Lidija Dimkovska, born 1971 in Skopje, is a poet, novelist and translator of Romanian and Slovene literature into Macedonian. She lives in Ljubljana but writes in Macedonian. Dimkovska is currently the president of the jury for Vilenica International Literary Award. She has published six poetry collections, three novels and a diary, and has also edited a number of anthologies. Her poetry and novels have been translated in over twenty languages. She received several Macedonian literary prizes, the ‘Hubert Burda Poetry Prize’ in Germany, the Romanian poetry prizes ‘Poesis’ and ‘Tudor Arghezi’. Her novel A Spare Life brought her the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. Her latest novel Non-Oui was shortlisted for the international literary award Balkanika.
1996 Castellammare del Golfo
Several months after Grandpa Carlo died, the morning that Grandma Nedeljka was supposed to go to Split, she said to me: “Ah, Nedi, I was alone before Grandpa and I’m alone after him. It’s as if I am not dead or alive. It’s as if I’ve just collapsed. Death is a cross to bear, even for an ordinary person, but everything is a cross for a foreigner: the past, the present, and the future. The cross is heavy, but you must carry it alone. There will be people who want to help you, to hold it for you, as if it were a suitcase, but it’s not a suitcase: it is inside, it is in your soul and cuts directly to the heart.”
I was only eight years old and, while I tried to understand what she was trying to tell me, like in school when the teacher would read us a story to us and then ask what the author wanted to say, I would stare into space, heart pounding, hands sweaty, and would keep thinking that I was too young to give an answer. I kept imagining Grandma Nedjeljka’s cross standing there inside, beside her heart. And I couldn’t get rid of the image before my eyes: her heart, together with the cross, looked like a dartboard, and where the vertical and horizontal bars of the cross met was the red spot, and only someone with a true hand could direct the arrow to number ten, the bulls-eye on grandma’s board.
Ah, Nedi, your grandpa Carlo lifted the cross for me as much as he could, he carried it from here to there, where there were stairs, he would take it over while waiting for me to come back from somewhere, and he just about bent under its weight when I came back from Split, the first and second time, but he carried it most of all, I think, when I moved here, when I carried in my suitcase and my wedding dress was made of ten metres of satin, there it is, it’s still there in the cupboard, but it seems that neither you nor Margherita will wear it. It’s true, your Grandpa Carlo carried the cross for me as if it were a suitcase, but I’ve told you, haven’t, the cross isn’t a suitcase, you don’t carried in your hand, on your shoulders, or on a cart. It’s inside, inside of you, and some people call it life. But your Grandpa Carlo had his own cross, and he couldn’t always carry two. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t because the cross that’s inside in your soul, cuts directly to the heart, and has no weight that can be measured. But during his last two years, ever since he went mute, it was my turn to carry his cross. He didn’t let me. Whenever I caressed him, he pushed my hand away, he was embarrassed that I would stroke him like a child. He was ashamed with every tenderness, thinking it was given to him as a sick person, not as a husband.
He was silent, but in his enormous eyes, that had not grown smaller in old age and had remained with no wrinkles, there was just emptiness. Or fullness from such emptiness. “But why, Carlo, why?” I would ask, but he’d just look at me. And he left without saying a word. I was already seventy-three years old and, even though you always told me I was the youngest grandma in the world, I was, in fact, already an old woman, with a cross in my soul bearing the souls broken by evil spirits, like your Uncle Luca, left alone, or your Uncle Mario with your cousin Antonio, who never did turn away from neo-Nazi ideas and now there he is, hoping to stand as a candidate for the right-wing party, or my brother, whose name will remain unspoken, the name he himself trampled with his malice, or even my mother who never came to see this house that I made my home. But I had no greater cross than your Grandpa. With him, the life-giving organ of life died inside me. Maybe it was the cross itself? I don’t know. I only know that I wanted to die, too, nothing more. And for that to be my cross. Only, God gives the cross a person carries, according to the weight he can bear. If so, then I bore it and carried it away. It seems that in this life everything is yes or no, just like you call me. But how could Grandpa Carlo die the very morning I was to go to Split for the third time? Do you remember how much the ticket your father and Luca and Mario gave me meant? And how excited I was by my trip to Split? After nearly thirty years! But to tell you the truth – that’s the way it had to be. That way, and no other. Your Grandpa Carlo died to protect me from that trip. To warn me that I had nothing to seek in Split, that there was no one there who loved me, and that the only one left was my brother who had not wanted to see me all these years.
