Letter From Milo: The Old Man’s Grave

January 7th, 2019

I gave my mother a call over the Fourth of July weekend just to see how she was doing. I don’t see her as often as I’d like so I make it a point to call her a couple of times a week. Mom’s in pretty good shape for an 84-year-old lady. She’s in good health, still drives her car and lives independently in a small apartment a few blocks from my sister’s house.

Talking with my Mom is always an adventure. She speaks broken English and sometimes she can be hard to understand. For example, when I ask her about some of her old friends and neighbors, like Mr. Popovich, she’ll say something like this:

“Mr. Popovich is just fine. He’s been retarded for about 20 years.”

Retarded? What do you mean retarded?”

“You know, he doesn’t work anymore.”

“Oh, you mean he’s retired.”

“That’s what I said.”

“How about Mr. Vukovich? How’s he doing?””

“Not too good. He’s got the old timer’s disease.”

Old timer’s disease?”

“”You know, his brain is not too good.”

“Are you talking about Alzheimer’s disease?

“That’s what I said.”

Anyway, when I called Mom on that Fourth of July weekend she told me she was going out to the Serbian Orthodox monastery in Grayslake, on the grounds of which my father, Nikola Samardzija is buried. She was making the trip with several other widows and they would spend the day fussing over their husbands’ graves, the same way they fussed over their husbands when they were still alive. They would bring flowers, light candles, pray for the departeds’ souls and, most importantly, clean up the gravesites.

When Mom told me what she had planned, I felt a pang of guilt. You see, I haven’t been out to visit the Old Man’s grave in a long time. I guess I’m a bad son. I don’t have the same sense of veneration for my ancestors that the Chinese do. My bad.

The last time I visited the cemetery, I also had to spend a few minutes cleaning up the site, clearing away the “gifts” that some of the Old Man’s friends had left behind. Serbians have a tradition of leaving tokens of esteem at the graves of friends and loved ones. A pious person’s grave might be gifted with pictures of the saints or other religious artifacts. A housewife’s grave might be festooned with knitting needles, coffee cups or smidgens of her favorite foods.

In my Old Man’s case, his grave was littered with cigarettes, shot glasses filled with Christian Brothers brandy and decks of playing cards. It sometimes looked like Jim Morrison‘s grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, minus the graffiti.

The Old Man, you see, enjoyed the high life. He drank, smoked and gambled – and those were just the things I knew about. He no doubt had other vices but I wasn’t privy to them. I had heard stories over the years of epic drinking binges, substantial amounts of money won and lost in savage all-night card games, and bar room brawls from Gary to Milwaukee. But, as I said, those were just rumors.

I remember the day we buried him in the hallowed grounds, more than 20 years ago. There were about 50 of us in the monastery dining hall, having a post-funeral luncheon. These events always feature plenty to eat and drink, the favored beverage being Slivovitz, a plum brandy of indeterminate proof but undeniable potency. There were still several of the Old Man’s drinking buddies alive then and most of them spoke a few words about him. It was the usual bullshit that is said of dead people – Great father, wonderful husband, a friend to all, etc.

Finally, one old-timer, Petar Pepich, who was one of the Old Man’s favorite partners in crime, rose unsteadily to his feet, knocked down a shot of whiskey and said, “God damn it, I’ve got three children and they all look like Nikola.” Even Fr. Jovan, who was sitting at the head of the table, had to laugh at that one.

After the funeral luncheon I spent an hour or so wandering around the cemetery. There must have been more than a thousand graves in sight, all of them filled with dead Serbians. Like any other group of people I’m sure there were good people and bad people buried there, honest men and crooks, loyal husbands and philanderers, successful men and losers, religious men and whoremongers. I wondered where my father fit in that human spectrum. Probably somewhere in the middle, I guessed.

The one thing all these dead Serbians had in common was that they all wanted to be buried in the hallowed ground of the monastery. Maybe they figured proximity to a holy place might give them an edge in Saint Peter‘s entrance exam. Maybe they figured they’d catch a break on Judgment Day. Or maybe they just wanted to be close to old friends and neighbors. Who the hell knows?

Getting back to the conversation I had with my mother on the July Fourth weekend, I asked her, “What are you going to do after you visit the Old Man’s grave?”

“After we leave the cemetery me and my friends are going to the casino.”

Hmm, first the graveyard, then the casino. My guess is the Old Man would have approved.

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