When we moved to Irvine, California in the late seventies, my parents bought a house in a master planned community called Woodbridge. The American dream of owning a home was also the immigrant’s dream and we weren’t an exception. As we pulled off the 405 freeway into Irvine, we drove along the smoothly paved, virgin streets, and noticed stretching for miles to our left and right were orange orchards, cabbage fields that stunk like sauerkraut, and the Tustin Marine Base Hangar, which loomed over the landscape like a behemoth.
I thought for certain that my parents were duped by unscrupulous salespeople into buying here because at twelve I couldn’t get passed the kraut stench and lack of infrastructure. But Irvine turned into a goldmine city which mom had the vision to recognize.
The advantages of living in a master planned community such as Woodbridge were that families were able to enjoy so much within reach; parks, local stores, great schools, and endless bike paths. The homeowner’s association fees maintained the beautiful grounds and amenities. However, the darker side of homeowner’s associations is that they can be regulated with an iron fist by power hungry citizens and busybodies- and here is where mom ran into a little bit of trouble.
All of the homes were designed to look similar within each neighborhood “pod”. This uniformity ensured that as new homes were being built or remodeled, home values were protected. “Cookie Cutter” homes are built for this reason; maintain uniformity and you’ll maintain property value, or so they say.
Soon after we were settled, Mom wanted to build a trellis in our backyard area. We had to get permission to build it of course, which we did, and it was lovely. It provided a little extra shade over the patio tables where she hung boisterous fuchsia plants that drew iridescent humming birds to our little garden.
The shade was also needed so that we could enjoy our regular barbeques with family and during our annual Slavas. Slava is a Serbian Saint’s Day celebration where we invite mobs of friends and rent a spit and skewer to roast a young pig for ten hours. I’m not a huge pork fan, but it’s truly magnificent when it’s been smoked an entire day, every piece tasting like bacon. We celebrated life, we gorged on rich foods, and toasted exclaiming, “Ziveli” with plum brandy, known as Slivovic, also known as rocket fuel. Our small patio and backyard was the hot spot for many of these lively, cultural festivities.
After some time, my mom noticed that the wooden trellis had faded from its rich, original hue, and looked dull. She wanted to freshen it up a bit with paint. Our petite Southern California yard backed up to the apartments parking lot, and our fence obstructed the view of our trellis except for a few inches at the top. No one could see it from the street. Our next-door neighbors couldn’t see it because their fences and trees obstructed the view.
Mom studied paint swatches for a good match and hired a painter, but someone must have turned her in to the HOA police, because she was contacted by phone and ordered to cease painting. Being new to home ownership in a master planned community, we weren’t aware of some of the many, rabbit-hole rules. She was told over the phone that she couldn’t continue painting without first receiving approval from the board, and if she was permitted to paint the trellis, she must choose one of their three designated paint colors.
I imagine the phone call mom received didn’t go very well because she was cursing in Serbian (much more foul than English cursing) after the call and all the way up to the meeting with the HOA board. It infuriated her that she was commanded on color choice for her own property, which we paid taxes on, in her backyard in America, where no one could see inside the patio anyway.
The situation became an example of what my mom commonly called the business of “The Mafia”. Basically, any association or organization that abuses power to control people is “The Mafia”. “The Mafia” was government, political leaders, corrupt religious leaders, and now, Woodbridge Homeowner’s Association.
So Ljubica dressed that morning for business; a sensible pair of brown pants and a blouse, with her signature, comfortable walking shoes. She was middle aged, had been through more shit than people would dare to imagine, and she was confident in who she was.
Besides this, mom never cared about fitting in or being accepted anywhere. She did her own thing her entire life, whatever captivated her interest, from preferring to work with the men in the farm field over female housework when she was just five years old, to building the first national freeway system in Yugoslavia post WWII. Ljubica wasn’t a conformist. She moved through life with a sense of singular purpose and a belief that since God created her and kept alive, she had all the affirmation she needed to be authentically herself.
She arrived at the board meeting fully expecting to hear that at least one of the colors in her selection would be acceptable. The paint colors were all earthy tones and complimented our home, nothing jarring, a seamless blending is what she envisioned. She brought some paint swatches in her purse just in case the board needed assurance that she would make a good choice and settle their qualms.
