Attached is a true story of my aunt from the collection of Croatian Life Stories.
ANICA, A MAIL ORDER BRIDE FROM CROATIA
By Katarina Tepesh
Anica was born on December 11, 1919 in the village of Rusnice, Croatia. An unpaved, rough, and narrow road, often chopped and muddied by cattle hoofs, emerges from Rusnice. Local people take a shortcut over the mountains to the nearest town, a mere 15-kilometer hike in one direction.
In Rusnice, villagers would great each other with “Bog dej!…God bless!” Their church, “Saint John” was 300 year old. The church bell rung every day at noon. The peasants would stop working for a minute, looked towards the church and crossed themselves. Once a year, a religious festival was celebrated during the most beautiful time of the year in the village. The meadows, not yet cut, were covered with wild flowers and tall grass. The hills of hardwood forests were green and lush.
Anica was the oldest in a family of seven children. Her twin sisters died in infancy due to tuberculosis.
She spent her childhood working on their homestead, going to church and attending five years of school, taught by Catholic nuns. “In school I especially enjoyed reading poems. That’s easy. What was difficult was getting up before dawn to help milk the cows.” If the times were good, they had a cow or two. The soft mooing of a cow woke the family up every morning because the cow lived right below the room where they slept. Throughout the year, the women in the family, as it was considered a woman’s job, began and ended their day by milking their cow. After milking, Anica took her wooden pail to the kitchen to strain the milk. Some milk they would drink fresh, while some they would let stand to sour in a pot. When they collected enough sour milk, they would heat the pot, strain out the curds, and then salted and kneaded the new cheese into a ball, which they left to dry.
Children walk to school, four kilometers one-way. When she had a hole in one of the soles, Anica traced her soles on a cardboard box and put cardboard insoles in her shoes.
On holidays and Sundays, her mother would teach her the best way to slaughter a chicken. “You can either wring its neck or chop off its head with a hatchet.” Anica rolled her eyes towards heaven and silently proceeded to do what had to be done. She had to learn to cook at an early age on a wood-burning stove and help figure out how to feed the large family. Making bread was especially strenuous on her back. The flour sack and the salt were on the kitchen table. She mixed the ingredients in the large wooden trough and stirred with a wooden spoon carved by her father. Her hands kneaded the dough, beating it hard until it was smooth and shiny. Now and then, she stretched her back exclaiming “Joj meni, joj! ….woe is me!” and wiped her forehead with her sleeve. She divided the dough and placed into the baskets to rise, rinsing her hands in the bucket and dried them on her apron.
A nearby creek was cold enough to freeze butter. In the winter, Anica would try to melt snow for washing clothes or dishes. Washing pots and pans was her job.
The worst thing in the winter was to use the outhouse.
The women had to fetch water every day and wash clothes all year round. These tasks were more strenuous during the winter months. Carrying a bucket of water on one’s head from the spring in the valley below, while treading the deep footprints in the snow-packed paths was a balancing act that women had to repeat several times a day.
The stove was the heart of the kitchen, drawing family to its warmth. In the spring when baby chicks were born, they lived in a box kept close to the heat.
They had dirt floors. Progress in her house meant chopping trees to make the kitchen floor. Then it was her job to scrub it. Her father and brothers had to do heavy work, like plow a field and chop trees to build a cabin for pigs. The family owned a couple of parcels of forested land for supplying wood for heating and raw materials to make tools. They would make wooden rakes or poles for vineyards.
Children at an early age would gather mushrooms, berries, and herbs in season to barter for winter shoes or at best, sell to a well-to-do family in town. The easiest job was to sort vegetable seeds. Preparing seeds for planting was done around kitchen table. With kitchen door open, a hen would stroll in with her chicks to peck the crumbs under the kitchen table.
Among Croatian peasants, it was always the oldest son who inherited the homestead. The daughters were expected to leave and get married. One Sunday evening, one of the young men from the next village, a little older than Anica, showed up at her house uninvited. He was a little drunk and wanted to talk to Anica’s father in private. They stepped outside, under a tree, to talk. “I had a couple of drinks, for courage. I will speak to you directly without beating around the bush. To survive on a homestead, you had to be robust, like Anica. I always see her wearing a well-worn checkered apron which is a good sign.”
Next thing she knew, her father called her and asked her, “Anica, you are almost 17 years old. Here is an opportunity for you to get married. Do you want to marry this young man?” Surprised and confused, Anica blurted out, “This man barely speaks to me. I only know him from a distance.” The young man walked away drunkenly.
