By Dita Gjuraj/
As we grow up and age we forget much of our childhood, or rather we file most of it away somewhere in the back room of our memory. But there are some days that are different, somehow more significant and often come to mind during our lives. In my case, I have many such memories, the kind that never recede into the fog of time. I’d like to share one of those with you today.
One day when I was about 6 years old, a man knocked on the door of our little room calling my father’s name:
“Gjuro, they want you to be at the office of Interior Affairs tomorrow morning promptly at 9 O’clock. Promptly!” he said sternly.
“Of course,” said my father opening the door, “would you like to come in friend?”
The man looked embarrassed.
“They sent me. That’s just how it is Gjuro,” he said lowering his eyes.
“Don’t worry, I do understand. That is how it is,” answered my father.
The man turned around and left. My father closed the door and leaned his back against it. He just stood there for a while looking at me sitting on the bed, waiting to hear him tell me what had just happened. He saw I was ready to start crying so he came over and sat next to me, kissed me on the top of my head and said not to be afraid. He said that it was nothing to worry about, just a thing to do tomorrow. That made me even more scared, and I started bawling at the top of my lungs. He hugged me and tried to assure me, but I just couldn’t stop. At some point he took me by the shoulders, shook me lightly and asked me if I was a little kid or his best confidant. Didn’t work. He then asked the ultimate question, are you or are you not an Albanian? That did it, as usual. I stopped crying.
He was not well. That year he spent a lot of time in his sick bed but all in all, he was better than I remembered seeing him in the past. That day the little dank room with the leaky roof and earthen floor, felt even colder than usual. We played cards at the rickety table my grandfather cobbled together from some leftover boards he got from a construction site. At dusk my mother came home from work, tired and probably very hungry. She only took a small piece of old bread and half an onion as lunch when she left at five in the morning. Her work was at the brick factory, transporting unbaked bricks to the kiln and finished ones from the kiln to the loading dock, in a wheel barrel. Men’s work, babi called it, but she had to work there to keep us alive. Whenever she found better work UDBA, the state security police, would order her fired. Another method of applying pressure on my father to work for them. He refused and they made us suffer for it. She always stood firmly behind him no matter the cost. Sometimes I think she hated them even more than he did. So, that day my tired mother came home to my father looking grim, grinding his teeth, and to me crying. Before he could say anything, I ran to her arms and started babbling:
“They are going to take babi away! They came … they said to go tomorrow …”
She wrapped her arms around me and asked my father what had happened. He wanted her to sit down first, which she did as I clung to her like a wild little animal. Then he told her of the man’s visit and the order to appear at the bad place in the morning. She looked calm but a tear ran down her right cheek.
They started discussing the situation and all the possible outcomes the next day could bring. Mama wanted to go with him, but my father rejected the idea. She kept insisting, citing the fact that he had been in political prison, had been tortured, poisoned, that he needed a witness to whatever they intended to do to him the next day. She went on and on until he finally stopped her, told her it was his decision to make, and she was not to come. He said, this had to be handled calmly and smartly and being stubborn and hotheaded could cost us her freedom too. He told her, though he loved her for all that, it wasn’t going to be helpful in case … If things went bad for both of them, what would happen to me? She finally relented.
“You go to work as usual. I won’t give them the satisfaction of seeing us afraid or desperate. We stay strong. I will see if Sefa’s daughter Meri can keep Dita with her till I come back, or you come from work…”
“No!” my mother snapped, “you take Dita with you. They wouldn’t dare … with the child there …”
“Mica, why would you think the child being there would make a difference to such people? You know who and what they are. I don’t want her exposed to … such things, at this age,” said my father stroking my hair.
“I say take her with you, Adem. She has to know, even at this age, who her enemies are and what to expect …,” she paused for a second, “to start learning what her personal and national heritage is, what it costs.”
They argued a while and my mother won. It was decided, I would go with babi to that place. I didn’t really understand what that place was, but I understood it was bad. No one slept that night. Well, I probably did but I am sure neither of them slept. The next day, my mother went to work at daybreak. Babi and I got out of bed a couple of hours later. He boiled some water in the little red pot, poured it into our dented basin, added some cold water to it and helped me wash up. Then he washed up and shaved. He put on his good shirt, the one that had not sewn-up holes in it. It was old but whole, unlike the everyday one with all those stitches. He put a dab of oil on his raggedy shoes, the only pair he owned, to make them look a bit … well, a bit better than they were. I too had a second garment. Besides my everyday dress that had once been the material of mom’s skirt, I had a little lightly used dress that had come in a package sent by babi’s cousin in America. Everything else was sold to pay rent on the room, coal for winter and the bill for bread at the bakery. After we finished dressing babi made our tea, a bit of sugar burned in the little coffee pot with the long handle and doused it with water. He crumbled some old bread into my cup and served it as breakfast. After much begging and crying not to make me eat it, I ate some and we were off to that place. I was terrified but determined to fight them, and the whole world if need be, to protect babi.
Walking to our destination my father exchanged greetings with quite a few people along the way. An old gentleman who knew life before the new era bowed slightly and raised his hat to my father from across the street. My father saluted him in return. In truth, most people in the city liked my father and most, openly or secretly, admired his courage and determination. But yes, there were some hateful rats too.
