I can still feel the words coming from the house as I was kneeling down on its threshold, staring at the white polished door, washed many times with the hands of my grandmother. Now it was shut in front of my face, for many reasons. One was to prevent the whole neighborhood from hearing the voices from the inside, but I heard even if I wasn’t supposed to, because kids would not understand this—kids may spread stories to their friends, and kids would cry.
I was about to reach for the door handle to walk in the kitchen, but the scream of my grandma scratched my ears, much worse than when I scraped my fork on an empty plate—and it twitched me, so I changed my mind and stayed staring in front of the entrance. Her words touched the deepest place in my heart; I have never heard anyone cry so much and beg for something. Grandma paused for a second, and I was waiting to see if she was finished, but again she found a voice within herself that explained to her only daughter, my Mom: “I will stay alone…” She grasped for air, and her words broke, but she endured, “I will stare at her toys she played with, her dolls, her little clothes, please, please don’t leave…Aahh!” Her words crept through my head; she was yelling like a hungry newborn…
I no longer cared if the neighborhood heard her hysterical voice, I decided to open the door and shout at my family because they wanted to leave her alone. I knew what was going on; they didn’t have to tell me. They decided to leave our land once again like four years ago when we were supposed to fly to Australia but stayed because I didn’t want to be separated from grandma. Only this time, no one asked us, and secretly my parents have done all the paper work and then one day took me to a photo studio to have a passport picture taken—a picture for the family to have, according to them. How could they do this to me and grandma? “No…no…nobody will take me away from you. You will not have to watch my things instead of me; I will not go unless you come with us,” I cried.
The same feelings when we were going to Australia returned: waking up each morning, wishing my parents would decide to stay again, because this house became my home the day I moved in from the apartment-building. We also had a third house—a summer house in the forest, near the lake, and all mom and dad’s friends had houses there too. Every weekend we went to its nature park to swim in its waters and I would always beg squirrels from the trees to throw me a nut. I would be amazed how adorable fawns were and thankful that they came to see me for a second, before they hide. But, even those enjoyments I had could not compare to grandma’s place.
My two brothers, I thought, could inherit the other houses. I would not even fight about it, because I wanted grandma’s to be mine, but the only problem was that everybody wanted it when they grew up. This wasn’t just a house; in particular, this was the place I was going to live in forever, raise my children, and maybe some day renovate. The walls of this two bedroom duplex connected with the neighbors who lived in the other half, and when I went to sleep—when I pretended for my parents that I am dreaming—I knocked on the wall and in a whisper decided with my friend on the other side what we are going to play when we woke up. Our kitchen was used as a living room, from where the smell of grandma’s breakfast sneaked through the key holes that went into my nostrils, and before she called me to eat, I’d be awake.
So, why did my parents want to leave?
“It’s the never ending war, isn’t it?” I asked my Mom. This winter of 1996 was my fourth year living through it. All our old wooden furniture was used in the fireplace to warm us, because no one had the energy to cut trees to burn. What frightened me the most was, even if my brothers wanted to collect branches from the forest, it wasn’t guaranteed they would come back. Planes were flying over Bosnia, my homeland, and throwing bombs over my city, while soldiers were hiding in woods; some to protect us, and others were putting mines underground—when people who came close by would burst in pieces. And until this day, I still think I can only walk on asphalted roads. Planes were throwing toys-like mines and pens because we could not even find a pen after few years—they all ran out, but when you press on the ones you found, they explode. Electricity was shut by the planes too, leaving us to read under candlelight. These same candles were used to boil water for tea and coffee, because even the water towers were down and what I carried from creeks in buckets and old bottles wasn’t always pure. This war didn’t leave us with much; few people were found on streets, and fewer relatives in families…In markets for food, I could only find broken bricks, dust and pieces of bullets, while in other towns people were under all that…To feed ourselves we gathered the treasured seeds from vegetables we last time ate, keeping them in nylon bags until we can grow them in flowerpots inside grandma’s house. From the ground they could easily be stolen over night. And, there was a lot to fear at this time.
Of course, I was scared; I was frightened from the first explosion I heard, which was an introduction to what the war was going to be like. It rolled me from the eighth stair in the basement down to the first one—my head hitting one by one, like when your feet have to as you climb up. And these bombs made me spend most of my childhood in basements, whether under my house, my next door friend’s, schools, or any other nearby underground hiding-place. But I never understood why it started and even less why it didn’t end.
I remember the talks that my country, Bosnia, wanted independence from the former Republic of Yugoslavia of which we were a part. The country that had three main religions—Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox—now created armies who split into three, each wanting to rule my land. Everyone fought for what they believed was right. And because of their disagreements, we were bombarded, we the people who never even wanted this. Now that religion played a main role, families whose parents like mine were of mixed religion—one Muslim, other Catholic, or any of the three—were the only ones who were allowed to leave for a safer life, because like my parents, they weren’t going to fight and kill each other. Unfortunately, I had to watch many families fall apart, many friends and neighbors who created hatred among themselves because they could no longer drink coffee together, share their happiness, talks of their children. I had to watch them hit and kill each other because they weren’t of the same faith. Muslims who couldn’t leave the city made up Christian names to cross the border and live somewhere peaceful, like Slovenia, Austria or Germany; the same was for the Catholics who forged documents to escape. The war brought many other people into my city because their hometowns were destroyed by the planes, burned down. Surrounded by high mountains, we were somewhat more secure, and those who bombarded from other hills could hardly reach us and I was hoping they never would, especially grandma’s place.
And it was then that I realized I never wanted to desert her house she raised me in, my friends, my city, my grandma…I knew she wouldn’t come, because riding in a car for five minutes makes her vomit. Because of that she had crossed her life on her bare feet—crossed through the woods from her birth town to live where she is now. She wouldn’t leave because in that same house she raised her daughter; she raised her sister’s sons, and she offered to share a room to many unrelated kids who came to educate themselves in my hometown. She wouldn’t leave because her church was close by, and she wouldn’t find one like that anywhere else. And even if there is one like it, there are surely not the same people who go there. Grandma would only go if a plane landed in my city—that didn’t have an airport. And she wouldn’t go because my brothers and I were the last generation she watched grow. “Oh my children, I know that I may not be fair, but I cannot leave my greatest memories to fade away in an unknown land…”
My grandmother’s house was the most modest one in its area. Every other one was colored in orange, blue, or yellow—remodeled, but this one still has my name scribbled on the old rough gray walls on which I even wrote names of the boys I liked and drew flowers with a piece of chalk. Even after eight years of autumn’s constant rain, it didn’t fade my writings and not even the water hose when grandma splashed her concreted yard to wash her carpets; not even washing the stairways so her grandkids and others could sit on clean stones erased my art work. This was the house I engraved in my heart, the house I dreamt my first dreams in.
And sometimes I feel grandma’s words travel the longest distance, as if they jump over the highest mountains in Europe, then land on its rivers floating until wind directs them to my room in another continent, America—bringing the scratches in my ear drums and echo through my body, arousing my heart and making me feel like that same child who weeps only now because I am far away…
First story I ever wrote. Bowling Green, Ky. 2005 or 2006.