.

December 30, 2010

Christmas this Year

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Health, Holidays, Home, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , , at 8:14 am by Liliana

Christmas Spread

Christmas Spread

My family hosted Christmas this year.

Every part of the house was put to good use.

The children came home from far and wide. Nena, Nicole and Sam were comfortably ensconced in their rooms. Mike flew in from Boston, Sasha drove in from Ohio. The two of them had to sleep on a sofa bed in the basement.

Branka started baking a week before Christmas. Every evening and all weekend long she was spreading phyllo dough for baklava, grinding walnuts, juicing oranges and making her secret citrus honey syrup. The house smelled of fresh baking, cloves and cinnamon.

Two days before Christmas I started making side dishes to go with roasted turkey and honey glazed ham. I made green bean casserole with fresh mushrooms, sweet potatoes with pecans and cinnamon, mushroom gravy. As I tasted my concoctions, I noticed that my sense of taste, and my sense of smell, was numb and muted.

Sam had been sick the week before Christmas. He had gotten a nasty bug from his girlfriend Emily – high fever, sore throat, achiness, no appetite. Now it was my turn to fight the virus.

We were expecting thirty people for Christmas dinner.

Somehow, by sheer will power I got up early on Christmas morning and readied the turkey for roasting. I cut up lemons, apples, celery and onions, stuffed the turkey and placed it in the oven. Everyone commented on the delicious fragrance but I could smell nothing.

We set out our best china, got out the crystal. The guests started arriving at three in the afternoon.

Jelena brought two kinds of appetizers and a selection of confections that could rival any French bakery. Martha baked a perfect apple pie. Natasha made a frothy, creamy torte. Hannah baked a delicate spice cake and a key lime pie.

The table was overflowing with delicacies.

I could neither smell nor taste anything.

My head ached so badly I had to prop it up with my arm so it would stay upright. My throat was sore, eyes watery, nose red.

Still, the evening seemed to go well. People filled their plates with turkey and glazed ham slices, side dishes, salads. They talked and laughed. The kids watched basketball and played pool.

We made tea and coffee and spread out the deserts. Guests sampled everything.

I filled my plate with desserts – one of each, hoping that by some miracle I could taste the beauty of the food in front of me. I could not.

By eight in the evening, with a house full of guests, I waved good night, and slowly walked up the stairs to my room.

Good night, all!

November 30, 2010

This Time of Year

Posted in Children, Family, Holidays, Home tagged , , , , , , , , at 7:52 am by Liliana

Winter Evenings

Winter Evenings

I love this time of year – the interval between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

I know, I know.

The weather is cold, the traffic gridlocked and people complain about stress and consumerism.

Everyone is frenzied and over-hyped and busy shopping.

Sentimental holiday movies and Christmas elevator music surround us like a plastic bubble.

I don’t care.

I love the energy, the festivity of it all.

I love that the children are coming home – from college and law school and various jobs around the country. I love preparing the house for them, baking, starting a big pot of chicken soup. We sit in our warm, fragrant house, watching movies while wrapped in soft blankets.

On a Saturday morning, someone will run out and buy a Christmas tree. If Nena and I go, we will spend most of the morning looking, our hands and cheeks raw and cold, and our tree will be crooked and dry. We always seem to buy the one that no one else wants. If Jeff and Sam go, they will buy the first tree they see, and it will be fresh and balanced and perfect.

On Main Street, trees are covered in tiny yellow lights, flickering like lightning bugs.

I fall for those lights every time. During these fifty years of my life, I have been unable to build up any resistance at all.

November 20, 2010

Earliest Memories

Posted in Children, Family, Serbia, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 9:46 am by Liliana

Me - two years old

Me - two years old. Nena thinks I resemble a little alien.

My memories are frequently unreliable, mercurial.

They are not rock-like and immovable like granite, but fluid and restless like silk.

They are not to be trusted. Especially those early, childhood memories.

Still, I hold on to them like a child holds on to a beloved mother. Some I cherish, tend to and caress. I find solace and support in them. When I revisit them, every once in a while, I hope that they will be familiar, recognizable. Not too altered.

Someone recently asked me what my earliest memory was. I thought and thought and came to a moment that I hadn’t visited in a very long time.

I journeyed in my mind to a time when I was little, not even two years old. I know this was my approximate age, because my sister was not born yet, and I was twenty two months old when she was born.

My mother, father and I had gone to visit my father’s family in the little Serbian village where they had lived for generations. It was wintertime. My father was wearing a large, soft suede jacket. He had placed me on his chest, buttoned up the jacket and there I was lying, quiet as a mouse, hiding.