Maybe at some point Carlo was sorry that in Bačvice, in the camp, he hadn’t killed him, but only broken his finger. Maybe that would have been better for all of us; then Carlo and I would have stayed in Split and I wouldn’t have known that moving to a new place is a cross that cuts your heart in two: one part there, the other here. But in life, everything that is bad is for something good. And knowing that, your Grandpa Carlo did not wake that morning. I am sure your mother said, “Out of spite” but quietly, so I didn’t hear her. No matter how hard your father shook your grandfather to wake him, your grandpa did not wake up; he knew he did not need to wake on the day I was supposed to leave for Split. He knew there was no reason for me to go where I was no longer even a ghost, let alone a woman who had been born and lived there.
2009 Castellammare del Golfo
Yes, Grandma Nedjeljka, maybe you were no longer even a ghost there, but in our life, in our family, or at least for me, from this side of your biography, you were everything, but not a ghost. At least up until that June 7, 2009, up until my 21st birthday. How beautiful the orange tree in the garden was that day: we all sat around the table, including Margherita’s Pietro, and when Margherita said as a joke: “Now that Neda is “forever young” she doesn’t need a man” and you asked suddenly: “Which Neda?” and we all started laughing. “You,” I said as a joke, but everyone else shouted, “Neda, of course, Neda, not you, you’re 86 years old, Neda is 21.” Then you began to scream that you were Neda, that you were twenty-one, that you lived in Split and that Carlo was waiting for you on the Riva. At first we thought you were joking, and so we also joked, but soon when you began to call us liars, thieves, and even Fascists, it became apparent that something wasn’t right with you. We quickly cleared everything from the table and got you somehow into the house. And just think, we forgot in the outdoor refrigerator the last Split cake you made, especially for me, on the evening before my birthday, not from memory, but from the recipe that you had kept since you were young. Your last Split cake lost all its flavor after several days, and mama finally threw it in the garbage. I think all our hearts were pounding in our temples. We went inside and scattered to our own rooms, and Pietro went home. And you went to your room, repeating the whole time you climbed the stairs: “Fa-scists, Fa-scists!” It was only when, after all the tests and examinations here and in Trapani and Doctor Rinaldo explained to us that you were suffering from Alzheimers, that we understood it wasn’t hate or spite speaking, as mama had said then, but illness, a very concrete, but difficult to understand, illness. Or – easily understandable for your age, but for us it was a too real, too sick illness. “Mrs. Nedjeljka Lombardo has a good heart, but her brain is no longer completely right, and from now on she will be like this,” the doctor said, “and worse.” He told us not to leave you alone, and in the evening, to lock the balcony door in the bedroom. So you wouldn’t accidentally jump over the railing. At 86 years of age? The doctor said one never knows. But who would lock the balcony door? Papa should have done it, but mama excused him when she told me that I was the one that had to lock you in, you were closest to me and I would be the only one you would forgive. And there was no bigger cross that God could have placed on my heart! Or, the nearest and dearest to me! I, your most beloved granddaughter, but more than that, your confidante, your best friend, and namesake, I was the one that had to take your freedom and kiss you on the forehead each evening while you, with eyes closed as if embarassed for me, kept repeating: “Fa-scists, Fa-scists.”
From that day on, Grandma Nedjeljka had a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and we put the slip of paper with her diagnosis, along with our address and telephone numbers into the purse, which she had always carried with her to church or on a walk before her illness. That’s what they had advised us to do: if she slipped out without our knowledge and couldn’t make her way back home, someone would find the paper and contact us. I had completed my third year of studies that day and I was free the whole summer. I decided not to work anywhere but to “take care of” grandma, as everyone said to me. And, that “taking care” wasn’t hard. Grandma was calm, like always. She often recalled her past and would tell me about it for hours. No, she couldn’t remember what she ate this morning, or where her glasses were. That was startling to me: she remembered details of the past, but she couldn’t recall anything of her day-to-day life. I prompted her to talk, to retell her stories, to recall everything that had marked her past. I already knew it all, but I listened again and again to those stories that were never boring or useless. My mother and Margherita would leave the room when they caught Grandma Nedjeljka repeating something, and papa wanted to listen less and less. Though even he was amazed that she could remember things from twenty years ago, but didn’t know whether or not it had rained that morning. It particularly bothered him when she would be presented with a fact, for example how old she was, what her name was, and things like that, and she would just repeat: “I am a young woman, I am twenty-one years old, my name is Neda, my mother is a market pedlar, my father is a fisherman, we live in Split.” No one wanted to listen to her stories any longer. But they had to because, thank God, Grandma Nedjeljka with her Alzheimers lived another five years. I finished my studies in Palermo and began working there in a bookstore. I began to travel back and forth to work every day by bus, and my biggest worry was what Grandma would do during that time, whether everything was ok with the woman we had hired to take care of her until mama, papa, and I got back from work. The woman, a simple woman from town, was named Lea and she was also getting on in years,; the priest had recommended her and we took her, although we knew that her son had been a member of the Mafia, killed by his blood brothers. But Lea said from the very beginning: “I have no family, I never had a husband, and I got pregnant when I was raped by a scoundrel, but that’s how it was, and he was killed. And it’s best that it turned out like that.” Lea was strange, but in a small town like Castellammare del Golfo there wasn’t a big choice for caregivers for old and sick women like Grandma Nedjeljka.
