Tall Tails

Our children are challenging, our parents demanding, and our friends can be competitive. Often our love affairs are fraught with anxiety and our marriages descend into routine. But there is one love that overrides all, the love we feel for our beloved pets. If the universe is pure consciousness, then animals ride on that stream of energy and are complete and whole—though sometimes they can be made neurotic by way of their relationships with us.

I had a friend who once said, the only thing I look forward too in the afterlife is being reunited with my dead pets. I hope so. And I hope that they’ll be able to speak a language that I can fully understand.

My own first pet was a piece of sheared beaver, left over from a coat my grandmother had been making for one of her daughters-in -law. It was a rectangular with a piece hanging off of it, which I assumed to be a tail. We were inseparable. It was only when I got the infamous Klempitsa that my cat managed to disappear, thrown out by my fastidious mother, no doubt. I was unable to sleep until I was clutching either the cat or Klempitsa and this has carried over to my habits to this very day. At bedtime, all three cats pile on my side of the bed and snuggle close to me. Mickey has remarked that I am like a medieval peasant sleeping with my livestock, but I couldn’t care less what he thinks.

When I was a child I spent a great deal of time at the farm of relatives and I have written about this elsewhere, but it is worth repeating that I was deeply enamored of the horses and sheep dogs and had a great fondness for the rest of the animals, though I do find chickens and their habits to be a bit on the disgusting side.

My first real personal pet was a beautiful Siamese cat named Sheba, who was followed by a tabby named Miki and a dog named Bianca. Miki and Sheba both died young since they were outdoor cats, but I’m not going to tell you any sad stories today.

Bianca was the offspring of the next door neighbor’s border collie bitch and the beautiful but galactically stupid English pointer which lived across the way. ‘My God,’ my father used to say, ‘that dog reminds me of an English aristocrat.’ In his book that was not a compliment. In any case, one day the pointer jumped the fence and that was that. We picked Bianca out of the litter a few months later. Fortunately she had her mother’s brain though she did inherit her fathers looks. We brought her home in January during a rather terrible winter. Because the snowfall was so heavy that year, my father paper trained her, something she remembered the rest of her life.

I contracted a bad case of mononucleosis that year and because I couldn’t stay warm, she slept under the covers with me, functioning as a live hot water bottle. Years later when I left home, she still retained that habit though she moved on to my parents’ bed.

‘Listen to this,’ my sister said, holding up the phone. Hearing several chainsaws operating the other end, I asked what it is. ‘Mom, dad and Bianca snoring,’ she replied.

Because of my illness, I couldn’t recover my energy level and took to having a cup of Turkish coffee in the afternoon. I don’t know how it happened, maybe I needed company, but Bianca would sit at the kitchen table like a person, and I would serve both of us, though I would dilute her serving with milk and sugar. This went on for years, until I realized that my poor dog was an addict and weaned her off caffeine.

Bianca was both wise and compassionate. In the ranking of the household, she probably saw me as her peer, my parents as largely absent, my sister as her inferior whom she had to protect and the cat, Mosha, as her best friend. When she had her puppies, Mosha was the only one she trusted to look after them while she rushed to the backyard to relieve herself.

One day Mosha decided to cross Lagrange Road, a fairly busy street that our house sat on. We had a huge picture window in the living room which fronted the street and where Bianca hung out on the forbidden sofa while my mother was at work. Spotting the cat, she hurled herself at the window, barking hysterically. I didn’t know what was going on but had a presentiment that I should let her out, and watched in disbelief as she rushed out onto the road and herded him back home before any cars came by. He never dared to cross the road again.

Now Mosha was pretty clever too. He figured out he needed to ring the front doorbell when he wanted to get back into the house. At first his humans couldn’t figure out who was playing pranks on them, since whenever the bell rang no one was on the front step except the cat, until they caught him in the act. Eventually Mosha fell in love with the neighbor’s dog and shifted his center of operations next door.

The other cat, Garitsa, a French Blue, outlived both of them and emerged from their long shadows to intimidate the next dog, a flatcoat retriever named Hoppy. Hoppy was beautiful but retained the personality of a teenager into maturity. She always was ready to play and would get down and run around, hoping to engage Garitsa. The cat who was well into her twenties, had no patience for shenanigans and would patiently wait until Hoppy came close enough, and then would flick one sharp claw across her nose, which usually put a damper on things.

Hoppy thought she was a person and would often put her feet in my father’s slippers or try to imitate my mother while she was doing calisthenics. She also happened to be madly in love with Mickey and would get on her hind legs, throw her front paws across his shoulders and gaze soulfully into his eyes. Once when she caught us kissing, she was so distraught she wouldn’t stop muttering and rolling her eyes for an hour. Another time we ran into an old boyfriend of my sister’s and stopped to chat. I could tell the dog was bored and said, ‘Hoppy, you can kiss Peter, if you want.’ She looked up at me, and the expression on her face said, you can’t be serious. I told her it was quite alright and she hopped on her hind legs and planted a wet one on his lips. I could tell from Peter’s reaction that he had never been kissed by a dog before.

