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A Birthday Wish for My Daughter Turning Two

A bit of a departure from my usual focus, but something that was very much on my mind and in my heart. 

Dear Cookie,

Tomorrow you’ll turn two years old and the past few days I’ve found myself feeling nostalgic, remembering all of the little moments and delights you’ve brought to my life. I’ve been blessed with a front-row seat to your discoveries many of them based on physical milestones–walking, running, climbing, holding objects of different sizes, even turning the pages of a book–and your own personal marvel at all of the things your body can do. It’s been quite a journey. 

As I bathed and dressed you tonight I saw how long your thighs (of all things) have grown, but was tickled to see that they’re still soft and round with little pockets of pudge. Like cream puffs.  How I love them. And how much you’ve enjoyed them. Your thighs are responsible for so much you’ve seen and discovered over the past two years. Without your thighs, would you have been able to climb the rope ladders at the gym, chase our dog, trudge through the snow, swim in the pool? Would you be the same girl you are, you’re becoming without such experiences? And yet as I admired them it struck me that qualities such as pastry-like thighs are unfortunately, in our culture, only valued in the very young.  Ten years from now, will you want your mom (or anyone else for that matter) to notice your thighs, much less compliment them for being anything but thin? skinny? lean?  For your birthday my girl, I’ve decided to make my own wish. A wish for you and your thighs. 

My wish is that you will escape the disease that afflicts so many American women today–the turn from appreciating our bodies and the way they bring us through the world (and others miraculously into it) to the scrutiny, obsession and unnecessary shame over how our bodies look. That a woman who has always been thin is writing this to you demonstrates how sinister, deceptive and blinding this disease can be. For it wasn’t until I had you that I learned to appreciate what my body can do rather than how it looks. My wish is that you will not follow in these footsteps. 

My wish is that you will remember the light you felt when you took your first steps.

My wish is that you will not forget how your thighs allow you to run, jump, and climb. That should you find yourself years from now jogging in place on a treadmill at the gym it’s because such exercise makes you feel good and clears your mind, not because you enjoyed a slice (or four) of your own birthday cake the night before. The woman running on the treadmill next to you will be sweating to change the shape and size of her thighs oblivious to the fact that they are the reason she is able to run at all. May you be spared such an ironic fate.

May you never wrap a towel around your waist at the pool because you don’t want others to see you jiggle.

May you never circle your thigh or any other part of you with a tape measure.

May you never own a scale which, like so many other numbers, measures nothing.

May you always see food as one of the great joys of this world, one that brings people together; and may you never see food as an enemy–something to fear and feel shame over. May you recognize how lucky you are to have access to food at all.

May a mirror never make you cry. Or even make you shake your head.

May you realize that the people in this world worth your time, worth a place in your heart, are those who don’t care what size your thighs (or anyone else’s) are.

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This is my wish for you, my sweet girl with thighs like rum babas.

Love,

Mama

ps–Off to bake your birthday cupcakes.

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Casting the First Ballot

On Election Day when that curtain shuts behind me it may as well shut out the rest of the world. To be given a moment to voice who I want to run our country is an incredible gift and I’m always filled with excitement and hope when I’ve exercised this right. This Election Day was particularly thrilling though as it was Jas’s very first chance to participate having been sworn in as a citizen of the United States in 2011.

Jas’s swearing in ceremony had immediately followed his citizenship test something neither of us was aware of, so Cookie and I weren’t with him and didn’t get to officially celebrate the end of all the applications for travel visas, passport delays at  international airports, and interviews on the legitimacy of our marriage at the office of Immigration & Citizenship Services. Becoming a citizen in Jas’s case was  a bit anticlimactic. And so Election Day became a family event.

As we drove to the West Orange Elks, I thought of the exchange we’d had the night before.

“Gotta get up early tomorrow. Big day,” Jas said.

“I know! Are you excited?” I asked.

“Totally.  Do you think they’ll have food there?”

“No (sigh).”

Arriving at the West Orange Elks.

Signing in.

 

 

Waiting in line.

Jas’s number.

Almost there.

Welcome.

Voting.

Wahoo!

I don’t know if you’re supposed to have a blast when voting, but we did. Cookie danced around the wood floor  and tried to figure out her mittens. Jas wondered aloud if he should join the Elks. After he cast his ballot, I stepped into the booth and had my own trying time figuring out the electronic board. In the past I’d always voted via the old-fashioned manual panels, so Jas had to step in and respond to my cries for help.

