Sunday, December 30, 2012

In which Rhymeswithplague tries his hand at non-fiction

This is either my 1101st post or my 1102nd post. I’m not sure. One screen tells me one thing and another screen tells me another. Isn’t that just like Blogger?

The end of the year is approaching and in all likelihood I shan’t be posting much for the next few days. But I have a little something that (a) I wrote in 2006, (b) runs just under 4,900 words and (c) I do not think I have ever shown to you before.
It should hold you until I resume my normal schedule.

Ksanthipi and the Meat Tree
by Robert Henry Brague

I grew up in a dusty little town in Texas during the nineteen-fifties. Our family were Yankees, outsiders, transplants from the despised north, worse than foreigners. Gradually the town came to accept us. My mother grew up in Pennsylvania. My father grew up in Iowa. I was born in Rhode Island. The only people more exotic than ourselves in our town were an old Jewish couple who spoke with thick Russian accents and ran the local dry goods store, and a small community of African-Americans (they weren’t called that in those days) who worked in the cotton fields and lived in their own part of town and went to their own schools. I didn’t know any local black person except Dilsey Briscoe who lived with her husband in an unpainted house on the old Driskell place. My father hired her a few times to cook and clean and tend to my mother’s needs during her illnesses. Dilsey smelled like Ivory soap and got me dressed for school and made my breakfast. Television was just coming in and many people were still rather naïve about the larger world. There were no Italians or Norwegians or Mexicans or Southeast Asians in our town, and there certainly were no Albanians. I would have noticed Albanians. When I grew up, I married one.

The story you are about to read is true, but it has been filtered through many years of memory, which sometimes fades and sometimes plays tricks with the mind. Over the years some details have been added and some forgotten, and things may not have happened in just the way described in these pages. It has been told many times to various children who sat wide-eyed and listened intently to the unfolding of their own history. The story changes a little each time it is told, but whether someone spoke to a king or to a minor government official is really only incidental in the overall scheme of things. A great-aunt in her eighties once shook her head and announced, “It never happened,” but it is a true story nevertheless, in the way butterflies and daffodils and puffy white clouds are true in springtime, in the way snowflakes and cold noses and warm fires are true in winter. And even though no two springs are ever alike, or winters, or butterflies or daffodils or clouds or snowflakes or noses or warm fires, for that matter, we recognize them when we see them and we welcome them because they are true. This story is about two Albanians whose story deserves to be told, and it is true.

It begins in the year 1895 in a place called Vlonë, in the small country of Albania, which shares a border with Greece and what used to be called Yugoslavia. These are very old countries, but Albania is oldest of all. According to a chart of Indo-European languages in one big desk dictionary, the language that Albanians speak goes straight back into antiquity just as Sanskrit, another ancient tongue found in another part of the world, does. What that indicates is that neither Sanskrit nor Albanian developed out of a previous culture or branched off from any other language the way, say, Spanish and French developed from Latin or the way English and German came from an earlier Teutonic tongue. In ancient times Albania was known as Illyria, and the modern Albanian word liri means freedom. The Illyrians were fierce fighters, mountain people who were never conquered by any invading force until the Middle Ages, when Albania was called either Shqiperia or Epiroti depending on which history you happen to read, and the armies of Ottoman the Turk overwhelmed the inhabitants of the Balkans and made them part of the Turkish Empire. By the end of the nineteenth century, even though most Albanians were Moslem, there remained communities of Christians made up of both Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers. But this is not a lesson in geography or history or religion. It is a love story, and it is true.

Into the Albanian Orthodox community in Vlonë, in the year 1895, a child was born, a boy, the second son of Margarit Kuçi and his wife, the former Thespula Bola. He was a healthy baby and his parents named him Dhimitri, a very good name indeed. In English there is no “dh” combination except in a word like jodhpurs, which comes from India and has nothing to do with Albania, or in words like roadhouse or bloodhound, in which the two letters are not even in the same syllable. In Albanian, however, “dh” represents the sound of the voiced or soft “th” as in our words then and there and themselves, as opposed to the unvoiced or hard “th” sound as in our words through and three and theater. To an English speaker, the boy’s name would have sounded for all the world like “the meat tree,” but in 1895 in Vlonë, there were no English speakers. Some people across an ocean many years later would call him Demetri, but that is a Greek name, not an Albanian one, and the Albanians, as I said, existed long before the Greeks.