A life of dreary existence on the homestead was not for her. Anica told her father, “I know I have to leave home because I’m a girl and find work. My goal in life is to work in Zagreb. For me, Zagreb is the center of the universe! I want to earn some money to buy myself a new dress and stockings.” She talked about her goal so much, that finally someone arranged for her a job as a family house cleaner and cook in Zagreb. The family she served was well off. They owned a publishing company and had many visitors. Anica learned about shopping at the market, cleaning, cooking, and the etiquette of proper serving. Very slowly, she also learned a little German. For the first time in her life, Anica had her own room. It was tiny, more like a closet, and not much light, but she made it spotless. With her first salary, Anica bought a small wooden crucifix, which she hung on the wall, above her bed. Feeling homesick, she cried herself to sleep every night. Seeing her puffed up face every morning, the mistress of the house said, “It’s no use crying. You have to toughen up! I spent the time teaching you how to cook, but the rest you have to do yourself. You have to be more mature and stronger. There are rumors of a war coming. God help us!”
Anica was 22 when the Second World War broke out. It immediately affected her as she lost her job in Zagreb. Back home in her village of Rusnice the situation was bleak. When crossing the river Sutla, which she did so often, Anica heard “Halt! Oder ich werde schiessen…Stop or I will shoot!” With a gun pointed at her head by the screaming German soldiers, Anica panicked, screamed and quickly raised her hands. Trembling and crying, she mumbled “Aber, gleich … ganz dringend brauchen das speisesalz..... Ja, ich bedarf das salz….. I’m just going to get some salt for cooking….. I need some salt.” Speaking in broken German, the soldiers barely heard her and she was arrested.
Thrown in jail for ten days she met a whole group of local Croatians. They all had been punished for breaking the curfew imposed by the German soldiers. Bewildered, Anica kept repeating that she had been on her way to barter or borrow salt for cooking.
It wasn’t safe to go anywhere. During the war, Anica’s family had horrible fights. Everyone was pulling in different directions. They had a terrible time deciding what political groups, if any, they should join. With no jobs and nothing to eat, Anica was desperate for some kind of employment.
Outside of the church, after mass, a young girl, Stefica, approached her to offer her a job. Stefica was working as a waitress. With her pleasant smile and shapely, voluptuous looks, she was quite popular with customers.
As the German army was moving south a group of German soldiers stopped in the restaurant for lunch. One of them, an elderly German SS officer, Herr Rudolf Wilshofen could not take his eyes off Stefica. “Ich liebe dich…..I love you” he whispered to her. On the spot, he offered her a marriage if she would follow him to Berlin. He promised her a beautiful villa with a garden. He said she could take two maids with her to Berlin to make her life easier. Stefica accepted the proposal and Anica became one of her servants and was employed as a cook.
A couple of weeks later, an entourage with the SS officer Herr Rudolf Wilshofen, Stefica, Anica and another cleaning maid left Croatia for Berlin. The girls only had time to take birth certificates but every time they approached a checkpoint, Herr Rudolf kept saying “Ich werde das erledigen….I will deal with this.”
When they arrived, everything the German said turned out to be true. The villa was huge, with a balcony, a terrace and a nice garden. It was fully furnished. Anica was in heaven with a huge kitchen full of pots and pans as well as fine silverware and crystal glassware. She worked hard but it was relatively easy. The food was plentiful enough to serve elegant seven course meals. The pantry was loaded with smoked meats, sausages, ham, eggs, milk and kilos of flour and coffee. They even had fresh fruit and plenty of bread. Herr Rudolf entertained his colleague SS officers lavishly. Menus were prepared with great care to serve substantial and typical German meals, including appetizers, soup, meat, potatoes, rice dumplings or noodles, vegetables and fresh green salad. Fine German wine, Riesling, was served at every occasion. Anica delighted at making the apple strudel or a mocha torte dessert.
She would often say to the other maid, “Well, at least we have plenty to eat and we wear nice gray uniforms and now I have a nice white apron.”
Her knowledge of broken German came in handy. Learning proper German was hard for Anica. Grammar especially, gave her a migraine headache. Who could remember the proper usage of the past tense, present and future? She felt frustrated. Herr Rudolf was very strict and meticulous about every detail. When Anica erred, he told her in no uncertain terms “Ich hoffe, das wird in der Zukunft unterbleiben…..I hope this will not happen again in the future.” Anica meekly lowered her eyes and mumbled “Nein…. Es tut mir leid…. I’m sorry.”
One day there was a buzz in the house. Someone said to Anica, “You know, Herr Adolf Hitler will be speaking at a rally nearby. You should go.” Anica did not go. Instead, she stayed in the kitchen to make sure that it was spotless, and prepared certain dishes to test.
After six months, Anica and the cleaning maid asked Herr Rudolf for vacation time. “Ich brauche Urlaub.” Before they boarded the train for Zagreb, they said goodbye to Stefica, who with tears in her eyes said, “My husband sleeps with a gun! I wonder what my future is.”
The two women traveling on the train got as far as Vienna, when they heard that the Allies had bombed Berlin. The train was halted and they had to wait. Scared, they asked each other “Do you think that Stefica and Herr Rudolf survived?” Tired of waiting at the station, they walked around town. Along the way, Anica and the other peasant girl took a rare opportunity and went to see a movie for the first time in their lives.
