Driver’s Education

America has always had a love affair with the open road. I suppose that once upon a time ago, though as recently as the nineteen- fifties, that love was equated with limitless horizons and abundant opportunities. Personally, I like to be driven, so that I can nap.

My driving has improved over the years, but initially I had to spend six months in driver’s education instead of the usual six weeks before my teacher Mr. Lovelace, or as he pronounced it, Luvlahss, okayed my driver’s permit. It seemed I had poor reflexes. Fortunately, Lovelace had a brake pedal on his side of the car as well, which he put to good use one day when I pulled into the parking lot at school and proceeded straight toward a lamppost. He made all sorts of squawking noises, unable to articulate the obvious fact that we were about to crash. Finally, he remembered the break, and we squealed to a halt.

‘Did yew naht see thaht laymppost?’ he asked, exasperated, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his skinny neck.

‘Apparently not,’ I replied calmly. Mike Ryan, my childhood companion, who used to come to my lessons just for the laughs was rolling around in the backseat, in stitches at this point.

My skills didn’t improve much, and when I went to take my drivers test, my ever pragmatic father said, ‘Why don’t you wear your red shirt, the one with the scooped neck.’ Good thing that I did, since I blew the first stop sign. The driving tester, immersed in investigating the clutch which gave him an advantageous look out post, never noticed and didn’t even make me parallel park, something I still haven’t quite mastered.

Fortunately both of my husbands were/ are terrific drivers, so I don’t really sweat much over this. Although unlike them, I have remained accident free with one exception. When I was about nineteen years old my mother, a few friends and I  were headed to the ballet. We lived on a busy street, though our house was set back far on the lot. However, it was sometimes tricky to pull out in traffic particularly when big hair was in fashion, since anyone sitting next to the driver would have obscured the view. We were in a rush, and my mother said to me, ‘Go now.’ I have since realized that it is good policy to do the exact opposite of what she says, but then I was still an obedient daughter. Pulling out, I managed to crash right into the future Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.

‘Leel, let me take care of dis,’ my mother said, getting out of the car. I suppose back in the day, one was not required to call the police and remain on the scene, and so she convinced ‘Meester Reechard’ to take her insurance card and call her the following Monday, since we were running late. Actually he was pretty nice about the whole thing. This might have been right around the time she was driving herself shopping and trying to back out of her spot in the mall parking lot, managed to ram the three cars parked behind her. I had to go to the police station to plead her case after she was picked up, but I can’t recall this at all since I clearly blocked the whole thing out. She claims the cop couldn’t take his eyes off me, and she got off easily, promising her insurance would cover all damages.

Nowadays, my driving is pretty good since Mickey often admonishes me to be brave and drive like a Serb [ which I suppose is somewhat like an Italian with an even more salacious vocabulary], and I wheel myself, family and friends about in my chariot, a twenty three year old Mercedes, which I adore. However, this was not always my dream car. That place will always be held by the Jaguar xk-e, in forest green, which I first laid eyes on when a divorcée named Jane moved into the neighborhood in 1969. Jane was about thirty-five and had a Jean Shrimpton look going on. She had the hair, the clothes and of course the eye-make-up. Soon she took up with my friend Margaret’s older brother, who was back from the war and no doubt had plenty of youthful energy to expend. Jane was a very nice person and indulged me by giving me rides around the block occasionally.

When Leo was making tons of money he decided to buy me a car, though we lived in the heart of the city, and I had no use for one. Asking my preference, he immediately overrode it, saying, ‘The Jaguar has an atrocious repair record.’ So he had me accompany him to the Loeber Motors showroom where I was to pick something sensible and Germanic. Of course, when we got there, Leo’s megalomania kicked in as soon as he spotted a very lightly used Rolls -Royce.

‘Do you want it, Mado?’ he asked, while the obviously excited salesman beamed at him.

Now the Rolls-Royce, as you all probably know, is tailored to fit a tall and skinny Englishman; the seats are high, the steering wheel thin, the windshield, narrow. I looked it over and innocently remarked, ‘There’s really not a lot of leg room in back, is there?’ The salesman, crushed, sniffed, ‘Madame, one doesn’t buy a Rolls-Royce for the legroom.’

My mother’s bewildered comment on the situation was, ‘ Leel, you rrrr the frrrst woman who ever turned down Rolls-Royce.’ Later, I was to turn down some of the most expensive real estate in Chicago as well, which would have secured me financially for life, but that is another story

Motherly Love

My mother-in-law, whom we all call Baki, or little granny, grew up in a family of girls. She always longed for daughters and never quite mastered the fact that boys are different and have a need to run around and expend their energy. Now at ninety, her mind is going, she’ll often say to me, ‘ Lilitsa, you are so pretty. You were always my favorite friend.’ Then glancing over at her son, Mickey, she’ll add, ‘But I don’t know who that terrible man is.’

