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?


July 20, 2010


Posted in Family, Friendships, Home, Women tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:42 am by Liliana

Sisters - dressed for Halloween

Sisters - dressed for Halloween

My sister and her family are living in our house this year while my brother-in-law attends graduate school.

We have been together for a couple of months now, and all has gone well.

Still, Branka and I are very different people. She is outgoing, gregarious, in constant need of company. I need a lot more quiet time. Spending a few hours at night reading in my room, is for me, both a mental and a physical necessity.

I think my sister was counting on having me around more. Last night, when we were taking our evening walk with Kaya, she mentioned that she had forgotten about my need for solitude. After all, we have not lived together for a very long time.

I felt a bit sad and guilty, anxious that I was neglecting my little sister. I tried to explain. I get my energy from burrowing deeply within myself while meditating on the thoughts and writings of others. Branka sustains her energy from personally interacting with others, understanding their needs and finding solutions to their problems.

Surely there is a place for each of us in this world.

May 21, 2010

Spring Onions

Posted in Family, Food, Garden, Home tagged , , , , , , at 6:55 am by Liliana

Onion Seedlings

Onion Seedlings

Our house looks the same from the outside, but on the inside it is filling up with inhabitants.

My niece, Nicky, has been with us for a few weeks now, and Branka and Joe finally moved in a few days ago. They kept delaying moving in, always finding one excuse or another. For Branka especially, it was a difficult step. She and Joe have painted, fixed and polished their own house to perfection, and now it will be rented out to strangers. Branka’s flowers are blooming in every corner of their extensive yard, overflowing in containers and surrounding the old trees. And then, there is the plot for the vegetable garden.

Every spring, my sister has planted a bountiful vegetable garden: onions, peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, cucumbers and all kinds of other treasures. At dinner time, she would run out and see what was ready for picking. One never knew what surprises her salad would contain.

But this spring the vegetable plot was bare and the rich soil sat idle. I know it hurt my sister to see that wasted sunny spot, just waiting for life.

Last week, Branka told me that she had gone to the farmer’s market and bought some onion seedlings. I was surprised. But she had found a solution to her garden dilemma. She planted those onion seedlings for her new tenants. She started her garden. And then, she was ready to hand her house over to the new occupants and move in with us.

March 26, 2010

Family Life

Posted in Children, Cleaning, Family, Home, Pets tagged , , at 7:05 am by Liliana

Joe, Branka, Jeff, Liliana - 1982

Joe, Branka, Jeff, Liliana - 1982

My sister and I are married to two brothers.

Jeff and I met first. I was in graduate school in St. Louis, his hometown, and one of my roommates introduced us. We were married a year later. His younger brother, Joe, was the best man at our wedding. My younger sister, Branka, was the maid of honor. The younger siblings danced at the wedding and seemed to like each other, but they were both in college and in other relationships. Three years later Branka (then a high school teacher) spent her summer vacation with us. She and Joe (a public radio DJ at the time) went to movies, jazz concerts and walks by the Mississippi River. By August, they were engaged.

Over the years, we have mostly lived in close proximity to each other. Our Siberian Huskies (Bella and Silver) were sisters. Our children are close in age and devoted to each other. Nena and Sasha attend the same college. Nicole and Sam share teenage angst and have double dates. Mike teases them all indiscriminately.

Now that Joe will be losing his job in May, the closeness of our families will be tested even more. Joe has decided to go back to school, get his MA and become a high school English and French teacher. To make this plan possible, they have chosen to rent out their house, and move in with us. Our house is fairly spacious, but we’ll have to organize the space carefully, so that everyone has the privacy they need.

For the last month we have been preparing Joe and Branka’s house for renters. Everyone has been doing their part: painting, cleaning, moving furniture, fixing things that were broken, preparing food for the workers, etc. Sasha and Nicole have expressed sadness about leaving their childhood home, but really, for the most part all of us have been upbeat. We are excited about Joe going back to school and doing what he loves. We are happy that we have each other to help now that the need has arisen. It won’t be easy, we all know that. Some of us are very private, some very extroverted, but we are all willing to find a balance and make it work.

You might remember my sister’s dining room table. Well, it is now in my dining room and will stay there until Joe and Branka are ready to move to another place. No one thought for a second that the table could be left behind. We took our set to the basement and my sister’s Amish table and chairs are again the hearth of our family get-togethers.

March 17, 2010

Learning to Listen

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Children, Family, Health, Women tagged , , , , , at 7:06 am by Liliana


Learning to Listen

Recently, I read a blog posting from a mother whose young daughter has breast cancer. She sounded like a loving and supportive mother, and her writing touched me deeply.

She wrote about the comfort we receive from being listened to. Sometimes, she said, her daughter wanted to talk about her deepest fears:  her fear of death, her fear of leaving her little son behind, her fear of illness and pain. In each case, the mother tried to make her daughter feel better, to reassure her, to dismiss her fears. At the time, she believed that was the best thing she could do for the daughter she loved more than herself.

Now, though, she believes that she would behave differently. She would let her daughter speak without interruption, without trying to find reassurance or an answer or a solution. There are no answers or solutions; both women knew that. How liberating would it be for both to acknowledge that fact and talk about what worried them most?

I remember a time when I was very sick and had no idea of what the future held for me and my family. My sister was driving me back from a chemo session and I felt particularly miserable and vulnerable. “What are you afraid of most,” she asked me? I told her about my worries – mostly that I couldn’t imagine how my husband and children would survive without me. She listened for a long time. “Don’t worry” she said. “Everything will be fine because if you are not here, I will stay behind to take care of them all.”

What a relief to hear her say that! She didn’t tell me that I would be fine, that chemo would work, that I would live to be ninety years old. She didn’t tell me those things because she didn’t know. The only thing she knew was that she would be there for my family if I weren’t around. She was honest.

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.