When they finally reached their village of Rusnice, Anica visited Stefica’s family. They told her that Stefica had died during the bombing of Berlin. They lit a candle and got down on their knees to pray in front of a small picture of the Virgin Mary. Crying and consoling each other, they whispered “This is our faith….Takva je nasa sudbina.”
They could hear the church bell in a sign that yet another villager had died. As a sign of respect, the whole village gathered in the church to pray for the dead. “Majka Bozja spasi nas….God save us.”
The price her family paid during the war was high. Anica lost her brother Milek who joined the Croatian Home Guards or “Domobranci.” A German soldier shot her brother, while the “Domobranci” were trying to liberate their hometown of Rusnice. Medic removed the bullet, but the wound become infected. With high fever and no medication of any kind available, Milek died 21 years old.
Stemming from false rumors that the enemies, the Serbs, were coming to attack Rusnice, her father died from a heart attack.
Her younger brother Joza stepped on a mine left by Germans and barely survived. He was an invalid for the rest of his life hobbling around with one leg, one eye and his body full of shrapnel. Anica’s sister gave birth to a baby during the war, before she got married. The family was devastated and torn apart.
After the war, in 1946, Anica was employed as the chef at a hotel in Zagorje. “I have to lift heavy pots in the kitchen, which is really hard work and the hours are very long. My legs ache, but I’m satisfied to have enough to eat and a free room at the hotel.”
She met two men Albin and Miro, who were always together. Naïve peasant girl that she was, she would brag to her family about how nice these two men were to her. “Such gentlemen! They never touched me!” While her sisters and school friends were dating sexually aggressive men and getting pregnant prematurely, Anica was left alone and treated nicely. Then one day unexpectedly, Albin cut his wrists. Bleeding profusely, he exclaimed, “I love Miro. I can no longer live without Miro!” Finally, it clicked to Anica that these two men were lovers, just using her as cover.
Bitterly disappointed, Anica complained to a friend, who offered to set her up as a mail order bride with a man from America of Croatian descent. His name was Louis. She was told that Louis was born in Zagreb, where his mother was madly in love with her Croatian boyfriend. When she got pregnant, he refused to marry her. Louis was born out of wedlock. Eventually, the mother met a foreign man, who offered her marriage if she would go with him to America, promising to take care of her and her son Louis. She married him, but never loved him. With each year of marriage, she became increasingly bitter. Louis tried to comfort her and became something of a mama’s boy. He never married, since his mother did not approve of his choices. Finally, the mother died, when Louis was fifty years old. Now he was free and decided to look for a nice Croatian girl. From the Bronx, he wrote a letter to a distant relative in Zagreb, asking if he knew of any Croatian woman who would have him. Louis attached two photos. A close-up showed a chubby face with a nice smile, brown eyes and a baldhead. The second photo showed a modestly dressed man, with a suit and tie, pleasantly smiling. Short and overweight, he looked non-threatening.
Soon Anica wrote him a short letter, explaining that she was a cook, 36 years old and free to marry. She attached a photo showing a plain looking, slightly overweight woman, with a round face, piercing blue eyes and long, brown hair. They corresponded for a while, Louis reassuring Anica that he was fully employed as a mechanic, with an apartment in the Bronx. Shortly thereafter, he mailed her one-way ticket to America. Anica said goodbye to her family explaining, “I just want to have a better life. I am tired of struggling for a piece of bread. We are Catholics believing in God and the Communists, who are without religious faith, run this country. Life is so difficult here and not getting any better for us who are not Communists. Maybe life is better in America.” Anica had a lump in her throat when she hugged her mother goodbye. They both cried.
She boarded an express train in Zagreb in the early evening. Other passengers on the train slept, but Anica could not. Fidgeting in her seat, she touched her ticket in her pocket every few minutes, just to make sure it was still there. It was drizzling when she arrived in Paris and Le Havre next morning. Carrying a very small suitcase, containing the small wooden crucifix she bought in Zagreb with her very first salary. Besides a couple of blouses, an extra sweater and her underwear, Anica had few possessions. Looking lost, she eventually found her way and embarked aboard a Cunard White Star liner sailing second-class directly to New York. Feeling seasick and throwing up the entire trip, she was counting the days and hours, like a prisoner, anxious to land.
Finally, they sailed into New York harbor. As she saw the Statue of Liberty, tears were rolling down her cheeks. She thought, ‘Finally I’m here and now Majka Bozja pomogni mi…...God help me.”
She combed her disheveled hair and tried to straighten her crumpled skirt. It was so windy in the harbor, she had to tie her peasant handkerchief around her head. She was relieved when she spotted Louis’s bald head among the waiting crowd. Nervous, Anica’s hands were shaking and she trembled when she approached Louis. They shook hands formally and he kissed her on the cheek.