Mickey and his brother Dutz’s childhood memories are replete with Baki’s hysterics and drama. Baki was a master of the fine Serbian art of verbal child abuse. I don’t know how well this reads in translation, but I’ll pass on to you dear reader, some of her gems.

As a warning, ‘You’ll be gathering up your teeth once I get hold of you’, ‘I’ll snap your spine’, ‘I’ll claw out your eyes, or your liver’ [ depending on her mood], ‘I’ll bloody your snout’, ‘I’ll beat you like an ox’, ‘I’ll bury you’ and ‘When I get hold of you, not even God will be able to help you.’

As a lament, ‘It’s all riding on my back’, ‘I’m as tortured as a grub’, ‘Everything hurts’,

‘You children will drive me to an insane asylum’ and the universal, ‘I have nothing to wear’.

As a curse, ‘May the dogcatcher copulate with you’, ‘Go and croak’, and ‘May your head burst like a gourd’.

Later in life, she claimed that raising children had been her greatest joy. Her three children, however, managed to produce one grandchild, which shows how enamored they were of family life.

Of course, the abuse was not all one sided, and Mickey and Dutz did get back at her occasionally. Once when Dutz was around twelve years old he fashioned an explosive device, called a burglar alarm, to the door and jamb of the back porch. He then began shouting, ‘Mom, maaahhhm, mahawm,’ as if he was pinned under a truck. Baki, hearing him and thinking he really was in trouble, rushed down the stairs as fast as her legs would carry her. When she opened the door to get out to the backyard, the device exploded in her face, sending her into shock. Dutz’s mirth was short lived because as soon as she recovered, she beat the hell out of him.

When Mickey was about twenty or so and still studying architecture, he decided to play a prank on her. He had his drawings rolled up in a corner, standing vertically, close to his drafting table. As he was working, he saw a very large spider let itself down on its string and make its way behind the drawings. He excitedly shouted, ‘There’s a huge spider in my room!’ Alarmed, Baki, Dutz and Nely ran to see what the fuss was about. He told them about the spider and Baki said, ‘So kill it.’ Mickey replied that he was an arachnophobe and too scared to do the job himself. Baki, although terrified of insects, decided to take matters into her own hands. She cautiously approached the corner and pulled back one of the rolls of drawings, peering behind it. As she did so, Mickey shot her hand with a well aimed rubber band. Thinking she had been bitten, she screamed and fell onto the floor, only realizing it had been a trick when she saw her kids laughing their heads off.

Nowadays, she is too old to manage on her own and lives with her favorite child, Nely, who often says, ‘I guess I have to pay for that privilege.’

We should have realized her mind was turning when, upon discovering that Nely and Sam had gotten matching tattoos, she decided to teach them a lesson by mooning them, ‘How’s that for a tattoo?’ she asked. Since then, it’s been one thing after another.

Recently Nely was painting the family room and fell off the ladder. She was stunned for a few moments and remained lying on the floor. Baki scurried up, wondering, ‘What fell?’

‘I fell, Baki,’ Nely explained. Baki replied, ‘I know Nely, but what fell?’

Since my father- in -law died, Baki has taken to ripping up all photographs of him. No one can figure out what this means since apparently they really did love each other. Nely has taken the precaution of hiding all the remaining photos from her. Somehow she managed to find them and Nely catching her in the act demanded, ‘Why are you ripping up pictures of my father?’ Baki took one look at her and calmly replied, ‘He’s not your father,’ and went back to work on her mission.

Another time, Nely was pleased to see Baki had taken an interest in food and had made a sandwich for herself. ‘What are you eating, Baki?’ she asked. Baki replied, ‘Something very special and delicious.’ Nely, curious, insisted on seeing for herself. As she peered between the two slices of bread, she discovered a large piece of cherry pie.

Nely says, ‘I don’t mind feeding her, dressing her, bathing her or even finding her used Depends in my pillow case. But does she really need to kiss a picture of Mickey and Dutz every night and say that they are her only, dearest, darling children?’

