Growing up as an immigrant child in Southern California was a strange study in cultural clashes. When we emigrated in 1971 from former Yugoslavia, we arrived with suitcases, mad work ethic, dreams, and delicious cured meats. Back then you didn’t fear having smoked pork or Slivovica (our plum brandy which is liquid fire) confiscated, so travelling back and forth to the old country always included a moveable feast.
I was raised in a strict, traditional Slavic household with a shadowy father presence and as you know, a kick-ass mother who could do anything with her hands from kneading the perfect dough for daily bread baking to bricklaying our little patio and everything in between. She was built from fire and relished proving she could accomplish anything she set her mind to, which she did.
I was eager to become Americanized even though Serbian was spoken in the house and we lived on a diet of navy bean soup, Sarma (stuffed cabbage) and Serbian salads (Ice Berg lettuce, many chopped vegetables, and a simple home-made oil and white vinegar dressing with pepper and copious amounts of salt). Potato chips were forbidden. I am embarrassed to admit that I lost most of my native tongue but I still deeply love my culture and am richer for the ‘Old Country’ wisdom mom instilled in me.
As a kid who believed that TV was reality, before reality TV, I was always in awe of TV moms like Carol Brady on the Brady Bunch. Carol was bright, pixie-ish, bubbly, and never moody. She smiled throughout each episode and always spoke comforting words to her children when they were distressed. Somehow, she always had the right words to boost deflated egos and pamper hurt emotions.
But TV moms were worlds away from my mom, Ljubica, the little girl orphaned in WWII who survived infinite grief. My mom could never be Carol Brady even though my naïve self -wished really wished it so back then.
Mom was tough, direct; a truth teller at any cost and could was acerbic in her delivery. She didn’t have time to soften a verbal blow; in fact, it never occurred to her that this was necessary because to her, all that was necessary was to train me to survive in a hard world. There were bigger challenges in daily life to overcome; softness was a dangerous indulgence, a weakness in her experience. This context helps to explain why with trepidation, I tested her capacity to be like soft Carol Brady only once.
One day I came home devastated from some personal conflict at middle school with friends, and I was crying. I didn’t cry often in front of mom, I didn’t think it was done. I’d never seen her cry except for just a few times; when a friend would bring up the war, or when my father would hit her. He was physically violent when drunk and agitated, and had a history of hitting mom, my older sister, and me. It only happened to me a few times, but it was enough to screw with my sense of self-worth for a long time. Thankfully I worked through it through faith and love.
But this school event really hurt me. I was always awkward, stemming from being the immigrant needing to learn a new language, and culture, as well as having low self-esteem. This school event made me feel friendless and humiliated. My friends turned on me en masse one day. When I walked through the door and into the family room where mom was working on re-upholstering our furniture, she saw that I was physically upset. I began to sob when she aggressively pushed me to explain my tears.
I shared my story through gasps for air and snot bubbles. This is when the room immediately went silent. I stared into her contorted face, her mouth turned downward and her eyes squinting into slits as she tried to process my emotions. I could see her internal wheels spinning, trying to understand how on earth my day’s events could have undone me like this. How? I now know she was wondering why I cared so much when I already had a family, a home, food, safety. What did it matter if teenage girls excluded me!
And then it came, with composure and certainty, mom spoke these words, “Sasha, life is hard. Very hard.” She let those words sift down into the family room space until it covered everything including me. Then she walked away. The end! No explanation, no Carol Brady hugs and affirmations, no milkshakes, no shopping for Ditto’s jeans.
I felt two things; deeply alone, and then strangely certain that things were as they always were. Mom wasn’t shaken by my tragedy but didn’t help me solve my problem either. I knew I would be sad when I returned to school; my problem waiting for me in class. However, mom’s lack of support did something else. I had time to think and reflect on my situation. When I went to bed I reflected on my part in the school drama and recognized I was complicit in my own demise. I hated that.
I would accept my own fault in a bad situation and begin the next day humbled. In short time, friends returned and apologized to me. I was able to solve a problem in middle school because my mom left me to deal with a hard life lesson. She helped me realize that hard times are just that, times. They are finite.
How can a hard life lessons lead to happiness? When I think of my mom and everything she endured, she learned how to build self-confidence with her ability to overcome. I can still hear her say, “pain helps us find joy.” Defying any source of pain which could derail her, she vehemently attacked back at the enemy, many times cussing in Serbian which is more offensive than English can ever aspire to be, anyway. She made the Decision to see life through this lens. She learned to be her own problem solver and wanted to teach me too. She triumphed through a hard life over and over and over again becoming a formidable woman who could beat death many times. And each time that she rose in triumph, her joy was juicer and more delicious.