I think Grandma Nedjeljka was more or less calm and obedient for the first three years. She was paranoid the whole time but it was in the realm of manageable. Whenever she was frightened by something, and every evening when I locked the balcony doors, and the door to her bedroom, as the doctor had told us to do, she’d usually start shouting: “Fa-scists, Fa-scists.” In the morning, before I went to Palermo, I unlocked her door, kissed her on the forehead, and left for work. But one day when I entered the room I didn’t see her in the bed. “Grandma, Grandma Nedjeljka!” I shouted, but I got no answer. Suddenly I looked under the bed and there she was, lying there like a fetus mumbling something unintelligible. “Grandma Non-Oui,” I called as gently as I could; she looked up at me with fear in her eyes said: “Fa-scists, Fa-scists.” But Grandma, there are no Fascists here,” I told her, just like I did every other time, “Come, come out of there.” But, I had to drag her out from under the bed myself—some instinct kept me from calling mama who was getting ready for work. Lea was to arrive about then. The next morning I found her under the bed again and, once again, I dragged her out and everything was apparently ok, but the third day when I went into the bedroom there, on the floor by the bed, was a small forgotten, childhood tent—one we would sometimes put up in the yard with Grandma, pushing aside the table under the orange tree, and Margherita and I would lie down inside, and Grandma Nedjeljka would sit on the swing and we would each be in own own world without bothering the other. Grandpa would walk about in the yard, and move the little tent, but then he’d always come inside saying: “Come on, that’s enough, go inside, this isn’t for sitting outside.” And now Grandma had pulled that little tent from the closet, opened it by the bed and put her pillow inside: that’s all the little childhood toy had room for. And she was sleeping inside, her body curled like a fetus on the floor, with no mattress or blanket. If was if she had no head, her body lying helplessly as if it had been dumped there. When I saw her all curled up, thin, almost lifeless, I was very upset. Although we tried to take the little tent from her, she simply wouldn’t give it up. She cried like a baby and pressed it to her chest. She constantly whispered to me that she was being followed by Fascists and that they were going to come straight into her room through the attic and the roof of the house, and then, she’d say with a feverish sob, it would be terrible, terrible. She wasn’t only afraid of Fascists, there were days when she was faint with fear that Ustashi or Italians would come charging through the windows of the house and then she’d shout: “Boom, boom, boom” or that Partisans would come up through a crack in the floor, and then papa, hoping to calm her, would ask as a joke: wearing a cap with five stars or a red scarf? Sometimes we could hear her crying from the small tent that her brother was coming to take her home to Split. But sometimes she said that my Grandpa was coming to take her to his world, in heaven, and then she might repeat for hours, as if she talking to my Grandpa “But what if God sends me where the Croatians are? You’d be in one place, and I’d be in another. It’s not even certain there who’s with who.” Why is she talking to him in Croatian, I thought to myself, but it seemed better not to ask.
This was pure paranoia. I asked myself whether everyone with this illness ended like this, or was it only those with this illness who had had to relocate somewhere? That’s why I told papa we should leave her the tent, but we should put a rug and mattress down so she wouldn’t be sleeping directly on the floor. And from that day on, Grandma didn’t take her head out of the tent at night. But she also tried to squeeze her body into the one metre space shouting hoarsely: “Fa-scists, Fa-scists.” The tent became her haven, not only at night, but during the day as well. Lea had to feed her there on the floor, shoving every spoonful of food at her inside the tent. Mama already said the time had come for us to fine a suitable nursing home for her, and Uncle Luca and Uncle Mario agreed. We saw them rarely, at Christmas or a few days in the summer, so they didn’t have a true picture of their mother’s illness, and in their phone conversations with papa, they thought the best decision was for us to put her in a nursing home. Uncle Luca said to find the best home and he’d pay for it. I heard papa once say to him: “Neda won’t give her up, she doesn’t want us to take her to a nursing home.” I was grateful to him for that. I wanted Grandma Nedjeljka to live to the end of her life in her own home where she had come as a newcomer, and had remained as a wife, mother, and grandmother. So she wouldn’t again be a stranger in a nursing home. Grandma Nedjeljka couldn’t endure one more move. I tried to make her more at home in her own home, so she wouldn’t also be a ghost in Castellammare del Golfo while she was still alive. In the evening I would put on movies with Sylva Coscina that she had very much liked when she was healthy. She liked them now, too, and she could watch the same ones every day, even several times a day. Sometimes Lea also played them for her while we were at work: to give herself some peace, she would play Grandma two or three films on the video machine in the living room.
