transcending silence... 2007 Issue

 

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Of Moments in Time



Aida Hodzic*

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"You know that he always ate like somebody was chasing him."

My mom was sitting next to me, sipping coffee – one sugar, whole milk. She was one of those people whose hair never got greasy. She can go for days without washing it and it would still look great, even better than before. We were watching the Travel Channel, her favorite.

"Who did?" I ask.

"Your grandfather; for some reason he always rushed when he ate and when we were having soup, he’d burn his tongue. You remember that about him," she says.

I finished adding the sugar with the little silver spoon I bought on a high-school field trip to Boston and looked at her.

"You remember that, don’t you?" she asked while still watching the TV.

"Yeah, I remember."

I didn’t.

I looked at her. Great hair. I stopped looking. I began feeling the same way I always did when I thought of him – tormented.

"How long has it been now since he died?" I asked.

"Ten years."

She expected me to say more. I didn’t know what so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, regretting it immediately.

"You kept his shoes and his pants after he died, didn’t you?"

"Yeah, I wanted something to remember him by. I wore his shoes for a while, you know, when we were hiding in the woods when the Chetniks came into the village," she replied, eyes welling up with tears.

I put my arm around her and kissed her on the cheek.

I caught myself thinking about his death, yet again. I try hard not to get caught up in that state of mind because it becomes so difficult to think about anything else for a long time. But one mention of his name is enough to get me going and I am back in the land of What-Ifs. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around his death and the worst part is the knowledge that it possibly could have been prevented. Things changed. I didn’t think about these things as much before. I’m not denying it: I changed. I read a lot, I lived through a lot, I grew. You could even say I know a thing or two.

I looked at my mom again. She’s gotten older, a lot older. Creases on her forehead look deeper now, not disappearing even when she smiles. But she was beautiful and everyone always asked how my dad "tricked" her into marrying him.

Only recently I’ve noticed how she is starting to look and act more and more like my grandfather. Her hair has begun to thin, revealing a naturally high hairline and two deep wrinkles between her eyes, just like my grandfather before he died. She’s less patient and slow to cover up her short temper but retains her good-natured temperament. That, she got from him.

It feels longer than ten years since he died. It feels surreal – as if it happened in another world, on another planet.

______________

When my grandfather first found out that I was born, he said: "I knew this would happen to me." After the first daughter, the second daughter and then the third daughter, he was hoping that at least his first grandchild would be a boy. Boys are strong, reliable and not as emotional as girls, or so it appears. A boy, he could teach to drive a truck, to sharpen the blade of a sickle or to cut hay off the pastures. But what can a girl do? Nothing but cause trouble.

______________

My first memory of him is when we’re both lying in the snow near my grandparents’ home and he is teaching me how to make a snow angel with my arms and legs.

"Move your arms wider to give him nice, broad wings," he said, with an air of his customary, hesitant but benevolent impatience. "It will not come out right if you flap your arms everywhere!"

Not wanting to take his frustration out on me, he glanced over his shoulder as if expecting someone to come.

"Where is your grandmother, damn it, isn’t she worried that you’re hungry?" he mumbled angrily through his teeth.

"Are you hungry?" he asked.

I nodded.

By the end of the awkward, almost wordless walk back to their home, I had already decided he was someone I could like. There was something in his manner that made me comfortable to be around him – he saw things through simple eyes. To him, nothing was ever complicated.

________________

I was born in 1986 in Bosnia. The first few years of my childhood were spent in sheer happiness of a simple, childish oblivion. Some things I remember, most I don’t. I remember the very first day my mom took me to a daycare center and left. I remember it every time I’m overwhelmed by an unfamiliar place.

I remember wanting a doll called chelavko (“baldy”) and not getting it because it was “too expensive.” I remember the first time I learned to pop gum. I consider these memories to be in perfect accord with that time – the time when I belonged.

________________

Then, the year 1992 changed everything. I was six years old but I remember it all. I take care not to ever forget.