The year was 1955. Soon Louis was explaining to Anica how a loaf of bread cost 17 cents and the minimum wage was 75 cents. Dwight Eisenhower was president and Richard Nixon was vice president of the United States. In the south, black people were still segregated. The involvement in the Vietnam War began.
Anica and Louis got married at the small Croatian church on West 50th Street in Manhattan the first Sunday she arrived. They hoped their love would grow. It was a blind leap of faith. They settled down in Louis’s small apartment, going about their everyday life. Louis was going to work six days per week and Anica stayed at home to prepare meals, do their laundry and keep the apartment spotless.
They were only married three months, when suddenly Louis collapsed in the bathroom and tragically died from hepatitis in the Bronx hospital.
Anica wrote a long letter to her elderly mother in Croatia notifying her of Louis’s shocking death. “I am scared….. I do not speak English and knew no one else in America. Louis left me a little money, enough to pay for the funeral, rent and a little extra to survive….”
Her mother wrote back immediately, “You survived so much already during the war…you will have to toughen up to survive in strange land in America…… About the little extra money Louis left you…Well, in the next village and elderly couple died and their children moved to the big city. Why don’t you came back and buy their old house and land?”
Anica wrote back, “It is difficult for me to be alone in America. I have a dream of getting a job somewhere. I look around and see some people live in nice houses with a car. Most of the people here are nicely dressed….. I pray and try to be strong…. Maybe life will be better for me if I stay here in America.”
Anica tried to befriend a Croatian family living in the same building, but the husband misunderstood her intentions and harassed her for sex. Overnight, she had to pack up and move to Queens for safety. There she met an elderly couple of German descent, in need of domestic help. She talked to them in broken German. They had an old car, but were too old and too sick to drive. Anica was healthy and strong, but did not know how to drive. Eventually, she found out about a driving school and two months later learned how to drive. Three times per week, she attended night classes, learning how to talk, write and read in English. Anica served the bedridden couple until their last day. In gratitude, they left her an old house, in need of repair. The roof was leaking and the basement was flooded every time it rained. In time, she paid for the repairs and renovation of the house. She even got a tenant, Graciella, a woman doctor from Argentina who worked the night shift at the nearby St. Joseph hospital and slept during the day. Graciella made a perfect tenant to Anica. Working very long hours and sometimes even on weekends, she hardly used the utilities and yet, Graciella paid her rent like a Swiss clock, always on time, never late.
Feeling lonely, Anica got herself a dog for companionship and security, to keep away potential thieves. She would walk the dog, Dina, a German Shepard, to the nearby park twice a day. In the winter and during the hot summer days, it was a chore, but during the spring and fall, she enjoyed the walk and changing scenery.
Always a hard worker, Anica was employed at the A&P supermarket, in the meat department section, working mostly in the huge, walk-in storage freezer. Her job entailed cutting the meat into small pieces and getting them ready to sell to the customers. The work was exhausting and harmful to her health, but the pay was good, especially when she worked overtime. Her boss had difficulty keeping employees in this particular section due to poor working conditions. One day her boss said to her, ”Annie, I like you! You are a good woman and you work hard. I am already married, but my friends from the army, Walter, recently become a widower. Would you like to meet him?”
Anica shot back “Why not?”
Walter called her and took her to a diner. He looked about average height, with quite a bit of gray hair and thin mustache. “Well, at least he has hair, unlike my late Louis” she told her tenant Graciella later and they laughed. While Walter ate a large meal, Anica only had coffee, insisting “I like to cook for myself at home. As far as I’m concerned, nobody cooks better than me.” Walter, seeing how stubborn she was, tried to explain to her the American way, the tradition of dating. After a few more big dinners for Walter, and only coffee for Anica, Walter touched her breasts and tried to lift her long skirt while sitting in his car. Anica would have none of that. “Look Walter! Let me tell you something. I am a good Catholic woman. Sure, on television, I see other people fooling around, but that is not for me. Not until we are married.”
Three weeks later, they were married at the Croatian church in Manhattan. Anica was 42 years old and Walter was ten years older. The bride wore a beautiful off-white satin dress, accentuating her now slim figure with a conservative below the knee length. She wore a matching hat and a big pink corset. Earlier in the morning, she had her hair cut to shoulder-length in the beauty salon. Early aging signs were visible on her face, with fine lines bracketing her mouth and radiating from the corners of her eyes when she smiled, talked or squinted. In the photo studio, after the church ceremony, Anica put on red lipstick, rouge and a touch of perfume. Walter smiled and winked at her ”Yeah, this I like.” He grabbed her and kissed her on the lips in front of the photographer. “Oh Walter! Now you smudged my lipstick.”
Walter took her on a honeymoon to Florida. Sitting on the beach, chain smoking and drinking a big bottle of cold beer, Walter said, “This is the life I want. When the time comes to retire, I want to move to Florida.” Anica did not feel like talking. It was too hot and she could not swim.
