Mate Rajdla – revised version available here in response to the comments made below May 2014
There are times when a single moment happens and it’s not until years later that you realise that that moment was a representation of all that took place at that time. The way someone takes your hand for the first time. The reach of that hand signifies a shift in understanding and you remember that moment for years later. Or, like when you happily and maybe even lazily trade texts with a lover for months then one afternoon he replies to the not unusual question: ‘Will I see you tomorrow?’ with ‘I think I’ll give it a miss’. This becomes the moment of unravelling that hadn’t been anticipated until then. These moments haunt.
A look. A touch. A phrase. These moments can all hold terrifying meaning depending on the context.
So, like this, one day as a teenager whose sixteenth birthday it was, I turned to my left to see my maternal grandmother walk down Mate Rajdla Street with a slow and elegant walk that entirely belied her circumstances. As if in keeping with the regal associations of her name, Elizabeta walked with an upright and proud bearing as she held onto a basket filled with dried flowers. She wore a dark green dress, ruched at one side which made her round shape appear curved and youthful.
Before I saw her coming, I had been watching my younger brother try to pull the family cow out of the cornfield opposite to where I was sitting. From the curb, I could hear my brother trying to coax the animal away from the stalks of corn she was surrounded by. This field, amongst others, belonged to my paternal grandparents.
All this was new and spectacular to me. We had come to Slavonska Pozega during this summer in 1975 to see our Croatian relatives for the first time.
Me, my little brother and sister and mother had come to see and touch these family members who, for me, were only images in photographs until then.
My previous exposure to these relatives came from those photographs as well as from the music my parents played at parties, the food my mother served, the coffee I could only sip a little because it was so strong, the rakija the men drank which ended with them fighting and the women trying to stop them, and from the older Croatian girls at church who had a precocious sexuality that I was becoming aware of. And then there were the constant, mournful conversations everyone had, it seemed, all the time.
It was my parent’s conversations that made me reminiscent of a country I had never been to, but somehow felt I belonged to. The past hung in the house like a layer of dust. Wiped away regularly, but always settling back; just thick enough to be seen on sunnier days.
Maybe this was why there was a pervasive sense of worthlessness in our family. This was imbued into us by my father. Living in a country where he didn’t belong and leaving behind unresolved anger with his family in Croatia meant that we were isolated and vulnerable to his inner turmoil. We had no one to turn to for help or to challenge him and so we kept our struggle to ourselves. We found a way to balance his terrorism with moments of happiness which did, miraculously, take place from time to time.
I hoped that seeing our relatives would somehow heal this sore and that love from these people would make things better. Make things good and straight for us. That my aunts, uncles and grandparents would phone us after we returned home and they would put my father in his place. Tell him what he was doing was wrong and would bring shame to the family.
For now, though, this was a trip to meet relatives and to get to know them. Real life people with lots of love to share.
When we first arrived in Slavonska Pozega we children took it in turns to sleep over night in my maternal grandmother’s room. Elizabeta’s room was big enough to hold a bed, a chair, a stove and a wardrobe. Her room was one of three that were partitioned with wood-slatted walls and had curtains for doors. These three rooms were located in a wooden shed that had a door at the main entrance. The shed was located at the rear of a house in a garden with chickens and the owner of this house was the landlord.
It was hidden from the street and stood behind a wall and a tall gate obscuring anyone’s potential view into this pathetic commune.
When I stayed with Elizabeta, we would throw bread crumbs to the chickens for amusement and then settle in her room for the night. Me sitting on her bed, her in her chair.
‘I cry when I think of your mum,’ she once said.
‘I cry because I lost all of them.’
‘You mean when you went to the hospital because grandfather died during the war?’
‘Yes, then. The children went to other families while I could nothing but cry in the hospital,’ she said.
My father would tell his own story to describe Elizabeta. This happened when he had been drinking and was at his most melancholy. When he was in this frame of mind, shaking his head slowly while watching one of the movies in his head, he would talk about how, during a visit to see her, he wept while she made him soup in this same room with a few vegetables and some weak stock. Yet she served it to him with the formality of someone offering a grand meal at a banquet.
