January 25, 2011

Burnt Orange Moon

Posted in Family, Food, Friendships, Hobbies, Knitting, Weather, Women tagged , , at 7:57 am by Liliana

Burnt Orange Yarn

Burnt Orange Yarn

For me, this is the most grueling time of year.

It is cold, it is dark, and there are no holidays to look forward to.

This morning, thought, even though the sky was ashen and overcast, and icy snow was making the roads sleek and unpredictable, I felt fresh and energetic, ready to face the week.

I had a wonderful weekend.

I am frequently accused of being an introvert, with great need for solitude, but this weekend it was the company of family and friends that fed me the energy this cold winter had depleted from my body and soul.

Friday evening we had an old friend and his wife over for dinner. We ate beef brisket, roasted potatoes, salad; fruit pies, tea and coffee for dessert. And we talked. About children growing up and leaving, about parents getting old and dying, about life.

Saturday morning I spent at a cafe with my daughter and a young friend talking about young people’s plans, schemes, hopes. About starting one’s adventures in life.

Saturday evening, my friend Jelena had a ladies’ evening at her house. She made elegant cocktails and appetizers, carrot and asparagus soup, lasagna and light, creamy dessert. We watched a movie. We told stories and laughed.

Sunday morning my family gathered around our dining room table for brunch. We ate eggs, fresh bagels and cream cheese, smoked salmon, fruit. And drank lots of coffee.

We sat around for hours and Sasha and Nena talked. The rest of us mostly listened, but sometimes we all wanted to talk. Sometimes we needed a referee.

Then Jeff and I walked over to our neighborhood coffee shop, had hot chocolate and talked some more. It’s not always easy for the two of us to find a quiet, uninterrupted corner in our house. We gave each other turns. We listened.

In the afternoon, I went to my friend Ann’s house. We sat in her living room, full of her own pottery, art and yarn, and knitted while her husband Ray made a wonderful pasta dinner. Ann taught me a new cable pattern. It was not hard. I started knitting a scarf for my sister, beside myself with joy and accomplishment. The color of the yarn is deep burnt orange.

The weekend was icy cold. But throughout, the sky was iridescent Adriatic blue, and the sun was shining and making the snow sparkle.

And at night, the sky was clear and full of stars. The full, giant moon was the color of deep burnt orange.


January 7, 2011

Serbian Orthodox Christmas

Posted in Family, Food, Holidays, Serbia, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , at 7:59 am by Liliana

Today is Serbian Orthodox Christmas.

Serbian Orthodox Church (together with the Greek and the Russian Orthodox churches) follows the Julian calendar system, while the rest of the western world transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. The Julian calendar is 13 days behind Gregorian, so our Christmas falls on January 7th, and our New Year on January 14th.

Serbian Christmas traditions are gloriously complex and differ from area to area. When I was a child we celebrated them in most of their intricate glory, despite the fact that we lived in a socialist country.

My immediate family, here in the US, has simplified those old traditions quite a bit.

Burning of the “badnjak” - the Serbian Yule Log

Burning of the “badnjak” - the Serbian Yule Log

On Christmas Eve, my sister, daughter, friends and I drive about an hour to the nearest Serbian church. (Not this year, though. We are all sick.) We partake in the celebratory rituals, including following the priest around the  church three times and burning the “badnjak” the Serbian Yule log.

Everyone takes a branch of the log before it is burned to take home and place on the icon for good luck.

On Christmas Day, instead of the customary ancient practice of going from house to house to congratulate the holiday, sing and celebrate, I make phone calls to family and friends and greet them with the traditional Serbian Christmas greeting, “Hristos se rodi” or “Christ is born!” Their reply is, “Vaistinu se rodi!” or “This true he is born.”

On Christmas Day, we make a sumptuous dinner of soup, roast lamb, potatoes, salads, desserts. My sister makes “chesnica,” a dish similar to baklava. She places a quarter (in ancient times it used to be a golden coin) somewhere within the cake, and whoever in the family finds it, gets a prize of money. They are also considered to have good luck for the entire year.

In the reenactments of these ancient traditions and rituals, I feel comfort and connection to my culture and history. For a few days, the complexity of the modern world slows down a bit, and I belong to a different time, a different place.

Merry Christmas!

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!