While Dhimitri was still a child, he and his older brother, whose name I do not know, were orphaned when both of their parents died within a short time of each other. Dhimitri would often walk with his brother to the ocean and eat a meal of black bread and cheese on the beach. Dhimitri loved walking and talking with his brother by the seaside. Eventually the boys’ godmother, a wealthy widow, took pity on both of them and brought them into her own home to live. A few years later, Dhimitri’s brother joined the Italian Navy and hoped to go to America eventually in search of a better life. When Dhimitri was twelve, his godmother sent him to Italy for more education. There he finished his schooling, became the captain of a fishing boat, and even served in the Italian Navy for a time.

In 1917, when Dhimitri was 22 years old, he decided to go to America to try to find his brother, and he secured passage on a boat leaving from Naples. Entering the country through the port of Boston in the state of Massachusetts, he traveled to several cities looking for his brother wherever he found small communities of Albanians. In one city, he met someone who had heard that Dhimitri’s brother had been lost at sea. Dhimitri, sad because he was never able to find his brother, stopped traveling and settled down near the ocean, in a place where there were many Albanians, a place called Atlantic City in the state of New Jersey. In 1924, at the age of 29, Dhimitri became a naturalized citizen of the United States and changed his name to James Cudse. People no longer called him “the meat tree”; everyone began calling him Jim.

In 1907, the same year Dhimitri’s godmother sent him to school in Italy, another child, a girl, was born in Fier, Albania, a village some distance from Vlonë, to Kostandin Rista and his wife, the former Margrit Pipa, who were also members of an Albanian Orthodox community. The baby was named Ksanthipi, which is pronounced like the more familiar Greek name, Xanthippe. But life is as unkind in Fier as in Vlonë, and when Ksanthipi is quite young her mother dies. Her father marries again, and in 1918, when Ksanthipi is eleven years old, twin daughters are born to Ksanthipi’s father and stepmother. One girl, Kristina, survives but the other does not. A few months later, Kostandin, father of Ksanthipi and Kristina, dies from a sudden severe illness.

Ksanthipi’s stepmother treats her poorly. Once when Ksanthipi is carrying Kristina in her arms she stumbles and falls, but she manages to prevent serious harm to her sister by twisting her own body in such a way to take the force of the blow on her own shoulder; her stepmother rewards her by tying her to a tree with a rope and beating her severely with a stick. In her old age, Ksanthipi still wondered whether the recurring pain in her shoulder is a result of the fall or of the beating.

During the Great War, Ksanthipi sees an airplane for the first time as one flies over her village. All the children, excited, stop playing to watch “the big bird”; they become even more excited when they see what appear to be eggs falling from the bird. When the eggs turn out to be bombs, people begin screaming and running into their food cellars to avoid being killed. By the time Ksanthipi reaches her cellar it is already locked from the inside and no one will open it to let her in. When the people emerge after the bombing stops, they discover that one bomb has exploded so close to Ksanthipi that all of her clothes are blown off, but Ksanthipi herself is hurt only slightly. Ksanthipi is a survivor like Kristina.

Ksanthipi’s stepmother decides to leave Fier to marry a wealthy man in another town. She keeps Kristina with her but she takes Ksanthipi to the home of Kostandin’s parents and tells them that they must take care of their granddaughter from now on. So it is that Ksanthipi comes to live with her paternal grandparents, Kristaq and Sofië Rista, in Fier. The Ristas are well-known in the area and well-liked because Sofië is a midwife to many of the village women. She is very good at her work. One day she is summoned by an Italian army officer whose wife is experiencing difficulty in childbirth. The baby is turned wrong and the military doctors are not able to help her. Sofië turns the baby into the right position, the baby is born, and both mother and child survive. The army officer is so impressed and grateful that he offers to send Sofië to Italy so that she can teach her methods to the doctors there. Sofië is flattered but declines because she wants to stay in Fier with Kristaq and Ksanthipi. Sofië has helped the people of Fier in other ways also; for example, she has successfully removed cataracts by applying a salve made from salt and egg whites to people’s eyes. Ksanthipi is very happy she has come to live with her grandparents, but she misses her father and her sister.

