Monday, July 16, 2018

My First Time: Milana Marsenich

My First Return to the Homeland

My father was a great storyteller and, although he had never been there, I grew up listening to his stories about Montenegro, his parents’ homeland. He seemed to know the country, the people, and the stories. My great grandmother had seen the white wolf following her. She could stop a snake with a whistle. She had once crossed a mountain haunted by unburied soldiers to save a child’s life. Montenegrins were great warriors. They were a rugged people, who fought for land, family and God. Through the years, my father’s stories worked their way into my psyche and into my memory. I lived as if I had been there. Montenegro was as real to me as my hometown of Butte, Montana. My ancestors visited me in my dreams. They told me their secrets. The ghost of my great grandmother, in particular, found her way into my first novel, Copper Sky.

Marika, one of the main characters in Copper Sky, crossed the Atlantic with her family, and made her way to Butte. She longed to be like her Baba (my great grandmother) who she’d left behind. From my father’s stories I deduced that my great grandmother must have known how to use herbs, beauty, and natural energies to heal and mend wounds. She must have known the mysteries of prayer, gratitude, and faith. She was a special kind of doctor, the kind that Marika aspired to be. Marika’s Baba taught her to heal, taught her the remedies, taught her “love ignites the cure.”

My character lived and breathed Montenegro. She had been there. But I hadn’t.

In 2006 my brother, Bob, and his wife, Karen, went to Montenegro. Speaking very little Serbian, they hired an interpreter who traveled with them. Having lost contact with our family years before, we weren’t sure if we still had close relatives there. Bob was determined to find out. They went to the Village Marsenich, a small village of hundreds of distant relatives. After asking around, they found Thomas, an elderly gentleman who knew our uncles. He drove Bob, Karen, and their interpreter cross-country to a small shack.

Milorad Marsenich stepped out of that shack looking just like our Uncle Bob. Through the interpreter, they learned that his grandfather was our grandfather’s brother. At one point, Bob heard him say “Butte, Montana.” Milorad then disappeared into the shack and, as if they had been sitting there on the kitchen table all these years, he returned with a stack of letters. Our grandmother’s handwriting crawled across the envelopes—return address “Silver Bow Homes, Butte, Montana.”

The last known contact was in 1967, the year that our grandfather passed on. At the bottom of the last letter our grandmother, Jovanka, wrote, “Milosav is sick and they don’t expect him to make it. How is your Latin?” Our grandmother had come to America when she was just two years old. She married our grandfather when she was fifteen. We believe he dictated the letters to her, but she didn’t feel confident writing in Serbian without his help. She was trying to find a way to continue communication.

Bob and Karen went back to Montenegro in 2007 and I tagged along, my first time actually setting foot in my “homeland,” a land I had heard about, dreamed about, and written about my entire life. We flew into Podgorica where our uncle Mojsije and his son, Nikola, picked us up. We drove to Danilovgrad where they lived.

My Uncle Mojsije and my Aunt Dushanka had prepared a room for us in their small home that they had built themselves. They fed us elaborate meals, with vegetables from their garden and “yogurt” made fresh from their goat’s milk. They were generous, kind, and funny. They were family. Even though I’d just met them, we all felt it.

Although their grown children, Nikola and Jelena, spoke some English, my aunt and uncle spoke only Serbian. With my English/Serbian dictionary in hand, I tried really hard to communicate. At one point, as we walked to the store, I explained in Serbian to my aunt that I once had a cat named Machka, the Serbian word for cat, because my mother always wanted a cat named Machka and she couldn’t have one. When we got back to the house, I asked Nikola to see what she understood. She replied in Serbian, “Your cat doesn’t have a husband.” Once I begged, “please may I help”—or so I thought. I was actually asking, “please may I go to sleep.” We made lots of mistakes and we laughed a lot.

I felt a sense of peace there, a sense of home. Talking with Jelena, my cousin—or as she would say moya sestra, my sister, having no word for cousin—I felt a deep connection to my grandparents, having done something they could not: return to their homeland.

There was much to see and the first night we went to Ostrog, a monastery built into the side of a mountain. St. Basil lay in repose inside. He cried holy tears that the monks collected and gave to visitors. We arrived at dusk, just in time for Vespers. I’d been to Vespers with my family at the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Butte many times. But this was different. This was ancient and I could feel the spirit of that mountain, the monastery, and the saint. Although no one collected them, I cried my own tears, to be standing on the side of the mountain in Montenegro, at dusk during Vespers. I wished my father could have been there, that my grandparents could have been there.

A few days later, we went to another monastery. My uncle insisted that I walk with him behind the stone fence into a building of artifacts. There inside of a wooden box with a glass top was a piece of wood. My uncle told me its significance. Since he didn’t speak English, he told me this in Serbian. I could tell from his tone that it was important, but even with my Serbian/English dictionary in hand I couldn’t understand. Finally, he called a monk over. The man stood near in his white robe, his essence soft and peaceful, and explained to me that the small piece of wood that my uncle pointed to was a piece of the original cross that Jesus had been crucified upon.

We drove for an hour through the mountains, across the river, over narrow roads to a small village that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The celebration was for the Vasavichi Clan. Two hundred members, all related to me, stood among the tombstones outside of the small church. The church held only about twenty people. Inside, a bishop who I had met in Butte conducted the service. The service was in Serbian and, having been raised in Butte’s Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church with Church Slavonic, I understood small parts of it. I felt the presence of our ancestors there, the ghosts rising up out of the graves singing. These were Marika’s people. They were my people. My family.

After the service, we drove for another hour into seemingly the middle of another nowhere, past donkeys pulling carts, and small cars on a narrow road. We drove past little huts and kiosks selling candy. Finally, we arrived at a large field set up with tents and tables. Beef and lamb smoked in a pit. 200 people ate lunch as the musicians sang the traditional songs. They dedicated one song to us. It was the song that they sang for those who had left Montenegro and never returned, our grandparents.

Several days later, we visited my great-grandparents’ house in Berane, or more accurately, we visited the leftover stones of the foundation to their house. The stones were weathered and shrunken, barely small rocks by the time we arrived. The land inside of and around the stones looked out over the fields toward Komovi, Holy Mountain, the mountain I imagined my great grandmother crossing in the cold, in the night to minister a dying child.

A pear tree grew majestically at the edge of the land. My uncle had made Kruska from the pears, a brandy that we drank that morning. It was cold and rainy and I was sick. In that rain, our uncles gave us the property, for our grandfather. We drank the Kruska and spilled it on the land and said a prayer for those who had passed before.

Later, when we visited their graves. I stood before my great grandmother’s grave and I hoped that I had done her justice, that somehow through the years, through the stories, across the continent I had sensed her sweet spirit and brought it to life again through Marika in Copper Sky.

Milana Marsenich lives in Northwest Montana near Flathead Lake at the base of the beautiful Mission Mountains. For the past 20 years she has worked as a mental health therapist in a variety of settings. She grew up in Butte, Montana, a mining town with a rich history and the setting for Copper Sky, her first novel. Copper Sky was chosen as a Spur Award finalist for Best Western Historical Novel. Her latest novel, The Swan Keeper, is set in 1920s Montana. Her other work has appeared in Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, BookGlow, and Feminist Studies. She has a short story included in The Montana Quarterly book: Montana, Warts and All.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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