In 1967 my grandmother's father built a house on the outskirts of an old coastline town on Croatian Adriatic. It looked towards the sea and the industrial port some kilometers away, from back when there still was a promising industry in Croatia, back when Croatia was still Yugoslavia. On its right was the brick red railway that has been silent for long before I was born, leading to somewhere North-West in Europe, somewhere better. He was a railway man, my grandmother’s father, taught to respect all things red, although I always remembered him with silver white hair. We called him Dida, a colloquial name for a grandfather, although he was not a grandfather to any of us, and that colloquial expression did not come from our dialectical region. For years I thought that Dida was his actually name, today, that is the only name I remember him by.
Back in 1960s he was assigned a rail director role on that small railway station at Nowhere, Yugoslavia, later to be known as Forgotten, Croatia. With it came the perks – a scrap of land on something that will become a vastly popular beach fifty years later, and the comrades’ respect that could have been earned only by hard work and the breaking of knuckles.
He was fit for the role, a hard man even in his retirement. Coined and bred in the Russian winters and sepia summers of a socialist Utopia. His hands never comfortable, always blistery and rough – he wore them like war emblems. His face wide and full of deep wrinkles, he must have had one for every wagon that passed his jurisdiction. Dida’s life was a book of stories told to us children sometimes as lessons, sometimes as reminiscences.
As a young boy, Dida wanted to be a priest, just like every other young boy in early 20 th century Europe. It all changed though, as it usually does, one day when he walked back into the classroom after the lessons have all finished and found the local priest, his hero, naturally, giving an oral examination or something other like it to the third grade teacher right there in front of a blackboard on the teacher’s desk. What a timing he had! The priest must have thought the same because he took the boy, took the belt that was already unbelted and around his ankles, and spanked Dida into the next life. Going back home that day, with dirt smudged by tears on his face, a red bum, and a funny walk, Dida decided that he will not, in fact, become a priest. He was a character though, even back then, strong willed and heavy with the feeling of righteousness – so he told his father about this ungodly priest that fondles teachers and beats children. The same night, Dida’s father knocked on the priest’s door with the barrel of a shotgun and told him that if he ever sees him again around the town, he will shoot him. For the longest time after that, the village did not have a priest.
When I was a young child, so the story goes, I loved to play around the yard of that beach house and inspect different plants. One day, Dida caught me plucking a leaf from his cherished laurel tree positioned right in the middle of the garden. The wrath of all the Gods came down on me and a promise that if I ever did that again, I would get spanked. My father, following the family tradition, when he heard of this, came down to confront Dida, without a shotgun though, but still yelling profanities and a conclusion that Dida should never again yell or punish his children, or else.
Dida had three children and they went on to have more children, all in all, my father had seven cousins, one of whom he had never met, since she had died in a car accident before any of the others were born. My grandmother, as Dida’s oldest child, was given the top floor of the house, while Dida and his wife hosted the rest of the family on the ground floor during long summer months when everyone yearned for an ocean’s relief.
Dida would sit at the head of a long table on the porch, smoking his pipe and reading his newspaper or solving a crossword puzzle. The family would be milling around like ants on a mission, everyone with their own task. My grandmother waking up early before the season’s tourists so she could go clean the fish into the sea and feed the entrails to the gulls. Her brother and his wife making a trip to the village market to obtain fresh bread and vegetables. My grandfather picking figs from three trees creating shade in the garden, then drying them behind the house. My grandmother’s sister, the fat one whose husband left her, peeling potatoes on the two porch steps and complaining about something or other. Their children, our parents, all seven of them and their partners, the modern generation of the day, drinking coffee and reading their modern books or running to catch the best spot at the beach with their radios and their cassettes.
I was the oldest of Dida’s six great-grandchildren, so early on I had to learn how to entertain myself during those long summers spent on the beach. Such scenery would be every child’s dream, but I began to dread it pretty soon. As a shy child, I had no friends; I also had no cousins who would help me make friends. When they grew old enough, I was already appreciating the silence and the solace that lone summers in that house would bring me.
When we were still very young, back when our parents were our best friends, we would crawl in between the bushes and the trees overgrowing the fence and hunt for turtles and pine nuts, until one of the grandmothers called us to gather for dinner. There is never a table bigenough for such a big family, so we kids would often end up sitting at a small plastic yellow table while adults sipped red wine and snapped at us not to bicker.
Dida passed away on the 25th of April, 2006. After that, no table in that house was ever small enough. With his funeral came the bureaucracy, came the paperwork, came the inheritance, and soon grandmothers were preparing three different dinners for three different tables. It was the bad blood of our family, the tough character, strong will, and heavy righteousness. When Dida was alive I was too young to recognize it, but I saw it in my own father all the time. He and his brother didn’t speak to each other. In my mind I see my parents, my uncle, and his wife, all sitting in our living room in the apartment that my grandparents left us. There is a fight, a misunderstanding, a disagreement; I am not understanding any of it. All I can tell is that it is about a car, a stupid bickering, my aunt is saying that the car is red, my father that it was not worth the price. That was the last time my uncle and his family ever came to our place. My parents have never seen their niece. Truthfully, it was never about any car. It was about the apartment, the inheritance, the paperwork, and the bureaucracy. For years to come my uncle did not speak to his parents either, he was upset that they left the apartment to my father and not to him. Eventually, he wanted to spend summers in that beach house that Dida had built in 1963, so he made peace with them. And once he did, my parents decided it was time to buy their own beach house.