Back in New York, she assisted Walter in running his small business, a fishing station at Rockaway Bay. Anica tried her best to get along with Walter, whose first wife had drowned because she could not swim. Walter gave Anica contradictory orders. “Make yourself useful around the fishing station, but since you can’t swim, don’t go anywhere near the water.”
After a couple of years of marriage, Walter and Anica’s relationship became tumultuous. One day, a terrible fight broke out. Walter screamed at her, “You are so uptight! I’m your husband, but you never let me see you naked.”
This was during the wild sixties, when Walter read in the newspaper and saw on television, all kinds of promiscuity. Anica shouted back at Walter, “You are not uptight? That is why you fooled around in the army and had an illegitimate child. I know all about it. Your army buddy told me.”
“Oh, now you are hitting below the belt” answered Walter disappointingly. “I told you things in confidence, but now you are throwing them back into my face. You are a back stabber.”
They had many other fights. Working together at the fishing station with irregular hours and most weekends during the summer, coming home achy and grumpy. To get away from Anica, Walter would sometimes take his small boat and take off fishing for cod, blackfish, pollock or sea bass. Meanwhile, Anica was selling fish bait and tackle, while preparing fast food lunches for customers. Mad at Walter for leaving her alone to do all the work, Anica grabbed a $20 dollar bill out of the cash register and stuffed it in an envelope to mail it to her family in Croatia. About a month later, she would get a letter, thanking her and explaining how money was desperately needed for basic survival like food and medicine. At other times, Anica would make a package to be mailed to Croatia. Inside she put a large can of coffee that she bought, several boxes of aspirins, razors, toothpaste, sanitary napkins, and lots of underwear of different sizes for the brutal wintertime. Back came the letter, “May God bless you! Thank you so much for everything, especially for sanitary napkins and coffee. There were times when Anica would receive a letter from Croatia notifying her of some natural disaster on the homestead, like way too much rain, which ruined the crop, or not enough rain, which also ruined the crop. Sometimes they wrote, “We hate to tell you this, but the $20.00 bill you attached in the envelope did not reach us. The mailman or the Communists stole it.”
During the winter, the fishing station business had to close temporarily and they both complained when no money was coming in and they missed the structure of work.
More time they had on their hands, more bickering and fighting followed. Walter would shout at Anica, “You are so complex.”
“Well, how can anyone live my life without any scars? You never walked in my shoes, you don’t know,” she would scream back at Walter.
Anica was a staunch Democrat, while Walter was a Republican. They argued, each claiming to be right. “Since I’m a Republican and you contradict me by being a Democrat, there is no point for the two of us to vote, because we will cancel each other out,” declared Walter. On Election Day, Anica had a plan of her own. As soon as Walter entered the kitchen, Anica announced, “I’m going to make a nice meal for you today, your favorite Croatian dish of marinated pork chops cooked on high heat first and then cooked slowly in beef broth with some garlic and parsley. I started last night with marinating the chops with a little salt, pepper and plenty of garlic. I have all the ingredients at home ready. I will also make a nice green salad and potatoes. I just need to buy sour cream, which I will go to the supermarket later.”
“Ok. Sounds good. I have to stop by the auto mechanic for him to check the muffler. I will go to the liquor store and pick up a bottle of Grgich Croatian wine.”
Anica rushed to the supermarket and then drove to the local school where the elections were held. She parked her blue Volvo and entered the crowded room to sign the register and vote Democratic. The curtain in the voting booth opened and out stepped Walter. They stared at each other angrily. Raising his eyebrows, Walter shouted at Anica, “I don’t like it, but I suppose I cannot stop you.”
Anica puffed, waving her hands and hissed, “Well, I should have said this to you at home. Walter, do not bully me! I got my rights! This is not communist Yugoslavia.” Next day Walter won when Republican Nixon was elected President of the United States.
Anica wanted so much to go on vacation to Croatia, but Walter insisted on going to Florida. She hated Florida. She could not stand the heat. Having hot flashes was bad enough, but heat in Florida was worse, she thought. Things were so bad between them, they separated. Walter retired to Florida, ordering her to follow him. Anica hesitated and agonized, but after a couple of years followed him to Florida. They built a modest house with an air conditioner and fans in every room. Anica decorated the house with country style furniture, lots of houseplants and a crucifix in every room.
Just as Anica got used to Florida, Walter got sick and had basal skin cancer surgery. During recovery, in the middle of the night, the doctor called Anica, “Your husband has lung cancer as well. Too late for him, but you should go to the doctor to get a thorough examination. I hate to tell you this, but you need to prepare for the funeral.”
Anica notified her family and friends, her voice breaking over the telephone. “Well, we had both, good and difficult time during our marriage, but now Walter is gone…. I do not think I will ever marry again. Men boss you around too much and Walter used to tell me that I was bossy. Can you imagine? I just like to have my say every once in a while, that is all.”
