Angels and Names

My mother-in-law, Nada, which means hope in the Slavic languages, has an odd method of naming her children.

My husband and her oldest son, Ljubomir, meaning Loves Peace has always been called Mickey, after her favorite horse. The second son, Dragomir or Dearest Peace is called Dutz by the family and something like Dragon-mire by Americans, which pretty much suits his personality. Dutz got his name because when he tried to call the cat, ‘Matz’, it came out Dutz.

Nely, the youngest came about her name in a more dramatic fashion. Nada had always wanted a daughter and went so far as to keep Dutz’s hair long far longer than she should have. When she got pregnant for the third time, she regularly prayed that it be a girl.

One night she dreamt that an angel of light came to her and announced that the child would indeed be a girl and that she should be named Rosemary.

In the morning, Nada, clasping her hands together fervently, exclaimed,Dear God, thank you for answering my prayers but I cannot name my child Rosemary. I hate that name. I want to name her Nely.’ And so it was.

As a postscript, when Nely [ a Realtor by profession], heard Nada telling me this story she added, ‘God wanted me to be the next Mother Theresa but because of Nada, I’m Nely, and I’m here to sell your house.’

Psychological Boogers

My sister, Layla, is the sort of person who would be a starving artist if it wasn’t for my mother. They live together and refer to all their activities as –we did this and we did that.

I never understood Layla’s reluctance to give up her childhood, since it was a particularly unhappy one. And also, because in her own way, she is rather brilliant. But most of the time she lives in her own world, which I suppose is true of all gifted, artistic people. Once I came to her house and saw something hanging off the ceiling over the stove.

I forgot I had hard boiled eggs on until I heard the explosion,’ she explained following my gaze.

Often, when she gets frustrated with life, she takes to organizing. This starts with a robust culling of her papers, some of which she has been saving since college, and ends with q-tips soaked in a bleach solution run over obscure corners in the woodwork.

Afterward, my mother complains that she can’t find a thing. This doesn’t worry me since she can’t find anything anyway. Last night she told me that she finally found Cousin Gordana’s phone number in Belgrade. It had been missing for just over a year. Why it wasn’t properly inserted in the Rolodex, I’ll never know.

Once Layla and I were in London, and she was macerating her nose with a hankie for about ten minutes straight. Irritated, I exclaimed, ‘Stop it, there’s nothing up there.’ To which she replied, ‘I have a psychological booger.’

I do hope that she will one day leave home, though. To that end I pressured her to go on J-date, the Jewish dating service. She is tall, dark and beautiful and I knew that she would get a lot of hits based on her looks alone.

She put up a lovely photograph of herself wearing a head scarf of her own design. Under religion there was no category for mother’s remote ancestors were converts to Christianity, so she put Orthodox, meaning Eastern Orthodox, the nominal religion of my father’s parents. However the head scarf must have been the deal killer because so far no one has shown any interest in dating a young Jewish Orthodox widow.

My mother really shouldn’t encourage her dependence, but she does mean well. An inveterate fashonista she buys all of Layla’s clothes. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to get the rejects.

Want it, Lil? she asks holding up a seven thousand dollar Armani coat she got for three hundred. ‘Of course, I do!’ I say with delight.

Recently, we were listening to the Christmas station on our drive home from a lengthy luncheon date, which mother insists on paying for, since her children are broke. Hearing a silky smooth voice, I ask Layla, ‘Who is that singer?’

Johnny Mathis,’ my sister replies.

No!’ its my mother weighing in from the back seat, where she is buried beneath her mink coat. ‘It is Kenneth, Kenneth Cole’ she says. And so it is.

People, I’m on the roof!

My mother’s friend Rose is sort of eccentric. Since her husband Branko died she hasn’t been able to sleep in the bedroom. And so she spends her nights in the living room on two seater sofa, for which she is much too tall, and which she regularly falls off of, especially when she is visited by Branko’s ghost.

Rose had grown up in a wealthy family, and although not particularly extravagant, appreciates the finer things in life. To that end she prays to Branko’s ghost to send her winning lottery numbers.

One night he appeared and gave her the numbers. She promptly rolled off the sofa and wrote them down. For two years she played those numbers and, finally exasperated, gave up only to find that they had won several millions for someone else a few days later.

Branko was a chemist and the epitome of a mad scientist down to the oversize sweater and the messy gray hair. He was so absent minded that once it took him fifteen minutes to remember he had left Rose at a gas station after he drove off while she was in the washroom.

Shortly after Branko had bypass surgery, Rose decided to fix something on the roof by herself. As she was about to climb down, the ladder fell to the ground. Through the skylight she could see Branko moving around below but was afraid of shocking him into a heart attack and so did nothing until she noticed some people walking in her direction.

People, I am on the roof!’ she shouted, only to see them quickly scurry to the other side of the street. English was her second language, and it never occurred to her to say that she was stuck on the roof.