17 February 2013 Castellammare del Golfo
One Sunday, on 17 February 2013, to be precise, a date I will remember for the rest of my life, before going to church mama, as usual, asked Grandma Nedjeljka whether she wanted rosemary or basil tea. Grandma was sitting almost motionless at the kitchen table— at my insistence, papa and I had not abandoned the Sunday morning ritual of bringing her to the kitchen so we could all have breakfast together. Grandma Nedjeljka didn’t respond. She often didn’t answer our questions, but there were moments and days when she repeated every phrase or she’d say something resembling a sentence, a thought. But now she just looked at mama with a surprised expression and didn’t say anything. Then papa asked her whether she wanted rosemary or basil tea. She didn’t answer him either. When I asked her, she answered me in Croatian: “rosemary.” We gave it to her. That day she would only answer me, briefly, but at least with a word or two. She looked at mama and papa with a puzzled look, as if she didn’t understand them when they talked to her at breakfast. No one took this as anything other than her inclination towards me, I was the most important person in her life and she knew to not pay any attention to others. But the next day, when I went to work and Lea tried to tell her something or ask her something, grandma just looked at her, listening to her words, but only shaking her head and muttering something “in that language of hers,” Lea said, “not in ours.” When I got home everyone was in a panic, and mama called me as I came in the door: “Neda come here quickly, this is very strange, but your grandma is either pretending, or she really doesn’t understand us anymore.” My heart felt tight. I went in, stroked her hand, and asked her in Croatian: “Grandma Non-Oui, are you ok? What’s bothering you?” “Well, who are you?” she asked me. “Nedi,” I said to her loudly, “don’t you remember?” “You’re Nedi?” she said in Croatian, “ And I’m Neda?” “Yes, I’m Nedi, Nedjeljka, just like you, Grandma, don’t you remember?” “Yes, I remember Nedjeljka,” she said to me wearily. “And do you know mama and papa?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she said, “ I can’t understand them.”
Yes, Grandma Nedjeljka, that is a fact – you had forgotten the Italian language. I don’t know myself how it happened, but medical literature is familiar with such events. Was it over night or gradually? Did your brain at one specific moment shut off its language function or did it happen a little bit each day? Were you only forgetting the language you learned or were you also forgetting your mother tongue? “If it had been gradual, we would have seen it, it would have been obvious,” papa said, shocked not only by the fact that she had forgotten Italian but also by the fact that he had never learned Croatian so he would be able to continue the conversation with you in your mother tongue. Papa doesn’t, in fact, have a mother tongue – isn’t that absurd? Every person has to have a mother tongue, a real mother tongue that is, not a father tongue, which, because of circumstances, had become, or one thought it had become, the mother tongue as well. But papa and my uncles didn’t have their mother tongue; they didn’t have your language, only Italian, their father’s language, but is that enough for one person’s lifetime? Now, when your illness has taken away Italian, it has essentially taken away your sons, and Antonio, and Margherita, and I am the only one left for you, the only one in the whole family who learned your Croatian language. When you stopped understanding the language with which you had lived more than sixty years, the language of Grandpa Carlo and of all us who had been close to you, you lost everyone but me, the only one who could understand you after the short-circuit in your brain that apparently erased the years and words and a whole language. Mama didn’t believe it at first, and Lea even said to her: “How, then, is she watching the Koscina movies? I feel like she understands them.” Yes, you already knew the Koscina movies by heart and you already turned their dialogue into your Croatian, you didn’t even think about the words, you knew their meanings by heart. Or, perhaps listening to Koscina, a Croatian in Italy, you understood internally, from the Croatian core of her Italian roles. I, for one, never believed that you lost Italian gradually. I think papa also didn’t believe it, but it was easier for him to think that, rather than to acknowledge to himself that he had dedicated so little to you in your illness that he had not even noticed whether you understood or not. In one way or another, everyone avoided your presence, except on Sundays when they felt more strongly the presence of God because of the church bells in the city and the view towards St. Mary from your room, and then your presence was also more visible to them. But as for me, I would have noticed you were forgetting Italian when they turned their attention to you or when Lea asked you something. You and I only spoke together in Croatian, ever since you taught it to me as a child and the day you said to me: “This is the last time I’m going to talk with you in Italian, you know my language well enough now for it to be yours as well.”