When I married Leo, he was not a pet person and I had to nag for six years until he would let me get a cat. Lulu came to live with us and then three months later Zuzu joined her. Both were exceptionally intelligent animals. Our friends couldn’t believe it but they could both clearly say, ‘Help’ ( at bath time), ‘leave me alone’ ( though it sounded like meahve me malone) and ‘go away’. Additionally Lulu learned to say corn, which was her favorite food after tilapia, but I suppose that was little too advanced for her vocal apparatus. Both cats could count to four with their tails—I would call out a number and they would thump it out. Zuzu played the piano. She also wanted to type and paint. This little Zuzu figured out that she could open the doors by jumping up and hanging on to the handles. The first year we had them and came back from a vacation, my mother warned me that we had to double lock our doors because the cats had learned to open them. I thought she probably forgot to lock the doors and the cats escaped. I was shocked one day when we were over at our neighbor Marge’s and both cats appeared. Marge, a plump woman who was terrified of animals, jumped up on a chair and began to scream as if she had seen a mouse, forcing me to spring into action and round up the cats.

In any case both cats had a wonderful life and lived to ripe old age of eighteen when they began to decline. By then I was with Mickey, a confirmed cat lover. Lulu figured out how to manipulate him very quickly. She would howl as if pinned under a truck, and he would come running, thinking something was wrong. She would them turn her back to him and say, ‘Mrrrh,’ indicating she wanted a back massage, which he would dutifully administer. Zuzu, on the other hand, was a man hater and could never get used to him. Once she left a piece of poop on his pillow to show how she really felt. Oddly enough Mickey had been saying, ‘She’s probably going to poop on my pillow,’ for weeks beforehand.

After Lulu and Zuzu died, I was so distraught, I cried for three months. One day Mickey took me by the hand and drove me to the animal shelter where we saw our Dixie for the first time. Dixie had been found wandering the streets of Chicago in winter as a kitten, and due to the fact that she was black and no one wanted her, had spent three months in the shelter already. When she saw me, she grabbed a fishing pole between her teeth, climbed to the top of the cages, lept off, and running over, dropped the toy at my feet. ‘You’re hired!’ I said, and we brought her home where she has been entertaining us like the charming clown she is ever since. Dixie loves to play and often tries to operate machinery. She races Mickey to the fax, knocks the receiver off the hook when she recognizes callers voices, also says, ‘Leave me alone,’ when she doesn’t want me to groom her. She is an extremely loving and easy going cat and we adore her.

Her first companion was Lexie, a little black dumpling, whose mother had died in catbirth. Lexie came to us after being fostered by humans and would only eat roast chicken, almonds and potato chips. Dixie, who was thrilled to have a playmate chased her around unmercifully. ‘Don’t worry Lexter,’ Mickey would console her, ‘one day, you’ll grow up to be a big panther.’ And so she has at over fourteen pounds, though she still has the mentality and self image of a kitten, and often tries to nurse anyone who is available. She is generally very sweet unless she is hungry and then she turns into Kitty Hyde, growling and yowling until she gets her way.

The third cat, Mia, was a single mother, also black, whose offspring were all adopted. When I saw her she was nurturing all the other kitties in the shelter, even though they were not her own. As a dog approached the glass room where they were housed, she chirped to her son, who was waiting to be picked up by his new family, to watch out. I thought, I have to have her, but it took some convincing before Mickey finally consented. The night she came home, as he was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, she jumped on the sink, stood on her hind legs and gave him a big kiss. It was all it took to win him over. But in the end, she turned out to be a mama’s girl and is my constant companion.

It’s a cold night as I write this. There is a wonderful smelling pizza in the oven, Mia is on red alert, food obsessed as she is. Dixie is napping on her blankie, and Lexie is hanging out in Mickey’s office, purring like a tractor. Soon we’ll all be climbing into bed to sleep like medieval peasants.

Ulcer

As you all know by now, my mother loves to eat. How she stays thin, I’ll never know. In any case she’s been under a lot of stress and was going to out with a girlfriend for a night on the town. The next day she called from the hospital to tell me that she had collapsed on the street, but her girlfriend had managed to get her home. However, the day after she was still feeling lousy and went to the emergency room.

‘How much did you drink?’ I wanted to ask but restrained myself.

Well, to make a long story short, it turns out that she has a bleeding ulcer but had to have a test to confirm that.

That evening, I overhear Mickey talking to her. She’s just found out that we are going to go to the Serbian grocery store.

‘Bring bread,’ she tells Mickey.

‘You know you can’t have bread until they do the procedure to see what’s going on,’ he patiently tells her.

‘Okay,’ she sighs, like she’s five years old.

The next day she calls to tell me that she’s starving to death.

‘Aren’t they feeding you through that tube thingee?’ I ask.

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘but my stomach is empty.’

Reader, what can be expected from a woman who after an evening of gorging herself on a multiple course French meal at the Union League club takes her children on a tour so they can see the art on each floor and seeing the remnants of a banquet, wolfs down a roll, saying, ‘They are vasting good bread.’

Yesterday, they let her have broth and jello for dinner. ‘Jell-o’ she says, like I would say, pig’s feet, with a sneer. ‘The soup was good,’ she adds.

Today she is already volubly complaining when I call her in the morning. But her mood immediately brightens when they bring her an early lunch.

‘It’s Spaghetti, Leel, ‘ she says, ‘I’ll call you later, I’m going to be busy now.’

Later that afternoon she calls back.

‘How was lunch?’ I ask her.

