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!


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 22, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Posted in Holidays tagged , at 7:59 am by Liliana

First snowfall of the season

First snowfall of the season

Best wishes to everyone for a year full of love, health, strength and compassion.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Iroquois Prayer

Posted in Holidays, Traditions tagged , , , at 8:01 am by Liliana

Iroquois Indian

Iroquois Indian

We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us.

We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water.

We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases.

We return thanks to the moon and stars, which have given to us their light when the sun was gone.

We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.

Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in Whom is embodied all goodness, and Who directs all things for the good of Her children.


September 8, 2010

Extreme Weather

Posted in Holidays, Weather tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:17 pm by Liliana

Extreme Weather

Extreme Weather

My family and I spent last week at our cottage near Lake Michigan. It was a relaxing, quiet week.

The first few days were hot and humid. The lake water was warm and I spent hours swimming or walking on the beach.  I tried reading but the heat was oppressive and all I wanted to do was nap. I sat or lay in the sun and went in and out of sleep. It was hard to imagine that any other kind of weather had ever enveloped this lake. Summer heat was the only reality we knew.

On Thursday evening there was a large and violent storm. The rain poured out of water-logged skies. Thunder shook our cottage and lightening illuminated the windows. Curtains manically danced in the wind as did papers, books and anything caught in the breeze.

I am not afraid of storms, in fact I love them. But this storm was so powerful and out of control, it made me uneasy. I stayed awake for a long time, keeping vigil over my family.

As we slowly started moving around the cottage the following morning, we seemed to have entered an entirely new season. The house was cold. Not a little cold, not just a bit chilly, but brisk in a way we have not had a chance to get accustomed to. I pulled on a pair of pants, a sweatshirt and a sweater. Nena put on a pair of her softest, warmest socks.

Sam suggested that we turn on the heat. It seemed to me a preposterous idea to turn the heat on when only the day before we were bemoaning the fact that our cottage had no air-conditioning. But finally, I relented. We turned the thermostat to sixty eight and right away, we all felt more comfortable. We spent the day inside, on couches, under blankets, reading and watching movies.

I cannot remember that I have ever witnessed such a sudden transition of extremes. It’s hard to know how to interpret all these changes.


August 29, 2010

Long, Hot, Busy Summer

Posted in Holidays tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 3:53 pm by Liliana

Walking by the lake

Walking by the lake

This has not been a summer to sit in the hammock and relax – not for my family, nor for me.

It has been a wonderful, eventful and adventurous summer.

But it has not been the kind of summer I have always idealized – long, lazy days of idling, reading, talking, napping, cooking, swimming, thinking. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had that kind of summer since I was seventeen years old. But I always have it in the back of my mind, a vision to relish and idealize.

These are some of the things we did do this summer:

I am sure that I am forgetting something, but right now, I can’t think of anything else.

The fact is, I am on vacation this week. I am at our cottage near Lake Michigan, relaxing and idling to my heart’s content.

This is how I hope to spend the time.

  • Sitting on the front porch for hours, drinking coffee and looking at the birds pecking seeds from the bird feeder.
  • Walking by the lake in the early mornings or at sunset.
  • Swimming in the warm lake water.
  • Talking to my daughter about the newest books she’s read and the latest songs she’s been singing.
  • Reading.
  • Buying fresh produce at the farmer’s market.
  • Cooking something new and unexpected.
  • Congregating at the long dining table with my family, eating a beautiful meal.
  • Talking.
  • Watching a good movie at the old movie theater, eating tons of popcorn.
  • Walking to our favorite ice cream store on a hot afternoon. Eating nothing but coconut ice cream.

Happy Summer to all!


July 28, 2010

The Old and the New

Posted in Family, Holidays, Serbia, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:46 am by Liliana


The old ways

The village in Serbia where my father grew up is located in a deep valley with tall hills all around. The hills are covered with thick forests.

When I was a child in the 1960’s, there was no paved road to the village. There was an ancient cobblestone pathway that got terribly muddy when it rained and became practically impassable in spring and fall. The only way to get through during those seasons was with a wagon pulled by strong horses.

My father left the village as a young boy, went to school, and spend most of his life living in a big city, where my sister and I grew up. His brother inherited the family house and land and stayed in the village to take care of their parents and be a farmer.

Our father and uncle were close and loved each other but there was always rivalry between them – city against country, new against old, modernity against old customs.

