13. Birthdays and Funerals
My birthdays, I don’t remember , except the few that that were dramatic. When I was about to turn eighteen, I lived in Milan: in that rich and money-centered city where drugs and fashion were supposed to be the fun part. It was a big deal to party at eighteen.
Inevitably we all do and parents are pretty happy if, at eighteen, we are any good. If they can show us off as adults, if they can trust us, declare us their legal heirs. Or else, if we are delinquents, drug addicts, revolutionaries or just ugly and rude, they can at least say: we tried hard. This is what we managed. From this day on, we will not try anymore.
I felt saddened by these perspectives, especially because I hadn’t the faintest idea how my parents saw their work as parents in the public eyes. I was shy, thin and reclusive, yet wild, ambitious and unpredictable… I think they never saw that big picture.
They did some legal paperwork when I turned 18: I was supposed to drive the car. I could use their bank accounts, mainly for their business transactions. I could enter my first year at the law school, in Milan, where I had no friends and hardly spoke proper Italian. A future among my legal classmates, who were ninety-five percent male yuppies, young men dressed in dark suits who could not rock and roll… the children of famous lawyers or just the famous and rich. They would marry me, give me rich children, buy me fur coats.
So, on my eighteenth birthday, I sat alone in my university café, in my red miniskirt and my long white boots sulking. I resolved to become even thinner, and so I ate nothing and spoke no Italian whatsoever, not even to the waiter who was insistently trying to make me buy and drink a glass of red wine. His barmaids were cute young students in miniskirts.
Looking back at that gloomy day, I believe that my most resolute adult decisions were made in those few hours. Those decisions were basically no’s to the many compulsive yeses in women’s lives. They left a wasteland in front of me: if I had eaten something that day, or even enjoyed a drink, my life would have taken a different course.
Likely, I would have finished that damned law school, with the high grades that I was already accumulating. I would have married the most brilliant guy of the lot, had his children, and even made a joint law firm with him. Then I would have divorced him, because we would have been unfaithful to each other. Then I would have fallen out of life for good…
My stomach burned in pain, my eyes were swollen from unshed tears, my legs were cold in that miniskirt and plastic boots . Yet I was strong and determined and I knew it. To stand against the wind of the mainstream, alone, young and half nude, was something that gave me a sense of a freezing lonely identity. Even today, after many years, I consider that ordeal a good lesson.
That brief fit of anorexia split me from my body. I felt a turning point in my relationship to my body. I felt its mortality, its function, its finality. I realized that I had a body, and that only I could feed it.
I had another memorable birthday, the year after my mother died. On that birthday I baked and cooked the whole day. I did it in order to remember the woman who gave me birth. She was no longer there to nag me about taking care of myself.
When my mother died, she lost her body, and my body was the only vessel where we both could live. So I stuffed it with memories, recipes, all kinds of symptoms of being alive in a body. Although she never approved of what I wrote, or ever read my books, she used to say proudly when people warned her of my dangerous ideas:
- My daughter is a writer and she writes what she pleases.
Now we were doing it together.
Funerals: my granddad’s was my first funeral, and a really happy event. Everybody loved me there. I was twelve. My grandma slaughtered a chicken with which I had played that morning. She fried it in deep oil with baked potatoes, and made a soup of the rest. The taste of death, of feasting over a dead body, so pagan, so wild, so real: like riding a horse you turn into salami, once it breaks a leg.
Whenever a dictator died, that was also a momentous funeral, a death in the family death. Two dictators had the power of life and death over us. We all knew it.
Tito was my grandad, and Milosevic my dad. The first dictator made me rich, while the other made me famous. Once they departed the Balkan family scene, I was no long rich or famous. I was merely happy to be alive, because so many people never survived their delusions: Yugoslavia, Greater Serbia, whatever… They faked their realpolitik, and they played with our lives… My life was their toy.
Tito was handsome and he wore fancy uniforms. Milosevic looked plain and mean. But my Mom loved them equally, she called them dolls, and considered them great communists, world heroes.
When Tito’s dead body was exposed to the public, I was living behind the Parliament in Belgrade. All the foreign diplomats drove through my narrow street to pay their tribute there. He was indeed a major figure to the world of Cold War diplomacy, big on charisma, big on deception… big on keeping his wild Yugoslavs on a tight leash.
I took up my shoulder camera, eager to film the King of Spain from my terrace. But the police arrived immediately, suspecting I had a machine gun. I got bored, I went to bed.