‘Terrible!’ she exclaims dramatically. ‘Vatery sauce on spaghetti, roll like cardboard, a blob of spinach dat looked like brrd sheet. Den they gave me sorbet, the cheap kind. The worst part was, after I ate spaghetti, I saw der vas Parmesan on the side. It was hidden. I didn’t get chance to put on top.’

‘Aw,’ I cluck sympathetically, thinking, well, no one really goes to the hospital for the food.

‘I can hardly vait to go home to eat,’ she says, ‘maybe tomorrow they’ll let me out of here.’

‘I hope so, Mom,’ I say. She can tell my attention is drifting, and that I need to go back to work.

‘Okay, talk to you soon, I’m going to stare at TV for vhile.’ she says signing off.

I haven’t talked to her yet, but do I hope dinner was at least a little bit better.

Conjuring Raphael

My regular readers know that I often write about my sister-in -law, Nely and her fiancée Sam. For those of you who are new here, I’ll backtrack a bit. Sam is very Italian and has a huge heart which is his greatest asset and his worst failing. Sam also has a misguided sense of obligation to his grown son who takes unfair advantage of him which occasionally puts a strain on Nely’s and Sam’s relationship. Now readers you’ll recall that Sam’s son was busted on marijuana charge last year, and his five foot alligator was confiscated by animal welfare, though they said it was the best kept reptile they had ever seen. What I didn’t tell you is that Sam’s son has managed to total the Mercedes Sam bought him and the BMW that replaced it.

When Sam and Nely can afford to they like to vacation and a couple of years ago, they took a trip to Cancun, where playfully they made up new identities for themselves. Nely was Natasha and Sam was Alexei her bald ex-KGB lover. All in all, they managed to fool quite a few people around the pool before confessing to the deception.

Last winter, Nely and I were both at low points, and one night as we were talking I asked Nely what her perfect man would be like. I can’t recall the whole conversation but it went something like this:

N: His name would be Raphael.

L: And he’s young.

N: Not too young.

L: About forty-four.

N: But he would love women in their fifties.

L: Naturally. He would have green eyes.

N: And be six foot three and well proportioned.

L: He’ll be blond

N. No, light brown and curly.

L: ( disappointed) Okay.

N: He’ll be a great kisser.

L: Yah, his name is Raphael, isn’t it?

N: He lives in Paris?

L: He owns an island in the Caribbean.

N: And he’s just waiting for us to turn up.

L: He’ll ask us to stay with him on his beautiful hacienda.

N: Where he has an art studio.

L: Big enough for all three of us to paint in. But not only that, he’ll be certified in seventeen forms of massage therapy.

N. And he loves giving pedicures.

L: He’s very generous with his money.

N: His father was Ferragamo, and he taught Raphael to cobble shoes, which is his hobby.

L: He’ll have to be Mormon so he can marry us both.

N: Do we have to be married?

L: Yes, because we need to inherit the island when he goes.

N: How ill we drink wine if he is a Mormon?

L: He’s lapsed.

N: What else?

L: He loves cats. Hundreds of them.

N: And he’s a yoga instructor.

L: And a great listener.

N: And affectionate, romantic and faithful to us both.

L: Have we covered everything?

N: And he’s mute!

Now I’ve told you before that Nely does have the powers, but usually she is too tired from taking care of her senile mother to even think about the universe or the law of attraction, much less use them. Last week, to celebrate the publication of my short stories I had a couple of glasses of wine and realizing I was lonely, I called Nely who was doing a little therapeutic drinking of her own.

‘Guess who walked into the office looking for a Realtor?’ Nely asks.

‘Someone I know?’

‘Sort of.’

‘Man or woman?’

‘Alexei.’

‘Alexei who?’

‘Bald Alexei. Bald, six foot four Russian Alexei. He wants me to call him Alyosha for short, ‘ she says in Russian accent.

‘Oh, that Alexei.( Reader, I’m not even surprised by her mystical and synchronistic experiences any more) Is he attractive?’ I ask.

‘Yes. He looks like former special forces.’

‘And?’

‘There something in the air. I can tell he’s attracted to me. And we have all the same interests.’

‘Well you haven’t been too happy.’

‘No but still, I am engaged to Sam.’

‘Let’s be logical. Does he have a job?’

‘He has his own business.’

‘Married?’

‘Divorced.’

‘Does he have a crazy son?’

‘Lev.’

‘How crazy?’

‘They are selling their house, so they can buy a condo closer to to the train station so that Alyosha can drive Lev to work, ‘ she explains.

‘He can’t drive himself?’

‘Lev totaled three cars already.’

‘He doesn’t have a crocodile in the bathtub does he?’

‘No. He has a two foot long chameleon that turns colors. Green, he is upset.’ she says, assuming that Russian accent again.

‘You’re lying!’ By now both of us are howling with laughter.

‘Boga mi,’ she says, swearing to God.

‘I can’t come to my senses,’ I am gasping for breath.

‘There’s more, Lily. I got another call.’

‘Who from?’

‘Raphael.’

Readers, my gasping has now turned into a full blown asthma attack, and I am developing a migraine from laughing so hard.

‘Raphael is buying an apartment for his twenty-eight year old son, because if he doesn’t, he is afraid the son will stay with him forever.’

‘This could only happen to you!’ I scream, frantically searching for my inhaler.

‘I know, right?’ she says. ‘I’ll be meeting him next week.’

Reader, I can hardly wait to see what she conjured up this time.

