by Catherine Rankovic
Only one Serb, among the hundreds I’ve known, ever seemed to me to embody tragedy, and that was my father’s mother, my grandmother Kadivka. In 1964, when I was seven, my family left behind the small house in what was then called the “colored” neighborhood, and moved to the white section of town, into a tract house where there was room to keep Kadivka. My father had mailed money to his mother regularly since first coming to the United States, but he hoped to support her in the traditional way by taking her into his home. In 1965 he sent to Yugoslavia for her. Grandma still lived, alone now, in the whitewashed, dirt-floored cottage in Krnjevo in which my father had been born and reared. She had not seen her son since he joined the disastrously fated Yugoslav Royal Army – crushed in two weeks by the Axis powers – in 1941. I did not witness the initial reunion at the airport, but as soon as Grandma arrived at our house it was clear our plan to keep her was somehow doomed to failure. She had thrown up in the car as she would throw up in all moving cars on all occasions. Her gift bottles of Serbian plum brandy – the powerful slivovitz, as far as I know the only widely celebrated product of Serbian culture – had broken in transit, ruining her belongings and raising an alcoholic reek throughout the house as we tried for weeks to scrub and air her luggage. Upon seeing our backyard innocent of all but grass, she asked my father where we kept our pigs and chickens.
We took her to church and among the immigrant Serbs, on family trips to the zoo and botanical gardens, yet America seemed ever more deeply to baffle and depress her. Too frail to babysit or cook or bathe alone, most of the time she slept or sat in the living room crocheting, meanwhile dribbling urine on the satin-covered chairs. Television, like car trips, made her vomit. She spoke no English and her grandchildren spoke no Serbian. My mother taught me, phonetically, a phrase that called her to meals. Grandma rarely spoke. During her first few weeks in America, she amazed and amused my sisters and me by standing – a tiny, silent, grim-faced woman, wholly wrinkled like a dried pear, dressed all in black except for the magenta cabbage roses edging her babushka – at the entrances of rooms and switching the electric lights on and off. I do not remember ever touching her.
She was given my bed. I, her Anglicized namesake, slept on a cot in the room – or rather, I lay awake in the dark and listened to her harsh breathing, fascinated by and fearing her strangeness and inscrutability. She seemed even to breathe in Serbian, and I prayed I would not be the lone witness to the moment I always believed imminent – when her breathing would cease. Besides our names we had, I thought, nothing in common. Even my father was not the son she had known. Typically, I had been told nothing about her, and as she was she inspired in me neither love nor sympathy. Though I did not know this then, she had a living daughter, my Serbian aunt, whose existence my father never mentioned until after she had died, because my aunt most shamelessly drank. I had to press him for her name. Between that daughter, my grandmother’s eldest child, and my father, her youngest, Grandma had had three more children who had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Grandma was illiterate. A 1958 document, translated from Serbian, reveals all the rest that the world can ever know about her:
. . .Kadivka Rankovic, widow of Petar Rankovic from Krnjevo, was born in Veliko Orasja on October date unknown in 1888 from the marriage of Milan Lekic and Stanojka, his wife, both of Veliko Orasja.
This paper is given in lieu of the original certificate of birth because the original was destroyed during World War I.
Of her husband, my grandfather Petar who died in the mid 1950s, one photograph exists, or perhaps was ever taken. He wears a broad-brimmed white hat, glares out from beneath it, and under his snowy handlebar mustache his mouth is open and drawn downward in an angry, disaffected curve, as if he were cursing the photographer. All I know of him is that he drank. Though I could not then and still today cannot imagine it, he and my grandmother had lived at the epicenter of two world wars, and here is what makes them, and me, Serbian indeed: All further family records were destroyed in the wars, so it is impossible ever to know, beyond the range of living memory, who we were and therefore – by the American measure – who we are.
Possibly as a corrective or antidote to our ancestral void, which also affected the Polish side of the family, my mother often arranged to have family portraits taken. Despite their harmlessness, these were always somehow agonizing occasions. We had a portrait taken with Grandma. In the photo graph, Grandma, lost in one of my mother’s swirl-printed dresses, looks like a sad human fact. She sits with her head sunk between her bowed shoulders; she looks old and beaten down and helpless and as if she knows it. Minus the babushka for the photograph, she appears to be nearly bald. Though she does not smile, her lack of teeth is more than apparent. The rest of us, my baby sister excepted, are bearing the discomfiting moment in our individual ways: smirking, shrinking, pouting, staring, forcing a cheery smile. The most alarming thing about the photograph, in my parents’ view, was that my nose – my father’s nose, possibly Turkish or Gypsy in origin – had already grown to its full adult length and with my head, as in the picture, inclined slightly downward it was indeed not far between myself and the cartoon accompaniment to the popular graffito “Kilroy Was Here.” My mother talked of plastic surgery. My parents discussed getting Grandma some teeth. Grandma and I resisted these improvements. And, inevitably, as we had intuited she would, Grandma Kadivka soon became an episode. After six months she gladly returned to her familiar home in Yugoslavia, dying there ten years later. We received an airmailed letter. My father spent that afternoon with his head in his hands. I did not mourn; I felt I had not known her. I felt about her as I would about a passing figure dimly recorded on a length of silent film. “She thought you would be friendlier,” my mother said to me. I remember evilly thinking that if Grandma had wanted to be friends she should have met me halfway.