My parents started screaming at me:
- What a beast you are; people are weeping all over the country, instead you are sleeping.
I had such an urge to sleep that I felt sick. It was like catatonia, I just could not find my own place in that mass hysteria. It didn’t seem real, but I had no way to escape it. My only refuge was to hide inside myself. I slept 24 hours notwithstanding the screams, the tugs, the insults.
When I woke up, the funeral was all over. My dad didn’t speak to me for a week while my mother treated me like dirt, apolitical dirt. I felt bad, but not sorry. It was my coming-out as a dissident.
Then my favorite aunt died. I saw her for the last time on my birthday, the seventh of March, at her home. She went back to the hospital the next day, and died. She was emaciated, and they said she was in pain, but she died singing and drinking rakija. She spoke lucidly to me: worried about her favorite granddaughter who was in Amsterdam, she nagged me to phone Biljana and see how she was doing.
I did that. I found out that my cousin Biljana was working in a topless bar as a waitress. As Biljana put it, an honest job, out-drinking most of the customers, ( you know how much I can drink, she said), living with a drug dealer ( he only deals drugs, I use them, she claimed) and getting a degree in drama ( she always knew Shakespeare by heart in the original English).
I told my aunt:
- Biljana is doing great, she has finally a life she could never get in Belgrade.
- Does she eat enough meat? asked my aunt.
- Definitely I said, she is not a vegetarian anymore. She says only feminists are vegetarians, and she does not want to be mistaken for one.
My aunt’s last words to me were: take some meat out of the freezer, Biljana will come here for lunch. That aunt loved sex and food. She died while a young male nurse was singing to her: Oh Rado, oh Radmila , what did you do to me today… a folk song. He was teasing, for Radmila had pissed in her hospital bed from a drunken swoon of rakija.
Actually, we relatives smuggled her rakija to the hospital: there was no hope for her to recover, the doctors said. The doctors themselves were her relatives, because in my mother’s family everybody is a doctor, excepting a few bad girls like my aunt, myself and Biljana.
When Biljana was dying, some years later in the AIDS ward her husband smuggled her drugs. There was no hope of recovery for Biljana, either. After snorting some of white powder that had killed her in the first place, Biljana had a feeling of continuity in her life. It is a great feeling to die knowing that your life was not one big mistake — just because some doctors tell you so.
My lovely cousin used to say:
- I am just your sidekick, your guinea pig. You used me for your experiments on life.
I was six years older than Biljana, and often keen to play my sidekick’s little mother, but I could not turn her into someone like myself. I offered her all I had to give her, but that was not what she wanted or needed. She knew that I loved her, and dreaded what she was becoming, but I had no power to save her. Just like myself, my cousin made a choice.
At my aunt’s funeral, at the peak of a Belgrade hill where she’d expressed her desire to be buried, the family gathered. It was convenient for the family to meet for funerals, since weddings cost too much nowadays.
After initial kisses and handshakes, we started drinking and talking. Pretty soon we were joking and laughing our heads off. It was my first funeral as an adult, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was embarrassed and sad, and yet elated. I had a feeling that my favorite aunt’s death had put me in contact with life, more so than ever before. I could not restrain my giddy elation, my laughter, so my cousin asked me to leave. I did so, relieved.
I came back to her grave the next day, and promised her that I would never forget her, and that I would take care of her favorite granddaughter, my junkie beautiful cousin. I did that. I gave her money shelter medicines to stay out of drugs, and alcohol to stay calm. Biljana survived another fifteen years, only to die in my care and be buried close to her grandma.
My cousin’s funeral was not a pleasant one. Because of her living relatives, who insisted on crying and kissing everybody. Her father, whom I call the beast, had kicked her out of home when she was a kid. The mother, after three suicide attempts, was unable to grip her own life. My cousin was lying in her closed coffin, alone. I patted the part where her head was, and left the ceremony.
- Hey Mina where are you going, the beast father asked me,
- we have food and drinks yet to come…
That was Serbia, or rather Yugoslavia… The tyranny of the failed red aristocracy took a terrible toll on the Communist princess and princesses; they were children of privilege, devoured like the children of Saturn. Fathers buried daughters and danced on their graves.
My family, my friends, the Balkan people of my generation, were dying in unruly disorder, a generation of rebels, dissidents and outcasts, pre-deceasing a generation of guerrillas, Fascists, and Communists. A barren mystery perplexing even the atheists, death came to us in fits and starts, always anticipated and yet always denied.