It's hard for me to write about parents since I know more about children than about parents. That is because when I was a child, I was more interested in myself and my siblings than in my parents, and now that I am a parent, I find our children more interesting than us parents.
It's hard for me to write about parents since I know more about children than about parents. That is because when I was a child, I was more interested in myself and my siblings than in my parents, and now that I am a parent, I find our children more interesting than us parents. I remember my parents saying I would understand what they said when I grew older. I still don't understand them. My father died when I was eleven and I was a bit estranged from my mother because Father and Mother made a simple game - I was his favorite, and my older brother Ivo was hers. (She was still alive, 87, when I wrote these lines, and now that she has died I am rewriting.) She had been ill now for five years. We expected her to die after her heart attack, stroke, diagnosis with diabetes, food poisoning, and herpes shingles which gave her chronic neuralgia. Jeanette, our two children, and I, went to Daruvar for her birthday party, May 27. Her middle name was May; she was born in the States, in
She was paler than usual, her hair, which had stayed half black until her 80th birthday, was now completely white, her green-hazel eyes seemed to have grown smaller although they had always been small, under high-arched eyebrows, and she looked startled, caught in a role she didn't like. She had seemed to be the strong one, taking care of the others who were sick, and this change surprised her.
As we slurped chicken soup, my daughter, who was 3 years at the time, asked, Are you a ghost?
Mother, who could understand some English, having been born in the States, and having spent her first three years of life there, wanted us to translate. (She could sing Mary had a little lamb before her final illness.)
I said, I am not sure I should translate.
Why not? she asked. She looked like a turtle, with all the creases and ancient caution, as though I could harm her.
Well, she asks whether you are a ghost. It's quaint how a child sees things.
My mother didn't seem to find it quaint. She didn't laugh, didn't comment. She gave me a look with her shrinking head, and I felt put in my place in this biology of life and death. Who the hell was I to tell her about life and death? Mothers took care of survival.
I felt I needed to explain more, and I said, See, we told her that you were gravely ill and that we should rush to see you before you die.
So, when will she become a spirit? asked my daughter. I am the first person in the world Eva saw, as my wife had a C-section, and I think that she still trusts me in the primary-imprinting kind of way.
What did she ask now? Mom asked.
I translated again. Eva had her own theology, that everybody dies, but first becomes a ghost, and gradually, when the ghost learns how to fly very well, it quits hanging around the body, dies for the second time, and goes into heavens, and when it has nothing to do with the body, it is a spirit, spirit in the sky.
Your grandma is fully alive, I said to Eva. She's just pale; that doesn't mean she's a ghost.
But I wanted to see a ghost. I've never seen one.
We slurped our tomato soup in silence, and Eva kept glancing up at her grandmother and grandmother at Eva. Mother had wanted us to name Eva Ruth. None of her grandchildren and great grandchildren had got the name Ruth, and she wondered why. I said that names sound better when they end in a vowel, which you can enjoy in your vocal cords for a long while.
I used to be Ruta for many years, she said, until you all got hold of my birth certificate and saw that I was named Ruth, so I started using my original name. You could have called someone Ruta in Croatian.
Sure, but it sounds like the road. Who wants to be trampled on? I asked, and thought, Holy Cow, what a question. Wasn't she trampled on, like a Route?
We visited Ruth several times, always expecting her to die shortly afterward. Once, after her collapse consisting of a heart attack and stroke, we came to
On the way to the hospital, on the former highway of Bratsva i jedinstva (Brotherhood and Unity) we saw bunnies. A large brown hawk sat on a walnut tree. In the yard hospital, crows hopped among chicken. We walked in and asked to see Ruth Novakovic. Kindly nurses led us there. Ruth was sharing a room with two other elderly women. She sat up when she saw us. How are you? I asked.
How could I be? Svakako. Any which way. Bad and good.
It's all right here in the hospital?
Yes, we talk and talk. What else can we do?
We know everything about your children, said a woman in the bed next to hers.
And I know everything about her extended family. It's like a conference of biographers here, my mother said. All that remains after so many of us is stories.
Good that you can remember so many lives, I said. I would make a terribly boring patient. I'd have to resort to telling jokes.
That would be sad, Mom said. There's more to life than ridicule.
We wanted our son to play the cello for her.
He doesn't have to play for me, she said.
He will anyway, I replied. It was a small cello and he made a beautiful sight and sound, so little as he was with the little cello, with long blond hair, stringing out various etudes.
How do you like his playing? I asked.
I am not an expert. I don't understand any of it.
You don't have to understand it - do you enjoy listening to him?
I am too busy thinking about it all, all of you, so many people, to talk about pleasure now.
I remembered now. It was hard to get a compliment out of my mother, and I was fishing for one, obviously. If it never worked for me, maybe it should work for my son. Not that I needed a compliment for me, but I wanted one for my son's well being and my mother's well being, a moment of satisfaction, an insight that life has been good after all because, look at it, the offspring is talented and beautiful. Maybe there was such a moment of satisfaction in her as she listened and breathed heavily. She simply didn't have the means of expressing that satisfaction verbally and the habits dominated the patterns of speech especially now - what is the right thing to say as someone seems to be deathly ill? We all floundered, customs didn't seem to provide the necessary ammunition. Ammunition to kill the awkwardness?
But her thinking also couldn't be changed. How much does the cello cost? she asked. How can you pay for all of that? Isn't that reckless of you?
Yes, it is reckless, I said. And it would also be reckless not to spend anything on the cello and children's music education. Remember how our father tried to turn us into musicians, how he bought a piano, and then an organ, and a violin, and none of us would play, but here, don't you think he would be delighted if he saw his grandson, if he could see him.
Yes, he would be, she said. He was wild about music. But he was not a realist.
But don't you love music?
Oh, don't worry about what I think.
Well, we don't need to quarrel as there's nothing to quarrel about, I said. Some things are good, and you see we are proud of him.
Poor kid. Do you feed him enough?!
Yes, we do our best.
He should have a little more color in his cheeks.
