A Short Story: Teta Ivanica

October 24, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on A Short Story: Teta Ivanica

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Michael Savoca

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 History Engages the Public

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Project 2

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It was a hot summer day in July, 2013 when I first sat in the reading room of the Croatian National Archive in Zagreb. I stared at the blurred microfilm images as they whirred by, searching for a record of my grandmother’s younger sister. I had always known she existed. My grandmother and her sister spoke of her, though they don’t remember her really. In the local village, the church records that remain don’t record her, there is no stone to mark her grave, and there is no photo to capture her likeness. Aside from the memories of my grandmother, her cousin, and my grandmother’s aunts, it is as if this child never existed. Until that July day when I finally found the scrawl of a baptism record written in Italian. It is the only official record of her life, and it is the inspiration for this story.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The old stone walls echoed the gasping, shrill, first cries of a healthy baby girl. Twenty-two year old Ljubica breathed deeply as the women around her rushed to tend to the newest addition to their ranks. The matriarchs of the family worked in unison, with watchful eyes and skillful hands to make sure mother and baby were doing well. The room was small; furnished with an armoire, wash basin, bed with a mattress of straw and little more. Depending on the time of the day it would have been lit by kerosene lamp or opened shutters for daylight. Ana, Ljubica’s mother, would have cleaned her newest granddaughter quickly, wrapping her in a cloth or blanket. Omerka and Vesela, Ljubica’s sisters, and perhaps a couple of other family members would have helped with tending to the new mother and cleaning the small space. Before long, of course, the anxious and tired mother would have been handed her newest child.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Ljubica was a beautiful young woman, with a delicate curl to the hair that fell on her face. She was petite with quiet eyes and gentle features; her chin accented by the shallow valley of a cleft. We can’t know how she felt as she first laid eyes on the wriggled, red, babe that she cradled in lightly shaking arms. Hormones, exhaustion, and adrenaline aside, there is little doubt as she looked down at the crying baby she would have felt love. Soon, the gentle coos of a mother to her child, the comforting familiarity of the heartbeat playing the only song infant ears know, and the filling satisfaction of suckle would lull the baby to sleep.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I cannot say for sure if Ljubica’s husband, Bare, was with her through the birth. There would have been little room for extra people and the elder women needed to work without interruption or impediment. Still, the concerned figure of this man would have appeared in the doorway, checking on the progress. Perhaps he sat with his wife before the pangs of labor began in earnest, holding her hand in his. Either way, as Ljubica sat, with the yet unnamed child in her arms, Bare would have entered to see his newest daughter and exhausted wife. His hands were rough, the mark of a carpenter’s trade. As he brushed the soft, pink cheek of his daughter he would have had to smile.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Today it is a foregone conclusion that Bare would have been pleased to simply see a healthy wife and child. At the time, however, his daughter’s gender may have easily been an issue. The weather beaten terracotta roof which extended over the three parts of the ancient house sheltered beneath it four generations of an extended family. On the day of the birth a minimum of sixteen people lived within the walls; of those sixteen, only four were men. At that particular time, there was a premium placed on sons over daughters. Wedding celebrations would typically feature blessings wishing the couple many sons. In some minds, sons represented familial stability and continuance, daughters a dowry to be paid. None of these sentiments were ever shown in the stories passed down about Bare and his relationship with his daughters. Numerous people have told of how he would carry his older girls on his shoulders. As he walked, he would proudly tell passers-by that they were his “Gospa” and his “Anđeja”, his Lady and his Angel. One can only conclude this third girl would have found a place on her father’s strong shoulders as well.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Of course many others would have passed into and out of the room that day, peering into the door for a glimpse of the new baby. A host of aunts, cousins, and neighbors, all of whom lived within a few dozen yards would have made their way to the house, offering congratulations to the new parents. It was a happy aside from the grim reality surrounding the village as war loomed all around. Within the house, Ljubica’s paternal grandmother, Tomica, helped with the birth as well, but would have also been regulated to the tasks of cookingand watching two playful girls who would be curious to see their little sister.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Today, neither sister has any personal memory of Ivanica. Over seventy five years have passed, and at just four and two, the girls were too young to grasp the importance of the day. As they came to the bed, they may have been taken up in their father’s arms. How did the girls react to the scrunched bundle? Were they curious, or maybe even indifferent to the baby? Did they work up the nerve to shyly touch her? Or did they simply want to be held by their mother, having had to spend the day away from her?