My grandfather, my grandmother, my uncles, everyone there, came out to greet us and were asking where I was. Everyone pretended that they didn’t know and went along with game.

“Where is Lilia?” they asked. “We left her back in Belgrade,” my mother and father said.

I lay quietly on my father’s chest, listening to the ticking of his heart, pleased that no one knew that I was there. I was elated to have tricked them all.

But then I became sad. Inconsolably sad. I started to believe that my parents had really left me in Belgrade. I thought of myself all alone in our house while my parents visited the family in the village.

I felt very sorry for myself. How could my parents leave me behind?

I started to wail.

My father unbuttoned the jacket and took me out. Everyone gathered around me, shouting “Here is Lilia, she has not been left behind after all!”

And while my family embraced me, kissed me, passed me from hand to hand, delighted in my presence, I gave a great sigh of relief.

How glorious to be among them, not to be left behind!

November 16, 2010

Dexter

Posted in Children, Family, Pets tagged , , , , , , , at 7:59 am by Liliana

Dexter

Dexter

When my kids were little, we got a cat. Nena (two years old at the time) chose him from all the other cats at the Humane Society. His name was Dexter.

Jeff loved the name because it reminded him of Dexter Gordon. The rest of us liked the name because it seemed to fit him perfectly.

Dexter was a large, muscular tomcat with a serious face, sweet disposition and a sly sense of humor. He loved the kids, showed  them limitless patience, followed them to school. A fierce and fearless hunter Dexter spent his nights prowling outside and was the king of our neighborhood.

Ten years passed. Dexter got older, but his interests stayed the same. The kids grew, their interests changed, but they and their friends still spent a lot of time in our basement. Dexter, considering himself one of the guys, hung out with them.

One Saturday morning, Mike told me that he was worried about Dexter. Our cat seemed listless and tired, and didn’t care to go outside at night. I went to the basement to check. Dexter looked at me sadly, hardly able to lift his head. I called the vet. They told me to bring him in.

The vet checked Dexter out and told me that his heart was diseased, and he didn’t have much to live. They recommended putting him to sleep that very day.

Everyone was busy that Saturday morning, with soccer, ballet lessons, part time jobs. But I knew that we had to say good bye to Dexter.

Jeff had taken Nena to her ballet lesson. I called him and explained the situation. He said that he and Nena would stop at home, pick up my mom and Sam, and come with everyone to the vet’s office. Mike was working at a bagel store in the neighborhood. I called him and he said he would come in a few minutes. I called my sister Branka. She said she’d come over with Nicole right away. She called Joe who had taken Sasha to a soccer game. They all came.

I don’t think the people at the vet’s office had ever seen anything like it.

Here we were, an extended family, sitting around our cat, caressing him and crying. Everyone was crying. Dexter knew that he didn’t have long to live. He calmly lay in the middle of our family circle, licking hands with the bit of energy that he could still muster.

We stayed for a long time and then we left.

The next day, a beautiful bouquet of flowers was delivered to our house. It was from the vet.

November 12, 2010

Update on Communal Living

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Home tagged , , , , , , , , at 7:57 am by Liliana

Dinner Together

Dinner Together

Friends have been asking how my family is handling the pressures of communal living.

The five of – my sister Branka, her husband Joe, my husband Jeff, my youngest son Sam and I – have been living together since last May.

Branka and Joe have rented their house out, and moved in with us until Joe completes a graduate degree and becomes a teacher.

I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, but I think things have been wonderful.

Not that there hasn’t been conflict.

In fact, frequently there are flare-ups.

Branka and Jeff are the most similar and the most contrasting personalities in the household. They frequently disagree about things and they are not shy about expressing their opinions. But most of the time, they get along just fine. They do most of the grocery shopping and they alternate cooking duties. Often, they try to outdo each other with innovative and creative gourmet dishes. Jeff makes amazing chili, delicious glazed salmon, and perfect fried rice. Branka bakes bread, apricot and puppy seed strudel and makes the best baklava in the world. I can’t remember when we ever ate this well.

For Sam, a senior in high school, it isn’t easy having four adults around. He has his own room, he has the basement to invite his friends to, but still, there isn’t much privacy. Sometimes, it’s hard for Sam when we all start asking questions about his grades, his friends, his activities.

But most of the time, he has an advantage. There is delicious food around the house, someone usually does his laundry, and he is never lonesome.