________________

The first shooting broke out in Vukovar, Croatia. Crowded in front of the TV, we watched with apprehension as buildings were engulfed in flames, ambulance sirens blared as they transported the dead and wounded. People got on buses and left for other countries. My dad kept repeating that Vukovar is not even close to our town and it would all blow over very soon. Each night, people got together to watch the news and discuss the ever-present question: What do we do? No one knew. Then, one morning, the main supermarket ran out of bread. My mother came back empty-handed. Like a deep, black ocean, the panic was slowly rising, threatening to drown everyone.

Another morning, my father saw a group of large, military tanks drive through our town. The panic was up to our knees.

Several of my parents’ friends decided to leave the town. Some went to Sarajevo and some even left the country. The town looked empty – eerie, almost. To my mom’s despair, my dad was resolute on his opinion that everything would soon be over and that there was no reason to leave our home.

My grandparents and my aunt had already left the town and were in a nearby village. My great-grandmother, my grandfather’s mother, lived in that village. When they left, my mom began packing our things while my dad said he would stay in the apartment to watch over our things while we stayed with my grandparents in the village. After further argument with my mom, he reluctantly agreed to come with us. Both of them thought it would only be for a couple of weeks, until the army passed through our town and then we would come back. My mom packed only one suitcase of clothing – all summer clothes. We stayed in the village for two years, captured by Chetniks.

________________

"Watch me closely, now, Senija. I’m going to show you how to properly sharpen the blade of a sickle," my grandfather said to me as he lowered himself to the ground where the sickle lay.

I watched with curiosity as he lay down on his left side, leaning on his elbow. He picked up a small, grinding hammer in his right hand and slowly began pounding onto the edge of the blade, thinning it out. The sharp sounds of metal began reverberating in my ears, making me blink each time he hit. The scorching August sun was boring into my neck as I watched the grandfather pound the sickle blade with quick, short motions of the hand.

"I could never do this," I thought to myself with anxiety.

"Senija! Pay attention!" His voice interrupted my thoughts. "And don’t stand there-- you’re blocking my sun."

We’ve lived in the village for a few months now. We all moved in with my great-grandmother. And by all, I mean me, my parents, my grandparents and my aunt. The house had only two bedrooms and a living room. It was an old house made of stone and cement. I remember it had dark-red window frames and doors, and it smelled of rosemary. It was a one-floor house but the floor wasn’t level because one part of the house was added recently and they connected the two with a single stair. I remember the old black stove against the wall. It was the kind of stove that had a little door at the end, which we threw pieces of wood through and then lit it up with old paper.

The constant sharp pounding was beginning to hurt my ears. I stood over my grandfather, squinting and trying to imagine myself doing the same thing, and I could. I could, alright. I was sharpening the blade with ease, too.

"Grandfather, can I try?" I asked.

"No! I just can’t imagine you sharpening a blade," he grunted.

He’s probably right, I thought to myself. I would probably just hit my thumb and it would bleed. My grandfather is kind enough to even show me how it’s done. I couldn’t help but feel secret admiration for my grandfather. I wanted to be around him as much as possible. It was as if his pessimistic, nonchalant attitude was meant to attract me and me only. I found myself wanting to be just like him.

_________________

I had made friends with the only two kids in the village, the two boys who lived near by. Just like mine, their parents planned on hiding in the village for a few days until "things blew over."

Senad and Amir were a little younger than me but I decided they were "not too annoying," and played with them often. We usually played "House" and I was always the mom. I never liked playing the mom. Something about staying in one place never felt quite right.

"I don’t want to play the mom anymore," I said to Senad one day, when we were deciding on the roles.

"What do you mean you don’t want to be the mom anymore? Who’s going to do it, then?"

"Besides, you’re the only girl," he scoffed scornfully at Amir.

Something about his response made me cringe with hurt pride and without thinking twice I pushed him to the ground.

"You’re the girl," I shot back and turn to run. I ran with all my might, the fresh air filling my lungs, eyes watering. I quickly thought about what he’d do if he caught up with me but deciding not to let it happen, I ran even faster, feeling my legs shake under me and knowing they will give out if I don’t stop soon. Just when I thought I’d stop and defend myself, I saw my grandfather coming up the macadam road.

