Notebook Entries vol. 1
When I was a little kid and I went into his studio and watched him paint, I thought it was magic. Going fishing with him, I felt the same. He was an artist, and he loved painting, but he loved fishing just as much. And he was an Artist in the Way he fished. There were things he helped me to see, like the way the light refracted off the water or the way the blues and greens of the sea melted into a foggy sunrise. I liked the way he engaged the surroundings with his whole being, the way he cast his lure, pivoting, using the left hand as a fulcrum, "like a golf swing," he'd say.., sending it way the hell out there, right to the middle of a school of fish. I watched him carefully, noticing everything, even the way the two fingers on his left hand, pinky and ring finger, would twitch when he was concentrating. He had great eyesight, and was always scanning the water, never failing to see a gull or osprey working a fish or a fish break the water or “fin”, a skill he learned from his friend, Capt. Ted Lester. Making a cast into a school of fish he used to say the rod was like a pen; he drew into the space with the same precision with which he'd draw with a japanese brush and printers ink, on rice paper. Fishing, the sea was like a canvas, and then, later, when painting, the canvas was the sea.
No doubt about it, he had a poetic thing with the sea. And that isn't a lazy thing, the sea forces you to work, its about work..think of Moby Dick..."
Sometimes he would get up on a rock at low tide and fish through the tide where it would be over his head at high water, fishing through the night, often during the full moon; with any luck there'd be a few fish tethered to his belt, the chained fish swimming against his legs as he made cast after cast.
I could hear him when he came in late from fishing, in the early fall, on a clear night, with my bedroom window open, he cleaned the fish by the hose near my window, (....sound of fish flopped on the flagstones, under the big black maple that took up the whole back yard.)
I used to love to go fishing with my father, but since he died I have pretty much given it up. He made it into an experience that was multileveled. It was sport, but when I was with him, especially when I was younger, twelve or thirteen, it was play. The fishing spot I liked best was Shagwong. In those days there were cattle grazing down there, and we'd pretend we were in the wild west, or on safari. Or we'd tell stories or dirty jokes. And when I got bored with fishing, I'd drive the beach buggy up and down Gin Beach. But those expeditions were always about painting, too. He got me to notice the shimmering of the light. He made references to painters colors, the burnt and raw umber of the rocks and the cliffs, the icono- graphic shapes the men in their parka's made. Everything took on a poetic tinge because he was open to it, and because he made it seem right and o.k. to experience things that way; to see things like an artist. Standing on a rock in waders where it would be over his head at high tide, in the quiet of dusk, a dimming lavender sunset, with the only sound the splashing of fish on all sides of him, is, how I remember my father fishing. (Years later, when he was Artist in Residence at Washington and Lee University, he did the same for football players and pre-law students, who loved him and called him Coach.)
In more recent times, fishing in Montauk turned into what he called "Picket fence" surfcasting, where you'd be lined up too close to each other someplace like Shagwong or North Bar and every once in awhile someone would get his neighbors hook in his eye. It seemed like there were more and more of what he called "Yahoo's" ..immature, unsportsmanly, sometimes drunk, guys who were intoxicated with some fantasy of being macho. These were the type who started the trend toward selling fish; the ones who fell into antagonism with the commercial fisherman.
My sister and I are fortunate. We have a collection of our fathers paintings, photographs and drawings that is a visual narrative of his experience and a record of the time in which we grew up.
Notebook Entries Vol. 2
Both of my artist parents were loners in their own way. Politically incorrect, for their time, they were not members of the old left, like so many of their friends, though they were Democrats. They had moved from New York City to the East End of Long Island in 1943 because, unlike their city friends, (many of whom didn’t have children, ) they had decided to raise their two kids in the country. It was not because they were anti-social.
Up to my teen’s I thought they had sprung full grown from the party atmosphere of N.Y. City during prohibition, a time they remembered and kept alive with seasonal parties filled with booze and lobster and visits by their, what seemed to me, odd collection of city friends.
