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Writing Reflections
By Karen Kaiser

At the time, the writer is responsible for everything, and at the
same time [she] is simply lost. [She] has to be willing to stay
lost until what [she] finds—or what finds [her]—has the validity
that the instant (with [her] as its sole representative) can
recognize—at that moment [she] is transported, not because
[she] wants to be, but because [she] can’t help it. Out of the
wilderness of possibility comes a vine without a name, and [her]
poem is growing with it.

William Stafford, Acceptance Speech,
National Book Award, 1963
[Pronoun changed to feminine from original text]

In the process of learning about William Stafford’s early
morning writing and reflection practice, I have begun my own
writing adventure. And indeed I have felt lost at times,
transported to some new truth, and discovered vines without
names. One example of this was a morning reflection on my
grandmother that gave birth to my poem:

Grandmother

At 3649 Belmont Street there is a colorful
almost psychedelic painted house.
It has not always appeared as such.

Not so many years ago,
its colors are muted brown with white trim.
Inside walls dressed in patterned paper
and neutral paint colors.

The kitchen spacious
with hand-crafted cabinets
for pastries, bread, utensils and tablecloths
for entertaining relatives and friends.
A warm and cozy place.
The scratching sounds of a tiny black dog-Mitzi
scouring beneath my grandmother’s feet.
Grandmother welcoming
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my mother, sister and myself
with smells of baking sweets and savory treats
from the old country of Yugoslavia.

Then my sister scurrying outside to play with Mitzi.
My mother attending
to some needed house repairs with father.

For a moment, I linger behind
just grandmother and me.
She envelopes me in her warm embrace
and an outpouring of a rich mix of English-Croatian.
But quickly she withdraws
neglecting to answer any of my questions about
family or friends or history of the ‘Old Country’.
Is this an effort to shield me from some truth?
Is the past too painful to address?
Or is it her quest in becoming ‘American’?
To leave her own language,
culture and history behind?
Either way, revisiting her in this familiar place,
feeling robbed of my own culture
by unanswered questions,
and void of key clues
to describe and name the missing family vines.
I turn away in bewilderment.

As I leave the beloved kitchen
I am left with smells of baking bread,
juicy apple streusel and a savory pot roast.
And wondering, wondering, wondering,
what was grandmother’s life really like?

In writing this poem, I was following one of Stafford’s
models for writing poetry. This model includes first describing a
place with sensory details and emotions, then addressing an idea
with a reflection from that place, and finally book-ending the
poem with another description. What I discovered as I wrote was
that there has always been something of my grandmother that
has eluded me. She was always welcoming and hospitable. But I
never heard her speak about her home country, the former
Yugoslavia or the region she came from in Zagreb, Croatia.
$

As I grew older I had so many missing family vines my mother
could not answer. Who were my great grandparents? Did I have
any living relations left in Croatia? What ever happened to
grandpa when he left grandma to find gold in California? Did
grandpa mean to abandon the family? Or did he die in a mining
accident? The answers were always the same. Grandma Juliana
Kikalich did not want to talk about the ‘Old Country’ or grandpa,
who had abandoned his family. Juliana had severed all ties with
home, because her country was always in some conflict that
involved violence and war. According to Grandma, relatives and
friends only wrote her to ask for money, because they assumed
since she lived in the United States she was wealthy. So she
finally stopped corresponding with those left behind in Yugoslavia.

