When a soul leaves this earth, how do we keep their memory alive and make sure they aren't devoured by the forgetfulness of time?
We tell their story, of course. And this one was my nanas..
The year 1931 in a small Bosnian village my nana Marica was born. She was one of 12 brothers and sisters growing up in the countryside. Sadly her childhood didn't last very long nor was it a happy one for that matter. As World War 2 broke out she had just turned 8 years old. Fleeing for safety most of her family was captured, split up and sent to the Jasenovac concentration camp in Bosnia. She witnessed her father Ilija and two older brothers, Vlado and Boro, brutally executed as a warning to everyone. 'Do as we say, or else..' was the message their charred bodies portrayed as they were burned alive.
A few years ago, before she got a stroke, I sat her down and purposefully made her take this painful trip down memory lane.
I wanted to know about her life so that one day I could tell her story. It is a life worth remembering. She told me about my grand grandmother Petra, a good hearted and strong woman who lost 4
children either in child birth or at a very early stage in their lives. She raised the remaining 6 alone after her husband and two sons lost their lives in the war. Radojka, Nevenka and Ratko emigrated to America in the 50's while the youngest; Vida moved to Australia in the 60's. The only ones left in former Yugoslavia were Nada and my nana Marica.
Once she turned 15 my nana started working in an Iron Foundry as a metal worker. Tough job for a young girl but in those days beggars couldn't be choosers.
At the age of 24 she met my grandfather Ljubodrag Vrbaski, an officer in the Yugoslavian army and an Auscwitz survivor. They moved to Novi Sad and got married a year later and a year after that their only child was born; my mother Katarina. Sadly their marriage didn't last very long due to my granddads constant infidelity and they divorced when my mother was 6 years old.
Nana claims that she never loved another man after that. She gave up on men all-together and instead focused her life on raising her daughter and working 14 hour days at the factory.
And then, she said, came her first and for many years only grandchild; me.
Once retired from the iron foundry she helped raise me while my mom was at work. I remember our small one bedroom apartment in Zlatna Greda street in Novi Sad. It was a measly 25 square meters with a communal outhouse and no shower. A woodburning stove and a bucket for your needs during cold winter nights. But she made the most of it on her tiny pension and there was nothing I loved more than a nice home cooked meal at my nanas place.
A few years later my mother and I moved to Sweden. I remember I was 6 at the time and nana was crying as I waved goodbye.
It took another few more years until our paperworks were finished and my mother could bring nana over to live with us until she got a place of her own.
It was a hard decision for someone in their 60's to just pack up and leave the life you know behind. And it was hard for her once she joined us too. She struggled with the language and never mastered more than a few words, her favorite one being 'Bra, bra!' meaning 'Good, good!'
It was her answer to anything and everything. She soon found her greatest hobby and favorite pastime; collecting cans and bottles and recycling them for a cash profit at the local supermarket. Every day she would walk for hours and in a week she could easily make about a 500 SEK profit.
I remember being ashamed of her behavior when I was in my early teens. She cramped my style as I tried to get in with the cool kids in school and at times I would walk past her pretending I didn't know her. She didn't mind back then. But I do mind now.
Growing up I too fled the life I knew for greener pastures in Great Britain. I lived my life to the fullest visiting maybe once a year, if that. Each time culminating in a home cooked meal at my nanas house and each time she would give me a parting gift of some of her hard earned recycling cash and I would gladly take it and treat myself to a couple of nights out in London upon my return.
I was ashamed of her back then, but today I am ashamed of my behavior. I hope she knows that now.
Her final five years she spent at the Kviberg Retirement home as her health prevented her from looking after herself. And she refused to move in with my mom and her ex-husband because she couldn't witness the abuse he put her through. Instead she asked to spend her final days with people her own age.
My mother visited and took care of my nana several days a week. I visited her as often as I could, but towards the end I found it hard to muster up the strength to go and see her. I couldn't cope with the fact that my beloved nana was wasting away in front of my eyes..
Somehow I was hoping to preserve her in my memory the way she once was; feisty, colorful and full of life. Not the empty shell of the wonderful woman I once knew.
Nana, however, didn't give up. Her heart was strong and kept her alive through 4 pneumonias during the last three years of her life. An accomplishment rarely reached by someone in their 80's. In the end she was the only one left of all her brothers and sisters with great aunty Vida and great uncle Ratko passing on within a couple of months from eachother earlier this year.
Today we lay her beautiful soul to rest.
It is a gloomy, dark and rainy day. My heart is heavy and it aches at the thought that I'll never see my nana again. But I have to be strong today. I have to muster up the courage not to break down and be there for my mom through this hard time. And somehow find solace in the fact that mom and I were with nana through her last days. I just hope she could feel our presence.
Rest in peace nana! May the black earth be gentle on your soul and give her the peace she deserves. Finally she is reunited with her brothers and sisters, and one day, we will be reunited with her..