Tomorrow it will be ten years since Militza died.
Even written down, I can't quite believe it's been that long since I saw her.
There was never a time when I didn't know and love her. She was an elegant, charming woman from another time and place who brought a little of that long gone world into the lives of my family, and we talk about her and miss her so much still.
She and her beloved husband, John, were Serbians. Both were from aristocratic families, with charmed lives in their youth....they lived on beautiful family estates with private vineyards, servants....Militza was a model in the early 1930's...we have photographs of her, looking back over one shoulder, hair shiny & perfectly marcel-waved, draped in a column of pale satin with a long rope of pearls around her swanlike neck. One evening, 5 European kings spent the night at her family's home. She and her sisters travelled to all the wonderful places Europe had to offer, Vienna, Budapest, Paris. They took skiing holidays in Winter, photographs show them laughing and clutching each other, balanced precariously on old-fashioned wooden skis...lakeside trips in summer, gorgeous groups of tanned boys in white shirts or all-in-one bathing costumes, the girls with their sun-streaked hair in plaits. What could go wrong for them in life? Well, firstly the Nazis occupied their country. And when they were gone, the Communists took over. All the family's remaining assets were seized. John was a diplomat, an intellectual and therefore an 'enemy of the state' who had to be imprisoned. He managed to escape - it took a long time, with much hardship and he suffered a crippling stroke which left him forever paralysed on his left side, his arm useless, his leg in callipers. But he was very fortunate to end up in England in the care of the Red Cross, and from there to be taken in by a wonderful Red Cross volunteer., who treated him like a member of her own family. After a time, Militza managed to join him with many trials and tribulations along the way. This was all in the late '40's & early '50's. When my parents were newlyweds, their first house was next door to widowed Mrs Cross and her housekeeper Militza, who had a disabled husband. And they became friends. When Mrs Cross died, she left Militza & John her home and it's contents for the rest of their lives (a truly amazing woman) and, even when they moved house, my parents kept in close touch with them. As our own grandparents lived far away, we looked on them as an extra set.
It's hard, now, to convey what stepping through their front door was like. I can best describe it by saying that it was like entering another world. A world of charm, courtesy and old-fashioned eastern european manners. As a couple, they were completely interwoven - so tightly that, despite adoring us girls, they had decided to never have children of their own so as not to disrupt their own relationship (not something my parents ever understood, and an unusual opinion - but theirs alone, and it worked for them.) Despite their huge fall from the grace of their early years -I always knew them to live in comparative poverty, as they owned nothing but the few possessions they'd been bequeathed or had managed to smuggle out & my parents supported them financially until the end of their lives-they never showed any bitterness or anger at the hand that life had dealt them. And the food......ah, the food. Militza was one of the best cooks I have ever know, as it was their tradition to learn from their mothers even in those exalted social circles! The crispest chicken, surrounded by homemade sauerkraut with creamy, creamy mashed potato....cakes such as I will never make, remembered from the travels of her youth...all the best from the 1930's patisseries of Vienna, Prague & Budapest....flaky cheese pie that melted on the tongue...biscuits speckled black with vanilla...
Entertaining guests was one of her specialities, especially on their Saint's Day in December which was more important to them than Christmas...a huge feast was prepared and the best glasses & dishes put out....special prayers were said over the traditional foods...we were warm ,loved and well-fed.
Our school bus used to drop us off outside their house, and often we would stop in for tea. However young we were, it was always hot, fragrant Lapsang Souchong...served to us children in bone china cups rimmed with gold, and plates of thin, crustless white bread spread with unsalted butter and draped with wafer slices of continental salami...I can honestly taste it now. We felt like Queens!
When John died, Militza was quite literally hearbroken. She lived for ten years more, but the joyous cooking all but ceased, the zest for life disappeared slowly. She would talk with longing of the day they would be together again. Awful for us to hear, or even think about. But that was their love story. When she died, very suddenly and without any fuss, at 89...we all knew, despite our loss, that she was where she wanted to be. Reunited with the all-consuming love of her life. Happy again at last.
She gave me many treasures in those last years....
the scarf she wore on their honeymoon....
the amazing robe that her closest sister handmade and quilted as a present for her wedding trousseau...
And, nearest to my heart because it encompasses the love that they both shared, the golden cross that John gave to her, inscribed with her name in his handwriting. So, so special.
Dusk has fallen. I have lit the Yahrzeit candle which will burn all night and all day in remembrance. But I know that, wherever she is, she is happy and at peace because she is with John.
I am so lucky to have known her and to have had them in my life.
10th April 1911-17th March 2000
Remembered always with love and thanks.