|My father, sister and I, Belgrade 1969|
Tuesday, 23 June 2015
The best thing my father ever did for me wasn't teaching me how to swim.
One summer in Greece when I was five, on a Papalimani Beach - the name even contains the root for "father" - my dad threw me off a dock and straight into water that was well above my head. The first thing I remember was the sea water burning my nostrils. The second, that as soon as my head bobbed up, I began raging accusations at him including the epic: "You crazy man, you tried to drown your very own child!" Our party burst into laughter. My tata (dad) told and retold this as a joke for many years. But by the time I ended my furious rant, I was a swimmer.
Father's Day did not exist in Belgrade of my childhood. Dads I knew: my tata, my amazing uncle Zoran - a second father to me who I still lovingly call Koka, my friends' dads and our neighbours were a rarely-appreciated bunch - at least publicly. They went to work, they fixed our toys, bikes and each other's cars, they mastered the art of making "pljeskavica" (famous Serbian burger) on a charcoal barbecue. They stood up to a bully, no matter whose child was being hurt. They watched soccer, dividing themselves between being the die-hard fans of either Red Star or Partizan and cursing the missed opportunities to score a goal, all the while remaining good friends. And they would get up at wee hours, coats over their PJs to come fetch us from a party. My sister knew if she were to run downstairs, all flushed from dancing and sweetly beg: "Tajkane, it's now the best part, could you come back in, say, an hour and a half?" that he would.
In all of my childhood I only remember one bad dad. There was a boy in my class who was often getting into fights. He was fearless and fast and dangerous. He lived with his single father who would show up to a parent-teacher meeting in an un-ironed shirt, dark wrinkly circles around his eyes. He smelled of alcohol and cigarettes. He would listen to the teachers’ concerns over his son's violent behaviour with only a silent nod, gaze hidden under puffy eyelids, far too calm for the list of offences. Then, my classmate would show up in school the next day with bruises. Before the day ended, he was in yet another school fight covering the home-made bruises with more honourable ones he earned while deliberately picking on a much older and stronger opponent. Years later we learned that his mother had barely escaped getting killed after one of the countless violent domestic disputes. Women's shelters were unknown. She fled to Germany, working as a gastarbeiter stealing moments to see her son while we were on overnight school-trips, twice a year.
This was my definition of a bad father. He was an addicted, sick man. It sounded like he had an excuse. Affliction comes conveniently to bad dads.
Throughout my life I have met many remarkable fathers. True heroes. The father who promptly RSVPs to his twins' tea parties. And those ones sporting glitter on their toe nails. The one who flew to the other side of the continent as fast as he could to watch over his baby girl while the socialite mom – whose turn for custody it was - was drunk, stoned and unaware that a 2-year-old can't survive if left alone at the poolside. The father whose yearly tradition was to take his kids camping in Algonquin Park in the middle of January, teaching them how to love, protect and befriend nature at -40 C. The father who welds half a year in the cold Canadian North and the rest of the time makes the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, showering his family with care and affection. And two fathers, a dad and a tata, who are masterfully raising their son with abundant love, teaching him the very essence of freedom. A dad, the soccer coach, instilling army-like discipline and precision in second graders, only to break all of his own rules as he ran victoriously across a field in East York, grin visible from the moon - with his step-son hoisted triumphantly high above his head in one arm, after the (accidentally) scored goal! Step-father? No way! Only a real father can be this amazing!
For the last several years I've been basking in the feeling of finally having back-to-back-to-back perfect Father's Days. School-made gifts I harbour for days at a time, while two sets of little feet keep anxiously stomping around them, revealing my hiding place well in advance of the Sunday morning's pancake breakfast. And the cheerful screams of "Aba, Aba!" fighting for my husband's attention as we map out the fun-filled day. This year, it was our first piano recital in a downtown Toronto gallery that our amazing teacher Viktoria holds deliberately on Father's Day. All throughout the audience I observed the beaming, glowing fathers with glint in their eyes who don't even attempt to hide how deeply moved they are by their offspring's performance, my man among them. So sexy!
But the duality of life wouldn't be complete without the bad dads, right?
The decorated police officer who after verbally abusing mom in front of their child at the end of his weekend asks: What are you going to do? Call the police? - I am the police!
And the top-notch lawyer who sinks himself into his work during a 90-hour work week only to sink into his phone for the remainder of any possible family time.
Or the oil business white-collar executive who on Father's Day writes e-mails to the son he's never met in an attempt to weasel out of paying adequate child support yet one more time.
What "bad dads" don't understand is that kids are resilient. Their kids will grow up whether they abuse or blackmail or ignore or weasel out. They will actually be better for knowing who they don't want to be when they grow up. What will become clear one day, maybe only on his deathbed, is that despite the fact that he might have been a decent father to a dozen other kids, it is all worthless if he has been a bastard to one. That’s just how it is.