In the Afterlife

About seven years ago this summer, my architect husband, Mickey, and I went to my friend Natalia’s son’s first birthday party. Needless to say, as cute as those little kids are, they are walking petri dishes and we both caught a terrible flu. After three weeks, I improved but Mickey kept getting worse and worse.

I came home one day and he was laying on the sofa, gray as an extra-terrestrial and short of breath. Like most Serbs, Mickey would rather die than go to the doctor but even he could see that it was time for the emergency room.

As they admitted him, the nurse, a kind black lady, asked, ‘This be his natural color?’

‘Um, no, he’s usually greenish,’ I replied.

Well reader, doctors must be getting more demented by the day because without the aid of technology, they don’t seem to be able to bring about an accurate diagnosis and began treating Mickey for pneumonia. Even with my limited medical knowledge I could see that they were way off. Mickey too, kept saying, ‘I think I have what my cat had – heart failure.’ He almost died before anyone read his CT scan, and then they set into action, since the diagnosis was changed to a leaking mitral valve. Needless to say, they had been killing him with hydration up until then. Surgery was immediately scheduled and everything went well, or so I thought, until I met with the surgeon, who proclaimed his work, repairing the natural valve, a masterpiece, only adding as an aside that Mickey had died on the table but that they manged to bring him back after ten minutes.

Wonderful, I thought, I spent a decade watching my first husband’s mental and emotional health decline, now I’m going to be married to someone with brain damage.

Well to make a long story short, Mickey, though plenty weird, was undamaged and manged to fully recover. About a year afterward he told me an amazing story. He said as he was being wheeled downstairs to the operating room he had a vision of himself as a knight lying outdoors in a field. A group of bearded men, wearing tunics over their chain mail gathered around him in a semi-circle while their leader held his sword to Mickey’s heart.

I didn’t know if this was a past life flashback to where Mickster was about to be dispatched by the enemy or not. So I put a positive spin on it and told him those were his guardians, helping to heal him. Afterward, when I was gossiping about this with my sister, Mickey overheard and commented, ‘I think I imagined all of it.’

‘Don’t be absurd,’ my sister said, ‘if you had imagined it, you would have seen Frank Lloyd Wright and the apprentices, twirling their protractors on a compass.’

The Condor Took My Baby

The wonderful thing about courting is that you are basically reliving your childhood by going out doing super fun things. I estimate that most men can keep up this round of activities for about three months before they revert to type, either in front of televised sports or the computer.

One day when Mickey and I were in about month three, we went to the zoo on a weekday, took in the dolphin show and were wandering around, when we spotted an empty stroller in front of the condor cage. We looked around, but there was no one in sight. We then bought ice cream cones and sat on a nearby bench, waiting, but no one returned to claim the stroller. After a while, Mickey turned to me and said, ‘I think you should start screaming, the condor took my baby!’

Now birdwatching readers, you’ll know that in the Balkans, we have no condors but we do have golden eagles which are sizable and have been known to take newborn lambs. So as a little girl, when I was sent to the countryside to visit relatives, I would live in fear that one of these monsters would swoop down from the skies and make off with a cute baby animal or attack me and peck out my eyes.

One winter when I was about four years old, my mother came down with a severe flu. There was a heavy snowfall on the ground, and I was feeling housebound, so I begged my father to take me with him when he went to the pharmacy to pick up her medicine. So like a typical Balkan parent, whose children have to be bundled up against the elements even if it’s summer, he put so many layers of clothing on me that when my little white ‘fur’ coat went on, I couldn’t even lower my arms. Of course, he wrapped a scarf around my mouth, so the cold wouldn’t get in. Needless to say, I was already sweating by the time we got downstairs, and he realized that as short and encumbered as I was, I would be unable to walk very fast, so he got out my sled and decided to pull me along to the store.

Now readers, my father was a horse crazy man and would tell anyone who would listen that my sister and I looked like roan fillies with white stars on our foreheads when we were born, which indicates to me that he perceived himself as the great stallion, Man o’War. Anyway, we picked up the medicine and as he was running home across a field, playing at being a horse, neighing and snorting, I fell off the sled. Man o’ War didn’t notice a thing, and I was left lying there,watching him fade into the distance, unable to cry out because the scarf was tied tightly around my mouth and unable to get up because I was so overdressed. I was reconciled to certain death ,waiting for an eagle to swoop me up since I looked like a baby lamb in my white coat, when my father noticed I was missing and came back to save me.

Sam’s Turtle

Today I got an email from my sister-in-law, Nely. Attached were photographs of a giant turtle and the cryptic message, Sam thinks I am so mean.

I immediately telephoned and asked, ‘What is this? Did you make turtle soup today?’

Nely replied that she needed to start the story from the beginning, and so do I. Nely has two dogs and two cats, plus a senile mother, and a live in fiancée, Sam, to take care of. Shaggy, the poodle has diabetes, but as her Serbian veterinarian says, he’s not fat, he just has big bones.

Now, I’ve written about Sam before, but reader, I must share with you what a kind and delightful man he really is. A few months ago Nely told him, ‘Sam, I’m just not that happy any more.’ Sam was crushed by this and wanted to know what she meant. Nely replied, and gentleman readers take note, ‘You never hold my hand any more, or tell me that I’m pretty or bring me flowers.’