“Hey! I can’t figure this out!”

“I’m such a pro at this I had to show you how to vote” he laughed.

And despite my assurances to the contrary, it turned out that Jas did have a chance to pick up some food.

Nut loaves baked by the lovely wives of the Elks.

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Crows–The Sole Superstition

When it comes to superstitions I’ve always thought of Jas as a man without. I on the other hand, having grown up with a family that may have written the book on superstitions, follow more than I’d like to admit sometimes almost involuntarily. Jas smirks when I toss salt over my left shoulder after accidentally tipping the shaker, jumps when I screech not to put new shoes on the bed, and as for my refusal to take loved ones to the airport?–that he finds understandably annoying. Though the Bosnian culture is ripe with a myriad of superstitions on everything from coffee drinking to weather predicting, I’ve never heard him express or seen him act on one. Until we went shopping for Halloween.

When we arrived at Party City Jas shot towards the costumes and I headed towards the decorations. Almost immediately I came across an entire shelf lined with ravens and Poe sang in my mind. Perfect, I thought,  and plunked one into my basket as Jas rounded the corner wearing a blue afro and an eye-patch.

“What are you supposed to be?” I asked.

“I’m a disco dancer.”

“Well…what happened to your eye?”

“Someone poked it doing the hustle,” he replied while looking into the basket. “Wait,” he said lifting the eye patch, “what the hell is that?”

“Oh! A raven! Isn’t it great?” He looked at me blankly.

“You know, like Poe’s The Raven.”

No reaction.

“‘Once upon a midnight dreary….'”

Still nothing.

“‘Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’?” I followed.

“It looks like a crow” he said.

“I guess you could call it that. Aren’t they different birds though?” I asked scrutinizing it.

“What’s it for?” Jas asked.

“What do you mean? It’s for Halloween. I’m going to put it on the mantle,” I said excitedly.

“I don’t like it,” he said frowning.

I took another look at it.

“This is the best one,” I said. “I checked all the others on the shelf. This one has the smoothest feathers and the best face.”

“No, no” he said shaking his head. “This…it’s…not a good thing.”

At this point I was totally perplexed. Holiday decorating usually falls under my purview, particularly Halloween as it’s a holiday Jas doesn’t have much use for.

Noting the confusion on my face he continued, “In Bosnia, crows are very bad luck. We can’t bring that into our house. Put it back.”

Later, I’d learn that crows are feared universally throughout the Bosnian hills. Believed to be harbingers of sickness and death, should one land on your house it’s only a matter of time before a loved one is struck down.

“Ok but it’s not a crow it’s a raven” I argued.

“Nice try. Put it back” he said.

“But…but Jas!” I cried. “What about Poe? Nevermore? Lenore!”

“Leave it Ducati” he said walking off, blue afro bouncing.

With much effort, I returned the bird to its perch. Not because I’m the type of woman who falls in line upon her husband’s demands and requests, but because if there’s anything life has taught me it’s that when someone you know walks under ladders, befriends black cats, and opens umbrellas indoors suddenly expresses a superstition, then you listen.

As for my dreams of a raven adorned Halloween mantle? Nevermore.

In the spirit of the season, if you know any superstitions, please post them.

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The Fast

The night Jas came home from Bosnia after burying his father Akif, he informed me that Ramadan had begun and that he was going to begin the thirty-day fast in the morning. When I asked for specifics about Ramadan, which Jas has never observed or even indicated the smallest desire to observe, he told me: “I can’t eat or drink from sunrise to sundown for thirty days. At the end, there’s a big feast.”

Now, this is a typical response following my questions about the meaning of Muslim practices, holidays and observances. I’m given a clear explanation of the type of celebration or manner of observation (“we get dressed up and visit neighbors” or “children get money”) but never the meaning or reasoning behind it. When I’ve asked for further explanation in the past from Jas or any of my in-laws I’d only get blank stares. This can be attributed to growing up and living in a formerly communist country which doesn’t leave much space for religious practice. While Tito didn’t outright ban religion in Soviet-style, he didn’t encourage it either. For many Bosnians, religion was/is part of their heritage over anything else. Ethnically, Jas is a Muslim. Religiously? Spiritually? Not interested.  Even Akif who devoutly fasted on Ramadan only began doing so after the war, as did other Bosnian Muslims who had previously not been so inclined.