And while I'm at it, a huge bow down to the single mothers doing double duty on Father's Day and every other day. I've been one and I'm in awe of you - those I don't know and those I do and am privileged to serve. One good parent is more than enough! No dad - no damage. Not bad!
The best thing my father ever did for me was to get me a signature. Mr.Popović, a Belgrade lawyer, had the power of signing a document that would forever end a year of my greatest anguish. But he refused - he was too busy. He was leaving on vacation. Cottage-bound. The office is now closed and will re-open in two weeks. Please leave a message. Beep.
I will never know how my dad did this 19 years ago, but somewhere in Serbia's cottage country the two men met. They sat down and had a glass of šljivovica my father brought. Talked about fatherhood and their daughters. And when decency and common sense finally crumbled the arrogant air of a hardened divorce attorney, Mr.Popović looked at my father earnestly and said: "I get it. What happened to your daughter is disgusting. I would have done the same thing for my child. I would gladly draft the final divorce, but this is a cottage. I don't have a computer and printer here". My father silently reached into a bag and pulled out a leather box that stored a Hermes original manual typewriter. Three crisp white sheets were already inserted, sandwiched with deep indigo blue copy paper. Mr.Popović, took a sip of šljivovica and started typing. He finished just after midnight. Pulling the papers out, the old lawyer said - "Damn! I have my stamp with me, but unfortunately no ink pad". Then he looked at my father. The moist purple cushion had already materialized in front of him.
My father was a humble, quiet man. Although he was proud of us three girls - our mom, my sister and I - he kept his praise private. And he never asked for much back.
The following morning after feeding my baby boy, I joined my parents in the kitchen for our ritual of coffee and conversation before work started at the pharmacy, and they turned into my daycare.
My mom said: Good morning darling. We have news - you divorced yesterday. You can apply for a Canadian visa now. You are free.
Happy Father's Day, Tata. Thank you!
Tuesday, 16 June 2015
There is a beautiful land far far away. It is so far away that most people forget it even exists.
Only the oldest of maps show its true location. But almost all the maps have faded or long been lost.
The last explorers who went there say that one needs to go over seven seas...
And over seven hills.
Be ready to tackle any weather...
And face the strangest of nights -
Dreaming tangled dreams.
Then take the long and winding road...
That leads through an enchanted forest...
All the way until the end of the world.
There board a magical ship...
And find an entirely new land...
And a well-hidden secret bay...
And only when the moon is full a bright road will appear...
Leading to the top of the mountain...
With a lighthouse high at its very top.
Shining a light on a world so magical...
That in its reflection, one learns what is one of life's greatest treasures:
F r i e n d s h i p.
The long-lost art of real and true friendship. Where no matter the miles nor the years that separate us, nothing ever changes. We are still the 7-year-old girls inventing games. Making maps. Drawing with chalk and water-colours, charcoal and pastels. Writing notes and letters. Celebrating our birthdays together in the fall when school starts because we both happen to be summer babies. We are still 11 and whispering to each other our most sacred secrets in the school yard. Confiding to one another our first crushes (who just happened to also be best friends!). We shared our hopes and our dreams. We made plans so elaborate we had maps and designs for them and we even knew what our homes and beds and pillows would look like one day. We have never fought. Or compared. Or competed. Or gossiped. Or lied. Simply. Never.
The beautiful land far, far away is the land of true friendship - the one that has almost been lost and forgotten in today's world. Its true essence has faded and been hidden behind the mundane, the meaningless and the materialistic, threatened by the insignificant and insecure. Shadowed by "The Bachelor". Tainted by the Kardashian. Convinced that there is not enough for all of us, so that we have to resort to claws and comparisons and competitions. Or adopt being hurtful or mean or conniving.
Where in the world is your childhood's bestie? How long has it been since you told her how much she meant to you and how sacred your friendship is? How wealthy do you feel that you still have her in your life to talk future, to talk today, and to giggle while reminiscing the past?
Today, I chatted the whole afternoon with my childhood's bestie, just as we did last week. We live on two different continents. I live in a bustling city. She lives in the picturesque countryside. I have sons. She has a daughter. I am a pharmacist. She is an artist. An artist whose art leaves me speechless. Feeling goosebumps. Feeling inspired. And grateful.
And in awe - because somehow we knew this would be a lifelong friendship almost three decades ago. 1976. Grade 1. Special. Beautiful. And like all true and pure female friendships: it is life-prolonging. Best friends forever!
|I love you Aleksandra Erić!|
|Aleksandra's entry in my journal 1978|
Monday, 8 June 2015
One of the toughest things I ever had to do as an immigrant-single-mother was become a landlord.