She took a stand in the auditorium before the board and a large group of other residents in seats behind her. Although I wasn’t there to witness my mom’s trial, I so wish I was, but she described it like this in her thick Serbian accent,
“Vell, when it vas my turn, dis man who tinks he is boss, tells me in front of everyvone dat I have no right to break rules. Vhy vould I be special, if everyvone else in Voodbridge has to paint da colors day choose, vhy vould I be different? Da Mafia tries to vin!” “So, I say I chose good colors dat match my house, and novone can see anyvay, so vhat is da problem?
At her comment, she noticed the mafia boss’s (HOA president) face burned red hot, and his eyes narrowed at her.
“Dat man, den says in front of EVERYBODY, ‘Well, what color do you have in mind, pink like your panties?’”
The board members sitting in a large circle gasped as their eyes went buggy at his egregious and public comment and turned toward the short immigrant lady across from them at the podium, watching for my mom’s reaction. I imagine that they sized her up as a timid, small, broken-English foreigner, who might break down and cry in defeat. She did not.
Mom twisted up her face in disgust and shock that any man would dare say something so disrespectful to her, especially in a public forum like this meeting. Her neighbors were in that room. Then, Ljubica did what she does so well; she filled her chest with ample oxygen, and unleashed the righteous indignation of a fire breathing woman, burning him a new hole through and through,
“No mister! I vill paint it black like your brain!!” A mic drop moment.
The meeting hall instantly exploded into a cacophony of riotous shrieks and hollering that could have been heard outside the doors, and the board and the neighbors in the audience jumped to their feet with thunderous applause at mom’s bad-assery and refusal to be dressed down by ‘The Man’. She earned much more than applause that day, she earned respect from every person in that meeting. The president ridiculed her with his sexist and hateful remarks, expecting her to shrink of embarrassment and burst into tears, but Ljubica wasn’t having it!
Instead, she proved that NO ONE would intimate her or publically disrespect her without a full-blown Serbian woman’s ass-kicking. I so wish I could have been there to witness it, but each time she retold it to her friends, I could picture it more clearly. And I knew the stance she must have taken, I’ve seen it in practice, her battle posture was powerful: feet firmly planted under her ample hips, head held high, shoulders leaning into the drive, and her strong pointer finger boring into the man with her words. She electrified the room with her personal power. She knew her worth and no one was taking it from her.
Mom’s recounting of the story made her cackle and each time she repeated it, she howled harder. She became a legend in Woodbridge circles after news spread about how the salty, thickly-accented, little immigrant woman emasculated the Woodbridge HOA President and served him a shit sandwich.
Shortly after her legendary victory, our trellis was painted with a non-regulation shade of Ljuba’s choosing.
This account of standing up to whomever necessary to demand respect or recognition of her worth, is one of hundreds of examples that I remember with love and head-shaking reverence. Many times, while I was younger, I wished that I had so much more of her tenacity and bravery within me, I thought these gifts skipped a generation with me much of my life. It has taken living my life longer to appreciate that I too am brave.
And I have learned something else recently about bravery, it doesn’t look the same for everyone. Some kinds of bravery are quiet and subversive, but like an undercurrent which is imperceptible from the surface, it’s capable of cutting through rock. Depending on each personal situation, bravery may be undetectable to everyone else BUT the person practicing it, and that is what matters.
Bravery may just be refusing to believe the lies someone is telling you about who you are, or the lies you’ve been telling yourself. That’s also bravery because it’s creating a shift in how you think. We can grow accustomed to our circumstances and limiting beliefs that we accept, and they treacherously can become our “normal”.
Standing up for yourself doesn’t have to be a dramatic, legendary, and a public event like mom’s was or Solange’s epic ass-whooping of Jay-Z in the elevator- though I loved seeing that. It is rooted in knowing your worth and not needing the approval of others to affirm you. That is Personal Power.
Sometimes it’s just stating your opinion which goes against the consensus. Sometimes it’s deciding to walk alone if it means speaking up for the truth. Sometimes it’s leaving your abuser without a word spoken. But in whatever way your express it, remember that it is rooted in knowing your worth.
We are created by God, the Creator of all that exists, all life, galaxies, and everything beyond what we currently know. We are created in love and purpose. We are born with priceless worth, you are made of stars and divinity! No one can lessen your worth unless you allow them, but why would you? Once you accept and know your worth, you’ll never give discounts again.