A little research gave me further understanding of Ramadan which is observed during the ninth month each year of the Muslim calendar. Muslims must not only abstain from food and drink but impurities of all kinds including thoughts and actions. The goal is to cleanse the body and soul and focus your attentions on your connection to and worship of Allah. In the weeks before he died, Akif expressed his sadness over not being able to fast during Ramadan. He wouldn’t be able to get through a day with no food or drink in his condition. This is where Jas has found meaning; the fast is his mourning song. “I’m going to do it for my dad,” he said. “He’d be fasting now, so I’ll do it for him.”

Less than a week away from the end of Ramadan, Jas has shown remarkable resilience . After the first two days he adjusted his daily fast duration a bit. He’d come home from work, watch me and Cookie eating our first few mouthfuls of dinner with a pitiful look on his face and then do some chores around the house or turn on the television until sundown. On day two, I (gently) suggested he join us for dinner.

“Your dad would love that you’re doing this for him. I don’t think he’d mind if you chose to eat dinner with your girls,”  I said.

He ignored me. On day three, he grumbled something about me having a point and sat down to dinner with us. Weekends have been the most difficult. It’s easy to distract yourself at work but when you’re home and relaxing and food’s being cooked  and consumed, it can be downright torture. Or at least that’s what Jas’s face looks like when he pokes his head in the kitchen and asks what time dinner is.

Now he is counting the days and we’ve started planning the Bajram celebration that follows Ramadan this Sunday. How will we bring this tradition to America?

“It’s a big feast” Jas says.

“Yes, but what is served at this feast?” I ask.

“Everything.”

“Such as…”

“Just everything.”

It seems I have a bit more research to do.

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Remembering Akif

Late morning Jas and I make our way downstairs, eyes puffy with jet-lag. On the kitchen table there’s a basket of fresh bread and a platter of cheeses alongside sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. As we start to eat my father-in-law Akif comes in from the garden and hands me a freshly cut rosebud.

School is out and I’m in the garden, next to the fountain Akif built, reading a book. I hear the front gate open and a tribe of students enter asking for Akif. I point to the house and they slip off their little shoes and go in to visit with their retired teacher and tell him all about their progress. When they leave they’re each holding a small bar of Kinder chocolate.

There’s a fire in the outdoor oven. Akif and I take turns shoveling white hot coals over the cast-iron bell that covers a pan of braising veal shank and potatoes that earlier he’d shown me how to season. We all gather around the table for a late dinner and play cards into the night.

These are the memories of a typical day with my father-in-law though typical is not a word I’d ever use to describe him.

Akif was an elementary school teacher for most of his life. During the war, after his release from the Serbian detainment camps in his hometown of Donji Vakuf, he met up with my mother-in law Mirsada (now deceased five years), Jas and his sister Jasmina, (all who he had sent to the relatively safe town of Umag) and traveled to the refugee camp in Savudrija, Croatia. When he saw the children there bored and idle, he started a school for them.

Education was not just Akif’s lifelong profession but the fabric of who he was. I know this first-hand from having apprenticed in his kitchen. We each spoke a little Italian and even less of each other’s native tongues; but cooking filled in all the gaps–it was our language. Akif spent hours upon hours teaching me to stretch dough, stuff miniature cabbage rolls, shape cevapi (beef sausages), make bread, meats, stews, sweets, and juices from fruits and flowers. He had endless patience for me and my million questions.

Me and Akif making bread, 2009.

That he cooked at all made him a wonder amongst the community as this usually falls under the duties of women in Bosnia. It was even stranger that he loved and excelled at it having learned from his father who had owned a coffee shop. Women from the neighborhood would come to watch Akif make baklava  complaining that they could never get his technique down of rolling and cutting the pastry into shapes that looked like roses.

As a father, Akif was happiest when his children Jas and Jasmina were together, even if he wasn’t with them. He thrilled over Jasmina’s visits to the U.S. and when we were all together he’d often ask me to take pictures of them. In regards to me and my brother-in-law he referred to us as his (“my Christa,” “my A.”) and treated us as though we were indeed his own. When I was pregnant and craving American food particularly french fries he cooked me a batch every day and he was known for passing off new clothes and gifts to A.

Akif and Jasmina, June 2012.