"Senija! Senija!" he waved at me.

Feeling a well of relief wash over me, I ran to him. Senad, seeing my grandfather, stopped in his tracks and quickly started running back to his house.

"I was just looking for you," he said, in his usual serious tone.

"Come along, I’d like to give you something,"

He led me to the cattle stall. There was a rustle of hay in the far corner of the stall. Alarmed, I stopped in my tracks, squinting, trying to discern what was moving in the corner.

"Don’t be afraid, Senija, go on," grandfather said to me, smiling shyly.

Slowly I walked toward the corner of the stall and peeking into the enclosed nest, I saw a tiny, snuggly, yellow chick looking up at me with its miniature eyes. As soon as it saw me, it began chirping. It looked so small and helpless entangled in hay. My young heart leaped with joy. No one has ever given me anything this special. I wanted to shout from happiness and hug my grandfather but I suddenly felt my cheeks starting to burn and all I could muster was: "Thank you."

My grandfather stood next to me, his hands in his pockets, and shyly mumbled: "You’re welcome, Senija."

_______________

I couldn’t sleep one night. So, I slipped out of my bed and started walking toward the living room where my parents slept. As I approached the door, something caught my eye – the light was coming in from underneath the door. I came closer and put my ear against the door; my mother was sobbing. My heart started beating faster and I had a great urge to go in and see what was happening, but I didn’t. I stood there in the dark listening to what they were whispering. Their voices were low but I could still hear my mom telling my dad: "What are we going to do when the snow falls down, they can follow our footprints and find us anywhere we hide?"

I knew who "they" were – the Chetniks. Lately, the men of the village gathered more and more often to discuss what to do next – to discuss the chances of our survival. The village was completely surrounded by them and they could do whatever they wished with us. Occasionally, they would come into the village and take things from our homes or the livestock and then simply turn around and drive away. There was nothing we could do but run away to the nearby forest until they left. The noose was slowly beginning to tighten around us and there was not a thing we could to except wait - for what, who knows.

I slowly crept back to my bed and slipped under the covers, pulling them over my head. I was safe there. No one could find me under the covers.

The next morning, snow fell. The village woke up under a heavy white cloak. It was Christmas. I was awakened by the sound of loud beating on the front door. Quickly, I jumped out of my bed and ran to the living room where my parents were. My dad was standing in the middle of the room, in his pajamas, debating on whether he should open it. My mom was begging him not to go.

"It could be them, don’t go," she pleaded, her voice shaking.

Lowering his head, he started walking toward the door, disappearing into the little hallway. Seeing me, my mom placed her arm on my shoulder and pulled me close to her.

The banging was now louder and faster. Then, my dad opened the door. Through the half-open hallway door, my mother and I could discern three men standing at the front door. They were wearing black leather boots up to their knees and each of them was carrying a rifle that was hanging on their shoulders. We couldn’t hear what they were saying. My dad was trying to say something when one of the men shouted for him to shut up. My dad lowered his head and slowly nodded. Closing the door behind him, he sluggishly walked toward us and lifted his eyes. I will never forget the way he looked at us at that moment – the sadness and despair, gushed like uncontrollable lava out of his eyes. He was shaking – whether from the cold or fear, I never knew. He looked like a caged animal.

After the longest time, he uttered, almost inaudibly: "They’re gathering all the men from the village and I have to go with them."

I looked at my mom and a tear rolled down her cheek.

Then, pretending like the world didn’t just collapse on top of him, he said, almost cheerfully: "But don’t worry, it’ll only be for a few days."

We didn’t hear anything about them for the next three months – three months that proved to be sheer agony and compounding despair. By the second month, people began talking that maybe we shouldn’t hope anymore and that we should start preparing for the worst. My mom, refusing to believe that both her husband and father were dead, began acting in strange ways. She began counting everything five times; she opened and closed the door five times before locking it while whispering to herself: "It’s good. It’s good. It’s good." Sometimes she would sit completely silent in one spot for hours. People whispered that she lost her mind. Others claimed it was only temporary until the men returned home. Terrified, I wondered what would happen to her if they never did come back.