As I got older though, I realized that my mother did in fact have some knowledge of where she came from. She had done some genealogical research, and remembered many family stories and anecdotes that were part of her childhood. This material became part of her continuing , (sometimes seemingly endless,) monologue. In my twenties, over drinks, I began to listen.
I discovered I had some very solid, though distant, claims to roots in this area. My mother, who was born and raised in New Jersey, was a direct descendant of Abraham Pierson, the pastor of the flock of puritans that founded the first English settlement in Southampton. In more recent times, her grandfather was a man who, in the Civil War, had his own Union regiment, built the first pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock and later became a Keeper at Sing Sing State Prison. His son, my mother’s Uncle Will, had died at Montauk, supposedly of malaria, but possibly of food poisoning, while bivouacked with Teddy Roosevelt’s men after San Juan Hill.
Notebook Entries vol. 3
In April of 1997, with my girlfriend, I took a trip along the Montenegrin Gold Coast, that area which had been, before the recent war, an alternative to the Riviera for Germans and Eastern Europeans. So, I did not get to see the nude beaches the place is so famous for. We skipped for another time the dangerous trip up Mount Lovchen, ( the Black Mountain from which the country gets its name ), and headed our clean little rent-a-car through a long tunnel carved out of rock, an unlit, man-made cavern that rains with underground spring water, into the fjord of Boka Kotorska.
At the end of the tunnel was Kotor, a small coastal city on a mountainside, warm enough, it seemed, to be dotted with small palms, and with water deep enough for yachts and freighters. Across the bay Muo leapt out at me; my father’s photographs come to life. The light brought back memories of a long ago sojourn in Cuernavaca; light that bounced off limestone rock and pale blue-gray olive groves while white-gold mist clung to the sides of mountains.
We checked into a hotel in the old-town section, a walled medieval city full of cafes and coffee drinking students. Martha tried to eat something she said looked and tasted like Campbell’s cream of tomato soup over gluey spaghetti. She was upset.
Through a girl we met at a tourist office, we arranged a meeting with a man she said was the son of a woman named who lived in the house my father had been born in.
At 5 o’clock that afternoon, as we waited in the outdoor cafe with the girl, who’s name was Lada, Ivan came strolling across the courtyard. There was something familiar about him, as if I had been told to look for a thin man about my height, with straight brown hair and a handsome, sun creased face, smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a suede Eisenhower jacket and jeans. He recognized Lada, and joined us and we began to struggle in a mixture of languages. He was the best linguist among us; he knew some Italian and some German as well as a few words of English; Martha could fumble along in tourist Italian; I was depending on vibes.
On the checkered table cloth, we spread a selection of the photographs my father had taken on his 1936 trip to Yugoslavia. Ivan chatted with Lada, without waiting for us to join. ( If we’d had a tape recorder, we could have eventually gotten it translated.. ) Along with a dozen or more of my father's old photo's, we had one picture, a snapshot taken twenty years ago by a friend who had, on a trip through this area, made some attempt to look up my relatives. She had come upon a woman with my family name and taken a picture of her. "That's my mother, " Ivan said. The photo showed several neighbors, all named Prohaska, who had long since moved, to places unknown. We wondered if his mother was my grandfather’s sister. “No, sorry,” he said, his mother had no brothers. We were both disappointed. Perhaps we were not related at all! Perhaps she was just a friend of the other woman in the picture, Baba Yana. Baba Yana was identified in my father’s photo as Ray’s godmother and his Grandfather’s sister. Ivan made a dramatic wave with his hand which seemed to say, so what, we shall see what we shall see, and invited us to come to his home the next day to meet his family.
