If he had lived, he would have been 96 today, pushing a century, but he's long gone, fourten years gone... and yet he lives so vividly within me still that the fact that his ashes have been resting in the ground for more than a decade now seems utterly immaterial. He is the reason I am so in love with language. He is probably the reason I am what I am today.
Let me tell you a little bit about him.
He was born in 1910, into a village family which worked the land, the salt of the earth. He was the eldest of three, with a younger brother and a younger sister, but it was he who was the fiery one, the bold one, the one who - if there was trouble - could usually have been counted on to have started it. On one memorable occasion the children had been strictly forbidden by their authoritarian father to touch the ripening grapes on his vine arbour, but my Grandpa, then a teenager, decided he felt like a snack. So he talked his younger brother into holding a chair steady for him while he wobbled on it picking the grapes into a fold of his shirt, with his sister detailed to stand guard at the yard gate, watching down the street for the imminent arrival of their father. WHich would all have worked out fine except that my great-aunt was a greedy little thing who did not want to have her share of the stolen grapes disappear while she was on sentry duty, so she had her butt out the gate and her nose stuck back inside the yard, watching what Gramps was up to and if the grapes were being gathered in an egalitarian manner in order to be equally shared later. Needless to say, the strategy backfired badly when their father came home unexpectedly and caught them all in the act. It was only Grandpa, the obvious instigator of the transgression, who got the hiding.
On another occasion he got sent back to the house from the distant fields that were being worked that day in order to fetch something needful for the day's work. My Great-grandfather owned a black devil of a horse, one that bit and kicked and resented any tackle within smelling distance and one which took orders from only one man - my Great-grandfather. Nobody else was allowed near that animal, for their own safety and for the patriarch's pride. What does my grandfather do? He not only approaches this noble beast without permission, he takes it out of its stable and yokes it into a cart and then rides it, bareback, all the way back to the field. The horse behaved like an angel. My grandfather got another trouncing.
He grew up, and married my Grandmother when she was only eighteen years old. She bore him his first child, a daughter, my mother, when she was no more than nineteen; then another daughter, who sickened and died from a disease nobody could understand or cure when she was only two or three years old (I have a photo of the funeral, with my Grandmother standing there dressed in black with her face buried in her hands and my Grandfather, stone-faced, stiff-backed, staring at the coffin with terrible eyes). Then came the third, also a daughter, and one which nearly cost my grandmother her life. There were no more children after that. These trying years were also the years of the second world war, which in Europe took a terrible toll. My Grandfather, who had become a schoolteacher in his civillian life, went into the army, and was a prisoner of war for a time; things were hard, and sometime during the war everything this family poseesed was looted from their house and carted away. My Grandfather's pride refused to allow my Grandmother to go, after, into houses where they knew the stolen things were and claim them back - he would be compensated, he said. He never was. They never really got back on their feet, and lived on a schoolteacher's salary for the rest of his working life eking out what they could from it. But one thing this family was always rich in were ideals and high-mindedness and sometimes that bitter, bitter pride. They managed.
My Grandmother's only piece of jewellery other than her wedding ring, a pair of gold earrings, was hocked to buy my Grandfather the typewriter which he kept - and used - to the end of his days. On it, he wrote poetry. Reams of it. Pages and pages and pages of it. In his lifetime, he published seven books of poetry - four for children, three for adults. In the children's poetry, I and my cousing Maja, the daughter of my mom's younger sister, were featured as characters - and I have this poetical snapshot of my childhood to treasure all my days, my Grandfather's legacy. His adult poems were more formal, usually taking the form of the sonnet. This was where he and I met, on that high plane, of language and of poetry. He began reading those sonnets to me out loud when I was no more than five years old, never treating me as anything else than a slightly smaller equal who still couldn't say her R's properly. And this little being told him, once, that one of his poems didn't scan properly.
"Of course it does," he said, riled. And then checked. And found I was right.
That is his gift to me. TO this day,if I get the first line or so of it, I can write a perfect sonnet in five minutes. They are in my blood, the poems, the rhythms, the meter, the rhyme, the metaphors and the language that underpinned it all. And when it became obvious that the writing gene, which had so utterly skipped both his own children, had surfaced in me and that he had his literary successor, he all but fell on his knees before his creator shouting "Praise the Lord!"
We were never to be separated, soul to soul, again.