On the wall of Ksanthipi’s grandparents’ parlor are two photographs, one of Ksanthipi’s father, Kostandin, and another of someone who looks very much like him. It is her uncle, her father’s brother, Margrit, who has gone to live in America. Ksanthipi decides then and there that she also wants to go to America to live, and to meet her uncle who looks so much like her father. But Ksanthipi, a young teenager without a father or a mother, lives in the house of her grandparents whose plans do not include going to America. Every day Ksanthipi prays that one day she will be able to leave Albania and go to America and meet her uncle. One night in a dream she sees Jesus, very large, standing over her house with his arms stretched out. The next day her grandmother tells her it is a sign that everything will turn out all right because God is watching over her. Ksanthipi already knows that God is watching over her; once when she was very ill an Orthodox priest came to her house, anointed her forehead with oil, and prayed for her to be healed. Before leaving, he kissed a small Bible and placed it under her pillow. The next morning, Ksanthipi was well. She knows God is watching over her life and that He will continue to do so. What she doesn’t know, however, is how she will possibly get to America.

Someone says to Ksanthipi, “If you go to Tiranë and speak to King Zog, maybe he will let you go to America.” So that is exactly what Ksanthipi does; she pleads with her grandparents, pestering them until they take her to Tiranë, the capital of Albania, to see King Zog.

“I want to go to America,” says fourteen-year-old Ksanthipi, and King Zog replies, “I don’t want the world to think Albanians are ignorant. You must complete your education first.” Ksanthipi, very disappointed, returns to Fier. When she is sixteen and has completed her schooling, she travels to Tiranë again to speak to the king.

“I want to go to America,” Ksanthipi tells King Zog a second time, but he tells her, “You are still just a girl. You must be older before I will let you go to America.” Once again, Ksanthipi is very disappointed, but she is still determined to go to America. She returns to Fier and waits until she is eighteen. Then she goes a third time to see King Zog.

“I want to go to America,” Ksanthipi says to King Zog, and this time he tells her, “You must be married before I will give you permission to go to America. No single woman can leave Albania.”

Ksanthipi, disappointed again, begins to despair. She is living in a time and place where marriages are arranged by one’s parents, and both of her parents died before arranging a marriage for her. “And if I marry somebody here in Fier,” she thinks to herself, “he will want to stay in Fier.” She wonders if she is ever going to see America.

She tells her thoughts to her grandmother, who says, “Pray, Ksanthipi, pray to God. If you ask Him, He will tell you how to get to America. He will show you a way.”

A few weeks later both Ksanthipi and her grandfather, Kristaq, become very sick when an illness sweeps through the village of Fier. The illness causes all of Ksanthipi’s beautiful blond hair to fall out, but eventually she gets well. When her hair grows back it is no longer blond, but a warm, rich, dark brown. Her grandfather, Kristaq, a very old man, is very weak and does not get well; he dies. Fier is a very poor village and using a telephone to call all the way to America is very, very expensive in 1926. No one can afford to do anything like that. “I must write to Margrit,” says Sofië, Ksanthipi’s grandmother, “and let him know that his father has died.” Ksanthipi sees the address on the envelope and remembers it. Her uncle lives in a place called Atlantic City, New Jersey. God has shown her a way.

A few days later Ksanthipi writes her own letter to her uncle. “I am your niece,” she writes, “the daughter of your brother Kostandin. I want to come to America, but I am unmarried. King Zog says I must be married before I can leave Albania. If I marry someone here in Fier, he will want to stay in Albania. Please, dear uncle, will you help me get to America?” She encloses a photo of herself, taken before her illness.

In Atlantic City, Michael Rista (for that is the American name Margrit uses) stands in his kitchen and reads Ksanthipi’s letter. Yes, he decides, he will help her. He will do it for his dead brother. Mike Rista, owner of a butcher shop, has many customers and some of them are Albanians like himself. He sells them cuts of meat for their tables. As customers enter and leave his butcher shop over the next few days, Mike sees the Albanian ones in a different light. He is thinking about a husband for Ksanthipi. He writes a letter to his niece in Albania. “Would you trust me to find a husband for you here in America?” he asks. “And when I find him, will you let me send him to you to marry you and bring you here?”

