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!


December 6, 2010

Change of Season

Posted in Home, Weather tagged , , , , , at 7:52 am by Liliana

First Snowflakes

First Snowflakes

This has been an unsettlingly mild autumn for our part of the country.

There were days of incessant rain and overcast skies, but also mild temperatures and an abundance of sunny, golden afternoons.

The leaves change color to deep yellows and burgundies and fall to the ground. Sometimes while taking Kaya on a walk, I squint my eyes, and my street shimmers like an impressionist painting.

Early in November, I bring in my potted plants and find them comfortable winter residence on window sills and shelves in various parts of the house. But, it isn’t until the middle of the month that we have our first night frost.

Then on December first, winter comes. Overnight. One day it is fall, the next day we all know that the seasons have changed.

As I walk out of the house, sporadic snowflakes fall out of the dark gray early morning sky. The air feels rarefied, jagged and sparkling. I take a deep breath and exhale. Steam comes out of my mouth. Just for fun, I huff again.

Now, when I return home on a cold winter afternoon, I feel my house embracing me in its comforting, protective fold.

Meteorologists predict a very cold, snowy winter this year in Michigan.


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 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 8, 2010

The Pink House

Posted in Home tagged , , , , , , , at 7:17 pm by Liliana

The Pink House

The Pink House

My family and I have been living in the same house for eighteen years. It is a good house and suits us well. The square footage of the house is not extravagant, but it has many rooms so each family member has a quiet, private niche. The house is full of colors that we love, colors that make us comfortable and happy.

Our dinning room is terra cota red, the living room is sea foam gray, the kitchen light green. My bedroom is dusty blue, the guest room sunrise yellow. We have adapted the space to suit our needs and made this house thoroughly our own.

I remember the first time Jeff and I saw the house.

When the real estate agent stopped in front of the building, Jeff didn’t want to come out of the car. Not because it was dilapidated or haunted looking. No, the house was in excellent shape, well cared for. But it was completely pink. Pepto-Bismol pink. In cold, dark, overcast Midwestern atmosphere, as close to Canada as one can get, the house stood out. And not in an agreeable way.

It did not fit the climate, the town or the neighborhood. And to put it simply, the house was ugly.

Its outside appearance was only the beginning.

Of course I made Jeff go inside. I was curious.

The inside was also a sea of pink. Every room was either painted deep pink or had heavy, pink vinyl wallpaper. The ceilings were pink. The kitchen counter was pink. The appliances and the ceramic tiles were avocado green. As were the heavy carpets that covered every inch of floor space.

The house had many rooms, big windows, and elegantly proportioned living spaces. Under the carpets, we were told that hardwood floors were hiding. I knew there was potential. And I also knew that we could get it for a good price. Who else was foolish enough to buy a house this bizarre?

Jeff was nervous. It was hard for him to see beyond the ostentatious colors. And he was worried that with three young kids (one of whom was a baby) we just didn’t have the time to take on so much work. He asked me if I could live with these colors. I said I could.

I thought I could.

But once we actually moved in, I couldn’t take it. I didn’t feel comfortable in these rooms. And I was terribly embarrassed every time we had visitors.

So one day that November, eighteen years ago, two weeks after we moved in, my mother, sister and I, set to work. We attacked the living room first, then one room after another. We pealed wallpaper, pulled down faux-marbled mirror panels, painted walls and cabinets, stripped the carpets. We painted everything white, not because it is my favorite color, but because I needed a clean slate. It took months to get rid of the pink walls, and years to get rid of all evidence of what the house once was.

That first summer, we had the exterior painted a light gray. Our neighbors came over and thanked us gratefully.


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.


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


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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