Suzanne Brazeau’s story of Vassilka

15 - Vassilika Yannis SuzRThe Macedonian village, Zeleniche, under Greek rule, welcomed the birth of Vassilka Shikleff around 1915. She was the third of four children born to Magda and Ristos Shikleff. Their eldest child, Alexandra, would thirty years later bring Vassilka to Canada. Their second eldest, brother, Turpche, would be cut out of her life when she learned how he had neglected and abused their mother. Her youngest brother Yanni . . . yeah, well, Yanni . . .

Vassilka learned to speak and write Greek in the village school. It was forbidden to speak Macedonian. In fact, her father went to prison for two years for speaking Macedonian to his donkey. His defense, “Your Honour, my donkey doesn’t understand Greek.” She received a grade six education. She once shared with me her girlhood fantasy of working as a teacher in the big city of Salonika and living in a garret. The reality though was every village girl had to get married. And get married “intact”. Vassilka’s conjugal sheets were proudly displayed to the village. Well, not proudly; my mother abhorred this custom, though she was a vociferous advocate of virtue, especially mine. She warned me that if she found out I wasn’t a virgin, she’d take my legs and tear me up the middle to make me pure again. But when I was depressed about the enormity of my breasts, she comforted me with, “Don’t worry Suzie, when you are older the boys will massage them and they will shrink.”

My Grandmother was fourteen when she married; my mother a ripe twenty. Why did it take her so long? She was attractive, hardworking, accomplished in the arts of knitting, crochet, embroidery, cooking, baking, preserving, farming, not to mention chastity, and she loved to dance. I have fond memories of Saturday afternoon circle dances in the kitchen to tunes on the radio’s The Macedonian Hour. Maybe the death of her father delayed her marriage, but I’m not certain if he died before or after her wedding. Perhaps she was just holding out for the love of her life, and Yanni Karayannis – translation: John Blackjohn – was the love of her life. Throughout her girlhood, when her father wasn’t looking, Vassilka would park herself next to the window to catch a glimpse of Yanni when he walked by. In 1935, in exchange for a dowry of twenty goats, my mother got the best sex she would ever know. She often warned me to never engage in sex, because once you tried it you couldn’t stop.

Vassilka bore her first child, Mary, in 1937, and three years later Yannis Karayannis was killed in action in World War II. Did I mention that on my mother’s wedding day someone threw up on her dress? Bad omen.

She once described going to the ministry to pick up her widow’s pension, and all around her women in the line-ups were chattering and laughing. She couldn’t understand how they could carry on like that when her own life had been completely devastated. Weak with grief, she leaned against the wall for support until her name was called.

The situation in Europe offered my mother opportunities to display enormous courage. With her husband enlisted in the army, Vassilka received food rations that fed several households. The catch was she had to walk through live minefields to get them. Things got even worse after the war. Communist rebels, The Andarin, were seizing orphans and shipping them to Russia to be educated as communists. Fatherless children were considered orphans, so she hid my sister Mary in the barn rafters for two days, while she faced off the rebels. My sister was saved.

On October 2, 1948, Vassilka and Mary waved goodbye to the village of Zeleniche from the wagon that took them to the taxi, that drove them to the airplane, that flew them to London and then to Canada, where my aunt Alexandra’s family met them at Toronto Malton airport and took them to my Uncle’s shoe repair shop, where they all lived together upstairs.

My mom immediately began studying for her Canadian citizenship. She got a factory job at Jenny Lind chocolates, but couldn’t stand the smell of chocolate and eventually quit.

We all know that fish and company stink after three days. Try eighteen months! A desperate search for suitors began. Two Macedonian men presented themselves: one was wealthy, but did not want my sister; the other was willing to take them both. So on September 29, 1950, my mother married Anton Ristich, café owner in Belle River, Ontario: the hate of her life!

My mother told me that my dad pushed her out of bed on their wedding night. You see, my father had a condition called Peyronie’s disease, characterized, in his case, by a severe bend in the penis. At its worst, sex can be extremely painful for both parties. My mother would never forgive or forget that my father did not disclose this fact before they were married.

Belle River was beautiful: a charming house on the river and a pretty good business; my sister loved it there! But because my mom missed her sister, my dad sold his partnership and they moved to Toronto. There, after a miscarriage, I was born, followed by my brother three years later. Bend or no bend, those little “spermies” found their mark!

