I do not know too much about my paternal grandparent's except for how they died which was horrible. Ever since I was about six years old or as far back as I can remember, adults of one sort or another have told us about how grandfather died and how grandmother died shortly after him. I don't care or wish to repeat it here because the mere thought of it makes me so sad that my eyes well up and before you know it a river of tears is produced. I have done a great job of acting my entire life and pretending that their deaths and not knowing them hasn't affected me, but great actors are also great liars, and so you can gather that I would only be profusely lying if I told you that the manner in which they died, and in how their children were treated after their deaths does not upset me. It makes my blood boil and the passing of time does not bring me, my siblings, or my extended family any solace. We will never really understand it and it comes up as that topic that nobody wants to linger on for too long at every family gathering because it defies human understanding and just makes us all the more upset. It makes me sadder still that I never got to meet them and that not a single photograph of either one of my grandparents exists. Or so I thought until recently.
For years my siblings and cousins tried our hardest to find a photograph of them. We'd search for older people every time we visited Yugoslavia and later Croatia, but to no avail. Our parents had always told us that the photographs, along with all their personal possessions were burned, confiscated or thrown away when the communist authorities set fire to their home and entire village in 1946, a year after WWII had ended. When we asked why, we never really got an answer, they just shook their head and said we wouldn't understand. So to this day although I can speculate as to the 'why' it doesn't really help when I try to imagine the sordid details of what surely must have been a brutal time in history.
This troubled me more and more as I got older and in the last four years has really weighed heavily on me. When my father's eldest living brother in Canada, my uncle Paul (Pavle) passed away in 2012, it dawned on me that I had promised him I would be the agent provocateur who would deliver him an existing photo of his father and mother. He recalled that a few months before his mother, my grandmother had passed away, Yugoslavia had photographed all of it's citizens for identity cards. This would have been 1954 and that would make sense as that was the year of the first post-war census. My uncle seemed to recall accompanying my grandmother to be photographed. It wasn't the best lead, but it was a lead. We had a cousin who worked for the Croatian State Archives at the time and I engaged him in the search. He came back to me months later and said there was no trace at all. A file for my grandmother did exist, but it was purged and empty. Classified as an enemy of the state because of her connection to her family, wealthy landowners before the war, was the most probable reason. Again a dead end. After that attempt I gave up even trying. What was the use? Each time any kernel of hope existed, it was just dangled before my eyes only to be cruelly taken away.
Two years ago, the second eldest of my father's seven natural siblings passed away as well and it happened to be his only natural born sister. Bereft of a grandmother, my aunt served the role of both a grandmother and an aunt to an extended brood of 18 cousins. She had aged considerably and in her late 80's became quite ill with a bronchial infection that eventually lead to other health problems and then her death. My entire life I had always feared and admired my aunt. She was stern and barely smiled and when she did it was only during sad stories or recounting old memories and retelling them in a resigned voice. I never dared ask about my grandmother as I had been warned numerous times not to for fear that it would upset her. My aunt was 17 at the time of my grandmother's death and remembered her being taken away, never to return. She was left all alone as grandfather had passed away six years earlier, and as a teenager found herself responsible for raising six brothers. As the story goes, nobody wanted to help her for fear of incurring the wrath of the communist authorities so none of their relatives paid visits, provided shelter, care or assistance. I cannot even imagine how terrified, frightened and lonely she must have been as she was apparently quite close to her mother.
Post-war Yugoslavia was a poor, communist state which had paid a heavy price during WWII. It had lost over one half of its pre-war population and another four to five million had fled the country with the retreating German army. In 1954, the year of my grandmother's death, the scorched earth policy that both the Partisan and Ustasi (pro-German collaborationist forced) armies had undertaken was still evident, and the rebuilding of the country was slow at best. President Josip Broz 'Tito' had abandoned the Russians and adopted a separate path, and without knowing what the new state held, the Americans were reluctant to invest in it immediately. The tourist boom of the 1960s and 1970s was two decades away and my paternal family, which would have been considered wealthy prior to WWII, was now scattered all over the world in various diaspora's. Those left behind were stripped of every possible possession, prevented from access to care and lucrative state jobs, and for the most part encouraged to emigrate. As the story goes, anyone who had been on the 'wrong side' of Yugoslavia's warring factions during WWII was also excluded from the life that followed it. It was a well-known fact that my father's paternal and maternal family had welcomed the Germans with open arms. They could not have known that the war would end in a German defeat and unlike other families in the area they weren't exactly in a prized position bearing a German last name. You either supported the Germans or you were thrown into their army whether you liked it or not.