He'll get it in the summer.
But where will you be in the summer? I hope not in
Oh yes, then you won't be able to sleep.
You've never been much of a sleeper yourself, I said.
No, I had to worry about everything all the time, and now it doesn't matter. If I had known it would all end up like this, I would have slept more. But even that doesn't matter now. It really is all the same.
That's a relaxing thought, isn't it?
I wish I could just fall asleep and never wake up. Being dead would be better than this.
How can you say that?
You have no idea how much pain I have.
From the heart attack?
No, that hasn't bothered me that much. But these nerves on my left side and my back, they feel like I am on fire. That never goes away, no pain killers, nothing helps, and it just grinds me down.
That does sound terrible.
I don't know how that happened. And my brother has the same neurological illness except it attacked his eyes, and he is blind, and he says he feels like scratching his eyes out of his sockets, his eyes itch and hurt so much.
I know, I visited him. At least he follows all the news and discusses politics, more than when he was healthy.
Yes, when he was healthy, he was drunk. I think he was drunk for 30 years, so you couldn't hear any smart idea from him then, and he slurred so badly I couldn't understand what he was saying and when I did, it wasn't worth the effort. I am surprised that he can make so much sense now, that his brain is so good. He sounds like a president.
That's not much of a compliment. Well, for someone who's had a heart attack and a stroke, you seem to be totally alert.
The pain keeps me alert.
Maybe pain is good for you after all.
It can't be.
She had other crises, and we rushed to see her and gathered around her, and no longer talked about ghosts. The last time I visited her - I visited six times in three weeks but could never stay for longer than an hour as she would get exhausted--she expressed her love of animals. She always enjoyed cats but didn't ask for one. Vlado, who lived downstairs from her, and took care of her, has a large dog, but no cats and his wife hated cats.
I heard there's a family of hedgehogs living in the bushes downstairs, she said. One of them caught a birdie which fell out of a nest, a little swallow, and carried it to their lair. It was all naked and hairless, and when Vlado prodded the hedgehog with a stick, it still wouldn't let go of the birdie but ran with it to the other hedgehogs.
That's kind of nice, I said, although it sounded terrible as well.
Maybe it fed its young ones like that.
It's possible. Have you seen them? Would you like to see them?
I probably would but I don't need to. Life like that is interesting. I've seen a lot of life. You know, we lived in the village, where my misguided Dad ran a farm, if you could all it that. What a failure he was! But he loved animals, you know. He had many good moments with cows, dogs, cats, goats, geese, donkeys, doves. He loved doves, and his grandson, Pepik, inherited that disease. He had a collection of carriers. Poor boy!
True, my cousin was devoted to letter-carrier pigeons. And this kind of love of animal life was part of our extended family. Just knowing that there was such life around her seemed to comfort her. There she was similar to my daughter who loves animals so much that we have several anecdotes. One: Eva picked up a snake. The snake bit her. Eva cried. Why are you crying? Jeanette asked. Because my snake left me. She slipped into the bushes and I can't find her anymore.
(I wrote this section while Ruth was still alive, and that's why it's in the present tense, in parts.) Mom sits in a house where I grew up, and stays in the room where my father died. It used to be Mose Pijade 43, named after a communist, Tito's adviser in World War II. Now it's named Jelacica 43, after a Croatian Governor, who helped suppress the Hungarian National Revolt in 1948. It's a big house, which took many years to build, made of stone and brick, very solid, although in my dreams the house shows up falling apart, with the walls swelling, moving, warping.
When I visit her I can't stay very long. She keeps her windows closed, other than one, because she is scared of draughts. There's a musty smell there. Since she can't walk to the bathroom, she keeps her large potty right there, and my brother empties it every evening when he comes to make sure she has taken all her pills. That's the smell of old age then. In the States, she would be in an old people's home, and perhaps that would be better, but here my brother takes care of her, and he considers that superior to the alienation of old age. She doesn't need much company and she is among her own, Vlado says, and talks: I know Czechs in this area, who, as soon as their parents are over 70, no matter what shape they are in, ship them into nursing homes or put them in far away villages, to die alone, like sick cats. That is shameful. I had a patient here, an old Czech, and her son kept asking how long she had to live yet, and was disappointed, clearly, when I said, she could live ten years. In all that, my brother may have forgotten that we are quarter-part Czechs ourselves. He is not eager to see Czechs in a good light, apparently. At the same time, it's pretty heroic of him to be taking care of her for years now. His vacations are limited by whether he can find care for her - and now that he is at the coast, he has a sturdy woman in her mid-forties helping out. She is a house-keeper for the old castle in the middle of the park, which used to be a school, where I finished my elementary education; and now it is partly a museum and to a large extend, a wine-cellar. Well, it always had fine cellars from which the smell of old oak, soaked in wine, and rotting slowly, for decades, spread and wafted up the corridors into our classroom. No wonder so many of my classmates became alcoholics, and at least two of them, out of 30, have already died from alcoholism. That woman now cleans the museum and castle, living with her two sons, without a husband. I met her, and she talked eagerly and loudly, but was clearly good natured, an old style peasant. She comes in three times a day now and delivers the food. My mother eats minimally, half a potato a day, a slice of bread with honey, a glass of milk, a slice of orange. She doesn't move much but keeps listening and looking. She is a bit deaf, so her TV set is loud. She used to be a big reader. In a way she represents the history of culture here and abroad - the defeat of the written word. When I borrowed books from the library, such as the
A cousin of mine, who didn't like to read much, had respect for Ruth, and she asked her for advice, What novel should I read? I am on vacation.
Tess by Hardy is excellent, Ruth said, and the cousin read the book and loved it.
When did you read the novel? I asked her.
Years ago, when my Mother and I lived in
So where did you live in
Where? What could we do? Mary worked as a nanny for a German Jewish family, who owned a textile factory near the center. They liked the idea of raising their children bilingual, and they paid Mary pretty well because of English. I helped in the house with the dishes, cleaning, and babysitting. They had a fine library and I read in spare time, and Tess was my favorite.
