Baba Vicky was the strongest, sweetest, smartest person I have ever met. I would tell her often, but she was too humble to accept my praise. Her reply: “I try my best . . . but how can you say that? I have broken English…I can’t read or write … I’m dumb . . .” and she would shake her head. I would tell her, “Baba, don’t ever say that! What you know about life, about people could fill a book. I have learned so much from you.” She would chuckle, and then grab my hand and give it a squeeze. She always had the softest hands. “You make me feel good,” she would say. “You make me feel good, too,” I would say back. After a brief moment of silence, we would fall back into our conversation.
She always gave me the best advice. When I talked to her about someone who has hurt me, she would tell me: “If you want to be forgiven for the mistakes you’ve made, you have to learn to forgive others. We all need forgiveness at some point in our lives.” I’ve tried to honor that advice, but it’s sometimes harder than it sounds.
When I told her I hoped to have a marriage like hers and Dedo Gus’s someday, she would tell me: If you want to have a good marriage, love him the way you want to be loved, and do what makes you happy. That’s how he will learn how to love you and make you happy. She had so much wisdom.
Her wisdom had humble beginnings. Velika Popovski (Kordovich) was born on March 12, 1921 to a couple in Bukovo, a small village outside Bitola, Macedonia. She was one of eleven children, but only five of the eleven survived to adulthood. They had a small plot of land with a few animals. Baba Vicky worked hard all her life: She took care of her siblings, worked the land during planting and harvesting seasons, and cooked and cleaned for her family. Wherever she was needed she did her job well. She completed a 4th grade education because that’s all that was available to girls in the village.
Her life changed, she would tell me with a smile on her face, the day Kosta Kordovich (Dedo Gus) came back from America. Everyone knew he was looking for a wife to take to America with him. Baba Vicky didn’t bother trying to get his attention like all the other eligible girls. She felt she was too plain and too poor to get the wealthy Kosta’s attention. That may have been what grabbed his attention in the first place, but Dedo Gus said, “I know quality when I see it.”
After just a few days, Kosta knew that Velika was the woman he wanted to marry. His family was very upset. They felt that she was too plain and too poor for their son, especially when he had his pick of any girl he wanted. He refused to listen to their complaints, and Baba Vicky and Dedo Gus were married on November 13, 1938. Baba Vicky moved out of her parent’s home and moved in with Dedo Gus and his family. She knew they didn’t approve of her, but Baba Vicky was comforted in knowing that Dedo Gus loved her. His love helped her to hold her head high.
Shortly after they were married, Baba Vicky became pregnant. She earned the respect of her new family by working hard and not complaining. In August of 1939, Dedo Gus was told he had to leave Bukovo without Baba Vicky because of the turmoil in Europe. Her paperwork wasn’t ready, and WWII was imminent. Dedo Gus had earned his American citizenship, and if he did not leave the country at that time, he would lose it.
Dedo Gus left on September 3, 1939, and Baba Vicky gave birth to Ana, my mother, on September 4, 1939. Baba Vicky and her mother-in-law comforted each other and my great-grandmother depended on and loved Baba Vicky as if she had been her own daughter. The two women formed a strong bond. Baba Vicky was heartbroken that her husband had to leave her, but it did not break her. She stayed strong for her daughter. As time went on her in-laws looked to Baba Vicky for strength and guidance.
Six years had passed without a word from Dedo Gus. Everyone told Baba Vicky that Dedo Gus had forgotten about her and probably found another woman in America. She refused to believe the rumors. She refused to leave his family. After years of waiting and never giving up hope, she finally received all the letters he had sent her over that six-year period. Dedo Gus was alive and well, and waiting for her to join him in America. It took another six years for the paperwork to come through. In the meantime, Dedo Gus sent goods from America to his wife and daughter. They went from being pitied to envied in a few short months.
They eventually received visas and gained passage to America in 1951. Baba Vicky was excited to see her husband, and happy that her daughter would finally meet her father; but she was also scared. Twelve years was a long time. What if he had changed? What if he didn’t love her anymore? She also was not naïve enough to think he had been faithful to their marriage that whole time. She had no idea how she was going to face what awaited her in America, so she faced it head on, putting everything that happened in the past where it belonged.
I am blessed to have Baba Vicky as the matriarch of my family. Her story illustrates her strength and courage and how she became the woman I came to know and love. I am blessed that she shared her stories with me. I am blessed by the advice she gave me that still rings true today. But more than that, I am blessed by the way she lived her life. The lessons I learned from watching her reveal deeper truths than even her wonderful advice. These are the prominent memories of my beloved matriarch:
She put love in every meal she made. That’s what made it taste so good.
She always did her best job. She had pride in her abilities, so it didn’t matter what anyone else thought of her, which made everyone love her more.
She made everyone feel important.
She laughed at herself often; she knew life was too short to take herself too seriously.
She smiled every chance she could, bringing joy to those around her.
When she loved someone, she held his or her hand for as long as she could.
My grandmother, Baba Vicky, was an amazing woman. I miss her so much. She died a little over three years ago, but her mind left her a few years before that. During the last few years of her life, she didn’t remember much. She could recall things from her youth, but she didn’t remember who I was most of the time. I like to believe that during those last moments of her life, as we stood around her bed, God gave her back her memories, so she could see how much we all loved her. I placed my hand in her soft, frail hand, and even in her weakened state, I felt a tiny squeeze before she took her last breath.
I love you, Baba! I miss you. Thank you for the courageous decisions you made throughout your life that led you here, to America. Thank you for blessing me with your beautiful soul.