He was so proud of every word I wrote, so proud! His highest praise would be, "I am glad to see that you can THINK." He prized intelligence and intellect, and he loved it when I got poetical, and even when I started writing in a language which he did not understand he was just as proud of me as he would have been had he read every word with his own eyes instead of having it translated for him by my dad. Back in Yugoslavia, many years ago now, there was an exhibition of paintings at which my Uncle - my mon's sister's (now ex-)husband - had a couple of works, and at the same occasion they invited a few poets to read a few verses - and somehow I managed to be a part of this. I have never seen my Grandfather glow with a brighter light than on that evening, watching me read, his soul in his eyes. He had published seven poetry books but he had never achieved fame or any kind of financial independence from them, and seeing me in the spotlight was HIS vindication, the vindication of a long life spent in the literary shadows. He wore every one of my successes as though it were a bright flower in his own lapel, proudly telling everyone he knew about "his granddaughter, the writer".
He did not live to see my biggest successes - the "Jin shei" phenomenon and its ten languages, any of that. But I am certain he knows of it, because I still talk to him every day. He is a beloved ghost and he is always with me, my friend and my guardian angel.
What can I tell you about my Grandfather? He was willful, and stubborn, and too proud; he had a sometimes malicious humour which made myself and Maja, his other grand-daughter, attack him with flailing fists when he played some practical joke on my poor long-suffering Grandmother. But he also allowed his grand-dagughters to make a fool of him when that was called for, or pretended that he didn't see our transparent tricks until he "fell" into them and was "horrified" by them. He was of the old school, a patriatrch who believed that he was entitled to the unquestioned obedience of his women - until I grew up, and told him to go himself and get whatever it was he had ordered me to fetch, and he took it from me. He was a perfectionist, almost an obsessive one, and woe if anyone so much as disarranged his pencils from the careful way in which they had been left. But I know he loved me. One of my most enduring memories of him was me sitting beside him while he watched something on TV, my hand on his arm, his other hand absently stroking my fingers in a way that made me think he wasn't even aware of doing that, the leathery, worn, old brown hand of a man who had not only written poetry but also worked the hoe and the plough. And when he was older, he'd take naps in his corner every afternoon, and sometimes I would feel strange tears come bubbling to the surface when I watched the sleeping old man, on his side in what was almost a foetal position, hands folded in front of his face, his expression as gentle as a child's.
Oh, there are so many memories. The walks by the river while I gathered flowers (often just pretty roadside weeds) to take back to my Grandmother. The way he refused to believe, that last time that we went home to see him, that he had actually passed his 81st birthday until he went and took out a calculator to prove it to himself. He collected pieces of string rolled into neat little individual skeins, for God alone knows what reason, and that same God knows what became of them all when he died. He and my dad used to play chess, endlessly, and because both of them sulked when they lost and smugged when they won they were both equally insufferable, whatever the outcome of the match.
They found him one November morning in 1991, half in and half out of bed, dressed in only the top half of his pyjamas - we will never know whether he had been felled by his massive stroke just as he was getting up, or whether he had in fact been lying there all night - because he never regained the power of communication, other than one infinitely painful and familiar gesture, the way he had of slapping the bed or the chair he'd be sitting in with an open palm in a gesture of frutration that he had not been understood. That was the last thing he was able to do, lying there in the hospital bed trapped in a body which would no longer obey him, slapping the bed clothes with his right hand, again and again and again.
A part of me is glad that he never lived ot see what became of the country that he loved, that he fought for back in the war years. The man who didn't care to see his pencils disarranged would have been bitterly wounded at the shattering of his very nation. Grandpa, in his later years, would not have made a very good refugee.
Another part of me wishes he were with me right now, alive and suitably dictatorial and demanding his due of patriarchal honour and obedience, and taking his childlike naps in his bed. A part of me will always wish that.
Happy birthday, Grandpa, wherever you are.
Of course I wrote him a poem, it was the only kind of tribute that I could possibly offer. Here it is, in translation (the original was written in Serbo-croat. So that he, even though he was no longer sharing my physical world, would be able to understand).
IF I KNEW THERE WAS TRUTH
(poem to my grandfather, a few days after his death)
If I knew there was truth
In the story that a man dies only to be born again somewhere –
If I could find that child
To whom your soul has been given –
I would go to that new mother
And tell her what kind of a man her son would grow to be.
If I knew there was truth
In the story that somewhere in this world you will exist again,
I would start out this very moment
To find the inheritor of your spirit –
I would travel around the world
If I knew that at the end of my journey I could drink from your source again.
If I knew there was truth
In the story that one day I could meet you once again
I would seek you in every being
That touched my life –
I would seek you everywhere,
While I had sense and consciousness.
This us us, at that poetry reading - my Grandpa, myself, and my godmother... and this
...is his corner, in an aprtment which no longer exists except in my memories.
I will miss him, always.