How long did you stay there?
Not long, just a couple of years. When I got married, I went back to the village, but Mary stayed. When the king of
The Germans overran
What happened to the family?
You know what happened. You know what the beasts did with the Jews. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but she composed herself and went on.
Mary volunteered to join the partisans. She hated the Germans and their Ustasha helpers who kicked her new family out of the house. She wanted a gun, but there weren't enough guns then, and so she worked as a nurse, till the end of the war, and when Tito came to
Wow, she had quite a lot of adventures, then, I said. Strange, she never spoke to me about any of it in
Why would you? You never asked, and you never listened.
Is that where you learned to speak German? Or was it Yiddish? You always seemed to have a strange vocabulary, with words from all over.
Earlier on I stayed with the Brkic family family, and they spoke mostly German at home. Anyway, I think those years in
She enjoyed hanging out with guys, that's true, I said. When I visited her in
I could, I am sure, but I am too tired now.
Anyway, a year later, after seeing my mother, I bought a ticket to see her after my classes at
It was not unexpected but it was not expected either. Still a shock.
Any details? How did she die? What about the funeral? (That felt now like chatter. Nothing changes Mom's death.)
Apparently, she was a bit better than a few days ago, and even had a meal, kasha or something, and later when Vlado came back to give her medication, she was dead. He thinks she simply fell asleep.
She didn't want to live any more, I said.
Yes, for a long time she claimed it, but she must have really grown tired of being in bed and not being able to sit up.
Will you go to the funeral?
I don't know - we'll look for tickets, but last minute, it's hard, and they aren't going to wait for us. They will bury her in three days. In this country, it can be delayed, but there, they don't do that, they don't refrigerate the dead.
No yet, anyway.
Oh, shit, what to do? To pull out my son from the classes, and fly? But I hate funerals, they are either morbid and depressing, or duplicitously uplifting. I had just been to a memorial which was presented as the happiest occasion on earth, with lots of smiles and laughs, and I didn't believe the mood. It was a prozac memorial. Well, maybe it wasn't, maybe the spirit was so uplifting.
I walked around the block of gray concrete, NY Public Library,
I went out and re-parked the car from the metered slot into a yard, and I sat there, and didn't feel like getting out of it. I called up my wife, to see whether she could dig up some cheap last minute fares to
The cheapest ticket at first was $2400 for flying out the same day. Yes, one shouldn't think of money in a moment like this, but in addition to all, this would turn out to be a financial blow. In many American and other national good families people grieve and then inherit a chunk of property. A friend of mine from
We had recently gone to Jeanette's father's burial, and then we all drove, the whole family, the four of us, to
I had received the news; Jeanette's Mother had called, Ken passed away. How and when I asked and she told me the story. I called Jeanette at her work, and said, your father died. (I never liked the expression passed away, or the recently fashionable, passed. . . Death can't be softened.) She broke into tears and rushed home. I cancelled my flight to
seemed to fit in, which didn't bother me, nor them - they liked it that way, Europeans, stay away. Anyway, Jeanette broke down when she saw the sign late at night after the long trip. We drove through the little part of Creighton
Oh, but it is not this death that I am writing about, deserving although it is as my mother's death of particular attention. I wondered, why should I take my mother's death more stoically than Jeanette her father's? What is it? Was I trained like that? I knew that Mother would want me to take it stoically, that is how she took her husband's death - even though for years she kept visiting his grave and leaving flowers there. I suppose I was trained - tragedy was the norm, and when I was a kid, after my father died, two of his brothers did, and many other relatives, and I quit going to funerals. There were wars, there were all sorts of repressive governments, there was inevitable misery, that was the family ethos, and to top that, we were Baptists, so death was a challenge to be overcome, Death where is thy sting, was the motto. We would transcend death through faith. Anyhow, she is dead, so how I react makes no difference to her. It won't get her to heaven, it won't bring her back to life. It's only for me, how I would feel now. I feel terrible, and I don't need to feel better at the moment. Well, I don't need to deceive myself. For years I was getting used to the idea of the entropy of her life - she could do less and less, her valves were gone more and more, after several heart attacks, her muscles could do less and less, and finally I couldn't even call her. She would be there but she had no strength to pick up the phone.
Once the phone fell from her hands and she didn't pick it up again.
On her 88th birthday, as most of us tried to call her, she didn't answer the phone. After the first attempt to get to the phone, she fell on the floor, and later she fell again, and had to go to the hospital, with a concussion.
And yet somehow she still stayed alive, and the family enjoyed the idea that everything else was failing but her brain was lucid and intact.
But while I was in
I was stuck with a strange visa, so I couldn't leave
But what does she need it for?
To get better.
Does she want to get better?
I work on the assumption that she does; I can't work on another assumption. I can only help her live, not help her die. I am not Dutch. They believe in euthanasia. For my part, I believe there is no good death. No matter how it takes place, it is miserable. I want to help her live as long as possible.
That is admirable, but still, perhaps she would like to see everybody and then die?
I imagined if she saw everybody, she would die from exhaustion. But you've been here several times to see her, I don't think you need to come again.
And so I didn't. I did think she couldn't last, so I bought a ticket to see her in December, after my classes. I thought she could hang in, she had hung in for so long.
Later, when Ivo and I talked about her life, we rationalized a little, not necessarily excusing our not visiting more. She was not into celebration. If you came there, she would wonder how much money you spent, and she would regret such unreasonable living. Could you save that money? Don't you think you should buy some property? How will you live in old age if you have nothing? Why keep traveling? What's the point?
Well, I came to see you.
That sounds fine, but we can talk on the phone and you can send me pictures.
True enough, she had pictures of the whole family, on the cupboard, and she loved getting those, and she spent a lot of time looking at them, and if she had a visitor, when she was still hale, she'd show the pictures and explain who was who. And she could keep the extended family tree all intact in her head, better than anybody, without ever writing anything down.