To pay off the mortgage, the four upstairs bedrooms were rented out, furnished. My mother, a born recycler, made sheets out of cotton sugar bags. She finished them beautifully with fine French seams, and they were patterned with a faint pink and blue “SUGAR CANE” that hadn’t completely washed out. She also hung teabags in the window to dry.

She loved her garden. Our backyard was bigger than most Toronto lots, and her garden filled the back third. She would be out there all day. I would press my nose against the kitchen widow and watch her. I was so jealous of the garden. Everyone who visited was taken on a tour of her “tomatios” and peppers and flowers. She would can and preserve everything. In the fall our house was steaming. She made the best tomato sauce.

Because her English wasn’t very good, she was often taken in. Telephone pranksters asking, “Is your refrigerator running?” would have her dashing to the kitchen to check. I overheard her once on the receiving end of an obscene phone call, desperately trying to make sense of it. Another time, she ran out of my brother’s room crying, “Drugs, drugs!” waving the condom packages she’d found under his mattress.

My mother was unhappy in Canada and coped with her unhappiness by hitting us. Mom went to town on me regularly, often leaving bruises. My sister insists Mom never hit her in the old country.

One bright spot in her life was the year my dad’s cousin’s husband came to live with us. He had immigrated to Canada and was renting a room upstairs. Around him my mom was flirtatious, vivacious, happy. I hated him. I will never know if anything happened between them, but man, when that guy’s wife arrived, Mom despised her so much with no reason. Kinda makes me wonder. I remember coming home from high school after that and seeing Mom sitting by the dining room window, weeping. She was probably having a nervous breakdown, but we didn’t know.

My father’s deception re Peyronie’s disease wasn’t the only deceit that impacted her life. Her brother Yanni stole her monthly widow’s pension cheques in Macedonia for years, though he had told her they’d been terminated. She didn’t find this out until ten years after she had moved him and his family to Canada, where they lived with us for two years. My mother immediately cut him out of her life. She would have had so many more choices, and the time to make them, if she had had that money.

She was so desperate to see me married off – hoping first for a Macedonian boy, then, failing that, an English boy, and finally: Did I know any Jewish boys? I mentioned her strict views about virginity. Thank God for the show Dallas. She watched every episode, and thanks to that show, when I moved back home in my mid-twenties and told her I was no longer a virgin and might not come home on occasion, she took it well. “[Heavy Sigh.] The best we can hope for now is a widower.” She hadn’t told any of her friends that I had left. A year later, when I moved to Vancouver, she would set a place for me at family gatherings with my resume photo taped to the chair.

My parents fought all our lives. Things got even worse when my father announced that he had changed his will, leaving the house to my mother and his savings to us kids. Interestingly, he did this soon after my mom cut off her brother. He was afraid to leave everything to her, because she might perceive a slight from one of us as a reason to disown us completely. She didn’t see it that way. After having spent twenty plus years washing his dirty socks, she felt it was insult added to injury to shut her out like that. She moved to the bedroom down the hall and banished him from the kitchen. She never cooked for him again or did his laundry. He was allowed to join in a meal at a special family gathering, say, if I came home for a visit, but over time that too came to an end. She started telling everyone about the penis problem, and I mean: everyone!

The odd thing was, we learned after she died, her savings exceeded my dad’s! For years she had worked odd jobs – cleaning office buildings, babysitting, washing dishes at The Four Aces down the street. My sister attributes her monetary success to the financial and investment advice given on the Saturday radio show The Macedonian Hour. “Show your husband everything from the neck down,” Mom would say, “but nothing from the neck up,” meaning, never let him see your bankbook.

When my mom was 73, my parents sold the house and went their separate ways forever. She went to the Macedonian old age home, where she lived peacefully for two years. I called her one Sunday afternoon in 1990, and though she recognized me, her behaviour was bizarre. She kept asking, “What time is it?” When my sister couldn’t connect to Mom by phone, she and my brother-in-law broke down her door. They found her in a heap, the phone off the hook. She had had a stroke. She spent the last four months of her life in hospital on life support, until we were advised to take her off, which we did. At this final stage, we three were with her, together for the first time since the stroke. An unearthly sound came from her unconscious body, from the deepest pit of her soul. What I heard was profound grief. She died August 31, 1990.

She had made us promise to never let our dad near her dead body.

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