When WWII had started, my grandfather was well into his 60's and was spared conscription. My grandmother was his third wife, the other two had died between the wars and had bore him children. Young, beautiful and high-spirited, my grandmother was forced into marriage by her family because of my grandfather's wealth and estate. Despite their age difference, my uncle Phillip, the collector of family folklore always likes to retell the story of their wedding day. Dalmatians are known to be tall, but my grandfather and grandmother were exceptionally tall, each one well over 6'3, this would certainly explain the height in our family today! Their wedding day was attended by many unrelated to either the bride or the groom because people had come from far and away to see the beautiful woman with the snake green eyes and jet black hair and the tall, dashing, older man with piercing blue eyes and fair hair. I used to think my uncle Phillip was embelleshing a bit but later variations of the story by strangers who had attended proved to be true. How my grandmother really felt about my grandfather remains a mystery. I'd like to believe they loved one another because the thought of her marrying such an older man seems rather unfair. Hopefully he did not possess as bad a German temper as many seem to suggest he had and it would help to believe that before the war ruined and crippled their lives that they had experienced some joyful and happy times.
When my aunt passed away many memories of her began to fill my mind. In fact, my memories of my aunt were few and far in between but the one thing which always stuck with me was how she would cry every time she saw me, and she saw me in gaps every five years or so. I vividly recall her visiting me at 11-years old when I was staying with my mother's family. My father's and mother's families were like two different world's and there was no love lost between them either. Still, my maternal grandfather was always kind to my aunt and welcomed her in his home even if the rest of the family had their reservations, which is even more ironic if one considers that he himself was a high-ranking communist party official. What I remember about that visit was that my paternal aunt, who had not seen me in years, began to cry when I was summoned and presented in front of her. I was tall for eleven and had large green eyes. She grabbed my chin, pushed my face up for a good view and hugged me so tight that I was crushed and couldn't breathe. Then she began to silently cry into my hair. I don't even recall if I had hugged her, it was probably so awkward. My maternal grandfather, tried to offer some words of comfort and begged her not to cry, that he would make her a cup of tea. Between the tears and the wailing she kept repeating, "She looks exactly like my mother. She has her grandmother's big green eyes and facial features." That was the first time anyone had ever described my grandmother in a way that I could actually visualize her.
At the funeral of my aunt many older people showed up, some well into their late 80s and 90s. The town in which she was buried is a neighbouring town to the one in which father's paternal family hails from. Located in a beautiful part of Dalmatia that I rarely visit anymore, a small village really, it is known throughout Croatia for a gorgeous, rare and authentic old stone mill dating to about the 15th or 16th century. Hundreds of years ago people used to take their olives, grapes and wheat to be pressed there. It is located high up on a hill overlooking even more hills, mountains, and the crystal clear azure-blue waters of the Adriatic sea. I never enjoyed going there as a kid because it was always associated with horrible stories of WWII. A wealthy place which was viewed as 'collaborationist,' the communists burned down literally everything when they swept the Germans out of the area in late 1945. The house in which my 17-year old aunt had been left an orphan to care for six brothers stood at the top of this hill over a vast valley and plain extending for kilometres before eventually reaching the sea. I couldn't imagine how they all lived there without parents, without anyone to care for them. Every time we visited the place, the sadness was so overwhelming that I would find any excuse to leave.
