Chapter Eight: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

8. My Aunt Rada and Family Plots

My mother’s best friend, whom I dearly loved, told me some 45 years later:

- When you were four, you were such a darling. You never cried, you never fussed. And whenever you did, you got spanked.

Back in those days, children were spanked on regular basis. Spanking was considered normal and healthy, something hard on parents yet good for children. I don’t remember getting spanked, I do remember however the silent treatments. I remember them as the cruelest and most painful stomach feeling. Even today, that can be triggered if somebody does not answer my email letters.

I heard from my darling old lady that anybody could beat me for my own good, not only my parents, but her, for example, and her husband, not to speak of my aunt, older cousins, in laws who all took care of me one after another, to let my hard-working Mom rest for her dying children.

I was the first child for a long time in that big family which lived together in those postwar years of communism and hardship. And my parents were privileged: they had a flat with more than one room, a car among the first ten cars in Belgrade, and tickets for summer holidays. They had a future which many respectable or wealthy people from the ancienne regime, plain didn’t have. Such as my aunt, the pretty landowner’s daughter. She had married to a rich lawyer, who not only betrayed her with the prettiest women from Belgrade, but also with her best friends.

When he died abruptly of tongue cancer, after an innocent incurable toothache, she found all of his letters neatly tied with a pink ribbon in his first drawer. He had lacked the time to hide them or destroy them.

He left her with two small male children and a handful of love letters. She could not stop crying the first days: she cried for her past, her innocence, her youth, her love, her beauty, her wealth and especially some pieces of her furniture that her grandma left to her. She sold them for food and saw them in the hands of gypsies in the black market. She hardly could cry for her unfaithful husband separately from her other griefs…she was too stunned by his rapid disappearance from the regal scene gone bad.

Her girlfriends who betrayed her were coming to console her. They didn’t know she knew. Patiently and slyly she took them as they came…in small doses, like poison. Then one day she really got angry, sold the rest of her property to the gypsies, moved to a poor district of the town, found a humble job with a shoemaker (her father after all, my grandfather, had shoemaking shops), sent her children to the countryside with her parents, so they would not be hungry… and?

Only many years after at her death bed, a Sunday it was, on my birthday, when she was dying at 72, she told me;

- I don’t have many days to live, and also many reasons but to watch you young ones live…you don’t even need my care anymore. And I don’t have many regrets either. After my husband betrayed me and died, I decided never to marry again, but have all the men in the world I wanted, rich or poor, old or young, handsome or not, married or single…and I did. I had them many, in secrecy…

To my utmost surprise she started listing the names. Her breath was short, she was dying really, but she needed to spill it out, and her memory was not short…She reminded me of another woman, a very old lady who could remember to the very last detail only pleasant things that happened to her in her life, the hardships were never there in her stories…and a third woman whose husband died in bed with another woman, and who, after all those years after his death talked of him as a saint. She never wanted to change that bed or that house where he died, pretending that it never happened. Why do women do that? Why do they reveal it only on their deathbeds, when things done cannot be undone?

My aunt smiled and even laughed feebly shaking her grey curly hair, the hair I inherited from her which I proudly wear nowadays without combing it: life can be fun you know. Don’t let anybody spoil the fun for you… You are a stubborn girl, I remember beating you once when you didn’t want to walk back home from my shoe shop, because I didn’t buy you a pair of red shoes I promised. I beat you so much that I got my period before due. And you didn’t shed a tear, you just stood there in that steep street as if glued to the hot pavement while I was panting and screaming and my hands and face were all red; what a shame for me, everybody was looking at us…

My aunt did not beat the other family girls that came after me; her granddaughters. The first one, who hardly survived the delivery, was a delicate sad baby abandoned by her parents to her, and the other two, left as well to her care while the parents were making money abroad. Those girls already had my protection and better times, when children were not supposed to be beaten.

- Even the English aristocracy beats their children, my aunt used to say: the whip comes out of paradise, was the Serbian proverb… When my mother tried once to beat me with a fly swatter which would leave checked patterns on my legs, I started running around the table: I was already taller than her and stronger… She was panting red in her face and I was laughing and plain having fun. All of a sudden instead of running away from her I turned around my heels and ran towards her and she started running away from me around the table, laughing too…

Do women who beat also kill?

But my aunt “saved” me, my childish memory tells me. Although my father never touched me, when I was four and refused to wear the clothes he wanted to dress me in, one Sunday morning when my mother was away working in her hospital, I thought he would kill me. He was a big big man, who could afford bananas not only for me but also for other members in the family. How dare I disobey him? He took me to our room, while we passed the other relatives in row waiting for the verdict for my incredible refusal, locked the door of our room, slowly took his big leather belt with a metal hair pin and asked me to take my panties off and lie over his knee…I was four and I didn’t know what was about to happen. Outside the locked doors female members of my family who shared his flat with more than one room were whining and gently knocking. He himself never did that before but was subject to it as a small boy from his father the manager of the Austro-Hungarian prison, a prison managed by Serbs on behalf of the Austrian conquerors for Serb political dissidents. He acted as a zombie but I refused to take of my panties. He started yelling and beating the chair with his belt…he put up a big show , as he knew pretty well, but at the time I didn’t know.

