I was fascinated by stories and storytelling from the moment my big eyes blinked for the first time encountering a sun’s ray. Mother was an insatiable source of tales and fables, anecdotes and jokes, poems and songs. I listened to her melodic voice mesmerized by the sound and cadence, not understanding a word in the beginning, comforted by the warmth and rhythm as she narrated or read, holding me firmly in her lap. Pretty soon I started weaving stories of my own, fed by hundreds of books that miraculously appeared in my life just when I needed them.
But reading was not a passive undertaking. Both Mother and Father loved to read, and reading for them involved copying favorite passages in a notebook and revisiting them from time to time. I had day-timers filled with quotes, while my books retained their virgin, pristine look. I read, and I copied, and I thought about the passages I had copied, and the words slowly entranced me until I was forever lost to their magic.
I walked through the city park on my way home from the conservatory where I took piano and solfeggio, oblivious of the world around me, trying to shape a story into a poem, and then adding the melody, counting every syllable in my head, aiming for the perfect rhyme and perfect harmony. In seventh and eighth grade I wrote elaborate poems in decasyllable that told about class escapades mimicking the old Serbian epic poems in an attempt to make myself a bit more visible among my peers.
In high school I wrote wretchedly melodramatic poetry prompted by my unrequited love for a beautiful green-eyed boy I saw in my karate class. I produced some reluctantly written fine prose that caused many raised eyebrows and earned me prizes in essay contests. The poems I tried to hide, embarrassed by the effluvium of raw emotions, but my younger sister would find them, copy them for further use, either as blackmail or as fodder for school essays of her own. The prose, on the other hand, was out in the open with the topic hanging around the house for days while I did everything to avoid whatever writing was to be done.
As the deadline approached, I would get my notebook and fountain pen which allowed my letters to flow on the paper without interruption. I would sit at my pull-down desk next to the window, chew on the end of the pen, stare outside, and try to catch an idea in flight. After several futile attempts at writing, I would get up with a sigh and join Mother in the kitchen, pretending to be hungry, but in reality fishing for inspiration. She never told me what to write, but instead made me think and drag the inspiration from my heart. Armed with all the questions she posed, I would run back and start writing and rewriting until I had a piece that satisfied me.
I still had to read it to Mother to pass the ultimate test of quality. She would stop whatever she was doing at the time, sit in the orange chair at the kitchen table and give me all the attention I needed. And I needed a lot. As I read aloud, she would barely nod, smile, and sometimes look at me. In the end she would give me a few comments and a lot of encouragement, and send me on my way back to my tiny pull-down desk to write the final version.
Because of her, I never stopped reading. Because of her, I decided to study languages and literature, even though I could have followed in Father’s footsteps and survived even the most challenging classes at Med School and come out with a coveted MD following my name. In the end, I am a writer because of her. And when my Aunt Sonja recently texted her and inquired about a prize-winning story she had written in fifth grade, I found out that she was just like me. If Mother were just a bit less Austro-Hungarian, she would have said WTF? But she just looked at me from her bed, while I was trying forever to pass an impossibly hard level in a computer game, and asked: Why is she digging up this stuff?
Annoyed by my inability to place various geometric shapes into the prescribed fields with any sort of accuracy, I welcomed the distraction and perked my ears when she mentioned the story. She tried to push it away, concentrating on the Indian soap opera on TV, but I was not buying it. I had a chance to peek into Mother’s eleven-year-old soul and I was not missing that opportunity.
She summarized the story in a few sentences. When she was finished, I pretended that I had to go to the bathroom and left the room crying. Mother’s story was entitled Ljiljana’s Dream. My younger sister’s name is Ljiljana, AKA Schwester Liliana to her patients in one of Frankfurt’s Intensive Care Units. Twenty years before she had her Ljiljana, she dreamed that she found a story in one of her story books. When she awoke, she excitedly reached for the book, but could not find the story, no matter how frantically she leafed through it. Realizing that it was a dream, she caught the disappearing tendrils of it and put it on paper.
The summary: Ljiljana and her mother lived by themselves. They were very poor. It was winter and they were cold. There was nothing to eat and Ljiljana’s mother got sick. The little girl could not afford to buy food nor medicine, and she cried every night, wishing her mother would get better. One particularly cold and windy night, Ljiljana fell asleep from exhaustion and hunger, and had a dream. In her dream she heard someone knocking on the door.