But she seemed to treasure visits indirectly, and to talk about them years later; however, at the moment of the visit, she expressed only skepticism, and then, criticism, why are you so thin (or fat), why don't you exercise more, why don't you take better care of yourself, do you need to drink at all, and why don't you go to church, it's a shame, all your ancestors were such believers, and you are going to quit that tradition? What gives you the right. And so on. I found it hard to take the criticism, although I should have taken it in stride as a way of talking, not ill meant. And maybe there was some wisdom in the remarks. Not that I would change, but yes, that was the point, somehow she always wanted the change, for the better to her mind.
She never wanted to praise. She didn't praise my son, and she never praised me for publishing my books. In fact, she didn't read them. They were in English, after all, and when they were translated, she could no longer see well enough, but she also didn't want to have them read to her as she didn't have much faith in what I'd say. It would have been far better if he hadn't dropped out med school, she said. It looked like he would become a reasonable and productive person, and then he dropped out and went into this fantasy world, which does nobody any good. Nobody reads any more and nobody needs to, so why are you writing? You can only disgrace the family like that, with some psine. In Croatian, that literally meant nasty dog play.
One theory I heard in the family, why she never wanted to praise is this. She had two daughters, after having a son and daughter who lived, and before having the younger set, three of us, my sister Nela, Ivo, and me. These two daughters died, one at the age of one, and the other at the age of four. They were supposedly both beautiful, especially so the four year old, Ljerka. One day, Mother had visitors, and she said to them, Look how beautiful and how smart she is. She can already add numbers.
And people looked at her, and said, You are right, she is beautiful and smart, an extraordinary child. She will have a great future.
But soon after the guests left, Ljerka turned blue from meningitis, and died.
That was a big blow. Out of four children, two died.
My father's brother, Pero, named his daughter Ljerka, to comfort his brother, and to say, life goes on. There's a beautiful and smart daughter.
So, when we were born, Mom didn't praise us, and she made it a scrupulous principle, not to boast of her children. She would be proud, but would keep it to herself. Sometimes her eyes would flicker knowingly, but perhaps she was afraid to acknowledge it.
Instead, especially so with me, because she actually had a good reason to be critical, she would scrutinize me skeptically ever since I had TB at the age of six. I suppose to her mind I was a gonner then. I was thin, tall for my age, and I spent a year in fevers and coughs. I pulled through it, and became a strong kid, jumping from trees, wrestling with boys my age and winning. But she didn't like that, I was wild. And then every winter I had bronchitis, sort of a bad habit of my lungs, and coughed mercilessly for months at a time, trying to suppress the cough in the down pillows, and when I slept, I sweated and drooled. If I coughed at night, she would turn the lights on and look at me with displeasure and sorrow. Why don't you cover yourself better? Why did you walk barefoot? Why don't you take more syrup? Why won't you drink chamomile? Somehow she could impart it to me that it was my fault, a moral failing, that I was afflicted with various childhood diseases. I was a good student, but she didn't expect that to last, and it didn't. This skepticism was also the way she treated my father, who, when partisan officers came over to her place when she lived in a miserable basement, and said, Your husband is now a communist fighter, you deserve better quarters, she replied, Oh, is he now? He left his old army? You know, it may not last. Knowing him, I think he'll give up your army too. And she refused to get a three bedroom apartment from them as she couldn't trust the change of fortunes.
She didn't want much, and she didn't expect much. It was maddening for me that she expected so little and that she worked so hard.
When my father died, she took over the business of making wooden clogs, and worked day in and day out, and she also gardened, raising all sorts of produce, and she cleaned the Baptist church, took care of several old and sick women for free, cooked for us, woke up early to put wood in the stoves, and so on.
The strange thing is that she died in the same room in which her husband had died thirty-nine years before. She did not remarry and she stayed faithful to his memory. I don't know why, whether she was tempted to remarry or not, whether she thought it would be a disgrace to do it, but she stayed alone from the age of 49, which is very young. After all, I am fifty when writing this.
From my childhood, I considered the bedroom of our parents a secret chamber I wasn't allowed to visit without knocking, a terrifying chamber. And it became even more terrifying after my witnessing Father's death there. I never wanted to sleep in the room where he died. She had a choice of that room or another, brighter and bigger, but she chose that one, and that is where she slept for all those years, and where she was bedridden for the last two, and where she died. To my mind, that is amazing, to die in the same room. I mean, I am now in a plane going to
The plane is not all that full. I asked for the exit row for the leg space on Delta, and I got two seats all to myself. The stewardesses are polite and my neighbors are tired. It reminds me of my traveling to
It is easy to canonize one's parents, especially mothers. Fathers, it's easy to demonize them. But I was not the only one doing that. I remember a cousin of mine, who gave me a sermon about what a saint my mother was. She had taken care of his blind mother for years, taken her out for walks, visiting her for conversation. That old woman, Marica, is dead by now. Most everybody among Ruth's friends, is dead. That happens when you are eighty eight.
Nearly the entire family gathered at my brother's house, which, for his wife was stressful. She has gone through chemotherapy and radiation, and now is undergoing another round of chemotherapy, very weak, so, no wonder, for half an hour she hid in her bedroom. She had taken care of my mother as much as anybody else. When I sat with her alone before the party, while Vlado still worked, helping the nearly blind, she wept. I said the worst was over, no more suffering.
I don't see it that way, she said.
It's a relief for Vlado and you not to have to toil for her.
That is not much of a consolation. The house will be frightfully empty, she said.
You could have renters.
No, it's not the same.
I took a whole week off from work, and I wasn't taking care of the funeral details, unlike Vlado, who worked even on the day of the funeral, a couple of severe cases. He said he didn't know all the details that had to be taken care of, such as smrtovnica, the black-edged paper announcing her death to townspeople and listing all the grieving relatives, the closest ones, such as siblings, and direct descendents and their spouses, but not cousins and the extended family. There were 38 listed, and he worried that he would misspell some foreign names, which he did. Casket to order, corpse to be taken to the morgue. Now that is a big change from the way it was done in my childhood. Then, the corpse would be laid out in state, usually in the living room and sometimes in the bedroom. A black flag was posted on the house, and friends and relatives came and visited and paid homage at home, and the relatives sometimes slept even in the same room as the corpse. When my father died, he stayed in the living room, to my horror, and I felt a terrible relief when he was taken out and put in the ground&of course, more horror. Now, she wasn't there in the house. Her smell in the room where she lived for the last 20 years stayed there. It was on the second floor, which may have speeded up her demise. If she had stayed on the ground floor, she would have been able to move, to walk, to keep her body functioning a little longer. It is hard to say what got her, but from food poisoning, she also had a heart attack, and so on, an entire list of illnesses.