After Walter’s death, Anica led a quiet life, attending Catholic Church at Saint Theresa’s. She was at peace, except for one thing. She was always afraid that one day Walters’s illegitimate child, by now a grown up would show up and try to take her money and house away. She bought herself a brand new car, a blue Chevrolet, and drove around the neighborhood, showing off like a peacock. She took such pride in owning her home. Her hobbies included taking long walks to keep in shape, knitting, crocheting and sewing. Her herb garden was her pride and joy, growing chives, cilantro, thyme, basil, oregano, parsley, sage, rosemary and marjoram, as well as salads, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions and garlic. She never got tired of trying to figure out how to grow different kinds of medicinal, culinary, fragrant and ornamental herbs.
She delighted in playing cards, UNO, pinochle and gin, and strove to win, going even as far as changing the rules in the middle of a game, anything to help her win. She would get into a shouting match with her friends about the card game, or her political views. She enjoyed watching news and, fiercely independent, reserved her right to vote Republican, as soon as her husband Walter died. “I guess I’m complex and maybe a little rebellious, where Walter was concerned. He tried to tell me what to do all the time. Now that he is dead, I have to admit that I miss him sometimes. Especially, if something has to be repaired around the house.”
She entertained her friends with delicious cooking and desserts. Chocolate fudge cake and Meringue pie was her specialty. She collected Croatian cookbooks, but never used them, satisfied that her cooking was the best.
Anica remembered well how they were starving during the war. She tended to cook little extra, bigger portions then necessary. Her visitors hated when she served them leftovers.
Her favorite holiday was Thanksgiving. First thing in the morning, Anica would go to church and pray, “Thank you, God that I no longer have to live in Communist Yugoslavia.” She gave a generous donation of $50.00 cash to the priest. Then she hurried home to prepare a feast of roast turkey. She stuffed the bird with a mixture of liver and bread crumbs and roasted slowly. She carefully prepared Croatian style ‘mlinci’ by combining eggs, water, salt and flour and kneaded it into medium dough. In the oven, the ‘mlinces’ turned golden brown and later she served them with the turkey. She also prepared cranberry sauce from scratch. When her American friends arrived, they teased her, “Oh, Anica, nobody in America makes ‘mlinces’ from scratch.”
“Don’t upset me now with talk like that! Let us all sit down, hold hands for a minute and thank God that we have food on the table!”
They enjoyed the tender turkey with dressing and salad, asking Anica “Mmmmm, this is really good. How did you make the salad?”
“Well, I’m used to people asking me for the recipes. It happens all the time. First, let us raise our glasses of fine Grgich wine to say ‘Zivili! To your health’”.
One of the guests complimented Anica, “We love coming to your home, because we know that Croatians are a warm, hospitable people who enjoy entertaining.” Anica was beaming with pleasure, her blue eyes twinkling. In the spirit of peace and friendship, everyone clinked their crystal glasses, imported from Samobor. Life was at its best for Anica.
“Now let me tell you how I made this vegetarian salad we used to make in Zagorje. It’s very simple. I took three cooked potatoes, a medium jar of pickles, another jar of beets, four hard-boiled eggs, a cup of celery and another cup or two of raw carrots. All of this I cut into small cubes, adding 3 large spoons of honey mustard, two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice and 2 spoons of low calorie mayonnaise. You need to mix really well and here it is for us to enjoy.”
The guests again gave Anica many compliments, which was music to her ears. A little tipsy, Anica announced “I will make you palachinke with walnuts. Palachinke is easy to do. You need three eggs, a cup of milk, another cup of flour, two tablespoons of sugar, six tablespoons of melted butter, half a cup of sour cream, three tablespoons of powdered sugar and half a cup of sparkling water. In a bowl, mix everything until it is nice and smooth. Heat a skillet on medium heat and grease the skillet lightly. Pour approximately three tablespoons of batter into the tilted skillet so that it is evenly coated. The thinner the coating, the better the palachinka. The trick is to flip the palachinka onto the other side, without flipping it to the ceiling or on the floor.” Everyone laughed.
As a take-home present, Anica followed the old Croatian tradition that no guest of hers goes home empty handed. Three days before, Anica had prepared in advance her favorite dessert: cream slices or “Kremsnite” which she knew by heart. It reminded her of the time when she was young and used to make them when she was working in Zagreb. She carefully placed “kremsnite” into Tupperware for each guest to take home and return the Tupperware later.
As guests would be sitting in her living room lingering with an after dinner aperitif, inevitable questions would come. Pointing towards the wall, where Anica kept her Hummel figurines collection. They would ask “Tell us about the Hummel figurines?”