The next day, we went to Muo, following the water’s edge around to the Western side of the fjord, and, with Ivan’s wife Rodrika and his friend Mikah, we climbed to a church way up the mountainside from his home. It was a hard steep climb but I was powered by some unknown force. The stone steps seemed endless; hundreds of yards up a slope as steep as the balcony seats at Albert Hall. Ivan’s robustly healthy wife gathered dandelion and other salad leaves from the cracks of the steps. Ivan, whose weather-beaten face made him look older than his fifty-five years, could have used a drink; his hands had tremors. But he climbed with the ease of the goats that scampered around us.
The church, not our intended final destination, had a cemetery. There were many graves but none seemed to be, according to Ivan, my relatives; except, perhaps, he implied mysteriously, one that was unmarked.
From the bigger chapel we retraced our steps down the side of the mountain a short way, through a wooded grove, toward the little chapel of Sveti Gratia. From a distance I could already see it; a vision the size of a postage stamp on the steep sloping mountainside. As we approached I saw, returned to it’s steeple, the bell that fell at my father’s feet, some ninety years ago! Next to the Chapel stood the upturned roots of a big Sequoia, torn from the ground by some freak storm or the last big earthquake. In the photos my father took in 1936 there are many more big trees; the chapel then was in a shady grove. Telling me to hold the Chapel door knob, Rodrika directed Martha’s picture taking. Touching the door made the sense of triumph at having reached back into my own family history more real. But, the door was locked, so we made the decision to hunt down the key tomorrow.
I worried about the light; adjusted the f stop and the shutter speed on my camera. We heard the sound of ringing bells, coming from all directions. ( It was the Saturday of Orthodox Easter. ) From down below we heard yelling. A woman doing her chores thought we were vandals. We stepped back from the little building and took in the view of the wide azure colored bay and its shoreline of villages covered in red tiled roofs. The sun was bright, it was a warm spring day, and I was exhilarated.
Ivan went ahead as we descended, calming the excited woman down and bounding back up, to say he was doing the job of Madeleine Albright; who, he added parenthetically, was born in Belgrade. The accusing woman, who was feeding her goats and pigs, calmed down. As we approached, walking down a different path from the one we had ascended, one that came out from behind her house onto the bayside road, she talked amiably to Ivan and Mikah. She was prematurely wrinkled from the sun and missing several teeth, but still handsome, with high cheek bones and Montenegrin blue eyes. She displayed a bucket of fish; two eels, an octopus, and what looked like a giant Sea Robin. Generous, now that she’d forgotten her anger, she held up the winged fish for me to photograph.
The next day, Ivan took us to Lepetane, further along the shore from Muo, in the direction of the Narrows that lead to the Adriatic. He hoped we would find some relatives of my paternal grandmother, Anastasia Ilich. Like most houses in the area, the small, four room house of Ivan’s friends was built on a steep terraced slope. As we approached the house, me driving, in a rented Ford Escort, the narrow gravel road pitched up at a steep angle so that I thought we would fall over backwards. On the passenger side pebbles slid toward the neighboring house below. A smiling, white-haired man came out and helped us negotiate the car onto the concrete apron that served as a parking space; a small slab overhanging a forty foot drop to the next negotiable terrace.
His name too was Ivan; Ivan Ilich. He was a gentleman farmer in his late sixties, comparatively wealthy by local standards. Behind the house was a small but lush valley with a pasture of several acres for his one Swiss cow, whose name was Heidi, and behind that a small vineyard. Between the house and the cow barn was a deep gully descending the mountainside, bridged by two old hand hewn wooden beams and a big sheet of rusted diamond plate steel.
We sat in his kitchen while his wife served coffee and homemade coffee cake. Soon we were joined by his son. A young doctor at a nearby hospital, he explained in halting, unsure English that though he could read his English language medical texts with ease, he hadn’t much experience in speaking it aloud. The conversation lagged but a festive atmosphere maintained, relying heavily on food consumption. Coffee segued into lunch. The elder Ilich brought out home-made cheese, made from Heidi’s milk, and home-made prosciuto, which we ate appreciatively with chunks of the bland little football bread; which we decided to call Kotor Bread.