Ksanthipi, overjoyed, answers her uncle in America by return mail. “Send me a stick,” she replies, “and I’ll marry the stick.”

One customer Mike Rista sees regularly in his butcher shop is Jim Cudse, a happy-go-lucky guy who is well-liked in the community. Jim has a good job and a promising future and has already become an American citizen. Even though Mike has heard from another customer that Jim can be a bit of a prankster (he once put soap flakes in someone’s cereal box, he once put toothpicks in someone’s sandwich), Mike decides that Jim is the one. “I have a favor to ask you,” Mike says to him. “I need your help. If you will go back to Albania, marry my niece Ksanthipi in Fier, and bring her here to America as your wife, I will pay for a divorce if you don’t like her.” Jim, surprised, hesitates until Mike shows him a photograph of his niece, and Jim agrees to do it. Ksanthipi is very beautiful. He especially likes her long blond hair.

In the month of November, in the year 1926, Dhimitri Kuçi who is now Jim Cudse, American citizen, buys a steamship ticket to travel from New York to Naples, Italy. He takes with him a gold ring, a wedding gown, a small bottle of perfume as a gift to his bride, enough money to have a honeymoon, and two steamship tickets for the return trip. After arriving in Naples, Jim makes his way across the Italian peninsula to the Adriatic Sea, where he finds a smaller ship to take him across the Adriatic to the port city of Durrës in Albania. He has been here before, when he was twelve and being sent to Italy for an education. Jim Cudse cannot drive a car, so he finds someone who is willing, for a fee, to transport him down through Kavajë and Lushnjë, all the way to the town of Fier. He telephones or perhaps he sends a telegram, we don’t know for certain because the details are sketchy here, to let the Rista household know that he is coming, coming to marry Ksanthipi and take her to America as his wife. Mike Rista in America has also written to his mother and niece to be expecting a visitor from America. They cannot keep this wonderful news secret, and before long the entire village of Fier knows about the wedding.

When Jim Cudse arrives in the village and pays his driver, he asks directions to the Rista house. As he walks up the street and around the bend, children follow him and press in closely to see this visitor, this Albanian who has come to take Ksanthipi to America. One child runs ahead to tell Ksanthipi and her grandmother, “He is here! He is in Fier! He is coming to your house!” The crowd presses in so closely that the vial of perfume Jim is carrying in his coat pocket breaks and the sweet aroma of the perfume fills the air. Ksanthipi’s first glimpse of the man she will marry occurs through the keyhole as he approaches her front door. He is tall and handsome, he is Albanian through and through, and best of all, he is going to take her to America. When her grandmother opens the door to let him in, the sweetness of his clothes is so overpowering that Ksanthipi thinks she is going to faint, but she does not. She is too happy to faint. For an instant, Jim thinks someone has turned the tables and played a trick on him, because the young woman presented to him has dark brown hair, not the beautiful long blond hair he is expecting. But the eyes, the eyes, and the wonderful mouth are the same as the girl in the photograph, and Jim realizes that no one has tricked him. The wedding plans can continue.

The courtship is so brief as to be no courtship at all. Jim Cudse has brought a wedding gown and enough money to pay for a honeymoon and to return to America with his bride. But Ksanthipi cannot bear to leave her grandmother, especially now that her grandfather has died. She discusses it with this stranger, Jim, who is going to be her husband. Ksanthipi convinces Jim to use the money intended for their honeymoon to buy a third ticket and take Ksanthipi’s grandmother to America with them. This is possible only because the days of tightly controlled immigration and quota systems have not yet arrived. Ksanthipi has known Dhimitri, Jim, for just three days.

On Albanian Flag Day, November 28, 1926, Ksanthipi Rista, age 19, of Fier and Dhimitri Kuçi, age 31, of Vlonë are married in the Albanian Orthodox Church in Fier. Ksanthipi has become Mrs. Jim Cudse of Atlantic City, New Jersey, America. Even Ksanthipi’s half-sister, Kristina, age 8, has come from another town to see the wedding. As the entire village celebrates, three people depart in an open motorcar, and all three of them -- Ksanthipi, her husband Jim, and Ksanthipi’s grand-mother, Sofië Rista, age 75 -- are on their way to America. They are accompanied by a military escort because of local fighting and skirmishes. War is never far away in the Balkans.

