She was not a cultured woman, or an educated one. With an alcoholic father and an insane mother, she was already working full time before the war, in her early teens, to keep the family alive. And yet she was trilingual, fluent in Serbo-Croat, German, and English. I learned most of my curse words from her: more crass than any legendary merchant marine or trucker, louder than any cat-calling construction worker, she wielded them with a fluency and vehemence unparalleled in the real world (driving with her was a real trip – even when she was in the back seat, she’d open the window and let out a string of curses in Serbian, English and German at anyone who had the audacity to try to pass us), and used them eloquently to voice her opinion. And she always had an opinion or two, often contradictory.
Once we were driving and passed a road crew that was on break, black men sitting under a palm tree, drinking water and coffee. “Dose fuckin’ niggers are so lazy,” she’d said. They won’t work. When they do, they don’t do it right. They all drive Cadillacs and have lots of babies. All that shit. And as we continued back to her house, we came across a group of black men, sitting under a palm tree, drinking coffee and water – groundskeepers for the condo complex where she lives. “Oh, dese poor Haitians,” she said. “It’s so hot out, and dey vorkin’ so hard.” And followed this with a diatribe against rich white folks who never worked a day in their lives, but refused to pay these guys a living wage. And followed this with a diatribe against the government for their immigration policies, which forced these people into positions where they could be exploited. She was a bigot, an anti-bigot, a capitalist, a proletarian, a communist, a Catholic and a Methodist and a Lutheran. She could hold vastly contradictory viewpoints, and held them strongly and vociferously.
“Stop here so I can buy Lotto. How many are you getting?” “None.” “What? You already got Lotto?” “No, I don’t buy lotto.” “You are so fuckin’ stupid! You are just like your father!” To Ivanka, anyone who did not put at least $20 a day down on the Lotto was stupid.
One day in the early 80’s, she decided to reorganize all the closets in my parent’s house. She did this, of course, while my parents were at work. So, she moved everything around, and then labeled everything, writing down what was what on the shelves in indelible marker. Now, she never learned to write, and what little she did learn was in Yugoslavia. Slavic languages are phonetic – everything is spelled exactly as it’s pronounced. So Ivanka applied the same ruleset to English – she spelled everything exactly the way she pronounced it. So in the linen closet, one shelf held “Flat Shits” and another held “Fitet Shits.” I think those labels are still there. She is the one who spelled my name Brni, on every card and letter I ever got from her. Because that’s how she said it.
She threw out all my mom’s dresses once, and bought her all new dresses, gaudy, Ivanka styled dresses. She did this with the drapes, as well, in a separate incident. Ivanka never wasted anything, however, so instead of throwing all the dresses and drapes in the trash, she immediately cut them up into rags. She didn’t understand why my mother got angry.
Len and I were visiting her for a couple weeks while my parents were in Mexico. I was in 9th grade, I think, an age when the luxury of sleeping in is a luxury not to be squandered. Ivanka woke early, and found it offensive that we didn’t. So at 6am every morning, the lock on the bedroom door would mysteriously become unlocked, and the door would open a crack. A whispered voice: “Pepper! Vere is your Brni?” And a small poodle would be pushed into the room. “Go find your Brni.” And the poodle would jump on the bed and start licking my face. Suddenly, at the top of her lungs: “Pepper! Vere are you? Get out of there, you vakin’ the kids!” After which sleep was impossible.
When I was, oh, thirteen or so, she did her best to encourage my getting laid by this cute and precocious 14 year-old girl I met at the beach. She called it making connections. Unfortunately, she failed in all but embarrassing the snot out of me. But it’s the thought that counts. Isn’t it?
Driving through Europe, from Luxembourg to Germany, from Germany to Yugoslavia, from Yugoslavia to Greece. We did a lot of driving at night to avoid traffic and livestock (at the time, it was still likely that you’d get stuck for an hour or two as a herd of sheep or goats or cows would be parked on the highway by herders who knew damn well that they were blocking traffic and didn’t give a damn). We’d be asleep in the back seat of the van. Suddenly someone was shaking my shoulder, and as my eyes opened, something was being pushed against my lips. “Vould you like a bonbon?” “No. I’m trying to sleep.” “Pitchka ti materina! Elizabet, you’re children are so ugly, they are so ungrateful!”
Horror stories all. She was the kindest, foulest, most generous, most selfish, most maddening person I’ve ever met, an extreme caricature of conflicting extreme caricatures. I think that there is and never shall be anyone like her again in this world.