Every Serbian family has a Patron Saint’s day and ours is in October, the rainy, muddy season of the year. Our entire large, extended family would assemble in my uncle’s house and celebrate. It was the biggest event of the year.

The year I was five, 1964, my father bought a car. He was excited to drive it to the Saint’s Day celebration, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t rain and that the roads would be dry. He wanted to display to his brother the industrial superiority of the modern times.

Well, I will never forget how hard it rained as my father, mother, sister and I drove through the thick forest. It poured. The road was thick with mud and pretty soon, the car stopped. My father tried this and that, but the car wouldn’t budge. He tried pushing it, and we got out to help.

Pretty soon, our fancy clothes were wet and muddy, and my sister and I started to cry. Our father knew that it was time to give up.

He left us to sit in the car with our mother and went looking for help. We sat for what seemed like a long time, afraid of the dark, rainy forest. Our mother sang songs to us.

And then we heard the sound of a wagon and joyous voices. Our father was coming back with our uncle, his wagon and two horses.

Our uncle was delighted. Delighted to see us but also delighted to attach the new car to his old horse wagon and pull it into the village.

The family was waiting as we descended into the valley. Everyone was amused to see that the old ways still had their place.

It wouldn’t last. These days everyone in the village has a car. The old cobblestone road is paved.

And no one keeps horses anymore.


July 27, 2010

Queen Ann’s Lace

Posted in Garden, Holidays, Travel tagged , , at 6:52 am by Liliana

Queen Ann's Lace

Queen Ann's Lace

One of my favorite summer bouquets is a simple assortment of Queen Ann’s Lace wildflowers.

These fragile, transparent, soft swirls of white seed were aptly named – they look remarkably like delicate, graceful Victorian lace.

I love to walk in the little wood not far from my house and pick handfuls of Queen Ann’s lace. I know that they won’t last long. But when I bring a bouquet home, and place it in a simple white pitcher, my room is transformed.

I feel like I have taken a brief time-travel holiday into a simpler, less demanding age.


July 11, 2010

I Think I Might Be Winning!!!!!

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Good people, Health, Holidays, Women tagged , , , , , at 7:35 am by Liliana

Cheers to Bridget!

Cheers to Bridget!

It seems like we have been hearing a lot of bad news this year, so I thought it would cheer everyone up to hear some undeniably excellent news.

I wrote recently about a young lady whose spirit and resilience have moved me deeply. Her name is Bridget Spence. She writes a wonderful blog that I recommend you visit often: My Big Girl Pants.

This was her latest post:

“I Think I Might Be Winning!!!!!

I wanted to start everyone’s holiday weekend off on the right foot. Get the champagne out, people. Put away the Big Girl Pants and put on your prettiest pair of Party Pants because I am winning this battle.

That’s right, you heard me. After months of set backs and pain and side effects and trying oh-so-very-hard to keep a smile, I finally got one piece of good news!

Yesterday, my scans showed that the cancer in my liver had SHRUNK!!!!!!!!!

This TDM1 really might be that silver bullet I had hoped for. Now, it isn’t a cure, but it is clearly working.

For the past four years, one liver spot had been there, lurking. It hadn’t changed size or shape in four years. It hadn’t grown, but it certainly hadn’t shrunk. Then, a few months ago, a second little bugger in my liver showed up. The scans yesterday showed that, after only two rounds of TDM1, both tumors had shrunk visibly. One went from 2.8mm to 1.3mm. The other had shrunk from 1.6mm to .8mm.

My Doctor was gleeful and I take my cues from her. I’m not planning for dozens of little pants babies quite yet, but I could have the year of quiet that I had hoped and prayed for. I might even have a couple years of normalcy and quiet. The goal is that these suckers keep shrinking and that the side effects remain manageable. My heart function dropped slightly, but it was still above the 50% mark, so we are not going to worry about that today. I am going to exercise and try to keep the ol’ tinker in Lance Armstrong-style shape so that this drug can continue working its magic.

My cancer had been humming along in my body for the past four years and now it’s been hit with a new drug and it doesn’t know what hit it! Here’s hoping my little silver bullet keeps killing and keeps shrinking. But let’s not hope for too much.

Today, I am going to take this news and stick it in my back pocket. I am going to enjoy a fabulous Fourth of July weekend. Big Man and I are going to let our hair down and let our breath come out in a big sigh of relief. We are going to start planning our futures as all 26 and 30 year olds should do. The world is our oyster today, and I must say, we earned it.


Cheers, dear Bridget! I drank a glass of wine in your honor. I wish you all the best in this world.


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