Lavender hangs in the air with rosemary, pine and sage, and milky sunlight seeps across morning shores like the thinnest of silks, only to be taken over by a searing glare by mid afternoon – rendering all but the sturdiest of lizards dysfunctional – when locals slumber and travellers toast their sea-salted skin.
I was visiting my family from ‘over there’. The ‘over there’ that once upon a time elicited responses of “Oh, I’m sorry” in any conversation mentioning heritage. And could rapidly bring the conversation to a stilted close. But within twenty years, morphed word by word into “Oh we just love it there, aren’t they all so friendly, rented this gorgeous place on an island from a local man who gave us homemade grappa and figs to die for”. And somehow this makes me wince as much as the “Oh, I’m sorry”.
At twenty three, it was a recent epiphany for me to visit alone, by train, and immerse myself when I could afford to in the idiosyncrasies of the aging single cousins once or twice removed, and the unswerving mental youth of my grandmother, my baka. I was desperate to know them and feel part of them. My heart was there but my mind didn’t always fit in, I didn’t understand the tempo of things, didn’t know what was being said half the time – we had missed a lot of contact as children and I was determined this wouldn’t feel normal.
It is the last day of this visit. On this particular autumn afternoon we are moving languidly on from lunch and a card game with turkish coffee, and discussing the family photos arranged amongst dried flowers and unpolished silver on the mantelpiece, to opening up the bottom drawers brimming with piles of musty photos and papers and albums laying quiet and almost forgotten. My cousin once removed, my Baka, and I – three generations, excavating page by page this past, this family – my family. This is my first glimpse of anything beyond the surface of shared moments and overheard utterances.
The albums, labelled in ink with a beautiful Germanic handwriting, are explained at great length – photos of Baka and her sister at a slightly too tender age posing innocent yet coquettish, for a ‘friend of the family’; numerous images of steely eyed and still-faced ancestral congregations staring at ancient lenses, Nonna Mina and Nonno Turi and Nonna Minka – my great grandmother – and their sisters and aunties and cousins and children; casually there are pictures of some of them having a picnic with Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia in 1914 – my mind boggles, but discussion of this is relatively scant, more attention to Minka’s beauty and wild hair as a young girl.
I come across a blank envelope with a small collection of items – some pieces of paper, something fabric, things folded and tucked into one another. These things had been carefully kept together. Pulling out the fabric I read aloud – “Latvia” – from the embroidery. A Latvian flag. “Latvia?” I ask them innocently. I haven’t a clue what Latvia has to do with anything.
My cousin answers – Baka knows, I know, but she isn’t saying much. “Oh, Nonna Minka, she hid some Jews during the war, there was a Latvian.” And here we are sitting in the apartment where Minka lived in the second world war. Suddenly elusive stories one hears about the war are right here and tangible and part of me and it feels peculiar. This building, this family, these pieces of paper.
The rest of the envelope is all paper, different types of paper. A few lined pages folded over with dates in the corners, and written all over in neat navy ink, impenetrable small script in a language I cannot even begin to decipher. The dates are mid-war, 1940, 1941... and no more. Then a letter, no name of the addressee, with clumsy handwriting, in Croatian, bold crayon colours – orange, or peach. An oblong piece of paper on which painstakingly painted, yet somehow childlike letters in light blue watercolour – Oprostite. Forgive me.
Forgive me. I feel the moment and can grasp it, touch it, but I don’t know what that moment was. I know nothing but I can almost breathe the writers’ breath across the generations. Was it slipped under a closed door? Secretly pinned to a wall before leaving? Was there an argument or an incident, forgiven or unforgiven? Did someone laugh or cry or feel nothing when they found it?
Mixed amongst, some telegrams – GDJE JE ANTON, ‘Where is Anton?’. “Who is Anton?” I ask – my cousin again replies – “That’s mum’s pa, Baka and mum’s pa”. My baka’s father, my great grandfather. Why have I never heard anything about him? Why don’t I know his name – and where was he? I have this sudden realisation I always hear about the women, the nonnas, the sisters, the aunties – tetkica this and teta that – but nothing about the men.
A sternly typed letter on paper the colour of cornflower blue, it looks formal, something about money that I don’t understand but I know it is somehow important. It has hit a nerve with my grandmother. I am asking questions about these pieces of paper and the words and who is this and what is this about and what happened – but I only seem to be getting fragments from my cousin who wasn’t there. But now my grandmother starts to answer. “He was a bad man” – she refers to the Latvian – “you don’t want to know anything about him.” “But I do, this is my family, I want to know.” “No, he was a bad man, I will destroy the papers” – she is collecting them up into the envelope, the dated pages in Latvian, the flag, the clumsy orange letter, the Oprostite, the formal typed letter in cornflower blue, the telegram, ‘Where is Anton?’ - “I will burn them tonight”.
This gentle afternoon has come to an abrupt change of direction. I so desperately want to know what my grandmother is hiding and why. I become suddenly fraught and obsessed that I need these papers and need to show them to my mother Rosana. If no one here will tell me anything maybe she can, maybe she can translate the Croatian for me. “But why will you burn them? I can take them, I can take them away, Rosana might want to see them, she will be interested too.” Baka is resolute and cold – “No she won’t. He was a very bad person, you don’t understand. You shouldn’t know anything.” I feel the atmosphere change and an uncomfortable feeling in my throat. Why can’t I know anything about this family, why does it feel that everything has to be hushed and swept under a carpet? I swallow this feeling down and force myself to let it go. For now.
My cousin and I collect up all the albums and the years gone by and put them back into the drawer. Baka has taken the envelope and placed it out of sight. But I have followed her movements out of the corner of my eye. The mood has quietened – it is time for a siesta. Baka goes to her room, my cousin announces she will have a little ‘ziz’. I am still holding my tongue – and pretend I will do the same.
This silent hour I can be unwatched and unquestioned. I need to leave for England late that night and I have been taken over by this fixation with the envelope, and what events it unfolded from. I need to bring it with me. After a swift search I find it tucked behind some stationery, badly hidden, and I am holding it. I feel a bizarre guilt at this and don’t want to risk someone waking up and walking in on me – so instead of taking any moments to look through, I empty my suitcase, open up the lining and hide the envelope there – crazed, like I am hiding drugs from customs. But it is just some pieces of paper, and I am hiding them from my 80-year old grandmother. Repack the case and lock it hastily.
I manage to escape unnoticed into town for a few hours, the obligatory run of truffle paste and lavanda ulje and pretty nicknacks, meet a family friend for a coffee and a complain. Back at Baka’s, a small and simple supper is being put together before I leave. We don’t mention the envelope but it still sticks to the silences between words.
Later, just as I am gathering my things to go, my cousin is asking me anxiously, quietly, “Why did you take the envelope? Your Baka is very upset, why did you take it?” She doesn’t want Baka to hear. I hiss back, practically in tears at the opaqueness of this family, “I just want to know, they are family things, it is my family, it is important.” Then Baka is back in the room and we are quiet again. Baka mentions nothing about it. We say our emotional goodbyes and love is sent and I must give Rosana a big kiss, and everyone must come soon – all as usual, but still this thing hanging in the air, the thing I know nothing about.
The taxi takes me to the night train and I sit in the compartment amongst the smells of cigarette smoke and warm days and leather seats. The envelope is burning at me inside my suitcase, and I feel a frustration, I feel strangely incensed by the events of the day. The events of the years gone by – I have come here to know this place and the people that led to my existence. And yet I leave here comprehending less and less.