The aroma of Grappa wafted across the room. Mr. Ilich and Ivan had begun drinking this distillate of crushed grapes from a used Johnny Walker Red bottle. At the same time Ivan let me know that while he had on numerous occasions drunk the real Johnny Walker Red, he had his heart set on trying the more expensive Black Label. The Grappa by its smell alone created a mood in the little room which reminded me of a night outside Richmond, Virginia, in 1963 when I drank moonshine with a couple of hillbilly boys and fell in love with their mother on the back porch. It was strong enough to put Ivan quickly in a very mellow place, and then the wine was brought out, also home-made; pink and aromatic. Having been a teetotaler for many years, I settled for a sniff, but Martha took a small glass. “Delicious”, was the verdict.
Ivan and the two Ilich men studied my father’s photographs and conversed between themselves. They saw no-one they recognized. Soon, the older Ivan, now solemn, explained that, owing to my being Roman Catholic, we could not possibly be related; he and his family being Eastern Orthodox. This seemed to depress my Ivan and carried over to me. I wanted relatives.
At that point the young doctor, studying one of the photographs, seemed to recognize something. He took me by the elbow and guided me to the kitchen and pointed out the window above the sink toward a house up the mountain. “Your house, I know! Is here.!” At first I thought he must be mistaken. The house he was pointing to was bigger than the one in the picture he held in his hand; but it did look very similar. We decided to walk up.
As a group, imitating the ever-present goats, we climbed straight up over stones and around boulders. We stood on an old foundation and looked across the same steep pitched gully that traversed the farm below, toward the old house in which my grandmother was born. We could see where the new addition had been added, sometime after my father’s 1936 trip. The dormers and windows and chimney, ( down to the last brick and shingle, ) matched in exactly the right places; mountains behind lining up like two transparent layers on a grid. We wouldn’t find out, for the time being, whether my grandmother’s family was any relation to our present Orthodox friends or not, but that didn’t seem to matter now. My eyes kept jumping back and forth from the old photograph, a print of which had hung in my father’s studio for years, to the house which now stood before us. I breathed in a deep draught of ancestral air laden with sea and mountain smells and the scent of wild flower and billy goat and let my own experience open up to include the whole world between now and the time of my father’s mother’s conception.
We walked back down the hill past our new friend’s home to yet another church, where my Grandmother was baptized and married, walked up and down the same steps they would have taken on their wedding day, over a century ago, and then returned to the house for yet another toast, followed by a tour of the small farm, a stroll through the vineyard where the wine came from, and a peek inside Heidi’s barn. From the meadow, we looked up the mountain at our Ilich house.
We returned to our hotel for a nap. At four o’clock we reconnoitered with Ivan who had also napped, or passed out, and went to St. Gregory’s, the church next to Ivan’s house, in search of Don Anton, the Catholic priest who was to get us the key to Sveti Gratia from the caretaker. We had seen the young priest before; a movie star handsome six footer, with wavy black hair and blue eyes. He was a local leader who had been pointed out to us by Lada, the girl at the tourist office on the square. We had watched him in his black gown with hands behind his back, walking the courtyard with several serious looking men, discussing matters of importance. He didn’t have the key, and didn’t speak English, so it was hard to determine what was going on. The caretaker, drunk, or simply out of town for the holiday, was nowhere to be seen, and without the key it seemed too much effort to climb the mountain again. Disappointed, we agreed to a tour of Don Anton's church, the Roman Catholic Church of Muo, where the suave and jovial priest had just finished saying Mass.
St. Gregory’s was a plain stuccoed church with a red tiled roof, typical of small churches in the area. Inside, it had two side alters as well as the main one at the center. Above each alter was a large mural, but I never got past the one on my right. It was St. Gratia, life-sized, kneeling, facing a chapel remarkably like our little one up the mountain; the same size and almost exactly the same shape. The chapel was zippered open, as if it’s walls had been peeled back like a tent door, to expose the Madonna and Child, who were beaming rays of light at St. Gratia. The kneeling Saint was looking up at the vision that became the reason for his sainthood.