In Durrës the three travelers discover that they cannot return to Italy by boat across the Adriatic Sea. Over the next several days they make their way carefully by car and by train up through Yugoslavia, across Trieste, and down through the Italian peninsula. Finally, in mid-December, they arrive at Naples on the Mediterranean Sea, and in a few more days they board a ship bound for America.

Everything is not smooth sailing at first. Ksanthipi wants to stay in her grandmother’s cabin, but Sofië, who is not only old but wise, tells Ksanthipi, “You cannot stay with me. You are a married woman now; you must stay with your husband.” The voyage takes several weeks. Jim loves the ocean but Ksanthipi endures several bouts of seasickness; violent storms in the Atlantic do not help matters. It is a most unusual honeymoon. Ksanthipi asks her Jimmy to teach her some English so that she can greet her uncle in her new language when they arrive. “You want to learn English?” says Jim. “Okay, I will teach you some English.”

In January 1927, after passing through Ellis Island and the port of New York, all three travelers--Jim, Ksanthipi, and Ksanthipi’s grandmother, Sofië--arrive safely in Atlantic City. Sofië is thrilled to be reunited with her son Margrit, owner of Mike’s Butcher Shop. Ksanthipi is amazed to see how much her uncle’s voice and smile and twinkling eyes remind her of her father. As she greets him in her new language, her uncle turns red as a beet and roars, “Who taught you those words?” Ksanthipi is baffled, but Jim is laughing hard at the prank he has pulled. He has taught Ksanthipi to speak English all right, English curse words. Ksanthipi is mortified.

Her beloved xhaxhë, her uncle, Mike Rista who looks so much like her father, hands her a package. Unwrapping it, Ksanthipi is amazed to find a small New Testament in the Albanian language. She is overjoyed because in Albania only the priest was allowed to have a New Testament, and it was kept chained to the pulpit in the church except for rare times when it was borne aloft among the people for them to venerate at a distance. Ksanthipi is also thrilled to discover that her new treasure is written in the Tosk dialect, which she can read, and not the Gheg dialect, which she cannot. God is still watching over her.

A few days later, Mike takes Jim aside and says to him privately, “Thank you for bringing my niece to America and also my mother. If you want, I will give you money now to pay for a divorce.” Jim thinks about this for a minute. Finally he says to the butcher, Mike Rista, his wife’s uncle, “You know, it was so much trouble getting her, I think I’ll keep her.”

The Ristas and the Cudses decide to move to Philadelphia where more work is available for Jim. Sofië, who lived for about a year in her new country before she died, was happy to be with her son and his American wife Julie, but sad that her husband Kristaq had not lived to make the trip. In 1931 the Cudses have a son and name him Michael after his great-uncle. The addition of a daughter, Eleanor, in 1935 makes their family complete.

In 1938, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Cudse sent Nelson Pitchi, younger brother of Ksanthipi’s old friend Dan Pitchi of Fier, to marry her sister Kristina and bring her to the United States, just as Mike Rista had sent Dhimitri to marry Ksanthipi twelve years earlier. In 1943, Ksanthipi became an American citizen, changing her name to Carrie. Jim and Carrie Cudse opened their own restaurant, the Victory Café, outside a Marine base in Philadelphia during World War II. After the war ended, they moved to North Carolina to be near Kristina and Nelson. There Jim joined into partnership with both Dan and Nelson Pitchi, who were running a restaurant. Eventually, Jim bought and operated his own business, a billiard parlor.

In December of 1960, Jim’s and Carrie’s son Michael married a North Carolina girl and persuaded his new bride to move to Orlando, Florida, with him because he had enjoyed being stationed in Florida at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa while serving in the United States Air Force.