As years went by, the trees, foliage and natural environment overwhelmed and camouflaged the house and it could no longer be seen from the main road. By the 1990s, the entire extended family built grandiose new homes on the lower side of the hill near a small bay and enclosure from which there sprang a very fine river, the water so cold you could drink it straight out of your hand. A sign that they were doing well and wanted to showcase it to the world. Nevertheless, during family gatherings or religious holidays, we would all walk up to the 'staro selo' (old village) which is where the beautiful 15th. century Church of Saint John the Baptist (Sveti Ivan Krstitelj) is located. All my paternal family members and relatives are buried in it, and high, high on the hill leading to one of the most beautiful cemeteries in all of southern Dalmatia, are the gravestones of my grandparents, who lay side by side one another under a row of ancient cypress trees.
As I grew older and my travels took me elsewhere, I would often reject even visiting this place. My bond with it, if it even ever existed in the first place, completely vanished. My father rarely mentioned it or his relatives - living and dead, except for the bi-annual calls on Christmas and Easter day. The day that my aunt passed away I was staying with my mother's family on another Dalmatian island. It was late September 2014 and I received a phone call from my mother's youngest sister informing me that my father's eldest sibling had died. The times had certainly changed because once upon a time my mother's sister was rather indifferent towards my father's family and his sister especially. In fact she used to get quite upset when I would visit and stay with them. This time however, she was different. I recall arguing with her as to whether or not I should even attend the funeral which was scheduled for two days later. I can only imagine what you must think of me and that you should imagine how terrible a person I must be to argue with someone on such a topic as attending your own relatives funeral. What you should know was that I had seen my aunt only five days earlier.
At this point she was being cared for by her only daughter, a sweet, good-natured and loving woman named Maria, my first cousin and the cousin I am most closest to. I was visiting my uncle Phillip and he suggested we walk to Maria's house for tea and coffee. Maria and Phillip live in Croatia's second largest city of Split, the capital of Dalmatia province where we hail from. He mentioned that my aunt - his sister- was very ill, in fact more ill than they had led us to believe and that seeing me might lift her spirits. In fact quite the opposite happened when we arrived. Maria looked pale and tired and told us that in the last few days her mother seemed to be slipping in and out of consciousness. This worried my uncle, himself old and the protector of his sister and the one brother closest to her in age, who visited the most (my father is the youngest of all the natural and half-siblings). My uncle demanded to see my aunt and a five minute game of yes and no ensued between him and my cousin Maria, she begging him not to see his sister in such a state and he demanding. I stood by like the UN High Representative trying to be the voice of reason. Seeing how distraught my uncle was I looked at Maria with a resigned expression and she led us into the room she had set up for my aunt. My aunt lay on a converted hospital bed in the room of her granddaughter, my cousin Marina. I couldn't believe how much she had aged since I had seen her last, some nine years earlier. She was motionless and blinked when spoken to, her voice fading and weak. My uncle lifted her and asked if she knew who he was and she slightly nodded. By this time there was a silence in the air and both my cousin Maria, my uncle Phillip, and I, were choking back tears. My uncle tried in his way to tell her about his children, about the weather and the Croatian soccer team's performance that summer (oh we Croats and our soccer!), but my aunt half smiled, half looked indifferent. At that point he remembered I was even there and presented me. He asked if she knew who I was and for what seemed like hours but couldn't have been more than a few awkward seconds she said, 'Mirella. She looks like my mother. I want to go to my mother now.' I kissed my aunt on the forehead and turned my face so she couldn't see the stream of tears that was flowing down my cheeks. I left the room and went outdoors into my cousin Maria's garden. A few minutes later my cousin Maria came outdoors and hugged me. We embraced each other and sobbed, not speaking for quite some time. When I looked up, there was my uncle seated before me, sipping a cup of Turkish coffee, crying silently and staring at the ground. I had never seen my uncle cry. He was a tall, statuesque and proud man and after my father he was the most handsome of all the brothers with his sparkling blue eyes and fair hair. Seeing him cry broke something in me. We had nothing to say to each other and yet there was so much that needed to be said. Eventually, Maria's husband Niko found us like that and asked us if we wanted anything to eat or drink. That stopped the crying and in the silence of the oleanders and fig trees of my cousin Maria's garden, my uncle exclaimed that he would call for a Priest the very next day. This is how I knew my aunt would die.