“Well, these china figurines, that celebrate the joys of childhood, don’t really represent my childhood. I was raised on a farm where we had to work hard without any luxuries. Actually, there were plenty of days where we did not have enough to eat. I don’t like to talk about it, but during War World II, I spent six months in Germany. That was when I saw German Hummel dolls for the first time. They were created in 1935. The old German couple in New York left behind one Hummel, the ‘Christmas Angel Figure’. Later when I was all by myself, I bought the little girl figure called ‘All by Myself’. When I got married to Walter, may he rest in peace, a friend gave us as a wedding present, the ‘Dearly Beloved’, ‘Good Luck Charm’ and ‘Love’ figurines. Later, after several years of marriage, Walter bought me the ‘Monkey Business’ figurine. Well, that tells you something about Walter, right? After Walter died, I saw in a store this little Hummel, called ‘Secret Admirer,’ and it reminded me of my first husband Louis. The little boy ‘Secret Admirer’ looks lost and that is how I remember Louis, May he rest in peace. Now, looking back, I think Louis knew that he was very sick, but we were married anyway for a short time. Our destiny is all God’s will.”
In 1991 when communist Yugoslavia broke up and Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, attacked Catholic Croatia, Anica was beside herself watching the nightly news. The war killed 260,000 people and forced 1.8 million to flee their homes.
Anica remembered poems from Croatia and recited them easily, even after she reached her 80th birthday. The lines on her face that once reflected joy and sorrow, were now part of her skin’s permanent landscape. She noticed some age spots and a couple of discolored blotches, caused by excessive sun from many years ago. Anica would often tell stories about her childhood, spent working on their homestead. Flying by plane from Florida, she visited her old village of Rusnice in Croatia. What she saw upset her greatly. The tools used on the homestead were still primitive. Alcohol abuse was rampant, as was domestic violence. In comparison to her life in America, not enough progress has been made in her village. Some of her distant relatives joined the Communist party and they had a much better life.
Rusnice received electricity in 1965, but the village had no sewage system, no telephone service, and no running water.
Over the years, Anica contributed more then her share of money to the Croatian Catholic church. She also gave money to her invalid brother who took over the homestead, so that he could build a new house. His family moved into the house, half finished, and never completed it, because he ran out of money. Back home in Florida, Anica continued her daily ritual to pray at least twice per day, at the little altar set up in the corner of her bedroom. She prayed to the Virgin Mary or “Majka Bozja,” to thank her for her good life in America.
Anica followed her daily routine. The pleasant noise of the automatic water sprinkler system, installed in her garden, awoke her every morning. It was a comforting hissing sound. Getting up in the morning, saying her prayers, eating a bowl of cereal with prunes, raisins and fresh fruit, while watching the birds, usually cardinals, outside her huge living room window. While eating, Anica would make mental notes of chores to do for the day. On a little piece of paper, she would scribble things to buy from the supermarket. Then, while still early in the morning, Anica put on beige pants, fashionable Capri style three quarters long and an open blouse without sleeves to keep her cool in the hot Florida sun. Applying lots of moisturizer and sunscreen to protect her skin and putting on a medium size straw hat, she stepped outside and, holding a large pot of water, she reached into corners where the sprinklers could not reach, to water the plants and her garden. She had lettuce, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and fennel growing all the year round.
After a quick shower, she would change into a swimming suit and walk through her garden to the neighbor’s house. They were visiting their children up north, and had asked Anica to keep an eye on the house in exchange for using their swimming pool. Not knowing how to swim, Anica put on a life belt, stepped into the lightly chlorinated pool and waved her hands and legs until she got tired. After washing her hair, she rested with a cup of coffee and a sweet roll.
Driving her car to the shopping area, she stopped at every “Stop” sign, even if she did not see anybody around. There was one time when she did not bother to stop and got caught. Suddenly a cop showed up from nowhere and she had to pay a fine of $45.00. She tried to argue with him, but it was no use. She drove to her doctor for her annual checkup. The nurse took urine, blood and stool samples. A week later the doctor called, “Anica you have to go to the hospital for more checkups. I don’t have sufficient equipment in my office.”
“Look doctor, I forget things here and there. Sure, some people annoy me to the point that I have to tell them off. Last week I did have a big fight with my neighbor, but that was her fault. Ok, so I’m a little irritable and my right shoulder hurts from arthritis, but overall, life is not too bad.” Sounding worried and irritated at the same time, she asked “Why are you sending me for additional tests?”
“Anica, don’t fight with people. My nurse will call you back with instructions to go to the hospital and then we will see.”
After additional tests in the hospital, x-rays and an MRI, they told her, “We are sorry to tell you that you have lung cancer. This is a slow-growing cancer, but you also have a lesion on your brain which needs to be operated, the sooner the better.”
“I’m 81 years old. My mother lived until the age of 94. My lips never touched a cigarette, but my second husband Walter was a chain smoker. Do you think I got lung cancer from second hand smoke?”
The doctor nodded, “Hmm, probably. Now, we are more concerned with the brain lesion.”
During the brain operation surgeon found a tumor, the size of a golf ball. The surgeon notified the family. “With this type of brain cancer, tumors grow back rapidly and we don’t operate again due to the patient’s age. Even if we did operate again, the tumor would just grow back.”