Dida’s house has been cut up, divided, the pine tree torn down, laurel long dead, the swing hanging from the fig tree thrown away. My grandmother’s fat sister left; took the apartment in a city, never to come back to the beach house again, never to be invited, neither her nor her three children. My grandmother’s brother got the ground floor, the one with the porch where Dida used to sit and smoke his pipe while keeping a watchful eye on the plants and all of us. Except now, nobody sat at the porch for too long, so the others would not interpret it as an invitation.
Faintly I remember the array of my father’s cousins, my aunts and uncles, from when they could still be seen around. They were all quite young, so to me they seemed quite hip. An uncle that used do my nails and then let me do his. An aunt that took me to town to get ice cream and walk on the Riviera. Another uncle’s first wife who hung out with my mother and taught me how to swim. My father’s brother who would take me fishing really early in the morning before the swimmers and the sunbathers showed up. They were always smiling, always happy, always here, as long as Dida was.
Now he was gone and so was everyone else. Out of six cousins my father has I haven’t been to any of their weddings, birthdays, graduations. Out of four cousins my sister and I have, my parents have only met two; we faintly guess their ages and their names, never quite sure if we are right. My birthdays always host six people and no more, my parents, my sister and I, and my grandparents. As a child I never understood why we don’t invite all those nice aunts and uncles, it would mean getting more presents at least. I was too afraid to ask about them though, since one time when I talked about it to my parents and said, naively and innocently, how they hate everyone in their family and that is why we never see anyone, I got slapped.
Last year came the time for me to learn how to drive. One of my uncles, do one whose nails I colored with pink nail polish, works as a driving instructor in a street next to our apartment. My father met with him, after twelve years of not seeing each other, and arranged for me to take his classes. I spent several months learning how to drive with him. This man I vaguely remembered from when I was six years old. This man, who, I am sure, would never recognize me on the street. Somehow we were related, same blood running through our veins and I could not see it. That tough character, strong will, and heavy righteousness which marked the past ten years in that beach house, in this family, for me, between my uncle and I, did not exist. He was happy to spend time with me, happy to talk, happy to grab a drink. We never opened up to each other, always a feeling of cautiousness in the air between us, carefully choosing our words. I guess there was a kind of fear, that more-than- ten-years- old kind of fear of strangeness with someone you are supposed to be the closest to. So what good is it to us now? Cousins, relatives, family caught in the feuds fueled by self-righteousness, feuds we still do not fully understand, yet know that they somehow put us on the opposite sides of history.
We never talked of Dida, that one old man, the only one actually linking us together, both in blood and in early summer nights of watching the fireflies and catching crickets. I do remember Dida smile, tell us stories. I remember everyone telling me how his wife died a few days after I was born; how she was waiting on her first great-granddaughter in order to leave. I remembered how he worshiped the plants, the books. There used to be an old guitar hanging on the living room wall of that house, the one Dida played as a young man. I would look at it on the dry afternoons, when the winds coming from the sea were too strong to play outside. I would sit in front of the guitar and look at it and paint with watercolors, always the same picture, always the sunset. Dida said I will be a painter, like him. I think I stopped painting after he died.
From the outside, that little forgotten place screamed of order. It screamed of Dida. Right next to the abandoned railway station, the rusty tracks, grown over by yellow grass. That used-to- be industry port, now grey and green and squeaking nothingness. That is where I first learned how to drive, at the age of ten on my father’s lap. There was nothing there, no one, only emptiness in between old, hollow repositories. It still reminds me of Dida tremendously.
Dida was a man of hard hands and gentle touch, coined and bred on the red rails of socialism and family unity. A living proof that those two words were not antonyms. He didn’t take shit from anyone, from that priest that beat the Jesus out of him (quite literally) when he was nine, right down to his own family. Yet in the same breath, he was the favorite person of all the cats on the street. He would only have to click his tongue and they would come running down from all the rooftops to melt under his hands. He ruled with an iron fist, him and his pipe, over the broken railways and the garden filled with laurel, pine, and fig trees. He brought us all together, like a flock returning to the stern yet protecting parents’ nest.
I do not remember his funeral, or anyone crying. I don’t think anyone particularly loved him, yet under him, they all to love each other. No one ever said they missed him, but they all had stories of him stored beneath their breath, always ready to spill them at children’s bedtime.
Now my uncle and I, we sit over red wine, after I had passed my driving test and have gotten my driving license and I think of socialism. I think of father figures. I think of authority made out of hard worker’s hands and soft parent’s touch. I think of Yugoslavia falling apart after Tito’s death. I think of my family falling apart after Dida’s death. Everyone grabbing whatever they managed and retreating to their own little corners. Everyone fighting for a bigger table, just so it could be half empty at dinner time. Now my uncle and I, we sit at the same table over red wine, twelve years since the last time we sat at the same table and did each other’s nails. We know we come from the same family, and still I do not understand how we ended up on different sides of history.