December 9, 2010

William and the Lions

Posted in Family, Food, Friendships, Traditions, Travel tagged , , , , , , at 7:57 am by Liliana

William (in red) and his Family in Kenya

William (in red) and his Family in Kenya

Last summer, I wrote about William, an exchange student from Kenya  who is spending this year with my friends Ann and Ray and their children here in Michigan.

William belongs to the Masai tribe and lives near the Masai Mara National Park in south-western Kenya. His parents are farmers and he is the tenth of eleven children. William is seventeen years old and a high school senior. This is his first trip ever outside his country.

We recently had Ann, Ray and William join our family and a number of friends for dinner and conversation.

There were fifteen of us around the table. We had vegetable soup, roasted lamb, roasted potatoes, salads, bread. For dessert, we had coffee, tea and a selection of fruit pies.

William had mentioned that goat is his favorite meat but I had never cooked goat so I settled for lamb. William loved lamb. He said it reminded him of Africa.

William and his Mother

William and his Mother

After dinner, while the adults sat around the table and talked, William and Sam (my youngest son) went to the basement, played pool and listened to music.

Sam has the impression that William is having a wonderful time in the US. He is keeping up with his studies, enjoys playing soccer on his high school team, and has made new friends. And, according to Sam, he is a very good pool player.

Later in the evening, we all gathered in our family room, and William treated us to a power point presentation about his family, the Masai culture and about Kenya.

William showed us pictures of his mother, his brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews and the extended family. He told us everyone’s names. He showed us pictures of the huts his family lives in and told us about their daily lives.

And then, William told us what it takes to become a Masai warrior.

It takes years of training, discipline, learning from one’s elders, listening, facing one’s fears and learning to overcome those fears.

And it takes going on a lion hunt with the rest of the warriors. Every warrior has a role to play and a rank in the community of hunters. The hunters surround the lion in a circle. Those who are young and weak and afraid, attract the lion’s attention. Those who are strong and brave and experienced, attack the lion with their spears. Those who kill the lion protect the community. They are praised, admired and revered.

William has chosen different, less traditional kinds of challenges than his brothers. But to us, sitting in a circle and listening to him, he seemed just as brave and composed as the bravest of the lion hunters.

For who can say what courage it takes to leave one’s mother, one’s family and tribe, and go face the strange and unfamiliar world?


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 28, 2010

Girlfriends at the Lake

Posted in Food, Friendships, Knitting, Women tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:56 am by Liliana

Walking Barefoot

Walking Barefoot

I spent last weekend with my sister Branka and four friends at our cottage near Lake Michigan.

If you are wondering what women of our age like to do on these kinds of getaways, I will tell you.

We slept late in the morning, and then sat around in our pajamas, drinking coffee and talking.

Some of us cooked and made wonderful meals: scrambled eggs, toast, cheese and fresh fruit for breakfast; roasted stuffed chicken with roasted potatoes and salad for lunch; leak and potato soup, chili, and salad for dinner.

Some of us baked: Branka made walnut strudel (ahead of time) that lasted throughout the weekend, even though we had some at every meal; Margaret made delicious brownies and brought candles so we could celebrate Ann’s birthday; Ann made an amazingly rich chocolate cake for her own birthday.

We sang “Happy Birthday” to Ann.

We explored an antique store and each found treasures. Branka and Jelena bought earrings; Ann noticed delicate china perfect for her daughter Erin; Martha bough a little porcelain cow creamer for my daughter Nena; Margaret discovered an elegant silk scarf; I came across a milky white pitcher for my dried flower bouquets.

We stopped at the knitting store and I bought some soft orange wool to make a scarf for Branka. Ann started teaching me a new (complicated!) pattern.

In the evening, we went to see “The Social Network” at the old movie theater. After the movie we stayed up late (well past our bedtimes) talking about it, researching the facts, pointing to each other articles on the topic that we liked or disliked.

The next morning, we walked on the beach. The air was hazy, soft and mild, so we took our shoes and socks off and walked barefoot on the sand. For late October, the lake water was remarkably warm. We walked in the sunshine, Ann took photographs, and we talked and laughed. We sat on an old bench to rest. We saw a rainbow.

We had coffee and chocolate cake before getting ready to go home.

On our drive back, we stopped at the roadside market and bought pumpkins and fresh, crispy apples. Jelena bought chestnuts to roast.

Like a squirrel storing nuts, I stockpiled memories of our weekend. When the days get shorter, darker and colder, I will dig them up again.


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 17, 2010


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.


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