It was great to see some 30 relatives gathered there. Some of them were young, and looked good, dressed formally in black, and it seemed a shame we had never gathered like that while Ruth was alive, other than for my father's funeral, but that was way too long ago, when half of these people weren't born yet. It would have cheered her up, no doubt, to see them all gathered. And it was a shame we couldn't take a picture to show her. She enjoyed looking at the pictures of relatives.
Suddenly we all had reason to think about health. A neighbor across the road from us, it turned out, was dying just during that time.
It was a sunny and blue day. Vlado was the only one who did not have a black suit but a dark blue one. I said, don't worry, blue counts as a color of grief, that's what blues is called after. was a blue day.
OK, I'll take that, he said.
Unlike in the old style burials with horse drawn carriages, after which we walked through the entire town, stopping traffic, this one was localized to the cemetery. We parked the cars outside it, some of us walked to it, and then gathered around the morgue, and formed a procession which went around the cemetery. Not much time to walk and think. Funeral as a peripatetic activity seems to be the most thought provoking time.
We the siblings, five of us, gathered before and went in to the morgue to examine the wreaths with our names inscribed. I haven't even read what mine said, I couldn't find it, but I trusted Vlado it was there and that the appropriate words were on it.
In the coffin, she looked like a classic grandmother, with a shawl around her head, her cheeks sunken, nose prominent, thin, hooked, and her hands large and knotty, almost larger than her head, which had somewhat shrunken with age. Her hands were pale, almost white, off white. Her eyes, also sunken, were much smaller than when she was younger. There was no spasm on her face, which my brother claimed indicated that she did not die in pain. She had fallen asleep. Her nerves failing before her death might have helped obliterate the pain of dying.
I touched her forehead. The skin and the underlying flesh was cold and spongy, thicker than I had expected. Vlado said when he had found her dead she had already lost two degrees Celsius, which indicated she had been dead for two hours as one loses one degree per hour. I am not sure what temperature she was at now, but she was very cold.
Yes, peaceful was good, but peaceful and warm are synonymous, when it comes to life, not peaceful and cold.
Relatives came and shook hands, kissed cheeks, expressed condolences. Glassy and shiny eyed we kept our composure, and perhaps it would have been more difficult if the death had been sudden and if there had not been the consolation of the end of the suffering; postponing the death would have led nowhere as she definitely couldn't get out of bed again.
The two women who took care of her when she couldn't get out of bed, feeding her, changing her, washing her, and massaging, they both wept, and talked to her. I saw that before, people trying to talk to the dead in the casket - and it was touching. It was good to know that the people who had known Ruth best in her last days loved her. Often it happens that the old become unbearable and outright nasty and their caretakers grow to resent them, but the attachment and love which these women obviously had for her was good, at least for me, to contemplate. Therefore, I was surprised when I found out that Vlado did not invite them to the dinner memorial party afterward at a restaurant near the park.
After a sermon which didn't do much for me a choir sang and even though the singing was amateurish, it was painful to hear it. I had heard it at other funerals in my youth. Zbogom. Literally, With God, which is used as a greeting when someone leaves for a long time. I couldn't control my chin when I listened to the song. It twitched.
The morticians, four of them, pushed the cart with rubber wheels, along the cemetery and up the hill.
The grave was dug shallow, to place her casket above my father's. It was about five feet, less. The soil dug out was clay, mostly greenish brown, without many stones. After another sermon and singing, I looked at the gravepit. Yes, dust to dust. There were many flowers all around, and bees landed on them and collected pollen. Death where is thy sting? Bees, yes, there should be bees at this funeral. My father had been a bee-keeper, one of my sisters, Nada, is a bee-keeper, my father's smrtovnica had the motto, of Death, where is thy sting? The bees liked this death. They would sting if I tried to touch them.
The minister, who had spent ten years in Australia and had been a baker before, turned the eulogy into a sermon, as could be expected, inviting people to accept Jesus as their personal savior in order to die well, rather, to live eternally. I remembered how when my father died, another minister took it as an opportunity for a sale's pitch - a perfect death, such as everybody should desire, thanks to God. But, let him do his thing. My mother, who was a firm believer all her life, would have understood this, would have perhaps even liked this invitation to faith. She had been a shy woman all her life, she wouldn't have liked this much attention anyway, and the speech turning away from her to divine matters would please her. Attention to her would have embarrassed her. She had a terrible stage-fright all her life.
Vlado thanked the people for coming to the funeral, while holding on to the gravestone with the names of his father, mother, sisters. Maybe he needed to hold on, maybe he was unsteady, but merging with the stone, he was steady, the backbone of the funeral. Mother had her name inscribed a month after Father's funeral, with her birthyear, 1918, and then, the year of death uncut. It still had to be cut into the stone, 2006.
Vlado was the first to throw in a fistful of soil, and it thudded on the wood softly. Ivo picked up a fistful from the same heap and a soft thud followed. I suppose I wanted to be a bit less imitative, so I picked up a chunk of soil as large as my fist from the far left and dropped it after looking down into the pit. The sound that came out surprised me. It was sharp, loud - I had thrown a stone coated in soil. This was an aggressive sound of stone-throwing. I recoiled from that. That is not what I had intended. The other siblings threw in the soil and some grandchildren did. Her brother was absent, bedridden in a similar fashion to hers, in Medjuric, a village about 40 kilometers south. So I threw a stone at her casket, unknowingly. Does that symbolize what kind of son I was? I wondered.