Now, sitting in her small room I understood why this made him sad and how this one recollection told it all; the whole story.
I came across another moment like this myself on this trip. It was like hardship was being played out just for my personal education.
One day, my sister and I borrowed our cousins’ bikes to explore what lay beyond the immediate neighbourhood.
We followed a dirt track which took us past streets with houses made of exposed, thin bricks held together with rough, clumpy mortar giving the overall impression that the area was waiting for better times to come.
We talked to each other in English as we rode past and people looked at us with curiosity.
To my surprise, I recognised someone; a man standing outside an open front door with children playing in the yard. The children sat on rocks on bare, dry ground throwing a ball at each other and shouting. The man was the gypsy who worked for my paternal grandparents. It hadn’t occurred to me that this man, who put on a suit jacket at the end of the day after climbing trees in the orchard and picking plums for my family, might have a family of his own.
In my party dress, I rose from the curb to greet Elizabeta as she continued to walk gracefully past the houses with their oniony cellars. She moved like she was edging her way past filled seats in an opera house.
I could see that she had her hair done and that it was wrapped into a chignon. I knew this was for my party and I was so pleased that I had changed in time for her arrival. We walked together into my aunt’s house.
Not everyone was there yet, but most of my family were now sitting at an extended table in the kitchen.
Elizabeta sat down and I watched as she talked and smiled while the others asked after her health and commented on her beautiful dress.
She explained that she made the dress by hand and that it was easy to do. She said that she had been doing this all her life and that it was a handy skill to have.
I felt a kind of sadness and pride all at the same time as I watched her handling this social intimacy with confidence. I loved how she was showing me that growing up meant realising that there are times when dignity is more important than sharing whatever feelings or hidden stories one may be dealing with in the background.
My paternal grandparents sat at the other end of the table. I knew they had given this house and many other comforts over the years to my aunt and uncle. I had heard, however, that this was only to secure their care in their old age. They were quiet and laid no perceptible claim to all this and didn’t behave like they were the bequeathing elders in the room. They were watching but not talking. Drinking but not engaging. Hovering but not landing.
Like my father could do, I started to play movies in my head. Replaying the stories I heard about them; about what they were like. Beating my father for stealing money in spite of his cries of innocence. Denying my aunt money to buy sanitary pads because she could make them herself from rags. The madness of my paternal grandmother as she poured boiling water over my aunt in the bath, stopping only after her screams of pain became a concern.
Their silence, their slow retreat into their wine, their diminishing presence in the room was something I hadn’t expected.
As if to stop me from formulating any ideas on the reasons for this reticence, my grandfather suddenly spoke out.
He unfolded his legs and held up his cigarette with the unsynchronised motion of someone who had been drinking too much.
‘You are sixteen today,’ he said. ‘God, fuck me, if I was sixteen again. What I would do if I could be that age again.’
He laughed, but no one laughed with him. I was too afraid to ask. Not just shy, but too frightened to hear. This birthday celebration, this overall trip was not the care-free time I thought it was going to be. The love I was certain I would find here was not materialising. Instead, it seemed that the more I looked around, the more pain I was uncovering and lack of love.
He kept laughing and it couldn’t be ignored anymore. Someone had to ask it.
Elizabeta, who I knew would ask for only one thing to have changed in her life if she had the chance, asked him the question. For her, that one change would have kept her in one piece. This one change would have prevented her children from becoming orphaned and would have seen her through as a married woman rather than as a widow. That one change would have stopped her from having to live within the most meagre and miserable means.
She asked him, ‘What you would do differently?’
My grandfather said, ‘Go to war then stand in front of the first bullet aimed at my general direction.’
I don’t know exactly what happened that second, maybe it was a dog that barked near the window or something that made a similar noise, but I do remember shaking with a jerk right then.
I realise now it was one of those haunting moments. Like when you reluctantly but eventually accept that one spoken word, or a gesture, or even a small but audible sigh can mean everything.