So, dressed in the best we owned we arrived at the old, gray building sitting smack in the center of town. The City Police occupied the first and second floors, the horrible people had the top two. The basement was a temporary detention facility and God knows what was in the subbasement … We walked up the three steps, entered the lobby and stopped at the reception desk where a uniformed policeman sat. He asked why we were there and my father told him that he was summoned by the “comrades” on the third floor. The man looked at my father and then at me, shook his head in agreement and called upstairs to find out to which office we should go. He spoke for a couple of minutes and then told us to wait till someone comes down to get us. A few minutes later the police officer got up and brought his chair to where we were standing.
“Gjuro, I know you’re sick. Take my chair till they come downstairs. With them who knows when that’ll be. The child can sit on your lap.” Then he added almost whispering, “I am sorry, with all my heart.”
My blood ran cold, and I must have looked like I was about to start crying when my father said, very softly:
“That was about me being sick, not about today. Understand? Anyway, you are my strength, I am depending on you being Albanian today. Don’t ever let them see they can hurt us because if they know that, they will hurt us.” I nodded.
He thanked the policeman, shook his hand and then sat down. After a few minutes of looking and walking around the lobby I climbed onto his lap and he wrapped his arms around me tightly. We waited and waited. The policeman called up again. Same response, wait. I noticed my father breathing heavily and I could feel his heart beating harder and faster. He took out the asthma pump from his pocket and sprayed some medicine into his mouth. I was getting scared again, what if they take him, what if he gets sick and dies … The policeman brought him a little glass of water. Besides a nod from my father nothing was said. A few minutes later he was breathing better. After an eternity of waiting and imagining the worst I could conceive of at my age, something finally happened. A tall, hefty man dressed in a blue suit walked into the lobby laughing and joking with a well-dressed blonde in heels. The policeman hurriedly walked up to him and said something. The man turned around with a big smile:
“Gjuro, man, why are you here today? Something we can do for you?” he said and laughed loudly. My father took me off his lap and stood up slowly.
“I was asked here today by your office Mr. Nikolic,” my father answered, emphasizing the word “asked”.
“Asked here, by us? No man, that can’t be right. If you were sent for, I’d be the one to know. Right? You must have made some kind of mistake, right? Unless you want to talk about something? Could that be it? If it is, I’m at your disposal. What do you say?” he added a laugh here and there as he spoke.
“No, no thank you. No need to waste your time. I can’t think of a single thing to talk to you about. You’re probably right. I must have misunderstood something yesterday. Are we free to leave?”
“Gjuro! What’re you saying, man? Yugoslavia is a free country! You can go anytime. You can, of course, come back here again, and again. And again. You must know by now; we like you here. Don’t tell me you don’t see us as friends?” he didn’t laugh here, just looked at us with those icy blue eyes of his.
“Of course, I do, and particular friends at that, Mr. Director. So, thank you and goodbye,” and we started walking towards the door. I could hear my father exhale in relief. I was puzzled by this exchange. I knew they were anything but friends, so what was all that about? Eventually I learned the meaning of cynicism and defiance. A couple of steps away from daylight, the man loudly called us back. We stopped, turned around and walked towards him. My blood was freezing in my veins. I could only guess what my father was feeling at that moment. As we got to where the man stood, the blond still at his side, he put his hand in his pocket and brought out a few coins. He patted me on the head and offered them to me. Back then it was customary to offer coins to children of relatives and friends as a sign of affection. For candy or ice cream, the adults would say. But a gift from this man! As a child I had a bit of a potty mouth, so I was ready to plaster him with some choice words, but my father squeezed my hand, so I’d look up at hm. He nodded and looked at the man. I understood, took the coins and thanked the monster.
“A well-mannered child, Gjuro. Bravo. We shall make a fine little comrade of her, someday.” He laughed and walked up the stairs. I hated what he said. I looked up at my father’s face. It was stony, dark and he was grinding his teeth so hard I could hear it. We walked outside and I think we both breathed a sigh of relief. But we knew it was fleeting, temporary relief. About fifty feet away from the entrance a woman with a naked baby in her arms was asking for alms. We stopped in front of her, and my father said:
“Dita, I think we should give those coins to the little boy. What do you think?”
Somehow, I understood. I walked up close to the mother, gave her the coins and a big smile. She blessed us and my father blessed her and the baby in return. The giving made me happy but the fact that it was the coins the callous man gave, made me grateful to the lady for taking them. My father looked at me and called me his carbon copy. That was the best gift ever.
Just then a neighbor’s boy on his old, rickety bicycle rode up and started jabbering about his dad’s place on the list to buy a car. The list was yards long, but the government knew giving people something to hope for meant they’d be happy to tow the line. Anyway, my father told him to go to the brick factory, find my mom and say we’d be waiting for her at home. The boy wanted a bribe, an ice cream cone when my father had the money. Bargain struck, he set off on his errand.
On our way home one of my father’s shoes finally gave up the ghost. It split in two right on the street. I thought he would have been embarrassed but it didn’t look like he was. He picked up the sole and holding me by the hand calmly walked to a nearby store, in his sock. He asked the clerk for a bit of string and the man obliged. Then my father placed the sole on top of the string, put his foot with the top part of the shoe still on it onto the sole and tied the two pieces tightly together.
“That should hold till we get home. After that we shall see what God has in store for us.” He smiled at me, but I think he was in all sorts of pain that day. I know for sure; I was.
As we walked slowly towards our little hovel of a home, we saw the old gentleman again. As always, he smiled, bowed slightly and raised his hat to my father. My father reciprocated with a snappy salute.