Sam silently ruminated on this all evening long. In the morning, Nely, hair in disarray, mascara raccooned around her eyes [ she was too tired to wash her face the night before], wearing a giant t-shirt that the cat managed to puke on during the night, staggered downstairs for a cup of coffee. Sam looking up from his paper, said with gusto, ‘Nely, you’re looking beautiful this morning.’ What can I say other than, you have to love him for trying!

A few days ago, Sam took Shaggy to the vet for a check-up. When Sam got back, he led Nely out to the patio, poured her a glass of wine and announced, ‘I have fantastic news!’

Nely asked, ‘Did we win the lottery?’

‘No, It’s better than that,’ Sam explained. ‘I got us a fantastic deal on two German Shepard puppies.’

Reader, I don’t know what the economy is like in your neck of the woods, but in Illinois you can’t give horses, dogs or cats away.

‘What is he thinking, Nely? You already have four animals,’ I say.

‘I don’t know, Lily, but he comes from a household with two mastiffs, an alligator, a snapping turtle, a huge lizard, a cat and two sons, so it must be too quiet for him here,’ Nely explains.

‘What did you say,’ I ask.

‘I started shouting, no, No, NO, so loudly the neighbors came out to see what was going on,’ she says.

Sam, needless to say, was devastated. For two days he pouted, nagged, said he would scoop all the poop and do all the dog walking. He even promised to eat all his vegetables.

The second evening, while the two of them were sitting out under the gazebo, he said, ‘I have an idea. We’ll just take the biggest one. She weighs four pounds more than the other puppies in the litter.’

Just as Nely was finished shouting, ‘The answer is still no!’ they both saw something coming down the street. At first they thought it was a raccoon, but as it got nearer, they realized it was a very large turtle.

‘That’s it,’ Sam yelled, throwing up his arms, ‘God heard me and sent a pet!’ He then ran out of the yard to take the turtle off the road.

‘You can’t keep that turtle, Sam,’ Nely warned him, ‘it’s got huge claws and jaws, what if it bites the cats?’

‘We’ll build a fence around the pond,’ Sam promised, ‘I’ll keep him in the garage in winter.’

The answer was still no, and Sam was bitterly disappointed, though Nely did agree to take the turtle off the streets and keep it while she asked the kids in the neighborhood if anyone they knew had lost it. When nobody claimed it, she called Animal Rescue which sent over a woman with a cooler.

‘Oh, you’ll need a bigger container than that,’ Nely told the woman.

‘How big was that turtle?’ I ask.

‘Bigger than my feet, Nely explains.

‘That’s not so big, ‘ I say.

‘Twelve and a half inches. I measured,’ Nely says, referring to her feet.

By now I am howling with laughter. Well reader, the turtle turned out to be an endangered species, about thirty to forty years old, male and apparently can walk up to two miles a day which according to my calculations considering its puny stride, would be equal to thirty-six miles for the average human, not to mention the fact that it’s carrying its house on its back. In any case, the turtle was removed to an appropriate habitat, and Sam is still whining about the puppies.

The Mother Tongue

There’s nothing than children from the former Yugoslavia love doing more than imitating their parents English grammar mistakes. I suppose it’s a form of passive aggressive revenge for all the times they would call us those lovely names like: cretin, mare, donkey, goose, delinquent and so on. Needless to say, they could never bear the site of us lounging on the furniture, relaxing, and would immediately admonish us to get up and do yard work or something useful. I mean, if you were going to lie around, you had better have had a copy of War and Peace or a math text book in front of you.

In any case most of our parents came to this country with either German or Russian as a second language and sometimes Italian if they were from the coast or French, if they were from an elegant family. English is tough to learn when you are already grown and few master it. My aunt Lillian and my father were pretty good linguists due to the fact, I think, that both were musical and read voraciously.

My mother, on the other hand, is the person who is always dancing in the opposite direction that everyone else is going in. When we first came to the States, our landlady Mrs. Cizak stopped her in the middle of the street to complain how she had slipped on the ice and fallen. My mother listened sympathetically until a response was called for, except she couldn’t think of anything at at moment except the phrase, ‘that’s nice’.

‘Dat’s nisss!’ she said, knowing for certain she had made a mistake when she saw Mrs. Cizak’s jaw drop.

When my sister was a baby and before my mother went to work, she decided to make some extra money by painting genre pictures for Granny’s sixth husband, who owned an art gallery. I really liked the Dutch still lives but hoped the clowns she kept would never end up in my room.

Now, when she was painting, she couldn’t be interrupted, and I had to run all her errands for her. There was a general store at the end of the block where I would be humiliated regularly by asking for such items as Charming toilet paper and Giant detergent. It took some sleuthing to discover my mother had been asking for Charmin and Gain.

After she went back to the office, her English improved, though she did manage to call her friend Myrtle, Turtle, occasionally, and her saleslady Regina, Vergina, often. My friends loved when they would call asking for me, she’d say, ‘ Leel is in the toilette.’ Since she was a lightning designer and the word toilet appears regularly on all architectural plans in the States, she didn’t see anything wrong with what she was saying. I was always in the toilette since it was my refuge away from the family drama, and I would take my books in there and close the door. Fortunately unlike many of my peers, I never had to step in and handle official business for her, she spoke English well enough to do that on her own.

My favorite story of all was when Ebola appeared on the global scene.

‘Where would such a terrible disease have come from?’ my germ-phobic sister asks.