I missed my grandfather.

__________________

One day, without any warning, a few men from the village came home. Among them was my grandfather. We were out of our minds with happiness. Later, they told us that they were in a nearby town, doing manual labor for "them" and they only had a couple of days; then, they had to go back. My mother was the first one to run down to greet them. I was with her. After finding my grandfather, she began sorting through the crowd, searching for my dad. She turned her head toward my grandfather but he only hung his head low, not saying anything. Coming closer, she asked: "And my husband…where is he, Dad?"

"They took him and a few other men. They separated us right away and I don’t know where he is." The words seemed gouged out of him almost against his will. I watched him closely and something in the way he said those words to my mom told me that a part of him had just died.

_______________

What I remember most about the day they brought my grandfather home on stretchers is how the sky changed. The turquoise brilliant sunshine was bullied aside by the steel gray sky and some sort of oppressive mist fell over the village. The wind shook the blossoms from the trees and one by one, women shut their windows, fearful of what was to come. No one could predict that the worst was yet to come.

The Chetniks brought him home because they noticed that he was getting worse. Thinking that it was merely malnutrition, my mom and grandmother fed him and bathed him, sincerely thinking he would pull out.

But he didn’t.

No one realized that this was not the same person – not my grandfather. I saw my grandfather three months ago when he left. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time I’d see him the way he used to be. This man in front of us was just a bag of skin and bones. His eyes lost their luster and were sunken into his head, staring at something but not really seeing.

I kneeled in the corner, next to the stove and watched him. I watched as my mom fed him and my grandmother washed his feet. Suddenly, he slowly turned his head and looked at me for what I felt like an eternity. For as long as I’ll live, I will never forget those eyes on me. It was his goodbye to me. Moments later, he lapsed into coma which he never came out of. By the morning, he had died. He was 55.

Some speculated that the Chetniks beat him in the prison; others claimed it was the disappearance of my dad that killed him. I say “speculated” because we didn’t know. No one knew.

Knowing my grandfather, I know he felt responsible for my dad’s disappearance. I know he felt he could’ve done something to prevent it and that thought was gnawing at his kind heart until it gave out.

Three days later, my dad came home. He was held in a place near Sarajevo, digging trenches for the Chetnik forces.

_______________

I felt my heart pounding in my chest, the bouts of anger, rage and confusion grabbing a hold of me and all I kept thinking was: He would’ve lived if we brought him to a hospital. The beatings that he suffered in the prison, which other men later told us, are going unpunished. Even if one life is extinguished – so what?

I am studying to be a doctor. One day I will become one and when I do, I am certain that just as I rack my brains about it now, I will wonder: What if, as in some parallel universe, I had been a doctor then? Maybe I could’ve saved him.

"Do you want more coffee?" my mom’s voice interrupted.

I shook my head.

"I want a little more," she says. "I’m going to make some more." She got and walked towards the kitchen.

I looked at her in daze. As I turned to look through the window, something changed. The sky looked different today – the blue cloud-shadows chased themselves across the clear, turquoise background. The rays of sun, like newborn kittens, shyly pried through the clouds, still unaware of their majesty. Rising slowly, with my eyes glued to the window, I felt my heart trembling and with a proud smile I started walking toward my typewriter. Perhaps one day they’ll find the culprit, perhaps, one day, I’ll figure out exactly why he died, but one thing remains sure – I can and I will carry on his legacy. For after all, I am my grandfather’s granddaughter and with determined heart and resolute hand, I began:

"When my grandfather first found out…"

_______________________________________________

Aida Hodzic moved to the United States from Bosnia in 2000. Currently, she is a junior at the University at Albany. In 2008, she will complete a B.A. in English and a minor in Biology. Hodzic is particularly interested in psychoanalytic literary criticism. She is currently writing her English Honors Thesis on her experiences growing up in Bosnia during the war from a psychoanalytic perspective. The memory of her grandfather, along with the events of her life, were the inspiration for this piece. In the future, she plans to pursue a career in psychiatry. [Return]

Edited by Kimberley Donoghue and Naomie Placencio.

 

 

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