Majka Moja Mila – My Dearest Mother

She was born in 1932 in a village called Kazance tucked away in the mountains between Bosnia and Croatia, youngest of six, there were thirty years between her and her oldest sister. Grandma was fifty years old when she gave birth to my mother – she told her daughter that she never really wanted to have her at such an old age, but that she was the best of all her children.

My mother Milica (Melissa) didn’t go to school, although she should have. The war was on and the neighbouring city, Banja Luka, was under siege by the Nazis throughout World War II. She would often recall living through those years as a child and the fear that ran through her. As an adult she still didn’t like the sound of aeroplanes, was afraid of fire and had an ingrained hatred of fascism. One of her sisters taught her to read Cyrillic, but mostly she learned how to knit, weave, sew, make clothes and how to look after the farm animals.

Grandma, who was known for her love of fauna, would always chastise her daughter for not being kind enough to the farm animals. One summer’s day she was asked to tend to the bees by her sister Jela. Milica didn’t have the gift for handling them and soon they set upon her, entangled in her waist-long hair, nipping her scalp, neck and face. She survived of course, but never forgot. She never got on with snakes either and would run as fast as she could to escape angry jumping stripeys.

During the second world war, she survived typhoid when she was just nine – all her hair fell away during the fever – disease and chronic illnesses was spread by visiting armies engaged in guerrilla warfare in the forests and mountains. She was sent to hide high up in the hills many times along with all the other children when enemy soldiers passed through the village, crossing from Croatia to Bosnia and back. She would spend days tucked away in bothies dotted about the mountains, tending sheep and goats along with her friends. Mothers and the elders felt it was safer for their children and didn’t want to risk them being taken away by the Germans and Croats.

Both her brothers were murdered in a Nazi camp in Yugoslavia. They fought against the Nazis as part of an anti-fascist resistance movement hoping to free Banja Luka  from occupation. They were neither pro-loyalist or communist. The political history during that time was very complicated. When communism came after the war life altered for the peasants living in the hills and they lost ownership of their land. They were visited many times by Yugoslav militia to be asked to work voluntarily in the cities to rebuild a new country. My mother would return to the tops of the mountains to hide, along with her female companions, to avoid going. She felt it was more important to stay and look after her parents. However, things changed. She had to decide whether she was going to stay at home or leave for good.

She was the last at home to look after her parents and came to England in 1962 with just one piece of luggage, to marry my father and to work at Salt’s Mill. She weighed  seven stone when she arrived – farm work had taken its toll on her body – she was a tall woman. The other mill workers would try to fatten her up with fish and chip suppers from Saltaire chippy, but she stayed skinny for years.

My mother was a straight woman, with a dry laconic sense of humour. She didn’t drink alcohol, smoke or eat sweet food like chocolate. Sometimes she was vilified for speaking her mind – she had no fear of shooting from the hip at any man or woman. She was assertive with strong opinions on politics and culture and would engage in man talk at the table – she had little time for fishwife tittle-tattle.

Despite being a war child and growing up in poverty, she still had much love in her heart and was wholly and deeply committed to us. She loved completely. She loved children and they knew they were always welcome at our house. When times were tough, she fed the entire street of kids  who would turn up hungry at lunchtimes. She always found it in her heart to give. For this we loved her too. She made the house welcome to everyone who came by and the living room would be full of people chatting away, drinking Turkish coffee and tucking in to gibanica.

She battled with illness all her adult life and was eventually diagnosed with a terminal cancer which took her away from us after two years of struggle. She was stoic throughout, still loving completely. An unforgettable woman: mother, daughter, sister, wife and of course, baba.

Published in Family Legends

Retreat – There’s a kinda hush…..

I can’t deny that I use songs to reflect  – I do! They are the most wonderful art form ever and I know that Dundee Rep’s musical director Hilary would agree totally. As the world outside begins to melt and the Christmas lull comes to an abrupt end, this household has study on its mind – a serious and for somebody, a very boring phase to get through.

Music helps like nothing else. Focus is sharpened for longer and the hours slip by. It would be too easy to get cabin-fever, especially during the freeze, but that connection with the song reminds us that creativity is a salvage from the mundane.

This year feels different from the last few -no family death, no illness, no disaster. So despite the state of the world -we are at peace this year in our home. Some bits are difficult – christmas cards missing. Some celebrations aren’t the same anymore -St Nicholas.

But a sense of normality exists – teen parties, school dances, invites to dinner with old friends. Some things are difficult to let go of – songs will always burn the soul and make a person break down and cry. But that’s what songs are for at times….

I got  my desired books as presents this year and will take the journey into that place that burns my soul this coming year. What will happen thereafter I’m not sure. I would like to be able to bury it and move on – to read and study other places -like here -the place I live in. In the meantime, one huge ghost has to be exorcised in the coming months -and being Balkan by nature, I will thoroughly enjoy the exploration and all that I will discover.

My starting point will be in a newly-appointed position as community ambassador for the Scottish Book Trust, for my geographical area. The programme I’m working on is the Family Legends one and will entail gathering stories in my community, encouraging people to write about their family heroes (and sheroes) over the next few months. I have to start with my own family legend, and we have agreed, in our family that it is my mother, especially as a little girl growing up in Europe during the Second World War.

And there the journey begins – I go down my path and help others to go down theirs. As always, in all community work, the path has two forks, the journey is however a circular one and the song is always there to lead the way.

We will be quietly busy in our home this year for the first few months and will then step out and revisit the past before we take the giant leap into the future.

Here’s to ghosts….