All in all she spent two hours up there shouting, ‘I’m on the roof,’ like a madwoman at all by-passers who would avert their eyes and ignore her. Finally, her kind neighbors came home, and realizing she really was stranded on the roof, rescued her.

Branko, it seems, thought that she was out shopping. Where else could she have been, he wondered aloud.

Time of the Gypsies

My father’s mother had six sons. The oldest, Mile, died as a teen-ager of tuberculosis exacerbated by malnutrition during the world wide depression of the nineteen-thirties.

Alex, a royalist, was tortured and killed by partisans after he laid down his weapons at the funeral of a communist kinsman, during the Second World War.

The third son, Micha, my grandmother’s favorite, a colonel in the Yugoslav army lost his nerve in the notorious Banyitsa prison after the Germans could no longer afford to keep prisoner of war camps open for our soldiers. He spent the rest of his life self-medicating with prodigious amounts of alcohol and work, hard enough to maintain two families apart from his legitimate one.

The fourth son, Zhika, was born with his eyes wide open and weighing twelve pounds. During the war Zhika was taken off the road to fight on the Royalist side and only deserted after he was forced to shoot a captured Partisan woman. She wanted him to do it. She knew what would happen to her if he didn’t. He was recaptured by the reds and put in Banjitsa where he was saved from execution by the communist general, Zhivanchevich, who recognized him as the brother of his son’s best friend.

That friend was my father, Boshko, the youngest. Between Zhika and Boshko was Sreten who was taken into forced labor in Germany at the age of thirteen and made his way to America after the war.

I loved my uncles very much. They were brilliant, hilarious, affectionate, and great cooks which probably contributed to their appeal. It was only later that I realized how spectacularly handsome they were. Looking back on photos that were taken of them as young men, I can say that they put the likes of Paul Newman and Errol Flynn to shame.

But this story is about Zhika. They called him the genius and although the war had interrupted his formal education he not only read every book my father brought home from school, but exhibited a singular facility for resolving difficult solutions, in an unusually ingenious manner.

When he returned from the war, his clothing in shreds and with no opportunity to buy others, he realized he was missing out on the great business opportunities going down on the gray and black markets. He brooded for two days before he hit on the solution and, seizing an army blanket, proceeded to cut and sew a suit on my grandmother’s Singer sewing machine. The trousers were a bit short, but he got his chance and many more. Years afterward he owned one of the most successful agricultural export companies in Belgrade.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In Old Yugoslavia, the gypsies or Roma as they prefer to be called, followed traditional occupations such as horse trading, black smithing, fixing pots and sharpening knives and, of course, playing music. The women supplemented the family income by house-cleaning, fortune telling and begging. All in all, they got along and were free to pursue the life that they loved, that of the open road.

However, there was one tribe, the Chergashi, whom everybody feared. The reason for that was that they stole children for the express purpose of setting them to begging. The unfortunate children would be maimed or blinded to evoke public sympathy and often their tongues would be cut out so that they could never tell their true story.

But people were prudent and would keep their children indoors whenever the Chergashi would pass.

My grandmother, once a rich man’s daughter had sold her family farm and was living in the town of Arandjelovac [Archangel] where she ran a dress making concern and later an inn.

On the day in question, her husband was sleeping off a hangover, one of many, mostly continuous, acquired after the First World War. We didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was then or how people coped by self-medicating but since a third of all of our men were killed in that terrible war, he must have had a profound longing to obliterate his pain.

Grandmother, like all of the townspeople, had heard by word of mouth that the Chergashi would be passing through that day. She locked her children inside the house and after giving them dire warnings went off to attend to business. When she returned the smaller children informed her that Zhika had slipped through an open window and run off. Just at that moment her cousin arrived for a visit on what must have been one of the first racing motorbikes in Yugoslavia and gave chase, catching up to the Chergashi many miles down the road. After the usual threats failed, bribes were exchanged, my uncle, hidden in the caravan, was returned home.

My grandmother, on the edge of reason, delighted to see that her son was still intact, proceeded to beat the tar out of him with a mixture of relief and exasperation. Afterward, looking for revenge, Zhika pulled down his short pants and sat in a cauldron of stew that she had left to cool, thus ruining the meal.

My mother never liked stories like that. She was the kind of person who brought stray animals and stray people home. She liked to give the gypsies as much business as she could. Radha the Gypsy was her cleaning woman and came by for fortune telling and Turkish coffee whenever she was in town.

One day as Radha was washing the windows, my mother slipped off her diamond ring while helping out and left it on the ledge. Interrupted by the telephone, she walked out of the room. I saw Radha snatch the ring up and tuck it into a leather pouch which hung under her many colored skirts. She gave me a sharp look, and I knew that she would probably turn me into a toad if I snitched, so I said nothing then nor when my father began raging that evening. My mother defended Radha as long as she could, and then she said, ‘She’s a poor gypsy woman, if she didn’t steal how else would she be able to feed her children?’