‘Oh, I know,’ my mother replies, ‘dat poor country, Macintosh.’

‘Macintosh?’ my sister says, ‘well, that might be a place in Scotland, but I don’t know of any country by that name.’

My father who has been listening from the other room, is laughing now. He knows exactly what his wife is talking about, ‘Mommy means Bangladesh, but that’s not where it comes from.’ He’s had a lot of experience deciphering her English, the last time being, when, as they are driving to the train station, she hears an advertisement for curing obesity.

‘You have dat, Daddy,’ she says to him.

‘I don’t think so,’ he replies, ‘I would say, you tend in that direction more than I do.’

‘I’m always in a good mood,’ she replies.

‘I see,’ he says, ‘and what do you think obesity means?’

‘Obest. That’s you,’ she replies. The Serbo-Croatian dictionary gives translations such as nasty, mischievous or prankish for this word. However it is derived from the word bes or rabid, and I think that is what she intended to say all along.

Sumiko-san

When I was about five years old and living in Belgrade, a friend of my father’s who had gone on a business trip to Japan presented me with a gift. Within a Lucite box, a tiny world unfolded. A Japanese lady in full kimono, carrying a parasol, crossed a bridge over a lake made of glass, making her way to shore where a cherry blossom tree was flowering. I was enchanted and couldn’t stop gazing at this magical world, trying to imagine what it was like. But how to find out more about it? I must have read the picture book version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Nightingale numerous times hoping to learn something, never mind that the story was set in China.

A few years later in the US, when I was about eleven or twelve and had long forgotten about dolls, my fantasy unfolded in the person of my mother’s colleague Sumiko. Sumiko and my mother worked for a large international engineering firm where you could meet people of all nationalities; Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians from many countries. Now as you know, my parents always liked to party and had an active social life. Sumiko, though she was under the protection of her brother-in-law, was often invited. Young and attractive, she looked lovely in western clothes, but when she put on traditional Japanese dress, she was sensational.

The first time my sister and I saw her in full kimono with make-up and wig, we gawked at her as if she had come from another planet. Fortunately Sumiko was fond of children and entertained us for hours on end, making origami animals. My sister who generally had ants in her pants, adored her and was enraptured.

Sometime later, Sumiko’s family decided to return to Japan. She, however, wanted to stay in the States, since she loved her time as a career girl and dreaded entering a traditional marriage, which was what was expected of her. She obtained permission from her family to stay under one condition, that she would find protection of a sound man. However since she was not dating anyone nor cared to enter into a permanent arrangement, her family deemed a sort of informal concubinage permissible.

Her first choice was my mother’s extremely fastidious and well organized German friend Kathi, who had a very cute husband. ‘No way, Sumiko, I’m not sharing with anybody,’ was Kathi’s immediate reply. Her second choice was my mother.

‘Srata-san, I hep you wis chiwdren too,’ Sumiko said.

‘Okay, I tink about dis,’ my mother replied.

‘Please, oh please,’ my sister and I begged, envisioning lunches packed in lacquered boxes, and the fact that our father wouldn’t dare exhibit his temper in front of such a delicate creature. In the end the answer was no, but delivered in such a way by our own tiger-mommy that one would suspect her of harboring a hidden Asian cultural heritage.

‘Ah, Sumiko-san,’ she said, ‘you rrrr so young and beautiful, purrry soon, I tink you might becoming firrrrst wife.’ And so Sumiko went back to Japan, and sadly we never saw her again.

Wrecking the Bar

Wrecking the Bar

Once in a while my friend B, who was raised in a fine Wasp family in the mid-Atlantic States calls me so that I can explain Balkan culture to her, since she is trying to understand her boyfriend, The Big P. Without embarrassing either of them with specifics, I think it was important for me alert her to the fact that for the parents of the baby boomers and early X-ers in Serbia, war and post -war hunger was the greatest trauma they had experienced. And so when we were babies and opened our mouths to squawk about anything at all our parents assumed,  given that we were warm and dry, we must be hungry and would immediately stuff food into our mouths. This should explain why we are emotional eaters and often struggle with our weight.

I recall once years ago, my cousin Sasha told me, ‘Our parents couldn’t understand that we just wanted to be loved and to spend time with them.’ I replied, ‘Now you’re asking for too much. They gave us three full meals a day plus snacks. To them that was the biggest love that they could conceive of.’

Even when our parents think that their children are fat, they get offended if we don’t eat everything on our plates and ask for seconds. Invariably their children, ranging from their forties to their sixties, are all still sitting at the children’s table and getting their kicks from imitating their parents’ accented pronouncements.

‘Yosh?’ meaning, more, the hostess will ask. ‘ Yosh, yosh,’ we reply, grunting like piglets.

Now my favorite food story of all time, is about my friend N, whose mother is a world-class cook. I hope she will forgive me for appropriating her story but it really is a classic and deserves to be shared. N’s mother would make an elaborate breakfast every morning: toast, pancakes, eggs, bacon, juice, fruit and so on. That particular morning, N wasn’t feeling too hungry and was dawdling over breakfast. Her mother, not wanting to be late for kindergarten, said, ‘If you don’t eat your eggs, they’ll be sad and cry.’ And so N managed to cram the last of her eggs into her mouth.

When her mother picked her up for lunch, the teacher pulled her aside and confided, ‘I’m worried about your daughter, she hasn’t said a world all morning.’