There are a few things I do know about my grandmother. Juliana
worked 2 to 3 jobs as a seamstress barely managing to support
her family as a single mother. When grandma became a US
citizen, as was the custom then, she shortened her name from
Kikalich to Kay to make it sound more ‘American’. She only
spoke English with her children, although many times her English
included colorful words of half Croatian and English. Juliana
moved away from the Croatian community on the west side of
Portland to Belmont street in order to be more immersed in what
she saw as mainstream American culture. She wanted her
children, my mom and her brother, to be ‘American’. But in this
effort to Americanize herself and her children she denied them
and her grandchildren of valuable family heritage. That included
not even telling my mother anything about her grandparents. As
a result, there is very little my sister and I know about our family
history on the maternal side. We know our grandmother was well
educated and worked as a teacher and translator in her own
country. Her parents owned a hotel in Zagreb and she came
from a well to do family. Juliana Kikalich came here on her
honeymoon in the early 1900’s with Nickolas Kikalich and stayed.
She was married prior to that to a man who reportedly died in a
conflict with Turkey. We do not know for sure our grandmother’s
maiden name or the first or last names of our great
grandparents. We have some records that say her name prior to
%
Kikalich was Zupcic. But was this her maiden name or her name
from her first husband?
In the middle of all these questions, my sister Julia Ann and
I made a wonderful discovery. We were cleaning out my father’s
house when we discovered a locked trunk.
My sister said, “I wonder what is inside that trunk? Some
family treasure? What could it be?”
My sister’s husband scoffed, “It’s empty for sure. There’s
nothing in there.”
“We could at least call a locksmith and find out,” I offered.

And so we did, and it yielded pictures we had never seen.
There were pictures of my mother, grandmother, grandfather
and great grandmother. It was as if we had been sent a life line
to our family history and to find at least some partial answers.
We still have no name for great grandmother. Great grandfather
is absent from the pictures; so that brings up more questions.


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All this is to say in my quest to find out more about my
family history, and my interaction with Stafford’s essays on
writing, I have discovered something more important than
uncovering facts. As I have allowed myself to travel back in time
to my grandmother’s house, knowing the names of my great
grandparents seems less important. I see my grandmother for
who she really was in spite of her need to keep secrets. I have
been reminded of the sweet smells from her kitchen, her love for
her children and grandchildren, and her best of good intentions
and wishes for their futures. I am saddened that she couldn’t
share with us more of our cultural background, but I understand
those were different times. It was a war torn Yugoslavia, which
she wanted to protect us from. She saw only hope in the present
and the future with her new life in her new country, and she saw
no value in talking about the ‘Old Country’ that in her eyes only
included war and death. She could not see far enough ahead to a
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time when her country would have new boundaries and a
prospect of peace. She never dreamed that her descendents
would want to travel back to what she called ‘The Old Country’
and learn about their family roots. As I reflect on the two
perspectives, my grandmother’s dreams and hopes for the future
in contrast to mine, I think of Stafford’s Poem “Vocation”:

This dream the world is having about itself
Includes a trace on the plains of the Oregon trail,
A groove in the grass my father showed us all
One day while meadowlarks were trying to tell
something better about to happen.

I dreamed the trace to the mountains, over the hills,
And there a girl who belonged wherever she was.
But then my mother called us back to the car:
She was afraid; she always blamed the place,
The time, anything my father planned.

Now both of my parents, the long line through the plain,
The meadowlarks, the sky, the world’s whole dream
Remain and I hear him say while I stand between the two,
Helpless, both of them part of me:
“Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.”
(Ask Me, by William Stafford,2014, p.5)

In reading this poem I think of how my grandmother and
grandfather followed their own trail on a long train ride from New
York to Portland, Oregon. The line that speaks of the girl who
belonged wherever she was reminds me of my grandmother, who
fell in love with the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah falls. I
also think of my mother and myself and our love we shared for
the beauty found in Oregon’s rivers, waterfalls and Pacific Ocean
beaches.
Additionally, the line of the “meadowlarks were trying to tell
something better about to happen.” I see in this the future of a
peaceful Croatia that my grandmother could not see. In relation
to her own country the lines, “she was afraid; she always blamed
the place, the time…”for me really explains her world view. This
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view is understandable given the constant conflicts my
grandmother witnessed growing up in her home country.
The last stanza that refers to “both of my parents” I see as a
metaphor for both of my grandmother’s homes, Zagreb, Croatia,
and Portland, Oregon. And like my grandmother “I stand between
the two, helpless, both of them part of me”… with my job like my
grandmother’s being “to find what the world is trying to be.” For
my grandmother that involved moving away from Yugoslavia to a
world that offered more opportunity and peace. For my mother it
was taking advantage of the new opportunities such as a college
education and career that her mother could not achieve. For me
it is bringing the two worlds together the old and the new,
celebrating my own cultural background and working with friends
towards a more inclusive world.

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