3. My Father
- Never make decisions out of fear, he used to tell me.
I didn’t know how else to decide, so I stopped making any decisions.
- Take care of yourself, don’t give a damn what people demand from you if you don’t like it or want it.
He called me Jale when we were alone and intimate: and he talked to me as a man to man. It was a shame I was not one: I could tell from the way he talked to me. On the other hand, my father was pleased with my stubborn character and independent traits. That seemed manly enough to him.
I always hated my never born brother. I could only imagine him: small, tender, a sissy, getting all the privileges I didn’t have just because he was a man. If I loved my brother, perchance, that would have been even worse for me. It was easier this way, to turn into a man when necessary to pick up all the male wisdom my father was willing to share with me. God forbid that my mother heard any of that: the selfish advice, about economic and emotional independence, options to avoid marriage and children, free sex/secret sex, fast cars and an engineer’s technology instead of girlish pets and flowers.
Usually my father and I would end these sessions by going out for dinner together: alone, to fancy places. My father like to show off, with money and me. I pretended I was a man in those couple of hours, to please him. I didn’t mind being a girl, but he tried hard to give me a life where this handicap would not cripple me.
- When you were born, a girl, he told me, I was so ashamed. What will my colleges say, such a big man and he got a girl? But then a Serbian proverb says, that only best womanizers get girls. So you were my prize.
Once I entered the Italian office where my father worked. He had become the general manager of a big import export firm.
In those greatest hours of his success, he didn’t have much time to spare for me or family. In the hours he spent with us, he scarcely saw or heard us. From the point of view of a paterfamilias, his family had important things to do: collective walks with traditional family rules, telling tales about the past of the family, singing in verses, issuing warnings and orders, and preparing for the death of each of us.
The secretary let me in without announcing me. He stood up from his desk, offered me his hand with : pleased to meet you.. He simply didn’t recognize me.
I was on the verge of tears; what is it that’s different about me today?
My father started guessing, he didn’t even try to turn it in a joke:
- It’s the hair?
- Oh I know, the London dress?
- Wait, you have high heels.
- No way.
- So. says he, giving up, what?
- Nothing, said I, there is nothing new on me.
- Maybe that’s it then, said he… It’s that there’s nothing ‘new.’
I was not yet seven when my father bought us a fancy family grave in the central cemetery of Belgrade. We could have bought a flat for that amount of money, but Serbian culture is pagan and necromantic. A graveyard means more than a flat, for a grave lasts forever, while a flat lasts only while you live there. Plus, a very important distinction: the grave belongs to the family, while a flat by communist laws belonged to the state.
My father took us all to our graveyard and showed us our names engraved in marble. Date of birth and a dash…I didn’t even know what was missing there. I thought that now that we were officially born and registered in marble, we had to do something about it; like being admitted to a school.
I was proud, but then my best friend who knew all about that kind of stuff (and also that babies were not brought by storks), told me that the only thing that was expected from me in a graveyard was to die. I felt worried: shall I make it through the cemetery gates? Was I supposed to die at a certain time? My parents hadn’t given me instructions yet.
Of course those instructions arrived for me in due time: very soon my father explained to me all the possibilities in a mathematical way, who among us would die, first or last… We would be a family forever after, he said.
I felt taken care of and reassured. I never thought I would have any other family but them. How could any other family compete with this fine marble plot in the center of Belgrade, among the war heroes and anonymous rich people whose tombs were bigger than their homes? They persisted forever there, as opposed to those squabbling mortals whose houses were destroyed by bombings, looting, earthquakes, miseries…
When my father turned eighty, he changed all his funeral dispositions after a long dramatic brainstorming. Every time I would visit him before going on a long or a short trip ( for him this made no difference, the physical distance between the two of us was the only thing that mattered, the length of the umbilical cord was transgressed) he would seat me and repeat the funeral dispositions. And as time went by those schemes were longer and more detailed. We would not even be seated anymore, but we would rehearse his funeral.
That day he was lying in his very neat white bed, on his back and his eyes turned to the ceiling…he was hardly moving his lips, but his concentration was infallible. I wonder, can that man ever die? Or lose concentration on his death, and we whom he controls, as his proof he is still alive?
- So, my dear, I will probably die and you won’t be here. I will die alone but never mind, that’s the cruelty of life. Children never pay back their parents. The love and care they were given, they pass on to their own children…
I wriggled and felt guilty, even though he was ghastly right in some ways. I knew he meant harm, though. He was jealous of children — of all people that could not take him as the central figure of the world. And now, I, his own daughter, should pay for his hurt feelings. Who else?
- Don’t dad me, take that safe (he had a mobile safe from World War II, a very heavy metal box) and open it…you have dispositions in two copies there. The news is that I want an open coffin funeral, announced in the public media so that people don’t miss it.
- But who would miss it? All your people are already gone, even Mom.
- I count on your people, and my granddaughter’s people. You are a public person, so you will write a nice necrology, publish it.
- But Dad…
- Don’t you dad me, he said and put the white sheet over his mouth.
That meant the conversation was over and he wanted to go to sleep. But his face was covered like that of the newly deceased.
My father talked to me always as a commander to a soldier. His own dad talked to him that way… and everything different was considered a joke. He could joke, oh yes, but never when funerals and coffins were concerned.
OK dad, a big public funeral, I lied to him… and that would be my revenge, I thought. But a couple of years later, when he indeed died, I was not sure whose revenge it was, his or mine. How would we know we had won?