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Ivanica’s birth marked multiple milestones for the family. As fate would have it, she arrived on Bare and Ljubica’s fifth wedding anniversary. While the family of five sat together on that day Ljubica would have felt content completion; she was blessed with healthy children and a husband safe from the ravages of encroaching war. Born on December 27th, the Feast of Saint John (Sveti Ivan), the couple gave their final daughter the name Ivanica. It would be the last great occasion, the last celebration, the family would have.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 On March 14th, 1943, Ivanica was brought into the small, octagonal church which buttressed the sea. Built as a private family chapel, the church accommodated several rows of wooden pews before a stone altar. The walls bore the Crucifix as well as images of Saints Rocco and Anthony. Above it all was a painting of Saint John the Baptist, gazing down at the small congregation gathered in his namesake church. The church would have had some number in attendance that Sunday morning, the last month proving to be a devastating test of faith and human resilience for the town. In the small window of time since Ivanica entered the world, war had entered the village. The early months of 1943 proved disastrous; a plague of death stripped away someone from each family. The changes in family structure would be reflected in the pews that Sunday.  Those in attendance would have been predominantly women, some old, some young, many in black. They represented a population of mourners, a population of widows. On what should have been a happy occasion, Ljubica wore black. Just five days after her twenty third birthday, Bare was killed in an ambush by local fighters.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 They may have all walked to church together. Two babies were to be baptized into the Catholic Church that day, two little girls who lived under the old terracotta roof. Ivanica was joined by her cousin, Rajna. The daughter of cousins, Milan and Jerka, Rajna was just two months older than Ivanica, and would have been held by either her mother or godmother. The priest called the sponsors forward, gathering the group around a small, stone baptismal font. Božo Nakić stood strong and young with a handsome face and hair which sat in an unruly tuft upon his head.  He was to be godfather for both girls, and would have taken the place of honor first with Rajna and then with Ivanica. Joining Bozo as godmother for Ivanica was Ljubica’s sister, Omerka. She was eighteen years old, and kept her hair pulled back and in a bun. Caring almond eyes looked on her precious niece, as the priest poured Holy Water over her fine hair and silken brow. This little baby would need all the blessings God could grant her.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 A mother and her daughters walked to the cemetery. Years had passed, the smoke had cleared, and those who were left returned to very different homes. Across the world the scene was the same and for the families it was a brutal reality. With the passing of a few short years, brides wearing shawls of white and crowns of flowers traded these happy accessories for black blouse and dark kerchief. Children looked off into the distance, waiting for their father or mother to come walking down a familiar road. Some of these now aged children still wait today, not for their parent, but for a final answer to their fate. War changed reality for a generation, robbing them of an innocence many wouldn’t realize they had lost until well into adulthood. As Ljubica entered the cemetery with her daughters, only she could have truly understood the scope of her loss.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The cemetery consisted of a single long and narrow strip of land. A chapel stands in the center to the left as the family passed through the second, original gate and into the oldest part of the cemetery. It was a small building crafted from stone and cement; bearing a bell which tolls the final salute for the village’s dead. Ljubica would have known nearly all those who rested in the cemetery and may have stopped at any number of graves for a moment or two. Still, her daughters remember stopping at one particular grave on their visits. Passing the chapel there was a large, cement grave, long with four heavy slab doors designated as a town grave for those who had yet to secure a place of their own. To the right of this grave was a small area of ground next to a wall which bounded the cemetery. This area was marked by nothing more than small, but numerous, wooden crosses. The family of three looked down at a particular cross, the same one they always would visit. This simple cross marked the grave of the sister they could never truly remember but would never forget.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Ivanica slipped from this world quietly, as one cousin remembers it. Young Milka was just eight years old, another of the many girls living in the old house. Ljubica, her sisters, and mother Ane would have been out working in the fields that day in early to mid-summer; there was no time for extended grieving, survival depended on work. By now, Ljubica had long known her husband would never return home, and the stress and loss must have been silently taking its toll. The women labored long hours in the fields digging, tending to the great old olive trees, and spraying rows of grapevines. Ivanica and her sisters would have stayed home under the eye of their great grandmother, Baba Tomica. She was a kindly woman of about seventy, who was just starting to lose her hearing. Sitting in the tiny, hearth based kitchen, the old baba kept Ivanica wrapped in a small cradle on the ground. Milka looked over the wall that separated the two halves of the house where her great aunt sat. “Look”, Baba Tomica said, “see what a good baby she is! She is sleeping so well.” She came closer to discover the painful truth, little Ivanica was gone. There was no illness recorded in records or oral history. No warning signs. The stress of her loss had caused Ljubica to stop producing breast milk, and Ivanica was simply unable to process to process the poor food they had to replace the milk.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 One can only imagine Ljubica’s return from the fields that day; she would have been dirty and tired. She may have carried some small sticks or brush, kindling for a fire, or some wild greens for dinner; one never came home empty handed. Perhaps someone had rushed to the fields carrying the news to an unsuspecting mother. What scene did she arrive to find? Was her baby still tenderly wrapped, cradled in the kitchen? Did tears freely flow or did confused numbness control the immediate contortion of pain that would naturally come? We can’t know. The loss of a child was not uncommon to the women of these bygone generations. Each of the older mothers in the house had made the walk to the cemetery, one or more of their children laid to rest under a small wooden cross just as Ivanica would be. Each knew the pain, but that wouldn’t have softened the blow for Ljubica. As she would grow accustomed to, Ljubica undoubtedly suffered quietly and alone.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 As they would have trimmed away any tall grass that grew near the grave, and laid a small bunch of flowers at the base of the cross, one can scarcely imagine the emotion a mother would have felt. Ljubica never shared her thoughts or feelings regarding Ivanica with her daughters. The war had cost her dearly, taking from her a husband and indirectly her youngest daughter; some pains are always kept close to heart. Three would walk away, a mother in black and two young girls. The little cross would stand, one among the many, as though a relic of a toy made for infant hands.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 In later years, the children’s section would be cleared, making way for family mausoleums. As they constructed the new graves, any bones found were moved into the mass town grave. Today there are no little crosses, no wildflower bouquets.  For now little Ivanica rests without the benefit of a marking place for her grave. Instead, she lives in the minds and hearts of those who pause to remember her name. She was the beautiful, happy, baby who lit up her parents’ world for a brief, fleeting, moment in the midst of some of the world’s darkest days.


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