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.

November 1, 2010

The Comfort of Tolstoy

Posted in Books, Family, Health, Women tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:49 am by Liliana

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

I am not sure when I read my first book by Tolstoy, but I know this – he was in my life long before I was born.

Tolstoy was my mother’s favorite writer.

We had old, worn out, hard cover copies of his books sitting on our bookshelf. I don’t know where they came from, maybe my mother’s schoolgirl days.

Each book was divided into a number of volumes. The books were bound in soft, stained red leather. The paper inside was fleecy white and had a distinctive dusty, book-y smell.

The feel and the smell of those books has been imprinted on my consciousness forever.

And the characters and the stories? They live with me every day.

I named my daughter Natalia (nicknamed Nena) after Natasha Rostova in War and Peace. Sam’s middle name is Leo (Tolstoy’s first name.)

Both my mother and I reread all of Tolstoy’s books many times during our lives. We talked about them again and again. We changed our minds about different characters and interpreted events and relationships in contrasting ways. Tolstoy gave us the vocabulary to discuss themes and subjects that we might not have had the courage to discuss otherwise.

As my mother grew sicker from Alzheimer’s Disease, she grew fearful and suspicious of the world around her and all its inhabitants. She slept less and less. Nothing seemed to follow the rules of behavior that her reshaping mind dictated.

Except for Tolstoy.

In the last year of her life she could not read. She hardly slept. She did not know who any of us were. She had lost most of her connections to the outside world.

But many nights, Jeff and I found her lying on the living room sofa tightly holding on to one of the volumes of the soft, worn out copy of War and Peace. She pretended to read.

Sometimes she held the book upside down.

When none of us could bring her comfort, Tolstoy did. Not with direct words anymore, but with the deeply ingrained memories and shadows of the world he created. Of the girl and woman that she once was. It was the one stable, unmoving constant in a life rapidly degenerating out of control.

My mother held on to that book until she died.

October 5, 2010

In Enemy Territory

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Knitting, Traditions, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 6:49 am by Liliana

Ohio Michigan Rivalry

Ohio-Michigan Rivalry

My nephew Sasha works as a community organizer in Columbus, Ohio.

He graduated from college last summer and this is his first serious, full-time job. He knows few people in this city, so my sister, brother-in-law and I decided to visit last weekend. We planned to feed him some good food, catch up on news and cheer him up.

We also wanted to keep him company during a college football game between Michigan and Indiana. It is not easy cheering for your team in a sports bar all alone. Especially not when you are in Ohio State country and everyone is cheering against you.

Early Saturday morning, we had a huge breakfast at an old diner on Main Street. We shared an omelet, biscuits, blueberry pancakes, bacon and hash browns. We sipped coffee without hurry, laughed and talked. It was a warm, golden morning.

After breakfast, Sasha drove us around the city. I had never been to Columbus before and I expected a quietly dying urban landscape with monotonously endless strip malls. It was anything but. The downtown has a beautiful, modern, innovative skyline. The ethnic neighborhoods like German Village, Italian Village and the market area have a distinctive charm all their own. The city feels vital, young and stylish.

I wanted to walk through the Ohio State University campus. But when we drove up, we realized that Sasha was wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt. Everyone else, as far as the eye could see, was wearing red buckeye shirts. We decided to stay in the car.

We had lunch at the market area. The market is a renovated old warehouse that now houses fine artisan and ethnic food stores. Sasha and Joe had sushi, Branka had tender barbecued ribs and I decided to try a sampling of Indian vegetarian dishes. We took our food upstairs, made a colorful spread on a table, and shared.

By this time, the sky was getting cloudy and it was threatening rain so we walked to Sasha’s favorite sports bar. The music was deafening and a million TV’s were blaring different football games at the same time. Not one was of the Michigan/Indiana game. Sasha found a waitress willing to turn one of the TV’s to the right channel and we huddled around a cozy table to watch.

I am not much of a football fan, in fact, I hardly understand the game. So I got my knitting out, and worked on a delicately gauzy scarf for my niece. On occasion I glanced at the TV to see what Sasha and Joe were getting excited about. Most of the other patrons ignored us, although a couple of people noticed Sasha’s Michigan t-shirt and stopped to say hello. Fellow Michiganders.

The expectations were that Michigan would easily beat Indiana, but the game was not as close as expected. It was getting tense. Branka, Joe and I had to leave at halftime, but Sasha promised to keep us posted. It was really hard to leave him there to watch the rest of the game by himself, but we had to go.

While the three of us drove home in the gathering darkness and pouring rain, Sasha kept texting Joe reports on how the game was progressing. It was tied. Then Michigan pulled ahead. Michigan won. Go Blue!

We might have ventured into enemy territory, but the natives were friendly. It was a perfect trip.