Seven days later, I finally visited the town my father's father was from after so many years of self imposed exile. The village had changed considerably. As I mentioned earlier, my aunt was buried in the next village over in the grave plot of her husband, a very kind and loving man who had died almost ten years earlier. The entire area had seen considerable improvement due to the tourist boom in Croatia and I couldn't help staring at the high mountains with amazement and pride. It looked like the Kingdom of Rohan from Lord of the Rings meets Captain Correlli's Mandolin, in other words a cross between the majestic mountain peaks of New Zealand meets the beautiful Greek islands (if those two landscapes could be intertwined into one somehow). Sweeping, majestic views whichever way one stared. The beautiful old stone houses I couldn't bear to look at as kid were now resplendent and restored, one could almost imagine what they looked like a hundred years ago - fit for a King. The once hibernating village was full of historic charm and allure in every corner that the eye gazed at.
After the funeral, after the greeting of the guests and the offers of sweets and refreshments as is the custom in Dalmatia, one of my older cousins organized a walk up to the old village to the ancient home of my grandparents. The foliage and overgrowth had completely enveloped it but a small 'ethno-tourism' project about 100 metres below and including part of the refurbished development of my great-granduncles former home was about as far as we made it. We stopped next to a very old and grand walnut tree, and one of my male cousins remarked that grandfather had planted this tree after WWI. I couldn't quite count how old that actually made the tree and kept thinking about that while the others inspected it for carved names, romantic indications that life had been lived and love had played itself out on this mountain long before any of us had been born. Below us, a small group of Russian and Japanese tourists tried my cousins's wife's homemade walnut brandy and fig jam. Lower still and further down by the main road, groups of male and female Radman's were taking turns playing 'balote' (Dalmatian 'boules') next to a brand new venue of bowling lanes one of my male cousins had built on a site where older lanes had previously existed, set up by great-grandparents over a hundred years ago. It is the definitive Dalmatian pastime and I as I viewed my extended family enjoying a carefree game of balote under the peaceful shade of date and carob trees, I couldn't help but smile knowing that some traditions will never change and there is a certain beauty in their continuity. I sat outside on a large rustic wooden table in the shade of pomegranate and fig bushes surrounded by about thirty or forty relatives, all describing and recalling how we were all related and when we last saw each other. The stories were funny and filled the evening air with humor and wit. Wine appeared and before long old songs were sung, new memories were made, and old ones were honored.
Among the guests at this gathering was an elderly woman named Stana who surprised us all with some news. Her mother had been a close friend of my grandmother and had passed along stories about her to this woman. The woman recalled that her mother had even kept some photographs with my grandmother clearly evident in them on the occasion of another relatives wedding. Another relative present produced the wedding certificate of my grandparents and we all edged closer to take a look at it. It showed the birth and death dates of both my grandfather and grandmother, the witnesses at their weddings and a small marker next to my grandfather's name indicating he had entered into Christian marriage twice before, and included the names of his children from the previous wives. I had never known these things existed for we were always told that the authorities had burned everything down. I cannot describe to you how I felt viewing this document. A great and overwhelming sadness. A thousand if's and why's came to my mind. This was my family and yet I knew really nothing about them except for a few carefully woven stories by an uncle who was perhaps holding onto the nostalgic elements like Vikings held to sagas. Did it really have to be like this?
I could not have been the only one feeling upset by this gnawing sense of anger, as the other cousins bowed their heads in silence and stared at the ground too. Few words were exchanged. I don't recall who broke the ice or how or why, I only know that once it was broken the jovial atmosphere had ended and those with children began their farewells for the night. This always precipitates the domino effect of leaving and the other's piggy-backed on the same excuse and made their departures. Sure we promised to see more of each other, to call, text, and stay in touch via social media. Few though hold to such promises and with busy city lives, hectic jobs and many of us spread across three different continents, such promises come and go like the seasons.