The Old House

April 27, 2010

My mother's village

A view from my mother's village across the Danube

My mother was very sick with Alzheimer’s disease the summer of 2001. Her short term memory was mostly gone, she was restless, frightened, paranoid, and she never slept.

The only thing she wanted, the only thing she could ask for, was to go back to Serbia.

She begged me to take her back, and spent hours standing by the front door with her bag in her hand.

I promised that we would go.

It took a while to get our papers in order and our passports ready, and then 9/11 happened.

The collective breath of the world came to a standstill.

My family, together with everyone else, was in shock, reeling from the tragedy, terrified of what was coming next.

My mother was oblivious.

She looked at me beseechingly and stood by the door, bag in hand. Despite my family’s misgivings, I bought our plane tickets for November.

My mother’s family comes from a small village in Northern Serbia. No one knows for certain when they settled there, but their last name (Rakic) is mentioned in the monastery papers dating back to the 13th century. The family land and the house have been passed from generation to generation – every square meter known and cherished by us all.

Despite my mother’s condition, I couldn’t help but hope that her memory would come back (at least a little) when faced with so much that was precious, beloved and familiar.

After a long and difficult flight, we arrived in Belgrade. My mother’s sister, Angelica, and my cousins waited for us at the airport. They cried when they saw us.

My mother’s face was chiseled from stone. She looked at them without recognition, without love, without emotion.

A few days later, we drove the two hours to Banostor, the family village.

It was an overcast, chilly day and the old house felt cold and abandoned when we arrived. No one lived there anymore; my grandparents had died years ago. Wars during the 90’s in that region and throughout the former Yugoslavia had prevented us from visiting for years. Angelica lived in Belgrade and spent summers in the village, but it was November now, and the house felt dead.

While my aunt got busy lighting the stove and preparing a meal, I took my mother’s hand and led her from room to room.

In the middle of the veranda stood the large farm table with the bench under the window, green chairs at either end. Flower pots stood on deep window sills with pink and white geraniums still in bloom. The lace curtains my grandmother had made revealed glimpses of the garden. The huge iron key to the front door hung on the nail next to the copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. A large woven basket held firewood for the wood-burning stove.

Hand in hand we went to the small front room. The couch had needlepoint pillows that looked like soft burgundy peonies. The old radio sat in its corner. Pictures of various grandchildren hung randomly on the wall by the window. There was one of me as a thirteen year old girl, my bangs severely trimmed. Everyone said that I looked just like Ann Frank.

We walked to the middle parlor with the old cherry wardrobe that held my grandmother’s linens and lace. It still held the dowry from her first marriage.

In the back room, the huge doctored picture of my uncle and aunt from their wedding day held the most prominent spot. The photographer didn’t do a very good job and the couple looked strange and haunted. Their likenesses still frightened me.

We descended the steep stairs to the great underground cellar.

This cellar was as big as the rest of the house. Dozens of huge wine barrels lined the stone walls. There was still wine in them. Herbs, berries and flowers were drying in every corner, while woven baskets of different sizes nestled by the doors.  Jars of jam, honey and tomato sauce stood neatly lined on rough wooden shelves.

My grandfather’s hat and field jacket hung on the hook by the door.

I buried my face in that old jacket as the memory of my grandfather overwhelmed me. As I cried, like a child – loudly, tears flowing, my chest heaving with sighs, I thought I could smell my grandfather and feel his presence. I sat on the steps and hugged that jacket, forgetting the world and losing myself in my grief.

When I looked up, my mother wasn’t there. Frightened, I ran up the steps and through the house.

She stood by the front door, peeking through the glass. She held her bag under her arm and looked at me, ready to go.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Donna October 13, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Beautiful…and sad.

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Sarah July 8, 2010 at 2:17 am

I’ve certainly strated reading your very interesting website from the beginning.

The message ‘gracious living’ is empowering, to write about it is inspiring, to live graciously in a generation as ours is the right way and takes us all on the right path. Living well really is the healthier way. Thank you.

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Liliana July 8, 2010 at 7:10 am

All we can do is try. One day at the time. Best, Liliana

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Sarah July 7, 2010 at 2:41 am

Dear Ms Holtzman, you have a very aggreeable way with words and expression. Once started, it is impossible to not continue reading. I appreciate your literary honesty in writing about an emotive issue. Your page title and its meaning has given me a positive start to my day here in England.

spotted via “A Universe In Bloom” piece in the NYT

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Liliana July 7, 2010 at 6:56 am

Thank you, Sarah, for your kind words. England is one of my favorite countries in the world. Please keep in touch. Best, Liliana

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antonio crespo July 6, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Dear: as a refugee myself and my family we left our home and possessions behind 50 years ago in our unforgetfull Cuba. Memories we carried with us as our only lugage allowed by a cruel government……We have not been back in all these years, my parents always weiting for a return that never came to them, me at 70, hopping still for the last visit to the homeland…….