September 30, 2010

The Pull of the Old

Posted in Children, Family, Home, Serbia, Traditions, Travel, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:56 am by Liliana

Revelers at the wedding

Revelers at the wedding, 8/10

My sister and I spent the last few days visiting our father and stepmother in Florida.

They had just gotten back from a month long trip to Serbia. Neither has been there for over twenty years. They were full of stories and impressions.

They had lots of photographs; and an eighteen hour video of an old fashioned wedding of our cousin’s son. We watched all eighteen hours.

Our father grew up in a small village (about hundred and fifty households) in Northern Serbia. His family has lived there for many generations. We are related, by blood or marriage, to almost every member of the population. We know their stories, and the nicknames of their grandfathers.

My father left the village and went out “into the wide world” when he was a teenager. My sister and I grew up in Belgrade. But almost every summer of our childhood and young adulthood we returned to visit. Everyone there knows not only us, but everything about us.

My cousin Milan and I are the same age. As children we played together, roamed the orchards, picked mushrooms in the nearby forests. He stole a cigarette from my grandfather and we tried smoking it in a dark corner behind the house. We chocked on the bitter smoke and neither tried again.

As teenagers we went hunting together, and spent evenings at village dances. He confided in me when he fell in love and decided to get married. Our children are the same age. It was his son’s wedding that we watched for eighteen hours.

Milan’s father and my father are first cousins. The two of them are the same age, twenty days apart. They grew up during the difficult years of WWII, and their childhoods were a lot less idyllic. But they probably did most of the same things that Milan and I did.

My grandfather and Milan’s grandmother were brother and sister. When her husband got killed by a horse in a freak accident, leaving her a widow with four children, my grandfather took on the care of her family.

Their father, my and Milan’s great-grandfather, Milos, was an adventurous man. He traveled the world and came to America in the late part of the 19th century. But he couldn’t stay long away from the village. Just like my father, who traveled the world as well, but has always gone back.

Watching the video made Branka and me feel like the part of the tribe that we belong to. We couldn’t eat the delicious food, we couldn’t drink the home made wine and plum brandy, we couldn’t place our arms around our family and join in the dance.

But when the music started playing, we knew exactly how they felt. And we knew all the songs.

September 17, 2010

Nana

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Children, Family, Food, Good people, Health, Home, Weather, Women tagged , , , , , at 6:59 am by Liliana

Liliana, Nana, Branka and our father

Liliana, Nana, Branka and our father- June 2010

In early January of 2005, I was undergoing intense chemo therapy for breast cancer.

It was a bitterly cold and snowy winter. The days were heavy, dark, gloomy and depressing. My physical and emotional state reflected the weather perfectly.

In a few short weeks, I had lost close to twenty pounds. I had no appetite and felt nauseous all the time. I was weak and dizzy. I could not sleep. I developed a blood clot in my arm and then one in my leg. I had no energy. I could not take care of myself, much less my husband and children.

My sister, Branka, tried bravely to take care of our two households. She ran between her work, her children’s schools, her house  and my house. I worried that she too would get sick. We needed help.

Our father had remarried a few years earlier and lived in Florida. We were friendly with our stepmother (Nana), but didn’t know her well. She offered to come to cold, frozen Michigan and take care of us all. We said yes.

Nana came and took over the running of the house.

Mornings were my worst time of the day. After chemo had been working its magic all night long, I felt sick, exhausted and unable to eat. I had trouble getting out of bed. Nana would bring me a cup of tea and hot oatmeal with honey, then leave as I struggled to swallow a few teaspoons at a time.

Mike was already away at college, but Nena and Sam were at home. Jeff had a responsible and difficult job. They were all disoriented and frightened. Nana made them breakfast every morning – fancy stuff like pancakes, bacon, eggs. It made me happy to know, sitting in my bedroom and trying to swallow oatmeal, that Nana took care of them.

After everyone had left for work or school, I slowly gathered my courage and stumbled downstairs. Nana and I sat for hours – she talking and crocheting; I trying to survive another day.

Hours spread before us like decades.

Branka came every day, and the two of them tried to think of ways to cheer me up and get me to eat. It was essential that I not lose any more weight as my oncologist threatened to stop chemo treatments; but I had trouble swallowing and had no appetite. Nana and Branka would go into my kitchen and start concocting high calorie delicacies limited only by their imaginations. I never knew what combination and surprises I would find camouflaged inside my smoothies – boiled chicken with chocolate milk, roasted vegetables with honey, etc. etc. I lived in fear of the next offering.

Evenings were merciless in a different way. Nana and Branka made wonderful dinners and the entire family (mine and Branka’s) would gather around our dining room table. Everyone except for me. I sat on a sofa nearby, and tried not to smell the aroma of food or think about food. Our usually rowdy dinner conversations were no more; everyone ate quietly.

We all waited for the day to end.