Joe studies all the time. He doesn’t have a favorite studying spot but likes to move around. He has a desk in the office and he has a desk in his room. But he likes to be with the rest of us so he spreads his books on the dining room table, across from Sam, and often the two of them can be found working together there. Most evenings when we say good night, Joe is studying. Most mornings when the household is just starting to wake up, Joe is studying. I don’t know how he does it. But I have never seen him happier.

I love going home after work to a full house. By then, dinner is already done. The fragrance of spaghetti sauce or chicken noodle soup fills the air. The table is set. We sit and eat. We share food and time and each other’s company. We catch up on the events of the day.

Most evenings, before it gets dark, Branka and I take Kaya for a walk. The leaves have fallen, the air is cold and crisp, and Kaya doesn’t know what to do from joy and excitement. This is her season.

We walk, we talk. How many sisters have the opportunity to share their time like this?

November 4, 2010

A Quiet Weekend

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Friendships, Home, Women tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:58 am by Liliana

Sunday Morning

Sunday Morning

After months of busy workdays and traveling weekends, I was ready for a quiet, relaxed, at home kind of weekend.

And that is what I got.

I met my friend Ann at the farmer’s market early last Saturday morning. We had coffee and talked for more than an hour, then walked through the cold market and bought fresh apples, lettuce, spinach, onions, potatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant.

I also stopped at the butcher’s and bough meat for our evening barbecue – sirloin steak; ground beef, pork and lamb for a Serbian delicacy called “chavapchichi”; and chicken drumsticks.

My nephew Sasha came home from Columbus and together with Joe, we spent the afternoon watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at their rally (to restore sanity, and, or fear!)

Joe’s birthday is on Halloween, but we decided to celebrate it on Saturday evening. Jeff barbecued, while I prepared the side dishes and the salads. I roasted the peppers and the eggplant, pealed the skin, sliced everything up, and mixed the vegetables with garlic, oil and vinegar. It is one of my favorite dishes. I washed and quartered the potatoes, then roasted them with olive oil, salt and pepper in the oven. They were crisp on the outside, and luscious on the inside. I made a salad with fresh greens, and a selection of fruit – apples, oranges, pears and plums. Cilantro added just the right sense of danger.

Sam set the table.

It was just eight of us for dinner (our household, plus Jeff’s and Joe’s brother, Randy, and his wife Peggy) and it was relaxing and pleasant. We talked, and lingered, no one in any hurry. The blueberry pie that our guests brought was delicious, and, together with coffee and tea, the whole thing quickly disappeared.

Sunday morning I woke up at 9 am. I can’t remember when I slept that late. The morning was sunny, but cold. I made coffee, fetched the paper from my front lawn, found a sunny spot on my couch, and settled to read. My cup overfloweth.

October 21, 2010

Old Friends

Posted in Children, Friendships tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:02 am by Liliana

Old Friends

Old Friends

I had dinner with an old friend while visiting New York last week. We hadn’t seen each other in over twenty years.

Donna and I met as high school students in 1973. Our families had just immigrated to New York, hers from Poland, mine from Yugoslavia. Neither of us spoke English.

Together with my sister Branka, we became fast friends.

Our American experiences and identities unfolded in similar ways.

We took ESL classes together, and learned to love and appreciate the English language. As our communication skills improved, our confidence grew. We started venturing outside Queens and expanded our explorations to Manhattan – the three of us on our own!

We roamed the streets, walked around Central Park, visited every famous place we had heard of.

By the time we were juniors, we bought our first tickets to a Broadway show. We almost fainted from excitement as we sat in the very first row, watching Yul Brynner in “The King and I.” Branka and Donna threatened to stand up in the middle of a song and shout to Yul Brynner how much they loved him. I was relieved when they didn’t have the courage to actually do it.

We walked all around the Museum of Modern Art for an amazing Picasso exhibit. I had bought brand new, high healed red sandals, and they started hurting my feet. I complained but the girls had no patience or sympathy. They were transfixed by the wonders in front of them. I took the sandals off, and barefoot but comfortable, delighted in the beauty of the art before me. New Yorkers didn’t even notice.

When John Lennon was shot, we went to his Central Park memorial service. It was an overcast, freezing winter day, and the crowds so overwhelming, the police feared that someone would be trampled to death. We were told to all sit on the ground. So, we sat on the frozen snow for hours, listening to speeches, to music, to remembrances. Afterward, the three of us were sick for weeks.

One winter, for New Year’s Eve, the tree of us decided to welcome the new year at the Times Square celebration. Again, we froze. Again, the crowds were so great, they were not for people who were claustrophobic or faint of heart.

But the tree of us, best friends, intertwined our hands and held on tightly to each other.

And here we are, still reaching out.

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