As soon as she could, Anica made two phone calls. First to her priest, whom she reminded that she spent her entire life praying every day for good health, but that now she was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. The priest made a house visit, gently saying to Anica, “I support the terminally ill, not with the hope of a cure, but with the promise that we are not alone.”
She made a phone call to her nephew, notifying him, word by word, about her medical condition, “I need to be very direct with you. Let’s face it, you are my favorite nephew, always were. Now I need someone to take care of me. Even though you have three sisters and two brothers, I say, let the girls get married and their husbands will take care of them financially. Your two brothers are doing OK, so everything I have will be yours. That means my house, which includes one acre of land, my car, my furniture and my money in the bank.”
Stunned, the nephew blurted out “I will have to pay inheritance taxes?”
“What?” Anica screamed at him. “I expected a little gratitude, but all you have to say ‘Oh, auntie. I have to pay taxes’ she imitated his Croatian accent. “Look, tell me I’m not making a mistake! I’m cutting everybody else out of the will for you. Besides, what is wrong with paying taxes? In America, we pay taxes, but look what we have. Nice hospitals, highways, fire departments, police departments, a court system that works, and a democratic political system that has worked pretty well for two hundred years.”
“Ok, ok. I hear you. Just don’t shout.”
“You talk stupid, so I have to shout. You make me so mad. What do you want to do? Go back to Croatia? Look where they are, climbing out of the Communist system and compare that to our life here in America? We live well here, no?”
“Auntie, after all this years in America, you still have Croatian temper.”
The nephew took a vacation and leave of absence from work, to go to Florida and moved into Anica’s house. He tried to take charge, by trying to bring her financial records into some order. Once it was determined that the brain cancer was terminal, he arranged for a visiting nurse.
Losing appetite and short term memory, Anica was becoming increasingly agitated, even paranoid. When the nephew tried to pay her bills, he asked for her signature.
“NO, this is my money. It’s mine and nobody else’s!” Anica reached for the telephone and dialed the emergency police number. She shouted into the telephone, “Help. Come right -away. It’s my money.”
A police officer came within 20 minutes, “What seems to be the problem, Madam?”
“Look officer, they are trying to take my money away. I’m not giving it. It’s all mine. Only mine and nobody else’s.”
The nephew took the officer aside and showed him Anica’s medical papers indicating terminal brain cancer. “Officer, the doctors explained to me that the medication has terrible side effects, without any guarantee that it will help.”
As Anica’s condition worsened, the nephew approached the subject of a hospice, a place where people with terminal cancers spend their last days. “Maybe it’s time to go to a place where you will be more comfortable. The nurses will be monitoring you 24 hours a day.”
Anica raved and ranted, shaking her head “No, I am not going. I don’t want to go to a hospital or anywhere else. You can’t make me go.”
More shouting and hostility followed. Bills were piling up, while the cash was sitting in the bank. “Auntie, we need to arrange for me to get legal papers in order. I need the power of attorney.”
Angry and screaming with rage, Anica grabbed the telephone and called the emergency number again. “Quick, come right-a-way. I need help. They are trying to take my money.”
The nephew, feeling frustrated, stalked out of the house. He kept walking in the direction where he knew the police car would arrive any minute. Within several minutes, he saw the police car coming. He waved to them and the police car stopped. “It’s my aunt again. She is suffering from brain cancer and is behaving increasingly irrational, even paranoid. She thinks I’m here not to take care of her in her final days, but rather to steal her money.”
The cop winced, “You know, I’m a police officer during the day and on weekends I’m studying psychology and law. I’m fascinated by the power of money to heal and to hurt, to give and to take away, to charm and to deceive.”
The police went into the house, looked around, checked the medical papers again, made a report and tried to reassure Anica that she was in good hands. As the police walked out, Anica shouted and called them names. ”Lopovi, lopovi….Thiefs, rascals..”
Several days later, Anica developed blood-cloth in her legs. “I can’t get up from the bed anymore. I can’t eat. Maybe it’s better for me to be in the hospice.”
Three weeks later Anica died.
Her will was opened and read in front of the entire family. In it, Anica repeated what had been done to her: Because she was a girl, regardless of how capable she may have been, she had to leave home and find a job, or better yet, find a husband, who would support her. The oldest son inherited the farm. Now, at the end, instead of dividing her assets equally among her nieces and nephews, Anica decided to play the final game of division and left everything she had to only one nephew.
Copyright @ 2004 Katarina Tepesh firstname.lastname@example.org
Katarina Tepesh is part of the Gotham Writers group in New York City. Before moving to New York, Katarina lived in Croatia. Her writing has appeared in “Zajednicar”, “The Croatian American”, “CROWN - CroatianWorld.Net”, “CanCroAm.TV”, “Glasnik”, “American Home”, “Matica” and “NOW New York City.”