‘What is it Sine?’ –the Serbian sonny—used for children of both sexes—’tell me what’s happened, ‘ her mother exhorted. N opened her mouth to start crying, and at that moment the last of the eggs spilled out.

Growing up, my sister and N were best friends and spent a lot of time making fun of our parents and their friends—though dear reader, since our parents are bound to read this, I’ll keep it to myself except for this one story.

Our parents’ gang consisted of about twenty or so couples who have been partying and vacationing together on a regular basis since the sixties. In the late seventies, my parents built a house in Lagrange, a leafy suburb of Chicago and decided to turn the basement into a discotheque. This took place over one weekend with the whole gang pitching in. I myself was in charge of popcorning the ceiling with a natural sponge and plaster, a job that I never want to repeat—I couldn’t lift my arms for a week afterward.

When the job was finished, we ended up with a wall of mirrored closets next to a tiled dance floor, a separate seating area and a lovely long bar with a copper counter. Sometime afterward N and my sister were goofing around down there and out of boredom decided to melt a wax candle. Needless to say the wax spilled and dripped all over the bar. Terrified of my father’s wrath, they tried to scrape it off with their fingernails. When that failed they tried a knife. Though they succeeded, they ended up scratching the counter top. They ran off from the scene, hoping that my father would never notice or perhaps think it was something that had happened during a party.

They were hanging out in my sisters room when they heard his heavy footfall on the stairs. Both jumped to attention even before he kicked in the door.

‘Who did it?’ he snarled.

‘She did,’ they said in unison, pointing at each other.

My father really did have a hungry childhood, since there were a lot of mouths to feed in the household. One day, he and his older brother Zhika, lit upon an idea. In the neighbors’ garden there stood a group of flowering pear trees, bursting with juicy pears. However, they couldn’t steal the pears outright– a thing like that was not done. So they trained the neighbor’s terrier, Afie, to bring them the freshly fallen pears. After a while, clever dog Afie, learned to shake the tree so that the pears would fall. The neighbors couldn’t understand where their pears were disappearing to and never suspected their sweet little dog of conspiring to rob them.

Not long afterward, the boys were gone from the city for a few days on a visit to relatives in the countryside. Upon their return, they realized that the game was up; a mountain of pears was heaped up against their side of fence, Afie was chained, and the neighbors were glaring at them.

Later, when times improved, they moved to a new apartment. On their street there lived a bulldog who was trained to do the marketing everyday. Every afternoon the bulldog appeared with a basket and ran into the greengrocer, the baker and the butcher. He would triumphantly return to his apartment and sit on the balcony with his treat, a meerschaum pipe, which he would smoke at his leisure.

‘He looked just like Churchill,’ my father said.

My father was a great story teller and that is how he would induce me to get through meals, because like N, I too was so overfed that I didn’t have an appetite. Popeye was referenced quite a bit, as I recall, when it came to choking down spinach. My mother was more prosiac. ‘This one is for Daddy, and this one is for Teddy-bear,’ she would say, spoon feeding me the then version of cereal, which consisted of day old bread chopped into bits with warm scummy milk poured over it. Reader, be happy you grew up in America, because it’s even more disgusting than it sounds. Her other favorite foods for building me up were liver and runny eggs, neither of which I can even look at much less taste to this day.

Now at that time in former Yugoslavia, you could pretty much knock on any neighbor’s door at any time of the day you knew that they were at home and be invited in to socialize over for coffee and cake. In our apartment building in Zelengai, I loved the downstairs neighbors best, Milka and Vlada Popovich and their teenaged daughter Mira. Vlada was the director of a huge industrial firm. His wife also worked but got home early in the afternoon. Their maid would always have something delicious going in the oven to tide her over until dinner time. In any case, dear reader, as you know, I was already an entertaining clown, and she always invited me to share her meal. Sometimes I would stay over and Mira and her girlfriends would dress and make me up and then I’d vamp to Beatles records which was the big thing then. Needless to say, the whole family would end up falling out of their chairs with laughter.

But sometimes I got lonely in the morning– this was prior to school, in my early years, and would have to go to the second tier choices. This was usually the Hungarians upstairs who would always insist that I join them for goulash or paprikash, which they were invariably cooking at any given time of day, as the reek in the hall attested to. But there were even more colorful neighbors down half a landing from the Popovichs, whose company I enjoyed even though they never had any food going on. Years later I learned that they were professional car thieves. This was socialism, you understand, and you got to mix with all sorts of interesting people.

In my grandparents building in the center of town, I also had some friends. One was Nikolitsa, an adorable little blond boy whose hair I managed to pull out in a clump one day when I lost my temper. When he moved, Zhikitsa, who was less refined but more lively, replaced him. Now reader you have to picture these Austro-Hungarian constructions. Though my grandparents apartment was small, the hall was huge, grandiose and entirely clad in white Carrera marble. I’m not sure who decided it would be a good idea to play kickball in that hall, but anyway, all the kids in the building got together and proceeded to make a ruckus, disturbing the professional writers, a man and wife, who lived upstairs and worked at home. After repeated warnings from the woman exhorting us to be quiet, I had enough and blowing my stack, told her off, using the words, ‘cow’ and ‘shut-up’. Needless to say, I was forced to eat crow, carrying a bouquet of flowers and apologizing profusely to her the whole time. Reader, I didn’t mean a word of that apology, but God punished me since I grew up to be the most noise sensitive person in the world and am driven mad on regular basis by any and all sound.