Nana stayed with us for six weeks, through the worst part of my chemo treatments. She talked to me about things that no one else had the courage to talk about. She was honest and made no light of my situation. I didn’t have to pretend to be brave. But this tenacious, determined woman exuded strength like a rock – strength I could touch with my hand and hold on to tightly.

She cajoled me to eat, to find courage in simple things and not give up. She advised me to take it one minute, one hour, one day at the time. When I could not walk myself, she pushed me forward.

By the time Nana left for Florida, winter was winding down. Snow was still laying deep on the ground, but the first whiffs of spring were in the air. I was done with the first chemo regiment, and starting the second round. I responded to this one much better, and my appetite showed those first early signs of life. I started going for walks outside. My strength came back slowly.

Now, when I think of those cold, dark, despondent days, I think with pride of my family’s ability to endure and survive. And I think of Nana’s strength and love that, like a beacon, pointed the way towards better days. On day at the time.

September 15, 2010

Avery Update

Posted in Cancer, Children, Family, Good people, Health tagged , , , , , at 8:25 am by Liliana

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Avery is doing well.

Her diagnosis last year with non-
rhabdomyosarcoma, deeply touched everyone who knows her story.

This rare form of cancer has the characteristics of three different types of cancer, all in one. By the time Avery was diagnosed in October, it had already spread to her lungs and was ranked Stage 4. After four rounds of intense chemotherapy, followed by surgery, her cancer had shrunk and there are now no traces of lesions in her lungs.

Avery is going back to the hospital in October for a follow-up scan. If all goes well, her port will be removed.

Avery is feeling great, eating well, growing and learning all kinds of new things. Her hair has come back, as well as her eyebrows and eyelashes. With her sweet smile and good nature she charms everyone who meets her.

Avery had a little accident during the summer. She ended up with a small fracture in her leg. Her bones have been weakened by chemo, so she had to wear a cast on her leg for a few weeks.

Now the cast is off, and Avery can go swimming and running around.

I bet she’ll be playing soccer with her brothers very soon!

September 13, 2010

Battle in Istanbul

Posted in Children, Family, Serbia tagged , , , , , , at 8:20 am by Liliana

basketball woes

Basketball woes

Last Saturday, there was a lot of excitement at my house. We had reserved the afternoon so there would be no interruptions. My children, in different parts of the country, were all in battle mode.

Serbia was playing Turkey in the semi-finals at the world basketball championships in Istanbul.

If you are unfamiliar with the long and violent history of the Balkans, there is only one thing you need to know – Serbia (together with the surrounding neighborhood) was subjugated to the Turkish Ottoman empire for five hundred years. We still blame many of our woes on that painful history.

To beat the Turks in Istanbul (in basketball, of course) would be a sweet victory – it might almost avenge the bottle of Kosovo and release us from enslavement to that grievous memory.

The game started off well. The Serbian team consisting mostly of young players (ten under the age of twenty three) fought bravely and led throughout the first half by almost ten points. The audience was overwhelmingly Turkish, with a very small (but loud and brave) contingent of Serbs. The Turks looked worried. The Serbs were overjoyed.

Only once or twice did the Turkish team take the lead. It seemed possible that Serbs could win, but I was taking nothing for granted. I didn’t want to jinx them by being overly confident. So, I didn’t call Mike in Boston and gloat about how well things were going.

Well, at the very, very end of the game, the Turks took the lead. And during the last five seconds, they won by one point.

One point!

One point and that sweet sense of victory eluded us again.

The Turks in Istanbul celebrated with the unrestrained joy of tribal ecstasy. At my house, it was very quiet. The kids didn’t call. Jeff and I said nothing to each other. I turned my face to the wall, and I cried.

I have grown up in a society that idealizes pain and suffering. The path to true wisdom is strewn with thorns. But really, I am starting to wonder if there can be such a thing as too much of pain-infused wisdom.

To put it plainly, sometimes I just want my team to win.

September 10, 2010

The Best Years

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Family, Women tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:33 am by Liliana

The birthday girl

The birthday girl

My grandmother lived to be ninety five years old. Throughout the years, whenever she talked about people who happened to be her age at that particular moment, she would make a comment – “they are enjoying the best year of their lives!”

For my grandmother, every year of one’s life was the very best year.

It took me a long time to understand what she meant, but I think that I am getting there.

Many years of my life were painful and difficult and did not seem enjoyable at the time. My mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. My sister almost died from pulmonary embolism. My family in Yugoslavia  lived through tragedy, violence and hardships. I was sick with cancer.

But when I look back on all this, all these misfortunes, together with all the joys, construct a picture of my life. I would not be who I am without them. I hope that I have learned from them to be a better person.

One thing I do know – I am much more compassionate, accepting and kind. To my family, friends, strangers, the world around me. And to myself.

Today I am fifty one years old. Happy birthday to me!

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