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Liliana July 7, 2010 at 6:54 am

I think, Antonio, that it is hard to overestimate the importance of a homeland for all human beings. I wish with all my heart that you will see Cuba soon. When you do, your parents will be right there with you. Best to you.

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Diane Moss June 2, 2010 at 10:20 am

What a lovely surprise…visited your website as a consequence of reading your comment in the New York Times in response to the article on Alzheimer’s. I am going to send the moving description of your mother’s silent to return to Serbia to a young man who served as my intern at an architectural firm when he was 14. He went on to study at Cornell University on a full scholarship and is now working in New York as an architect.

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Liliana June 2, 2010 at 10:29 am

Diane, thank you for your kind words. I assume that the young protege you mention is Serbian. I am pleased to hear of his success.

Thank goodness for our memories! That is the greatest reason that the loss of them is especially agonizing.
Best to you.
Liliana

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mira bojanic larick May 3, 2010 at 10:06 am

I enjoyed reading your story.

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Liliana May 3, 2010 at 10:45 am

Thank you.

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Conner April 29, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Dear Liliana,

Thank you for this deeply evocative account – I found it very moving. You really are a very gifted writer, as all your other fans have already expressed above. reading this piece, I felt transported to your grandparents’ basement and lived the experience – the sounds, the smells, the textures, the whole atmosphere – more vividly than if I had watched it on a movie screen.

Many thanks for your many supportive comments on my blog in recent weeks – they’ve been a real encouragement to me!

Keep writing – and do try to get published!

All best,

Conner

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Liliana April 29, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Thank you, Conner. I wish you all the best in your endeavor. Your writing inspires me and gives me excellent ideas for a healthy lifestyle. Best of luck.

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Miodrag Djordjevic April 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Tuzno, lepo, osecajno…Bravo! Miodrag

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Liliana April 29, 2010 at 7:05 am

Mnogo hvala. Sve najlepse, Ljilja

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Linda April 28, 2010 at 11:32 am

Liliana,
Your writing is poignant, touching, hopeful and graceful. I appreciate your story and look forward to the book you will someday write.

I am an only child with grown children of my own and a second husband. My family is long gone and your account of visiting extended family and a family home touches me with longing for my past and a homestead I will never know.

I taught 5 year olds for 20 years and then decided to work with Alzheimer’s patients, which I have been doing on and off for the last 4 years.

My heart goes out to you. Keep writing!

Linda

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Liliana April 28, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Linda,
I am happy to share my family with you and writing is a wonderful medium to that end.

Through my own experience, I have gotten to know a lot of people who work with Alzheimer’s patients. It is not an easy job. Patience, kindness and a completely different perspective on the human experience are required. I thank you (and them) from my heart. Best to you, Liliana

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Anna Jekich Pullinger April 28, 2010 at 10:08 am

This is a lovely story that touched me deeply. You are a fine writer, Liliana. I appreciate the Serbia’s Ambassador to the World bringing this to my attention as I will follow your blog from now on.

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Liliana April 28, 2010 at 10:11 am

Anna,
one of the best things about writing this blog, has been the response I have gotten from Serbia and from Serbs in the diaspora. Please keep in touch. Best to you, Liliana

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Bibi April 28, 2010 at 5:22 am

This is so beautiful…I almost cried, but am here at school…. I can see myself confronting the same difficulties with my mother very soon, but she won’t have to travel far, but would move into a home. Sad. And I am so far.

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Liliana April 28, 2010 at 7:19 am

Bibi, I wish you all the best with your own mother. It is hard to be away, but being far from family is something I know a lot about.

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Karl April 27, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Beautiful story. I totally agree with Dave. You should write a book about your life and family. Thanks.

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Liliana April 28, 2010 at 7:18 am

Karl, thank you for your encouragement and for posting my story on your site. It pleases me to share it with people who really know and appreciate that troubled but glorious land.
I am pleased to add the link to your site on my blog and will keep reading it.
Best to you,
Ljiljana

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Karl Haudbourg June 17, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Liliana, thank you for your kind words about what I am doing. And for the link, a Big thank you, much appreciated.

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Dave Harrison April 27, 2010 at 8:03 am

Liliana,
You should write a book about your life and family. These are all so interesting and you describe things in such detail I feel I’m there with you. I feel for your Mother as I have seen the deteriation of Alshimers before and it has to be worse than death itself.
Your always in my prayers
Dave

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Liliana April 27, 2010 at 9:15 am

Thanks, Dave for your loyalty and support. For years I have talked about writing a book about my family – goodness knows we have tons of material. Maybe someday, when I have time to really give it what it takes. Hugs to you.

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ann mulhern April 27, 2010 at 7:18 am

Liljana, this is so heartbreakingly beautiful.

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Liliana April 27, 2010 at 9:13 am

Thanks, girlfriend, for always being there when the times were hard. One of my favorite memories is you sending me flowers on my mother’s birthday. Love forever.

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