I visited my friend the other day giving her a hug after her exciting time abroad. And as we chatted and laughed I casually disappeared to the kitchen and silently opened her freezer. I scanned the few boxes - some packages of edamame and a frozen yoghurt desert. Phew, no umbilical cord stored -- they dodged the hospital, but what about the cord blood banking? It’s now up to Bella*, her poodle to check the backyard for anything else.
That skill was required if we were to succeed with an arrangement that my son and I can start living independently in our own house five minutes away from the school as well as steps away from my mom - aka Bajce aka day-care aka before&after school program aka ruthless retired-lawyer tutor aka #all-meals-made-from-scratch. Often in my early days of motherhood that coincided with the early days of heartache over my unexpected divorce I would come to the conclusion that no one really needed a husband, if they only had a mom like mine!
The tough part about renting the basement of my mother's house was that for 500$/month it was hard to attract a “high quality tenant”. So, burdened by my own story and wanting to save the world one single mother at the time, the first two tenants have both been single moms, each with a little boy in tow. The first one lasted only for a few months. Her beautiful blue sparkly eyes hid a severe mental illness I couldn't have picked up on the interview. Nor would I have deemed it fair to deny her shelter because of it. After all, I am a healthcare professional - stigma stops with me. Unfortunately, the social services picked it up no problem as they came to collect the 4-year-old that she left home alone while she went running on the streets, shouting and hitting cars with a wooden plank she picked up along the way. Naked.
The second single mom was a child with a child. I should have known there was no way she could afford to be a responsible parent let alone a tenant - there was a venti Starbucks frappuccino in her hand every day coming home while her boy munched on a mummified McNugget, greasy little fingers clutching the happy meal toy. My hope was that by mere proximity to my mother, who was always a mom to any kid we happened to bring home, she would start knowing better, doing better. Once when she hadn't left her apartment for a few days, mom went down with a hot soup and a freshly-baked banana bread, sure they were both down with flu, only to discover they must have moved out overnight, forgetting to lock the door and pay the last three months rent. She had said she was between jobs. I nodded and said I understood.
Thankfully an unemployed history teacher turned Riverdale jail guard working the night-shift soon moved in, causing us to relax for a long stretch of time. We appreciated having this interesting and well-read man sleep all day. He appreciated finding a banana bread on his window sill when he came home at dawn.
But just before him, we had another tenant - an old lady, Jun… Oh, do I remember!
Back in the nineties, it cost me a fortune (36$!) to place an ad in the newspaper hoping to find a renter. Today there is just about a million free ways to search for the right tenant - pages and pages of rental websites can be found in seconds. Between Airbnb, Craigslist, Kijiji, Tripadvisor and a myriad of local rental hubs, it is easy for one to post an ad - the photos, the hood, the price. Right?
Who would you want to live in your space, should your work, say, take you abroad for six months of the year? A period too long to just put sheets over the furniture and too short to contemplate selling.
A friend of mine - a smart, honest and meticulous human being - took an analytical approach to advertising her beautiful place downtown. She was looking for a professional (read: pay rent on time) couple (single people can attract all sorts of trouble back home with them), non smokers, no pets (for obvious reasons), no kids (perhaps because she's met my kids?) to leave her sacred space to strangers for six months (in exchange for rent money, of course). As it turned out, she had an amazing choice of couples from which to choose. Guess we always look for something similar to us and something we hold in high regard when making these decisions. That way, although there are no guarantees, at least for the start we feel like we made a safe and reliable choice. So, no wonder, my friend settled, after a series of Skype calls, on a couple that was already on route to the big city: a PhD candidate and his yoga instructor wife. It spelled: responsible. Honest. It radiated: karma-conscious. In subconscious mind: safe. Decent.
The neighbours said they were quite nice. For the most part - quiet. They kept to themselves.
The familiar noise of keys jingling in my friend's hand as she approached her front door six moths later invoked a feeling of anxiety - what would she find walking back into the sacred space she worked so hard for? The recent news-story of an Airbnb condo being trashed beyond recognition as if a rock-band had been holding an after-party and a barfing marathon in it probably sits in minds of anyone who has ever handed the keys of their home to a stranger.
So when the door opened and she caught a glimpse of the inside of her home looking familiar and welcoming she relaxed. As agreed, the couple had hired her own cleaning lady to come several times during their stay and clearly they had kept their part of that bargain.
Kicking off her shoes, she went to her bathroom to refresh. Brand new soap bar. Clean towels. Thank goodness.
Nothing feels more like “Home Sweet Home” then stretching out comfortably on your own familiar bed. Your bedding. Your pillow. The scent of your favourite fabric softener. The ultimate comfort we work hard for.
She didn’t know whether it was an unfamiliar smell or was it the room’s Feng Shui that seemed odd and all upside-down but for some reason she just couldn't relax. She tossed and turned and became restless as if waiting for some truth to sink in.