I could tell you a million more Serbian stories about food, but I’ll end where I started with the Big P.

‘Why do you leave the spoon in the ice cream container?’ B asks him.

‘Well, I don’t want to dirty a new spoon each time I get up to snack,’ he replies with impeccable Balkan logic.

Singing for the Nazis

Zlata, my mother, was a naughty child, always up to all sorts of antics, which got her in trouble with Granny. As you all know dear readers, that was back in the day when sparing the rod and spoiling the child was unheard of.

When Granny would catch wind of whatever she was up, her redhead’s temper would flare, and she’d work herself into a frenzy. My mother’s favorite hiding place was behind the Murphy bed where Granny couldn’t get a hold of her, but sometimes she wasn’t so lucky. In hindsight, I would say that most of her badness could have been attributed to her need for attention, no matter how negative.

I’ve already told you the story about how she walked across Bulgaria pretending to be a war orphan and now I’ll tell you a few more. Since I started writing these stories down, my aunt and mother’s memories have been jarred and they recall that Granny didn’t really spare them much.

During the German Occupation of WWII, Granny worked as a courier for the underground resistance. One day, when the Germans came to interrogate her, she gave my mother a briefcase full of documents. ‘Throw this in the hedge,’ she said, ‘and keep playing in the garden, like you normally would.’ Any other woman would have sent her children away while the S.S ransacked the apartment but not Granny. Another time she had to deliver documents across town, so she drove my mother and my aunt in the carriage with her, assuming no one would stop a woman with children. Remembering this, my mother and aunt are appalled at the risk she took with their lives.

‘It was no big deal,’ Granny says, ‘I was so beautiful, no one ever gave me any trouble.’

It is said that in Ireland each man is a king, and so it was with the Easternmost Irish, the Serbs, for there were five competing factions for government during those years, some more blood thirsty than others. To get food, you would occasional have to venture into areas held by each and negotiate with them. So when Granny sold her diamond brooch to the Royalists, she thought she would have enough food to last some time. However when she came home from the bank that day, she found the pantry was bare. While she was at work, my mother had lined up the neighborhood children and distributed all the goods to them. Granny, realizing she was looking at my mother’s handiwork, went berserk. My mother barely eluded her grasp and ran out into the street,with Granny in hot pursuit. As they ran down the street, the entire neighborhood, alerted that something was going on, came out of their houses and shops and ran after them. My mother headed into the woods, as did the rest, only stopping when Granny fell in a dead faint. And so my mother says, ‘I was saved, that time.’

‘Mom,’ I say, ‘You know that I’m against beating children but that time you deserved it.’

Now I don’t know if I’ve got the time line quite right, but I’m pretty sure the next incident happened a bit later, when my mother and her friend Mara burned the house a few doors away down. Ganny was entertaining one of her admirers when she heard the sound of fire-engines on the street. With an intuition shared only by mystics and mothers, she stood, crying out, ‘Zlata!’

As the story came out, it seemed that Zlata had come up with a wonderful idea. In the publishing plant a couple of doors down, the basement was filled with old newspapers which she thought might be recycled for the worth of the paper. After she and Mara sneaked in there, my mother had the brilliant idea of lighting a torch so they could better see. Needless to say, she promptly dropped it and the whole place was ablaze in no time. I’m not sure how Granny talked the authorities out of putting her into a home for juvenile delinquents, but one would think the lesson would have stayed with her. Not so, dear readers, because not a month later, she and Mara were caught smearing tar on the beautiful doorbell of a newly constructed terracotta building. As the afternoon sun heated up, the tar began to melt all over the gorgeous tile. Naturally they were spotted leaving the scene of the crime, and mother had to find refuge in the Murphy bed once again.

‘Why did you do it?’ I ask appalled, since I was raised to have an overly developed sense of ethics.

‘I dunno, ‘ she says nonchalantly, ‘I guess it was there.’

The story that I’ll leave you with is when she sang for the Nazis. One of Granny’s friends owned a pastry shop. Now those of you who know Viennese pastry know that the style extended itself to all the countries that fell under Austro-Hungarian influence and that not only the pastries but the shops themselves were absolutely divine. I don’t know what that particularly one looked like but I’m picturing lots of brass and marble and rich wood. Whatever the truth of it, the Germans liked to hang out there and so did my mother, with her sweet tooth and love of pastry.

In that part of the world, gypsy musicians are highly prized, both the Hungarian and Russian variant. There was one particular diva who accompanied herself on the tambourine and was popular at the time. One day my mother got it into her head she was going to perform in the same style and grabbing a metal pan and a spoon jumped up on the table and started singing Lili Marlene for the Germans. Lili Marlene was was a tender WWI love song about a soldier separated from his sweetheart, hugely popular with the Axis forces. However, my mother did not sing the German lyrics but the substitute Serbian ones, which were all about the Krauts being beaten back to Berlin by the Red Army. This was in 1944, and the Germans knew they were losing the war. Fortunately they didn’t understand a word she said and gave her a standing ovation.

‘They could have shot you,’ I say.

‘I know,’ she shrugs, and then upon refection adds, ‘They had wonderful uniforms. You should have seen the boots.’

Even at age nine, she was a fashionista.