When she opened the door, the small front yard was filled with beautiful vegetables lining in a queue, waiting to enter. A ruddy potato hefted its bulk through the door first, followed by a grumpy onion with peeling skin, and a perky carrot, orderly and straight. Right behind them a couple of peppers, one green, one red, stepped over the threshold, making room for a tomato, all cheerful and sweet. Peas marched in a military position, ready to jump into a pot on order, while a garlic hesitated, walking slowly, guarding the rear.
Ljiljana smiled in her dream and rushed to fetch the old beaten up soup pot. She filled it with water and the vegetables plopped in one by one. While the soup simmered on the old wooden stove, the whole house smelled heavenly. She ladled the hot soup into a bowl and fed her mother. With every spoonful, her mother’s eyes became clearer and the drops of sweat disappeared from her forehead. As her face broke into a smile, Ljiljana clapped her hands and danced around. The miraculous soup healed her beloved mother and she could not hide her happiness. As soon as she woke up, Ljiljana reached for her mother to tell her all about the dream, the soup, and the cure. But it was too late – her mother had died during the night.
The story broke me and I cried. I cried for the little girl Ljiljana and her mother. I cried for my sister Ljiljana and our ailing mother. I cried for all the things that I did not know about her, cursing this disease that is stealing her from us before I can learn everything she has to offer (as if that were possible at all).
But when the tears eventually stopped, I had to smile as I imagined my eleven-year-old mother, her honey-colored hair tamed into two long braids, leaning earnestly over a lined notebook with the ink pen in her hand, trying to remember every detail of her dream, transforming it into a story that would eventually win her the first prize in the essay contest.
I prepare every meal she eats. I indulge every little whim of hers and fulfill her quirkiest culinary desires. But since she told me about Ljiljana’s Dream, I look for any excuse I can dig up not to make a vegetable soup, even though Mother loves my vegetable soup. The Farmers’ Market has been tempting me with the most beautiful produce of the whole summer, and even though I am not superstitious, every time I think of vegetables happily simmering in a flavorful broth, my throat constricts and the tears blind me.
I look for solace in gathering as many recipes from her as I can manage to write down. Under her tutelage I learned many techniques this summer that used to intimidate me, and mastered dishes I found challenging. I tried not to introduce any foreign foods into the household this summer, aware that my quest for the ingredients might be exhausting and often futile. Instead, I concentrated on cooking dishes using local, seasonal ingredients, taking advantage of the benefit of living in a developing country.
New potatoes have been seducing me since I arrived in July, and I had to subdue myself dozens of times when my greed took over and I wanted to buy a kilo or two and stuff them in my shopping bag, even though I had a hefty reserve of them back at home. I made them several times a week, searching for variety, but no matter how many different incarnations young potatoes went through in the kitchen, the favorite was still my grandmother Babuljica’s recipe that Mother brought with her when she married Father.
BABULJICA’S NEW POTATOES
The potatoes done this way are soft and sweet in the middle, and crunchy and salty on the outside. This is really not a recipe, but a method. There are only a few ingredients, and the exact amounts are not that important. In the beginning, I cheat and surreptitiously leave the potatoes unpeeled, which is an abomination among the Serbs. You can use any variety of potatoes you like, but I prefer red (Desire) and baby Yukon golds. In the summer I prefer really small potatoes. When they are bigger, I just cut them in half. Nothing beats homemade lard for frying and I always have some at hand. But if it is not available in your part of the world, or if you do not consume lard, sunflower oil works just fine (I have never tried making the potatoes with schmaltz or duck fat, but I can imagine that they would be heavenly).
- New potatoes
- Homemade lard (or sunflower oil)
Wash and scrub the potatoes (or, if you prefer, you can peel them). Cut the bigger ones in half. Place them in a pot filled with cold, salted water, heat until boiling, and then simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are barely done. Drain the water and leave the potatoes in the pot until ready to pan fry (they can sit on your counter for a few hours like this).
Melt the lard in a heavy skillet so it covers the bottom (1-2 tablespoons should be enough) and when it is hot, place the potatoes in one layer. Leave them undisturbed for a couple of minutes, until a golden crust appears on the bottom. Turn and leave for another minute or two, until the other side is done. Put the potatoes in a bowl lined with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt.
Last year at this time I wrote Be Sure to Wear the Flowers in Your Hair and made a version of Vietnamese Pho.