Alone among the Serbs I knew, Grandma seemed to me a pawn of fate and vessel of tragedy, bulldozed by history, stunned into silence. She was the only Serb I knew who ever went back to stay. In America she could only reflect on her life and compare it with the life we felt obliged to offer her; maybe upon reflection she found American comforts and gaieties, and the grandchildren who shied from her, the more shallow and embittering. I felt her dark, hooded presence, and then her absence, as a reproach. My father told the story of the Serbian king who during wartime built a wall around his kingdom to protect it from enemies. God however informed him that his kingdom could be saved only if the king buried his beloved wife alive within the wall. (In Serbian fables, God frequently makes cruel demands.) With awful sorrow the king reluctantly did God’s will and saved Serbia, but to this day the queen’s unearthly wailing is still heard among the ruins of the wall. So I long felt about Grandma: haunted by the sense that I was blessed at her expense. This feeling, guilt, which I did not deserve, proved incurable until I realized that the Serbs, by example, had shown me a cure: a shift in focus to the present, a dwelling on life – where if my fate was better than Grandma’s my only sin would be in not being deliriously glad.
Most Serbs I knew delighted in America’s liberty and in its luxuries, available to them during the 1950s and ‘60s at the relatively inexpensive price of eight hours a day in the factories, foundries, quarries and breweries of the industrial Midwest, where most of them settled and we mostly still are. Except for the priests, a tailor or two, and my clerk-typist mother, there were in our circle no professionals. A few women worked as domestics, rarely, one might be employed as a fry cook or a stitcher at a coat factory. They were always warmly and ritually hospitable, especially to the half of me that was one of them. When my American traits became unmistakable, they chided me in fun, but chided nonetheless. I couldn’t speak Serbian? Didn’t I know that those who don’t know Serbian know nothing? Why didn’t I eat? Was I on a “diet”? (For “diets” and other American exercises in obsessive self-denial they correctly had incomparable contempt.) They were, like most immigrants, defensively clannish, distinguishing between the Serbian-born Serbs and the American-born Serbs, who were pitied, a little. As a group they avoided genuine Americans, especially the generic sports-watching, beer-drinking, curlers-in-public sort, because, I think, they understood and feared American ignorance, which belittles, threatens or laughs at the unfamiliar. My father’s first name, Dragomir – “Dragie” for short; it means “dearest” – inspired an American neighbor persistently to call him “Dragon-Wagon”; Americans so often bluntly asked my father to repeat what he had said, rolling their eyes heavenward and the like, that he grew to rely on his wife or children to do something as simple as order meals at McDonald’s (meals he loved). Serbian churches and meeting halls established by my father’s generation only welcomed the public to Serb Fests and such beginning in the 1980s, when my generation of hyphenates settled down and took over. We now doubt whether we can expect many Americans to come to our annual Serb Fest this year. If being a Serb means anything now, it means a growing loneliness, a sense of isolation, the worse for not being sure we do not deserve it. War news makes me uneasy; I feel incriminated and threatened; I cannot believe the articles, editorials and candlelight vigils urging further sanctions or mass death on my kin. I fear for Serbia, which it is now unlikely I will ever see, which I will know, as I know America, through a hyphenate’s lens, in translation, at one remove. I fear for fellow Serbian-Americans, who are now and most assiduously dredging the past to find excuses for the actions of their brothers, and developing a victim-consciousness as treacherous as it is fashionable – this is not our way. At times I wish I were anything but Serbian. But if being a Serb is my fate, I could do worse than to accept it.
Author Bio: Catherine Rankovic’s books include Fierce Consent and Other Poems (WingSpan, 2005) Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions (Andrews McMeel Universal, 2003), Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments (WingSpan, 2007), and Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis (Penultimate Press Inc., 2010). She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught from 1989 to 2010; she now teaches poetry and creative nonfiction writing in the online MFA program at Lindenwood University. Her essays and poems have appeared in Boulevard, Garbanzo, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, River Styx, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Umbrella, and other journals, and the anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press, Inc, 2008). Her awards include the Missouri Biennial Award for essay writing, first place in the Midwest Writing Center’s annual Mississippi Valley poetry competition, and an Academy of American Poets award. She is a professional book editor and her website is www.BookEval.com