April 28, 2010


Posted in Children, Family, Health tagged , , , , , , at 7:56 am by Liliana

Nena (one month old) with her grandmother and her mother

Nena (one month old) with her grandmother and her mother

My mother’s illness was difficult for our entire family. The last year of her life, grandma (or ‘baba’ as everyone called her) had to stay in a nursing home. She was too sick to live with us.

My sister and I (sometimes alone and sometimes with our husbands and children) visited baba almost every day. We took her for walks in the sunshine, we sat with her, we fed her, we washed her and cleaned her room. We got to know all the residents of the home and became friends with the nurses. The children would entertain the patients with piano recitals, various games and cupcakes with afternoon teas.

My daughter Nena remembers her baba’s last year in this poem:


For the last year of her life she only walked:

back and forth across the north wing

of the nursing home, so fast she had to wear

a helmet for the times she fell. Her spine

had bent into a curve, a comma or a question

mark, her teeth would clench and sometimes

spit, the skin peeling away from her lips.

My mother wants to know what I remember

about the time before this—New Year’s

parties, pink hair curlers, mink-fur coats.

And my mother and hers and her sister,

down in the laundry, dying their hair

dark colors in turns. My mother would

sing her old songs until she seemed

to sing along, then, scared, my mother

would stop—what I remember

is how she seemed to lose a way to walk

in this world, how her eyes purpled

with the weight of some other.

They said her feet turned blue days before

she died, that she saw faces pale and white

as asphodel in the space around her.

Poem by Natalia Holtzman

April 27, 2010

The Old House

Posted in Family, Health, Home, Serbia, Traditions, Travel, Women tagged , , , at 6:32 am by Liliana

My mother's village

A view from my mother's village across the Danube

My mother was very sick with Alzheimer’s disease the summer of 2001. Her short term memory was mostly gone, she was restless, frightened, paranoid, and never slept. The only thing she wanted, the only thing she could ask for, was to go back to Serbia. She begged me to take her back, and spent hours standing by the front door with her bag in her hand. I promised that we would go.

It took a while to get our papers in order and our passports ready, and then 9/11 happened. The collective breath of the world came to a standstill. My family, together with everyone else, was in shock, reeling from the tragedy, terrified of what was coming next. My mother was oblivious. She looked at me beseechingly and stood by the door, bag in hand. Despite my family’s misgivings, I bought our plane tickets for November.

My mother’s family comes from a small village in Northern Serbia. No one knows for certain when they settled there, but their last name (Rakic) is mentioned in monastery papers dating back to the 13th century. The family land and the house have been passed from generation to generation – every square meter known and cherished by us all.  Despite my mother’s condition, I couldn’t help but hope that her memory would come back (at least a little) when faced with so much that was precious, beloved and familiar.

After a long and difficult flight, we arrived in Belgrade. My mother’s sister, Angelica, and my cousins waited for us at the airport. They cried when they saw us. My mother’s face was chiseled from stone. She looked at them without recognition, without love, without emotion.

A few days later, we drove the three hours to Banoshtar, the family village. It was an overcast, chilly day and the old house felt cold and abandoned when we arrived. No one lived there anymore; my grandparents had died years ago. Wars during the 90’s in that region and throughout the former Yugoslavia had prevented us from visiting for years. Angelica lived in Belgrade and spent summers in the village, but it was November now, and the house felt dead.

While my aunt got busy lighting the stove and preparing a meal, I took my mother’s hand and led her from room to room. In the middle of the veranda stood the large farm table with the bench under the window, green chairs at either end. Flower pots stood on deep window sills with pink and white geraniums still in bloom. The lace curtains my grandmother had made revealed glimpses of the garden. The huge iron key to the front door hung on the nail next to the copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. A large woven basket held firewood for the wood-burning stove.

Hand in hand we went to the small front room. The couch had needlepoint pillows that looked like soft burgundy peonies. The old radio sat in its corner. Pictures of various grandchildren hung randomly on the wall by the window. There was one of me as a thirteen year old girl, my bangs severely trimmed. Everyone said that I looked just like Ann Frank. We walked to the middle parlor with the old cherry wardrobe that held my grandmother’s linens and lace. It still held the dowry from her first marriage. In the back room, the huge doctored picture of my uncle and aunt from their wedding day held the most prominent spot. The photographer didn’t do a very good job and the couple looked strange and haunted. Their likenesses still frightened me.

We descended the steep stairs to the great underground cellar. This cellar was as big as the rest of the house. Dozens of huge wine barrels lined the stone walls. There was still wine in them. Herbs, berries and flowers were drying in every corner, while woven baskets of different sizes nestled by the doors.  Jars of jam, honey and tomato sauce stood neatly lined on rough wooden shelves. My grandfather’s hat and field jacket hung on the hook by the door.

I buried my face in that old jacket as the memory of my grandfather overwhelmed me. As I cried, like a child – loudly, tears flowing, my chest heaving with sighs, I thought I could smell my grandfather and feel his presence. I sat on the steps and hugged that jacket, forgetting the world and losing myself in my grief. When I looked up, my mother wasn’t there. Frightened, I ran up the steps and through the house. She stood by the front door, peeking through the glass. She held her bag under her arm and looked at me, ready to go.