In January of 1961, I enlisted in the Air Force myself in Dallas, Texas. After completing eight weeks of basic training in San Antonio and eight more weeks of technical school in Wichita Falls, never once stepping foot out of Texas, I was asked to state my preferences for a permanent duty station. I requested either Europe or Hawaii, so the Air Force in its unfathomable wisdom transferred me to McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida. Still, I was not unhappy with the decision. It was May, 1961. In North Carolina, Jim Cudse, now 66, decided to sell his business and retire so that he and Carrie could move closer to Mike and Mary. When they moved in May of 1961 from North Carolina to Orlando, their daughter Eleanor, a registered nurse by now, moved with them. Ksanthipi loved Florida immediately because the climate reminded her of Albania. Jim stayed busy tending to the orange trees and grapefruit trees in their back yard. A couple of months later I met Eleanor, and in 1963 we were married. Carrie Cudse, Ksanthipi, always took the credit for the marriage; she said she caught me with her spaghetti and meatballs.

Dhimitri Kuçi and Ksanthipi Rista from Albania, Jim and Carrie Cudse of Atlantic City and Philadelphia and North Carolina and Orlando, were married for almost fifty-seven years. Jim was an excellent husband, father, and provider. They spent their last years taking walks around the block and tending to the citrus trees in their back yard. I loved hearing their accents; they sounded like they just got off the boat. Carrie never learned to read English at all; Jim could read the newspapers a little but he was more comfortable looking at the Italian edition of the Reader’s Digest. Eventually there were five grandchildren named Cary and Mark and Angela and Rhonda and James Michael who loved visiting their grandparents whenever possible. Jim died in 1983 at the age of 88 and Carrie died in 1986 at the age of 79; they are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery near Orlando. They didn’t live to see their six great-grandchildren whose names are Elijah and Matthew and Noah and Sawyer and Ansley and Sam, but they would have loved them dearly. The world has become a different place. McCoy Air Force Base is gone. In its place sits the Orlando International Airport. Where once there were orange groves, today you will find expensive houses and sprawling office parks and super-highways.

If you are the sort of person who pays attention to details and tries to verify facts through careful research, you may notice certain, shall we say, minor discrepancies in this story. For example, Italy and the United States were at war in 1917, the year Jim Cudse came to America. Zogu was a powerful leader in Albania but he was not proclaimed King Zog I until 1928. Kristina, or Christine as she was called in America, is the great-aunt who said it never happened, but how much would an eight-year-old girl living in another town know? For that matter, how much of anyone’s story can anyone else really know? And besides, those puzzling details are not important. What’s important is that this is the story of a girl who had a dream, Ksanthipi Rista, and the guy who made it come true, Dhimitri Kuçi, whose name sounded like “the meat tree.” It is the story of Jim and Carrie Cudse, and in many ways it is the story of America. What’s important is that it is a love story, and in all the ways that really matter, it is true.

Copyright © 2006 Robert H. Brague


  1. i was so excited as i read this, your writing does not usually to that to me, but i was amazed at every word<><><>my wife DEsimone, had a similar story as her parents, no grandparents carman desimone came through boston also and then to tooele to work at andconda mine, tooele smelter<>>>>i have tony, my father in laws actual work records i got from tooele city<><>this is so very neat, you are such a good writer and do all of their memories super<><>.super job><><>have much love for you both< david

  2. Wonderful. I'm only half way through, but have it on my desk-top to resume later.

  3. David in Utah and Katherine in New Zealand, thank you. To write something that was very meaningful to me, cast it adrift on the waters of blogworld, and wonder how it will be received has had me on pins and needles. Your kind words and thoughts are most appreciated.

  4. Robert, or may I call you Henry? I hope your children and grandchildren are aware of this piece of family writing. It's got the facts but it's also underpinned by your love of language and your humanity. One day in the distant future you won't be here any more and this post should then be a treasure to those you have left behind - enriching their sense of where they came from.

  5. Neal, or may I call you Alphonse? I distinctly remember giving each of my children a copy of this story at Christmas 2006 or 2007, and if I didn't [give each of my children a copy etc.] I certainly meant to.

  6. This is a beautiful story. At first I thought that it looked like too long a story to read in one go, but I couldn't stop reading once I started. You are a true writer.

    Happy New Year to you and mrs. RWP.


  7. Carolina in Nederland! Welcome back to my little corner of blogworld, from which you have been missing far too long. Also, thank you for your wonderful compliments.

  8. I very much enjoyed your story. Who cares if a few minor historical details are skewed?

    A belated Happy New Year to you and Eleanor.

  9. Thank you, Pat!

    Belated is good. Better late than never!