November 20, 2010

Earliest Memories

Posted in Children, Family, Serbia, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 9:46 am by Liliana

Me - two years old

Me - two years old. Nena thinks I resemble a little alien.

My memories are frequently unreliable, mercurial.

They are not rock-like and immovable like granite, but fluid and restless like silk.

They are not to be trusted. Especially those early, childhood memories.

Still, I hold on to them like a child holds on to a beloved mother. Some I cherish, tend to and caress. I find solace and support in them. When I revisit them, every once in a while, I hope that they will be familiar, recognizable. Not too altered.

Someone recently asked me what my earliest memory was. I thought and thought and came to a moment that I hadn’t visited in a very long time.

I journeyed in my mind to a time when I was little, not even two years old. I know this was my approximate age, because my sister was not born yet, and I was twenty two months old when she was born.

My mother, father and I had gone to visit my father’s family in the little Serbian village where they had lived for generations. It was wintertime. My father was wearing a large, soft suede jacket. He had placed me on his chest, buttoned up the jacket and there I was lying, quiet as a mouse, hiding.

My grandfather, my grandmother, my uncles, everyone there, came out to greet us and were asking where I was. Everyone pretended that they didn’t know and went along with game.

“Where is Lilia?” they asked. “We left her back in Belgrade,” my mother and father said.

I lay quietly on my father’s chest, listening to the ticking of his heart, pleased that no one knew that I was there. I was elated to have tricked them all.

But then I became sad. Inconsolably sad. I started to believe that my parents had really left me in Belgrade. I thought of myself all alone in our house while my parents visited the family in the village.

I felt very sorry for myself. How could my parents leave me behind?

I started to wail.

My father unbuttoned the jacket and took me out. Everyone gathered around me, shouting “Here is Lilia, she has not been left behind after all!”

And while my family embraced me, kissed me, passed me from hand to hand, delighted in my presence, I gave a great sigh of relief.

How glorious to be among them, not to be left behind!

June 10, 2010

Mark Twain and I

Posted in Books, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:19 am by Liliana

Mark Twain and I

Mark Twain and I

From my earliest childhood, I loved to read. My favorite memories are of sitting in some dark, snug corner, straining my eyes, losing myself in a reality very different from my own. Any book, comic, pamphlet, magazine – anything with words or pictures (or both) – was fair game.

I don’t know how old I was when I first discovered Mark Twain. It was love at first sight. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn became my favorite people in the entire world. I loved the mischief, the humor, the danger, the exotic atmosphere of the land that I knew nothing about. I loved the English names of the people and curious words like Mississippi and Missouri. I loved the sense of adventure.

Years passed. My parents, sister and I traveled to the US and I went to college in New York City. I moved on to other writers and other worlds. I hardly thought of Mark Twin in those days.

But during my senior year of college, while deciding where to go to graduate school, a professor suggested St. Louis, Missouri. And that word, Missouri, brought with it a flood of memory. I applied, was accepted and got a scholarship. All the stars were aligned just right for me to travel westward, and I decided to get my degree there and then move back to Yugoslavia.

The first month in St. Louis I met a young man named Jeff.  We went to movies, theater and poetry readings. We talked about philosophy and argued about Nietzsche and Heidegger for hours.

But the way he won my heart was by suggesting, on a whim of a moment, in a middle of an ordinary school day, that I miss my Milton class and that we drive the couple of hours to Hannibal, Missouri. This is the town where Mark Twain lived as a boy and where he set two of his most famous books.

Jeff had a very old, ugly and beat up yellow car that he called – the frog. We drove the frog down the banks of the Mississippi and I looked out in wonder. Here I was and this world was real. Mississippi. We walked all over the small town of Hannibal and it seemed frozen in time. It was touristy, and tacky, but I loved it. The old houses were small, the rooms miniature and childlike – fitting for memories of a young girl. We ate fried trout at the Becky Thatcher diner. We had ice cream in the Tom Sawyer ice cream parlor.

I never made it back to Yugoslavia.

February 22, 2010

Memories From My Childhood

Posted in Children, Serbia tagged , at 6:45 am by Liliana

Memories from my childhood

Memories from my childhood

  • Skipping  to school in new, red leather shoes on a warm spring morning – the soles make most pleasant sounds against the sidewalk.
  • Sledding in winter from the hill above our house; hands frozen; running into the house and holding my hands over a warm, wood burning stove; unbelievable pain; crying.
  • No eclectic power in our house on blackout evenings; lighted candles; stories; magical shadows on the walls.
  • Pressed blue school uniform; new crochet lace collar my mother made; fist fight with my best friend; torn lace collar; face dirty from dust and tears.
  • Two dolls; one old and beat up, with a hole cut in her mouth; the other new and untouched; both named Rose.
  • Climbing the cherry tree in our yard with my sister; picking  big, red, sweet cherries; eating some; ornamenting ourselves by making earrings, necklaces, crowns with others.
  • Running very fast down the hill on a warm spring evening; two older cousins holding my hands; flying.

February 10, 2010

My Sister’s Table

Posted in Family, Home, Traditions tagged , , at 7:49 am by Liliana

Family table

Family table

My sister and I grew up in an extended, old European  family where togetherness was a central component of existence. We spent most summers with our grandparents in a small village in Serbia, and daily interactions revolved around a large dining table set on a breezy veranda. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors – people of different generations – anyone from the village – spent time there together.

We ate meals together, had coffee and cake, played cards, listened to stories and argued about politics. Many evenings my grandmother’s friends arrived and tried out new knitting or lace-making patterns. My grandfather’s war buddies came to share stories of old adventures and drink a glass (or two) of plum brandy. The mailman stopped by every day to deliver mail, have a cup of coffee and a glass of brandy, and tell us the news of the village. I spent hours reading Tolstoy while Branka played with dolls under the table and grandfather stopped me to repeat what battle strategies Napoleon employed.  If a Serbian dance (kolo) played on the radio, whoever was at the table would get up, join hands and dance with the music.

My sister Branka wanted to recreate that kind of life for our own families, here in the U.S., and she started with the table. She ordered a dinning set from a fine Amish craftsman; it appealed to her that a cabinetmaker would care so much about his handiwork, that he would make something lasting and beautiful. The table and chairs that arrived were one of a kind. The wood was oak, inlaid with a cherry design. There were four leaves, so a large group of people could sit around it comfortably. The chairs were massive, comfortable and stately. It was the kind of set one leaves for future generations.

My sister couldn’t recreate the summers spent on that old veranda in Serbia with her Amish table. But many of the same activities take place here and now. We eat many of the same meals that our family cherished. We drink coffee and eat cake. Our children tell us their plans for the future and we spend hours arguing about politics and about Tolstoy. Our friends get together and we knit and quilt and compare stories. The magic of the old table is still there. That Amish wood-worker knew what he was doing.