There was no sensation of relief once it was all done. It's all done, the suffering is over, she is in a better world, I felt none of that. Death where is thy sting - it would be good to know where exactly, but this sting is diffuse, in the veins, arteries, general blue tone of the day. Perfect day. We all got a sun tan at the funeral. I also caught a terrible cold which is still lingering. I wondered whether I had got it the moment I touched my mother's chilly forehead. I reverted to my old-style coughing, such as I had in childhood.
I gazed at the stones with family names. There were already two Josip Novakovic's buried here. This was the place where I would end up. My mother should have, by her matrilineal heritage, been buried at the
I walked back with my half-aunt, Djurdjica, who talked about Rutica (Ruthie). Her teacher says she was the smartest pupil he had at the school in thirty years, by far. You never know what she could have become if she had been allowed to continue school after the fourth grade. She could remember everything, she spoke three languages fluently, she could do long multiplications and divisions in her head, and she could think clearly. And then I heard your father was like that in his school and he couldn't go on after the fourth grade. You are so lucky to get such genes. You and your siblings should all be geniuses.
I suppose we should be, I said, but you never know what environment and spite can do to your head. I didn't say that but in my case with lung afflictions and oxygen deficiencies and sleep disorders, I am sure I got my brain damaged somewhere along the way, not to live up to the genetic code potential.
Djurdjica continued, But the odd thing is that Mother was so shy that when her teacher invited a government official from
Later, after a dinner during which no alcohol was drunk, I talked with my brother and had two glasses of red wine. For a long time my mother had one drink a day and then she lost the taste for it. Djurdjica's mother lived to be 96, and she started every day with a shot of plum brandy. My mother had me taste beer when I was twelve. It was a terribly hot day, and she sweat in the garden, and said, There is only one thing that will quench thirst in this dog heat, and that is beer. Go out and buy us a large bottle of cold beer.
I did that, and she drank half of it, and wanted me to drink the rest, and I found beer bitter and heavy. I don't like it, I said.
During the evening after the funeral, Ivo brought up his theory why our Mother didn't believe in praising her children, Ljerka's early death.
Do you know the whole story of her death? Vlado said. I was 14 then, old enough to follow what was going on. Ljerka got the German measles inoculation. The medicine arrived form the
She died the next morning, there was no helping her.
He was struck with grief as was our mother. Only months later did it cross his mind that he had given the doctor a fortune to keep Ljerka alive. The doctor should have had enough conscience to return the money but he didn't.
Father sometimes said, Here I toil for the money I used to have, but those doctor crooks kept it.
I wondered if I had known this story earlier, whether I would have been so eager to go to the States, which I considered my Motherland, since my mother came from there. She actually came from a borderland family between
When I talked about Mother's shyness, Ljubica said, Oh, she wasn't always shy. I remember how you threw a truck tire in front of an oncoming car. You rolled it and timed it so it smashed the front of the car. The driver ran after you through the streets and couldn't catch you but you ran out of breath and ran home. She protected you and yelled at him what kind of man he was that he wanted to beat a child. You were bad.
That is true, I remember. I had some delinquent tendencies.
When I mentioned that Mother had a terrific healthy habit of fasting one day a week, every Saturday, Vlado said, She didn't do it for herself. She never did anything for herself. It was for you and Ivo, she prayed and fasted one day a week, so God would protect you and so you'd keep the faith of your fathers.
That is strange.Yes, you brought her a lot of grief. Well, I must admit, it was not only for the two of you, but for all her children, the five of us, and perhaps for the dead ones too. I do believe it all had a good effect on her health but it was not for her sake she did it. You know, selfishness is basically bad for your
health, and altruism is good, and that is why she lived so long, and she would have perhaps lived longer if the last war hadn't shaken her so much.
Ivo and I talked later still, and I said, You know, we were not good sons. After Dad's death, things were difficult for Mom, and we made them more difficult still by being nasty boys.
I agree, he said. We didn't listen to her at all, we were rude, we stayed in the streets past nearly every night while she worried about what we were doing. We were doing nothing bad, really, we didn't drink or have sex, but she had no way of knowing that.
We thought we were exploring the world, ideas, hanging out with friends, and she didn't understand that. She didn't approve of our friends, she wanted us to have the square and studious ones, not the delinquents we tended to.
I know. She wanted me to study, but she could hardly ever see me study. I did read books late at night, and she kept coming to my room and turning off the light, saying, you will ruin your sight. What kind of life will it be if you are blind as a mole?
And what kind of life will it be if I am an idiot who has read nothing?
But what are you reading? Karl May? What good will it do to you, stupid adventure novels.
It was Einstein's favorite reading in his adolescence.
As was math. I don't see you reading math books.
Get lost! I'll read what I want, and if you want to know, my eyes are my strongest feature - my teeth will fall out, I'll grow deaf, by I will still see very well, I just know.
Don't boast lest God should. . .
And we'd quarrel at 3 in the morning like that. I thought I was in the right, but of course she was. I could have got up earlier and read during the day.
And Ivo was like that too, shouting at her. She was a poor widow with sons who shouted at her and didn't listen to her. She carried flowers to the grave of her husband, and perhaps she wished he were alive because we had feared him. He didn't tolerate insouciance. He beat us to subdue our selfish wills. He beat Ivo more than me and I learned on the example of how to avoid his educational wrath. There was something biblical in his rage - he'd quote from the Bible and beat you. She probably thought we deserved that but couldn't do it, other than, when we were smaller, to pull us by our ears.
Ivo had an anecdote about Mom in exile, in
Can you imagine if they had reported that to the Swiss authorities, Ivo said. Child abuse. I don't think the boy complained. He stopped beating Matija.
She always took care of her brood, I said. There's something instinctive and animalistic about that, isn't there?
She pulled us by the ear all the time.
Yes, she had a fetish about it. her favorite saying was an old jewish proverb. Why do we have two ears and one mouth? In order to talk half as much as we listen.
She believed we should never talk much, eat much, drink much, say much - basically, she asked for a life of restraint and obedience.
