As another season of Downton Abbey commences, I can’t help but wonder two things: first and foremost, what shall I do with my Sunday evenings following re-runs of Lawrence Welk? Secondly, I am feeling a grateful, though some may say smug sense of pride, over how much I have related to so much of the series. One cannot help but see similarities (some quite uncanny) between my upbringing and the show.
Although we were not in the financial stratum of the family of Lord Grantham, as children, we never knew it. We’re talking about the family of a SERBIAN Orthodox Priest here. Everybody works and participates, and everyone has a specific role, and although the rewards aren’t financial, there are and were many. This gives whole new meaning to “pro bono”. I joke, but this is true, and many priests’ families can relate to this. Though we weren’t affluent, like the Lord and Lady of the manor, my parents and my maternal grandparents before them, were the symbolic father and mother of their respective parishes, called upon to uphold and live by the traditions and morals their titles demanded.
Let’s compare. The Crawleys were part of a long standing patriarchal tradition based upon preservation of a certain lineage and of certain values, mores and strong held beliefs, which when we meet them, is on the brink of extinction. They were monarchists, patriots, family oriented, well spoken, well-bred and well educated. They entertained people in high positions of high rank within their society and were privy to and involved in many of the leading world events and issues relevant to their time and their country. I can check off each of these things and relate them to my family, beginning with my grandfather, Proto Dusan and my beloved Baba, Protinica Rada, and the various personalities and historical players who visited their flat, above the Cathedral on Schiller Street. I will probably be chastised for name dropping, but I drop a few here to make a point. Could the Crawleys say that the Prince of Whales barbequed on their back porch, as did Prince Tomislav, on one of his seven or so visits (see previous Baba’s Table entries for background)? I doubt they could say that a famous Theologian and writer and spiritual leader like Vladika “Sveti” Nikolai Velimirovic summered in their (my grandparents’) home four years straight, writing through the night and compiling some of what would become his famous “Prologues”. The Crawleys had a library full of amazing literature and some first editions of historical writings. Check! A unique collection was bestowed upon my late grandfather with great reverence and trust by a good friend and relative of one of the most prolific writers in Serbian history (this is something upon which I won’t expound at this time). Point being, that as Lord Grantham calls himself, in one episode, a caretaker, so our family viewed and still views our own role as caretakers of something greater than ourselves, with humility and with gratitude.
At the Cathedral in California we hosted the likes of Prince Aleksandar and his cousin Princess Katherine (mother of Katherine Oxenburg of “Dynasty” fame, for all you former fans). Then there are the various diplomats, professional athletes, actors and directors we have met and broken bread with, like Gene Simmons (not of Kiss, but of many Westerns and the mother from “The Thorn Birds” for you 80s mini-series fans), and her husband, Richard Brooks, who directed “Blackboard Jungle” and “In Cold Blood” among many superb films.
We’ve had so many brushes with moments and people of historical significance, and culture of the past and present time. We were like a regular family of Forest Gumps, with the unique opportunity of hosting such a wide array of personalities and players on the world stage, and not to mention the many fascinating parishioners we had the pleasure to know, from CEOs of major corporations to university professors to the “regular crowd” of wonderful friends: American, Serbian, Serbian American, Asian, Hispanic… the list goes on, with whom we shared the joy and contentment of those charmed years. Everyone from gardeners to governors felt welcome and comfortable in our home, and always left well fed and entertained, and we the better as well, honored to have known and hosted all.
Why us? We weren’t the Crawleys, though at times, it was hard to tell. We never wanted, we had beautiful things, thanks to my father and mother we took advantage of every opportunity to travel, experience, do, become. We weren’t affluent, but we were definitely privileged. That privilege was built upon the amazing hospitality, charm and hard work of my grandparents, continued by my exceptional parents during the California years.
Our return to Chicago meant facing some difficult challenges and changes, as did the Crawleys. My father was in a new environment which did not, at times, appreciate what he had to offer. What my mother thought would be a homecoming was a return to a place which had now become a new Serbian Chicago, with post-war wounds which would manifest themselves in a changing demographic within parish life, a diminishing and changing role of “popadija” (priest’s wife and mother of the parish) and a more volatile environment in general. Again, this reminds me of the changing post WWI world of the Crawleys. Soon to follow were a series of disappointments and tragedies, of which most of you who know our family are well aware; from illness, to divorce, to death (again, like the untimely and shocking death of Lady Sybil, the angelic sister, and the misfortunes and dramas of Lady Mary, the eldest sister, and her ever waning future standing both socially and otherwise).
Like the Crawleys, we had to “leave the stage” (as Baba put it, “silazimo sa pozornice”) upon which we had performed our familial duties and served our church and people and had to accept “civilian life” and acclimate to a new world, much of which might even dismiss how we lived as antiquated and comical. I just know when I watch the Crawleys line up to greet their many guests, dress for a nice three course dinner replete with pleasant and appropriate conversation and dishes and pastries a la Baba and my mother of which Mrs. Patmore (the Crawley’s cook) would have stood in awe, I can’t help but relate and feel a deep sense of gratitude and pride.
Why such a wide following of Downton Abbey, despite modern distaste for much of what their life comprised and stood for? There is a reason Americans (the alleged example of democracy) are so enthralled with royal personages and wish to create royalty of politicians (the Kennedy family and their “Camelot” years) and of actors and television personalities; Oprah, the “queen of talk”, or Madonna, “the queen of pop”. I think of spiritual leaders like Sveti Nikolai then of Oprah’s description of Lady Gaga during an interview with the singer as a ‘spiritual leader of our time’ (I paraphrase). My point is not to diminish the achievements of any of these people, but when one speaks of nobility and royalty, be it secular or spiritual, does the shoe really fit? If it did, I somehow doubt Downton Abbey would be the meteoric success it has been.
The reason for the captivation with the civility, culture and tradition which fuels the success of films and shows like Downton Abbey and which anchored cathedral and parish life for us is that it is part of what gives our humanity its dignity and lifts us to levels above the base and ordinary. If I sound pompous, let me stand guilty. However, it is not of my own accolades or achievements that I write, but of my privileged upbringing and the fact that as a dear friend said at my wedding, “you (I) have stood upon the shoulders of giants”.
I wait in anticipation for the next season of Downton Abbey and for this next season, the autumn, of my life to begin. I can only pray there will be more family dinners like those of the ever resilient and noble Crawleys and of my dear family. Class and grace cannot be bought and are virtues which are gained irrespective of money and power. Home is where the heart is, where the hearth is, where family values reign. May they reign from Cathedrals to Abbeys to each and every one of our own homes for ages to come.