And what do we do when we feel the pang of unexplained anxiety? We make a trip to the fridge! She was still contemplating which healthy snack would provide both ease and comfort, her hand on the fridge handle when a note under a magnet caught her eye.
It was a neighbours’ "welcome to the hood" note. Introducing herself. Listing the best coffee and take out places. Then saying she was excited to meet the little fella soon.
Little fellow? What little fellow?
Although my friend is a devoted doggy-mom the ad had specified no pets. A vet had recommended that so that her dog would feel like she was home once they returned.
Could it be a child? All these calls - they said nothing about bringing a child!
As it turned out, the yoga instructor - I’ll call her Rosemary - and her academic hubby were liars. Rosemary was nearly 7 months pregnant when they moved in - easy to disguise on Skype if one wants to. Not so easy to disguise as one waddles down the street and runs into a neighbour.
People don’t need to ask landlords for permission to have kids. I get that. How about getting consent to having a home birth?
My friend’s place was also a training ground - apparently two mid-wives in training attended as well, together with a crowd of family and friends likely holding hands and chanting “Kumbaya” in lieu of an epidural. Or to clear the karma of two parents who conscientiously chose to birth their child in a cloud of deceit - equivalent to having him wrapped into a yoga mat made of lies. How very granola of them!
I’m an unreasonably-affectionate mother of three. For 823 days of my life I have been an expectant mother, loving my nausea and my swollen feet, nightly leg cramps and even the dreaded finger exams - all this was leading to my motherhood graduation days one January, one July and one October. And with recent public lash-outs on breast-feeding moms or the omnipresent fat-shaming should one not shed all the baby weight in the first few weeks like our Angies, and Jessicas and Giselles effortlessly do - I am extremely protective of new moms. They don’t tell us how hard the first few months of ultimate sleep deprivation are. Or that breast-feeding at the beginning hurts more than the roughest of labour pains. Or that the baby blues is often a cruel downplay on postpartum depression we feel too guilty to admit and get treated. White knuckling those first days and months trying to look as blissful as expected. Reading those damn cards that completely misrepresent the chaos we are trying to get the hold of (Hallmark and I have never been on good terms). No one tells us that it sometimes takes years to get our bodies back in shape or our marriage back to harmony; our jobs back to rewarding. And our self-esteem back at all!
And with all my love and understanding of new moms I can’t fathom any place but the hospital for me to leave my sweat and tears and many other bodily fluids coming out of me and my baby. Leaving it in someone else’s home is just plain gross and irresponsible. And a biohazard.
|Internet - the oasis of quotes!|
You see, that old lady Jun - my last horrible tenant - was a hoarder. As seen on TV. The worst find during the clean-up after a long-fought eviction: fish insides, guts and intestines, bagless in the fridge and freezer. Although we had to replace the fridge I was so relieved the bloody fragments actually belonged to a fish. It could've been worse. That fall as we prepared to plant bulbs in the flower beds, we discovered that Jun buried about 3 dozen fish heads. The rotting smell scarred me for life. Gave up gardening - forever.
But still better than finding Rosemary’s placenta stashed somewhere!
*not her real name
Tuesday, 2 June 2015
What does a rainy Sunday at the end of May spell?
Binge-watching reality TV!
In my defence, earlier this morning I cooked some seriously savoury organic home-grown stuffed peppers and experimented for the first time with my husband’s favourite Middle-Eastern treat “Mahalabia” with a perfect result!
So, darlings, judge me all you want, but I sank onto my sofa in the afternoon to watch the finale of MasterChef Canada Season 2 one more time. And as a refresher, a few of the previous episodes. OK, I admit it - I binge-watched people cook for about 5 hours!
After all, my sister - our family’s own kitchen maven - was a contestant herself! One day, for a few hours our family and friends and colleagues were guests on the set as she cooked for that coveted white apron. Star-struck by the familiar surroundings, the young producers running around with clip-boards, the cool camera crew following us around - never mind the three famous judges - this was a fun and unforgettable escape from my regular career of mostly serious, medical stuff.
It took me a solid hour to tame my disappointment after the very first episode finally aired in early February. After reaching the top 25 home chefs, my sister was asked to surrender her white apron. 16 others moved into the cooking Coliseum, an insanely-equipped stainless-steel kitchen. My bitterness was somewhat soothed by the knowledge that, for our family, food is a thing of pure love - a meditation over the stovetop rather than a competitive sport. But it was easy for me to continue being glued to the TV - feeling a pang of hunger - every Sunday at 7:00 PM because of two other amazingly talented and strong home chefs, Line and Tammy, who knew how to cook, decorate, cooperate and compete while clearly becoming good friends along the way.
As a former single mother I nodded to myself: “Whoa! Line it is!”
* her real name, XOXO!
** read the reviews then tried for myself - R for robbed, D for disappointed!