And then your Croatian became mine, my grandma tongue. More and more I feel like you forgot Italian in one stroke as if inside your brain the fuse for the Italian language burned out, and Boom! Now it’s dark, and nothing is visible. Did you really not remember a single word? Not even si or no? Did you forget French along with Italian? But you hadn’t spoken French for years, not since you were young, and that wasn’t part of the illness. But did you even forget your name, Non-Oui? It’s a good thing that no one here called you by the Italian No-Si. It’s a good thing that God at least protected you from that, from forgetting your own name.
“She’s forgotten the language?” the Uncles said in amazement on the telephone. “How is that possible? How are we going to talk with her now?” “With an interpreter,” papa said and looked at me as I went past. “With an interpreter, with Neda,” he added. All three of there were embarrassed and ashamed that not one of them ever learned their mother’s language, their mother tongue.
Lea said she could no longer look after Grandma Nedjeljka. “How can I understand a foreigner?” she said. “A foreigner,” that’s what she said and in that instant it became clear to me what Grandma thought when she said that everything for the foreigner is a cross: past, present, and future. In the end, after everything, a foreigner becomes a foreigner once again; in Grandma Nedjeljka’s case, that was literally true, in black and white. She came here as a foreigner, then lived here as someone who had adopted the country, or at least thought that it was already hers, and in the end, before death, she was turned into a foreigner once again. You are a foreigner most of all where no one understands you and you don’t understand anyone. It is not for nothing, that programs to learn the language of one’s new fatherland are included in every integration policy. Not only is it desirable, but it is the custom for someone who moves to a new place to learn the language of the new mileau. Grandma Nedjelkja began to learn Italian while still in Split, right after she received that telegram from Grandpa Carlo saying that they would get married in Sicily. Her Italian might have had a Slavic accent, but it was the every-day Sicilian dialect, very similar to Grandpa Carlo’s. Every language has its own gestures, just like people have their own facial expressions in the language they speak; Grandma Nedjeljka took hers from Grandpa Carlo’s Italian language. Just like I took my Croatian expressions from her Croatian. And now Grandma Nedjeljka—for medical reasons, or because her Alzheimer’s had reached a new phase, as the doctors said—had forgotten Italian, and though she spoke rarely, she spoke only Croatian. When people addressed her in Italian, she looked at them with a vacant expression, surprised by the sound of the words that she, evidently, could no longer understood, and that didn’t even remind her of anything, as if the language had no echo, not even the shadow of the language.
I looked for all the books on dementia and Alzheimer’s in the bookstore but I found very little about the loss of language. People wrote that it was important in such cases to communicate with the person as much as possible with the language that remains. But who could communicate with Grandma Nedjeljka except me? In Castellammare del Golfo there were no other Croatians or residents with a Croatian background. During the intervening years, the small town had filled with migrants, but mostly from Romania, Albania, and African countries. From the former Yugoslavia there were virtually no emigrees, or at least we hadn’t met any. In the beginning, I took vacation, an unpaid leave, and I stayed with Grandma Nedjeljka; I took care of her and nursed her as much as I could. When I had used up every option, we begged Lea to come again and at least look after Grandma’s physical needs, there was no need to converse with her. She accepted since she hadn’t found other work in the meantime. Margherita no longer dropped in to Grandma’s room, she simply had nothing to say to her, although I could have translated everything she said to everyone. Mama, too, spoke minimally to Grandma, but she did not hesitate muttering “Out of spite,” although I know it was just from habit, not only from impatience with her mother-in-law. Only papa tried to be a bit more present in her life, speaking to her those few words in Croatian he had learned, and then Grandma’s face would beam with joy and all day she would repeat the greetings “Dobar den”, “Kako si?” “dobro, dobro,” “minibus…” Surely father’s conscience gnawed at him that he had learned only those few words, and not Grandma Nedjeljka’s language, his mother tongue. Yes, perhaps grandma was at fault for not teaching her sons Croatian, but when they had grown they could have expressed the desire and the will to learn.
Sometimes I think that it would be good to get in touch with her brother in Split, now left alone with his daughter, so they could speak a little with her, but I didn’t know Marina, and my whole life I had only heard bad things about her brother. And if he said anything at all it would be some bad word, and who needs bad words, even if they are in your mother tongue?
Translated by Christina E. Kramer