Dancing Disasters

Like many little Slavic girls, I dreamt of being a ballerina. I do have wonderfully supple feet with high arches and am fairly expressive. However, since my mother insisted on three full meals a day plus an afternoon snack for growing children, I have always had to fight the battle of the bulge. I must have looked like Winnie-the -Pooh in a tutu, prancing around on my tip-toes trying to imitate Maya Plisetskaya. In any case, I never got ballet instruction but was coerced into piano lessons, until the day my exasperated teacher threw a fit and told my mother she was wasting her money.

My first husband, Leo, who played seven instruments and well, would often say, ‘Mado, you have rhythm but no music.’ Mickey concurs and adds, ‘Sweetie, if you didn’t say, O say can you see, I wouldn’t have known what you were singing.’ On another occasion when I was exercising my lungs, he told me I sounded like a mastodon stuck in a tar pit.

But criticism has never discouraged my inner diva from fully expressing itself. When I was about four, my parents and I were on vacation on the Adriatic shore. One night after I disappeared after dinner, they initiated a manhunt for me. Coming upon an outdoor amphitheater, they heard a crowd howling with laughter. On closer inspection they found me on stage entertaining all the grown-ups who had gathered there. I never did find out what I was going on about and neither did they, since I refused to perform in their presence, and my audience insisted that they leave at once so we could proceed with the show.

I don’t know what it’s like now in the former Yugoslavia, but certainly back in the day, everyone minded each others business. Since my parents both worked and had an active social life and I refused to be trundled off to nursery school —after one day the collectivist mentality was too much for me – I used to spend a lot of time with my paternal grandparents. My grandfather loved me a lot, but when I would misbehave would threaten me with Baba Roga, the Serbian Baba Yaga, who he said lived in the cellar, where he used to ferment cabbage in huge barrels. When that failed he would threaten to put my toy dog, Klempitsa, into the stew pot. I should add that I had gotten it into my head that there was a real dog’s soul trapped in Klempitsa’s cloth body. Once when I was on the bus headed home with my dad, I realized I had left the dog behind at my grandparents’ apartment. I must have been excessively naughty that day because I started to weep and insist on going back for Kelmpitsa. My father tried to convince me that everything would be all right and my grandfather would never, ever harm Klempitsa. I was inconsolable and at that moment, public opinion prevailed and my father was forced to get off the bus in order to retrieve my pet. Years later when he told this story, he added, ‘They didn’t even know who Klempitsa was.’

In any case, when one grows up in such a mileau and doesn’t realize that other people, primarily Wasps, are more contained, one always appears as somewhat of a drama queen. I recall that as a teenager, my friend Mike was always trying to get me out of the house and away from my beloved books. For a while in the seventies he was frequenting an alcohol free disco for teens and insisted I join him every chance he got. I thought disco music was wretched, the sceneshallow and furthermore, I refused to dance in public. However to get him off my back, I agreed to go, just once. Needless to say, the minute I got there, I jumped on stage with some gorgeous guy, who was probably the local John Travolta and put on quite a show. Recalling our childhood mishaps recently, Mike told Mickey, ‘She made a spectacle of herself.’

I’ll skip some of my even more embarrassing moments and cut to Regine’s in Paris circa the early eighties. Leo was a bon-vivant, and although he made me gallop through every major art museum in Europe and the Americas, he loved fine dining and night clubs. However, being more of a waltz and tango kind of guy, he conceived of a way to spare himself on the disco dance floor. While I knocked myself out, he would open the flaps of his jacket, move them up and down a bit and puff his skinny belly out twice or thrice. One particular evening he was wearing an cream colored Italian silk suit –‘Only Marshall Tito would wear this,’ Leo said, ‘I’ve got to have it.’ Since the strobe lights irritated his eyes, he pulled out his ray-bans and put them on. I had a gorgeous outfit on, that looked like the one that Rita Hayworth wore during her Amado Mio number in Gilda. So while I swung my Kardashian into high gear, Leo did his jacket dance, causing a sensation among the rich Arabs in attendance, who all wanted to befriend him.

My final entry for today will be my last, and so far, final embarrassment, which many of you saw, since Mickey sent it out as ‘Lily Dancing at the Wedding’. Actually it wasn’t even me, but a video of a woman in red dress who was either extraordinarily high-spirited or very drunk. As she was free form dancing at a wedding, she decided to do a pole dance on the post which was holding the outdoor tent up. The moment she lept on to it, the entire tent collapsed, sending the guests scurrying for cover and bloodying the nose of the horrified bride. My friends died laughing over this. Not so my mother, who was certain I had ruined my friend Sonja’s daughter’s wedding which I had attended the previous month. ‘That drunkard has shamed the whole family,’ she told my sister, who barely convinced her that it wasn’t me.