Jas and Akif studying a recipe, June 2012.

The loss of his wife Mirsada was one of his greatest sorrows and he continued to reminisce and dream of her until the end of his life. I think the only thing that made this easier was his children and grandchildren. L., D. and Cookie called Akif, Deda, and he would spend hours playing with them. Cookie he could talk with endlessly over Skype, dancing a stuffed bear across the screen for her.

Akif and his oldest granddaughter L. in Travnik, 2009.

Akif and grandson D. 2010.

Akif visited America this past January along with Jasmina and L.–his very first trip–to celebrate Cookie’s first birthday. None of us realized that it would be one of the last times we’d spend with him. He passed ten days after we returned home from Bosnia in July of lung cancer. Though he was sick and could barely walk up the stairs, one of the last things he did before we left for the airport was lift Cookie onto his lap and hold her.

Akif and Cookie, June 2012.

Farewell Tata. We’ll miss you always.

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Rose Juice–Our Summer Drink

Bosnians mine their natural resources in as many ways as they can and one way in particular is through the making of juices from native berries and flowers. Our family is known for rose juice made similar to sun tea, but so much lovelier.

This recipe is old, passed down from Jas’s paternal grandmother. When the roses bloom they’re collected, stripped of their petals and added to large clear jars with water and a tiny bit of citric acid, then placed in direct sun for a few days until the petals lose their color to the water.  Then it’s strained, mixed with sugar and chilled. Describing the taste is not easy–sweet, flowery, like Bosnian summer.

We make jugs as the flowers bloom and have enough to fill the summer days and share a few bottles with the neighbors. Here’s as detailed a layout of the process that I can give. The measurements are based on a two liter glass jar and about 20 rosebuds–simply adapt it to how many roses you have.

This is the rose we use and despite several attempts I am unable to determine its variety. It’s a small bud though not as small as a tea rose, and fully bloomed is about the size of a ping-pong ball. It has a rich perfume much stronger than the large buds that you’d give to your sweetie on Valentine’s Day. The scent is important–it is what gives the juice its flavor.

Snip the roses when they’ve bloomed,

pull off the petals and place them into a large clear glass jar or other clear container.

Add about one teaspoon of citric acid (or two teaspoons lemon juice), fill the jar with water, give the contents a stir and cover. Place in the sunniest spot of your garden. If it is sunny and warm, in about three days the petals will lose their color and the water will take on this shade of pink.

Strain your juice into a large bowl.

Add 1/2 cup sugar.

Stir, stir, stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Taste. (Note: if the juice tastes like air freshener, add more sugar one tablespoon at a time until you have a nice balance of rose flavor and sweetness).

Strain one more time into bottles or the serving pitcher of your choice and chill.

You’re in for a very special treat.

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A Donkey & Some Trout

This donkey lives on the banks of the  Semesnica Ribnjak (Se-mesh-nit-zah Rib-nyak) and trout pond with dogs, ducks, geese, chickens and roosters. Children can take a ride on his back. We settled for petting his velvet nose and naming him Bumpo. (Later we’d discover he is a she named Brena).

Brena and the rest of the menagerie are part of a cafe named after the river (really a stream), about a 15 minute ride from Donji Vakuf (Doh-nyee Vah-koof). The owners use the stream not only as a setting for meals and drinks, but also for grinding grain into flour and for catching and cultivating their own trout pond.

The trout are caught upstream and then funneled into a hatchery where they are plucked from the water, cleaned and grilled for your meal.

And what a meal you can have. We started with ustipici (oosh-tip-it-say) a fried dough dumpling very similar to the Italian zeppole though savory. You can eat them straight out of the oil or split them open and stuff them with cheese.

Ustipici sizzling in oil.

This particular batch of ustipici was made with buckwheat ground by a mill on the stream, and served with a soft and a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese.

Buckwheat ustipici with two kinds of sheep’s milk cheese.

Yum!

Then, the trout. If you’ve never eaten fish this fresh, then you’ve never eaten fish–so clean, so bright in the mouth with a salty pop from the crispy skin. Served with the smallest wedge of lemon, a vinegared potato salad and mound of polenta, it is heavenly.

Start from the tail and work you way to the head.

You can have your meal at tables directly next to the stream or in small, private cabins.

And you can wander around skipping rocks, feeding geese, watching the trout jump, or petting Brena for as long as you like.

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