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Subject+Object

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Photograph by Natalie Guillèn

My grandmother was not my grandmother. I started referring to her as my grandmother only in the United States because I was too lazy to explain how she had come to mean what she meant to me. Other than a couple of years before her death, she spent her whole life in Bosnia,mostly in Sarajevo. Her name was Jozefina, but I could not pronounce it when I was a kid, so I called her Teta-Sina (Auntie Sina). Her husband’s name was Martin, but I called him Raro, because I could not pronounce his name either.

Raro died under siege. He just keeled over from a stroke, while sitting on a sofa. Every time I went to Sarajevo after the war – almost always staying with Teta-Sina – she would describe to me in detail how he died. She would often sit in the same place on the sofa where he had sat when he died and she would show me how he put his head down, said, ‘I am not well’, and died.

And then she would tell me what a good husband he had been and how he would make coffee and serve it to her every morning. She liked to tell me about the only four fights they had ever had in their life together. The first time was when they were dating (which, back before the Second World War in the small Bosnian town where they had met, meant exchanging coy glances and flirting): she got mad at him because he offered candy to some other girl. She got muddled and sidetracked while telling me about their second fight, so I don’t remember what it was about. The third time they fought was when Martin got upset because she did not wash his socks when he asked her to, so they were not dry before he had to go to work. The fourth fight was relatively serious: he blamed her for spoiling their son Božidar, who failed his university exams and lost a year. Four fights in fifty years – that was my weekly average at the time.

Božidar (whose name translates as ‘God’s gift’) was once saved from drowning by an angel. Time and time again Teta-Sina would tell me how a pale young man in white underwear pulled little Božidar out of the river and carried him in his arms to her. After Martin died, Božidar had a cardiac arrest and was clinically dead for some minutes, surviving only because she had insisted he went to the hospital, as her instinct was telling her something was wrong.

Božidar died a few years later, and Teta-Sina could not stop mourning him. Her remaining daughter, Marija, lived in Split, Croatia, so Teta-Sina spent most of her days alone in Sarajevo, replaying her life, unimaginable and unrememberable without Martin and Božidar. As a devout Catholic she prayed every day for God to take her, so she could join them in heaven.

In 1962, after my parents had finished college and married, they moved to Sarajevo and rented a small room at Jozefina and Martin’s. They became very close to them, so when I was born, I was well loved by everyone – my mother still believes that it was then that I got irreparably spoiled. During my post-war visits to Sarajevo, Teta-Sina would reminisce, sipping the morning coffee, about the time when my parents were moving out and I, still a toddler, would hold on to the furniture and scream, as I did not want to leave. My parents had to bring me over every day after they had moved out or I would have gone crazy. Teta-Sina liked to tell me how we would all gather for Christmas, her and Martin’s family and all the people who they considered family, and she would recall everyone’s perks, the food they liked, the jokes they told. I remembered those Christmas days too when, after the feast, over coffee and cake, the ritual demanded that stories be told in which I featured, when I ran naked around the flat before my night-time bath, or when I held on to the furniture.

The last time I visited Teta-Sina in Sarajevo before she went to live (and die) in Split, she gave me a coffee set, engraved in a traditional Bosnian fashion, that Raro had received from his company at his retirement. She thought I should have it, so I have it. Though I drink Bosnian coffee every morning – including now, as I write – I’ve never once used this set. If I were to use it, I would have to empty it of all that is inside it, as in a Zen parable, and what is inside it cannot – must not – be got rid of.

There are no physical objects that I wish to possess. An object either has a history or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t I don’t care about it. If it does, it is the history of people whose lives and deaths irradiated it. Therefore I am either indifferent to the objects that surround me or they are shining monuments of some irreversible loss. This world is but a world of mourning, and there are no other worlds.