We went back to Ivan’s house. By now they were used to my not drinking. I was given a glass of what seemed to be the area’s most popular soft drink. Called simply Juice, it was an orange colored concoction that tasted like Tang and came in a plastic bottle. We took out the photocopy of my father’s baptismal certificate we’d been carrying with us all day but had forgotten about till now. It contained, in elegant old Serbo-Croatian script that Ivan and Rodrika could read with difficulty, the proof of the marriage of Anastasia Ilich to Sime Prohaska, in Lepetane, in 1893; and under her name, the notification; greko-istocina, domacica; Greek-Eastern, housewife. My family, it now seemed, could well have been related to the family we’d just met.
If only we’d had time to go back to Lepetane, to show the Ilich men my Grandmother’s Orthodox credentials. But we were leaving that afternoon; back through the tunnel under Mt. Louvchen, and back by air the long way around, through Greater Serbia, and then toward Rome. We were looking at Ivan’s scrapbook; at clippings we couldn’t read a word of; at his shelves of books and framed photographs. He took down a picture of a distinguished Austrian Army Officer whose name was Ludwig Prohaska. He was the father of Antoinette, Ivan’s mother. Possibly, he could be my Grandfather’s brother, or Cousin. Ivan agreed to work on finding that out, before our return, perhaps next year. Rodrika, in a wonderful gesture of friendship, reached into a cabinet and brought out a handmade crocheted tablecloth she’d made herself and handed it to Martha (as a parting gift, which brought tears to everyone’s eyes). Ivan’s daughter insisted we go outside and say goodbye to the family’s Alsatian, Archie.
At noon, after packing, we met Ivan one last time in the outdoor cafe, and I insisted he take some money for the purchase of a bottle of his dream drink; Johnny Walker Black. After awkward goodbyes, my new cousin disappeared into the Old Town.
By the next evening we would be with friends at an elegant restaurant in Rome, relating the story of our trip to my father’s birthplace. Those few short days in the Bay of Kotor had opened a window in my life through which new energy and direction would flow. There was a time in my misspent youth when, rubbing elbows with some downwardly mobile prepschoolers on my forays into the saloons of the Big City, I had become somewhat resentful my father had raised me in a small village by the ocean, rather than send me away to some fancy place where I could have learned to fit in with these newfound friends. Now, I could see how his life had been ruled by a magical childhood. I could see that my own treasured memories of fishing and hunting and horseback riding through the fields and beaches of Amagansett were no accidents of fate, but a gift from my father. I felt a new kinship with him. I felt rewarded, and inspired.
Recently, going through some of my father’s old fishing stuff, I found, in a small dry fly box, a 35 millimeter contact print of a man standing in front of the little chapel in a dark suit and fedora. It was inscribed, “ Louie and the chapel of patron Saint Grace.’’
It was his friend Louis Adamic, who had written a popular book in the thirties, about Yugoslavia, called “The Natives Return.” I found the book, a first edition, inscribed to Ray, and read it straight through. I wondered if Louie had been on my father’s trip or if this was a shot of the writer on his first trip home, in 1934; the trip he wrote about.
My visit had been too short. With the language barrier, and the general excitement, we had missed so much. I would like to come back and take a closer look. With a good translator we might have completely solved the mysteries of my genealogy.
Adamic’s book, even though it is dated, is helping me flesh out my understanding of the country; reminding me of things I saw only peripherally, because of my excitement and the brevity of our stay. And my appetite is whetted for other literature about the country; both fiction and non-fiction. If life was long enough, I'd reread Rebecca West's classic.
A few years later, I picked up a novel from the library, a new book titled Montenegro. The action begins in Kotor in l908, the year before my father left the country. By what seems like a coincidence to me, the narrator’s friend, to whom he is writing, is named Raymond.