A man of brilliant intellect and sparkling humor, tata went through life largely unrecognized and unrewarded for the depth of his observations and quickness of his wit. Abandoned and neglected at the age of four, after his mother’s tragic death of a botched abortion, tata and his brothers spent most of their childhood being shuffled from homes of relatives and orphanages in between my grandfather’s eight unsuccessful marriages. In his possession, he held only two pictures, a reminder of a family that he once had. First, a sepia tone photograph, ripped and torn at the edges, showing three dirty- faced boys with shaven heads, ripped clothes and no shoes on their feet.
This picture I saw only a few times before it disappeared in tata’s drawer, where he hid it from the rest of us and, I imagine, himself as well. The other picture was a large, black and white portrait of my grandmother Smilja, taken a few months before her death. To protect it from bending, my parents placed it between the pages of an oversized cookbook. There, in a large tome of “A Thousand and One Meals of Yugoslavian Cuisine,” between a picture of a Macedonian beef stew and a recipe for a fish cooked in a wine sauce, I discovered a grandmother whom I would never know.
Frequently, I would take her picture and place it next to mom’s portable mirror, trying to see where our features overlapped. Throughout my childhood everyone would say how much I looked like her, but no matter how much I tried, somehow I failed to see the resemblance. Her nose was more narrow than mine, her chin not as square, her eyes were brown not green, and her hair was black instead of undecidedly brown. If anything, I was a true replica of tata save for his blond hair, blue eyes and a brooding personality. Much later, in my early teens, my grand-grandmother showed me a picture of tata’s grandmother, and in a tiny black and white photo, a familiar face resided. There I saw the square chinned, blue eyed, Illyran- nosed, blond version of me. This moment of recognition was made even more eerie since it was accompanied by a story of a young peasant bride from a wealthy family, who died very young, not unlike my grandmother. Blessed with an unsurpassed talent for melodrama, that comes so naturally to peoples of Balkans and Southern Europe, I became convinced that I was living a family curse, and that I was destined to die young, just as all the women in tata’s family did for generations.
Most of my early childhood I spent in trying to impress tata, yearning for affection and acknowledgement, none of which came my way. Not having an insight of an adult, I did not understand that his avoidance of all that was emotional, his inability to make those around him feel significant, and his propensity for verbal cruelness and physical abuse, were not as much reflective of a dysfunctional personality, but were, more than anything else, a result of emotional neglect and a lack of proper socialization. In my inexperienced, and yet to be developed child’s mind, his rejection became evidence of some flaw in my character, a reflection of something bad that needed to be corrected. Not knowing the nature of my perceived failing, I began to strive for perfection in everything I did, thinking that one day tata would look at me and validate who I had become.
Many years later I have accepted who I am, and I think in some small way tata has gained a new perspective on himself which has brought us closer together. While I will not say that there was a catharsis, there was no epiphany or Hollywood moment in which we came to some great understanding. More, a lifetime of experience and hardship has taught us lessons that, though unspoken, are no less profound.