At that point my aunt burst in the door with super human strength and took me in her arms.

-You Herzegovinian beast, she screamed, even though he let her stay with her children in the big apartment…and he looked at her with bulging red eyes, closed his fists but dropped his belt and left the room…

Now, if it hadn’t been for my aunt I would have never discovered how dangerous my situation was…maybe my father would have beaten me with that belt, injured me seriously, maybe not. My father was always a coward really. I think this was the best way out for his manhood not to be damaged, my aunt saved his honor as a Herzegovinian beast. I didn’t get hurt and afterwards when my mother came, I was kindly spanked without having to take my clothes off. But the story is still there, even I remember something of that dark fear that young girls encounter with their big dads the first time they are left alone in a locked room.

My recurrent nightmare is: all the men I loved solemnly walk one by one in a row with a dagger in their hands inflicting a blow to my heart while I am lying on an altar. I see them but they don’t see me. I am there but invisible to them: even the beatings could have happened without me. Especially the omitted ones, the missed beating can hurt even more than the ones when actually a hand strikes a blow, your body feels the pain, you are touched, you exist.

My father also saved my life, I remember: again when I was four, he took me to a New Year party for kids in the firm where he worked with hundreds of other employees. There was a big Christmas tree, huge and many many presents for us, the first generation of communist kids who didn’t have Santa Claus or Christmas. Yet this neighbor of ours would dress as Santa to fake the bourgeois game. The Communist Icedad, as we called him in Yugoslavia, brought same gifts to all children, rich or poor ( we were all poor anyway).

The party was not a family one, but colossal event for all parents and all children: on the fifth floor of a new metal construction. We children had to tell him in public something about our sins and promises and he would give us in return a present.

My turn: I lack some front teeth, but that is not stopping me. I sing with all my might, no stage fright only a problem: I was too small to reach the mike so Icedad took me in his arms. But then, I had to admit I bit my nails to earn my present and promise I will never do it again. Instead I set free wildly from his grip. Icedad stumbled back into the big tree full of real candles and his huge beard made of cotton caught fire…The fire started spreading fast over the cotton snow… smoke opened windows, children started screaming, parents fighting their way to get hold of them. My father was holding somebody else’s child in his lap, but seeing the fire he just dropped it and started looking for me. He found me trembling on the ledge of a window convinced it was my sin of biting my nails which set fire to the whole place.

Dad rescued me, and then went back to try to rescue the child he dropped in order to rescue me, feeling terrible about his instinct. The neighbor pretending to be Icedad got rescued too. He had face scars until the end of his days: all children could tell that he was not the real Icedad now, and we never ever pretended again we were nothing else but atheist communists.

When I got my first period, I was young and I knew nothing about it. We were on vacation, on a beautiful

Croatian island. I woke up one sunny morning in my room, with blood on my sheet. I was frightened terribly, I thought it was a too serious matter for my mother to tackle, so I had to get my father first. I did.

He laughed heartily and explained to me that now I am a real woman, that I could bear children and that soon enough I will have a sexual life. Then out of blue, before he summoned my Mother to tell me how to cope with the practical issues of bleeding once a month, he told me that women like men have sexual desires but that women unlike men are not allowed to have them. Then he told me to do whatever I please with my sexual desires in my life as long as I don’t get in trouble with men and children. Just take care of yourself, be independent, live on your own money and never marry if you don’t want to. I was listening to my first feminist lecture and strangely enough from my patriarchal father! I was dumbfounded but I to this very day remember every word he said, first and most important being: to be a woman is not such a bad thing. I guess only a real chauvinist can say that!

When my little Mom was buried, our graveyard in Belgrade was full of people to be buried, who died immediately after the bombings in 1999: stress, lack of medicines, depleted uranium. We could hardly bury her, we had to wake up early in the morning and the sky was angry. Snow was falling, wind was blowing. It was the first snow of that winter.

I had to think of a wish to come true, that‘s a Serbian custom she taught me. I looked at the angry sky: it was actually beautiful, just as I remembered her face, full of passion with her blue eyes shining like the patches of sky behind the snowy clouds. And her hair was striped with white just like those snow flakes falling on my head, on my shoes. I was in her shoes, three sizes smaller and yet as a Cinderella I fitted my feet perfectly, protected from cold and wet. Never ever could I wear those small shoes again, nor could I wear them before. Just that day on that occasion. My Mom was everywhere around me.

Her best friend hugged me, saying: you don’t have your Mom anymore. I felt strange: my thought was, I don’t want to have my father anymore, either.

My good friend told me how she was robbed by her own father after her mother died. Another one told me how she had to take care of her father as senile fool who told her about women he raped and men he killed during the war. What is my fate, what had become of that sweet little girl of four who is being held by her dad, and taken into deep water with a smile of love and confidence, until he slips and falls and a wave comes and they both start drowning…

I learned how to swim some years later, I learned what revenge was many years later, I thought of putting the two things together. But I never took revenge on my father: whenever I wanted to a voice inside me would scream: Stop it, you beast, you bad woman!

With my Mom it was different. I was allowed to take revenge, treat her badly, to murder her. She was a woman just like me and I never ever doubted her love for me.

Written by

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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