True, Vlado said, but she had courage when it came to survival. She saved her father who was in prison for anti-communist statements after the war, when Tito had people shot left and right simply because he didn't want to be weaker than Stalin. He was as ruthless. (ruth, less?) She went to the regional communist party headquarters and asked for his release, saying he was unjustly accused. Her argument was that he was a worker damaged by
If I am writing an homage to my mother, and I am some kind of writer, I feel guilty at my lack of artlessness and skill. This should be a beautiful story. I stepped out into the woods; it's Fall, and after the powerful windstorm last night, the sky is clear, the visibility is fantastic, and the sun is shining through maple and oak balding splendor of yellow and rusty red, while the wind shushes and whispers. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. I should write more in that vein of beautiful images and sounds but what can I say, I listen twice as little as I talk. I have two lips and only one good unplugged ear. The other is still plugged from the combo: airplane and cold.
While standing among the trees and looking up at them swaying and shushing, I wondered, It's one week since my coming back from Croatia, eleven days after her burial, and I am doing this, writing about her and her life and death. Can't I write something else? Is this grief? The hell with it, it probably is. I remember how I feared, as a child, her death. My second nightmare: my father and I are standing next to Mom's casket. He has blue stubble on his chin. I ask, what next? And he says, How would I know? I wake up shrieking, and it turns out I have high fever. That was my TB year, with lots of fevers.
My first nightmare that I remember, the same year. Ambulance at the gate and mother carried out on stretchers. I shrieked out, Bonica. I skipped an l, in Bolnica, Hospital, or literally, the house of Pain, as Bol is pain. But Bon is good, so, in a way, in my childhood dyslexia, I said the house of good, but it certainly didn't feel like it as I shrieked. My sister, four years older than I, woke up first, and comforted me, and for years, she thought it was cute that I had shouted Bonica. (It was my father actually who was carried out the same year for kidney failure.) Now she is a nurse in a cardiac surgery unit in
. Nela's main complaint about the funeral was that the morticians didn't use Mom's dentures to prop up her mouth. In the West, you won't let the mouth sink like that, she said.
Vlado looked at her blankly. He took care of Mom for 10 years, and she was never there, and she only preached about how it should be done. He didn't say a word. So, is that it, your Mom in natural state, is not properly pretty for you? I exchanged glances with him. I trusted him. When Father died, this was the man who came from
I remember how when Dad died, I looked up at her, and didn't say, What's next? It was the end, no father. Even in my nightmare, my father remained as the pillar of safety. But he was no safety. He had no measure in him. She did. I wish she had written as she had wisdom. I don't have it, I never will, my father didn't have it, although was a luminous and prophetic kind of musician and enthusiast. He earned her love somehow, so that she remained faithful to him for 39 years after his death, every day looking at their wedding picture. It's amazing. I am not capable of such endurance, and he probably wasn't, but then, did I know him? Did he know himself? Did he have enough time to know himself? As a biblical pacifist, he spent eight years in the army, two before the war, four during it, two after it, totally ruined by the killing fields. I wonder whether he ever killed. I know he was tormented and tortured. His brother boasted that he, as a partisan with a machine gun, had killed lots of people, but was even that true? Dad claimed he shot in the air, that only God could determine who should live and who should die, and he prayed during fire exchange, and he wasn't shot although most of the people around him eventually were shot. Anyway, this is not a tribute to him, but to my mother.
The burial is over, and I don't have to travel to my hometown, for a while. I always struggled to get away from home, but there was a home, and now there isn't. Naturally, eventually, I will have to buy a plot of land near the graves of my parents. That grave looks a little too tight for me. There are way too many people there, in six square meters. Our bones don't need to cling and clang and scrape together. Another plot of land, with some elbow room, although I am not going to be doing anything with my elbows, is slightly less appalling than this underground bedroom of my parents.
Formated for CROWN by Nenad Bach
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Search Results for "Novakovich" on CROWN
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|(E) Josip Novakovich reading at Pennsylvania State University (Article)|
|Croatian-born writer Josip Novakovich will give a public reading at Pennsylvania State University. Arriving—most recently—from St. Petersburg and New York City, Novakovich is the new addition to the fiction side of Penn State’s Master's of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) program. When: November 27, 2001, 8 p.m. Where: Lipcon Auditorium of the Palmer Museum Art Curtain Road&...|
|(E) Josip Novakovich will give a reading at the New York Public Library In April 2002 (Article)|
|JOSIP NOVAKOVICH Josip Novakovich is the author of "Apricots From Chernobyl", a collection of essays, and the short story collection "Yolk", both published in '95, and "Salvation and Other Disasters", published in '98. His writing textbooks "Fiction Writer's Workshop" and "Writing Fiction Step by Step," published in '95 and '98 by Story Press, were Quality Paperback Club selections. He is co-editor of "Stories in the Stepmother Tongue," pu...|
|(E) Globalna Hrvatska - Answer to Cultural Neglect (Article)|
|http://hometown.aol.com/vgoss/ugh.htm Globalna Hrvatska Answer to Cultural Neglect A Citizens Association Globalna Hrvatska (Global Croatia) held its Founding Assembly in Zagreb on January 20, 2002. The Association (Udruga Gradjana = NGO) was initiated by Lilijana Domic, top Croatian art and literary critic and gallerist, and a major poet, and by Dr. Vladimir P. Goss, Croatian-American writer, jou...|
|(E) AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSIP NOVAKOVICH (Article)|
|AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSIP NOVAKOVICH By Katarina Tepesh On April 16th, 2002 at 6:30 PM Josip Novakovich will give a reading at the New York Public Library and autograph his books. Josip Novakovich is the author of "Apricots From Chernobyl", a collection of essays, and the short story collection "Yolk", both published in '95, and "Salvation and Other Di...|
|(E) New York Apr 16 - Josip Novakovich at Public Library (Article)|
|Op-ed Come and support Croatian talent ! nb The New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers ...|
|(E) Reading by Award-winning Josip Novakovich in NY (Article)|
|You are cordially invited to a reading (in English) byJOSIP NOVAKOVICHan award-winning authorThursday, May 16th, 2002Auditorium of the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius502 West 41st street, between 10th and 11th Ave7PMFree AdmissionInfo: email@example.com or 212.688.9077Josip Novakovich reads and signs copies of Apricots from Chernobyl, his collection of narrative essays, and Salvation and Other Disasters, a short story collection,...|
|(E) So Much to Write - So Little Time (Article)|
|So Much to Write – So Little TimeMary Helen Stefaniak – a Poet of Forgiveness, a Poet ofJoyMary Helen Stefaniak, along with Melissa Milich, AnthonyMlikotin, and Josip Novakovich, forms a quadrille of Croatian-American writerswho belong to the mainstream of the contemporary American literature. Each ofthem has its own style, its own background, and its own artistic road – butwhat they have in common is that that road has brought them all to ...|
|(E) Croatian Stories - Spleen (Article)|
|JosipNovakovich77 Cooper St., Apt 2aNYC10034212firstname.lastname@example.orgSpleen WhenI found out that a Bosnian family had moved into our neighborhood, just acrossfrom my place, I was thrilled. I had been gone from Bosnia for seven years, andI hardly ever saw anybody from there, at first deliberately, for thecircumstances under which I left were not pleasant. To me now it di...|
|(E) Convention Speech by the President of the GH (Global Croatia) (Article)|
|Think globally, act Croatianway If we follow the maxim : “Nomen est omen” – the name is a sign – we may state that the goals of the Association “Globalna Hrvatska” (Global Croatia) are immediately recognizable. They are equally recognizable from the slogan which we will always emphasize when speaking of the GH: “Think globally, act Croatian way.” We may also pronounce it the other way round: “Think Croatian way, act globally,” but as ...|
|(E) Inside of a dog it's too dark to read! (Article)|
Croatian StoriesOutside of a dog a book is man's best friend.Inside of a dog it's too dark to read! - Groucho Marx -CROWN started with Croatian Stories - SPLEEN by Josip Novakovich. We will publish your stories, no matter how good they are. Roland Baric's website is another example of the same idea. I tried to navigate on his website but it didn't work. Check on your own.Nenad Bachletters@croatianworld.net Roland Baric Bookroom h...
|(E) APRIL FOOL'S DAY! (Article)|
|APRIL FOOLâ€™S DAY!By Katarina TepeshAward winning author, Josip Novakovich, recently wrote â€śAPRIL FOOLâ€™S DAYâ€? book, a political satire and a parody of war from the former-Yugoslavia. Unlike most of the other nonfoolish holidays, the history of April Fool's Day, sometimes called All Fool's Day, is not totally clear. There really wasn't a "first April Fool's Day" that can be pinpointed on the calendar. Some believe it sort of...|
|(E) JOSIP NOVAKOVICH 'INFIDELITIES' on US Tour (Article)|
|JOSIP NOVAKOVICH ON TOUR TO PROMOTE 'INFIDELITIES'Award-winning author JOSIP NOVAKOVICH is promoting fiction 'INFIDELITIES â€“ Stories of War and Lust,' published by Harper Perennial $12.95 www.harperpenennial.comThis Croatian-American writer returns to the short story form with a new collection in which he once more underscores the everyday absurdities that temper the darker realities of life. Novakovich is the winner of a Whiting Award, a...|
|(E) CROATIAN BOOK CLUB OF NEW YORK - Nov 16 (Article)|
|CROATIAN BOOK CLUB OF NEW YORKOur next monthly selection will be Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust by Josip Novakovich. All ten of his books are available at www.amazon.com . Mr. Novakovich has generously donated several of his books to read and circulate.Meeting place: Croatian Cultural CenterAddress: 502 West 41st Street, New York, NY (between 10th & 11th Avenues) Dates: Every Third Wednesday in the month, November 1...|
|(E) Dec 2005 CROATIAN BOOK CLUB OF NEW YORK (Article)|
|CROATIAN BOOK CLUB OF NEW YORKIn the spirit of Christmas, a season of sharing and hope, our next monthly selection will be 'Healing the Heart of Croatiaâ€? by Joseph Kerrigan and William Novick, M.D. For gifts, please buy Croatian books which are available at www.amazon.com for as little as .87 cents and up. Croatian writers have generously donated several of their books to read and circulate. Josip Novakovich contributed his latest 'Infide...|
|(E) Goodbye Dear Old Homeland on CBC of New York (Article)|
|CROATIAN BOOK CLUB OF NEW YORKIn honor of Valentines Day, our monthly selection is one the greatest Croatian love story recorded to date, Goodbye Dear Old Homeland The true story of a young refugee couples flight from Croatia and their journey to freedom, written by their daughter Yasna Sikic Hood. Goodbye Dear Old Homeland and other Croatian books are available at www.amazon.com for as little as .87 cents and up. Meet...|
|(E) The Passion to Skate - Sandra Bezic Story (Article)|
|CROATIAN BOOK CLUB OF NEW YORKThe Passion to Skate - Sandra Bezic StoryIn honor of the Turin Olympics, we wish we had a book in English about Janica Kostelic, the most decorated woman in Olympic Alpine skiing history.www.janica.croski.hr Our next book of the month is The Passion to Skate: an Intimate View of Figure Skating by Sandra Bezic. Written by a competitive skater, choreographer, director and producer Sandra Bezic...|
|(E) Croatian Book Club-Mike Celizic (Article)|
|CROATIAN BOOK CLUB OF NEW YORK Our next selection for 'book of the monthâ€™ is writer Mike Celizic. He writes regularly for MSNBCSports.com. Celizic is the author of Courage: True Stories of American Sports and the Biggest Game of Them All: Notre Dame, Michigan State, and the Fall of â€™66. In addition, Mike Celizic co-wrote, Moments of Truth: Real Stories of Life-Changing Inspiration, Rudyâ€™s Rules: Game Plans for Life from ...|