My mother was born a long time ago, even before the Second World War in a little village called Samobor in Herzegovina. My grandmother Mara gave birth in a beautiful soft green meadow between the barn and the house. There was no doctor in the village, just the self-educated midwife who was as good as any doctor. In five minutes the baby was bathed, swaddled and ready for her new life.
When my grandmother brought the baby into the house, my mother's grandfather took her gently into his arms and said with tears in his old eyes, "The new life is here. We will call her Novka" (which means new girl). For her grandfather, who had lost seven children and a wife to Spanish Influenza after World War I, Novka was the beginning of a new life. She brought joy to his old wounded heart and a desire for life.
My mother was the oldest among seven children that my grandparents had, but she always remained my grandfather's favorite.
My mother's family was the richest in the area, yet life was very difficult. They had 500 sheep, 15 cows, 10 horses, and countless fields. They had a shepherd who worked for them, but everyone in the house had to work so hard. So my poor mother had to become a shepherd at the age of five.
My great grandfather brought her one day to the valley between two hills to watch over 200 sheep. He had to leave for work in another field and didn't have any choice but to leave my mother alone.
"My little lamb, your grandfather's sunshine," he said with a trembling voice. "Do you think you can stay alone?"
My mother was scared to death, but she didn't want to show it. She didn't want to disappoint her grandfather. "Yes," she nodded with a fake smile. "Go, and don't worry about me."
She watched him for a long time, and when he finally crossed over the hill, let shed a few small tears. She sat there all day curled up from fear waiting for her grandfather to return, throwing stones at the occasional vipers that curiously peeked behind the bushes.
When her grandfather finally appeared in the late afternoon, my mother wiped her tears and ran towards him.
"My brave little lamb, my big girl," he said caressing gently her soft curls. Then he reached into his pocket and took out a sugarplum which was, in those times, the only treat for children. While my mother was eating this special delicacy, she forgot her fear. Her little heart was filled with joy and pride.
After this baptism by fire was over, my mother was not scared of anything anymore. She worked every day as a little shepherd learning to live and love in the wilds. She rode horses and dangerous bulls, killing vipers, and beating some boys who would occasionally attempt to attack her.
Yet, she was the most intelligent child in the school. She was born with above-average intelligence. She could memorize a whole book while reading it, without forcing herself to memorize it. She could resolve any mathematical task given to her, even for children above her age. But she was a wild and free spirit.
My grandfather would sometimes say with a smile: "Everybody says that one child is not enough for a family. Yet my Novka is enough for a whole village"!
When the Second World War started my mother was ten years old. My grandfather went on to join the Partisans and left the house in the hands of my great grandfather and grandmother. By then my grandmother had seven children to take care of.
The Cetniks and Italians entered the village and took almost everything that my mother's family had. They took all the cattle. They only left one tiny cow and one horse, my grandfather's favorite. Soon the Cetniks from nearby villages took the horse so the whole family was left only with one cow to feed seven little hungry mouths. My grandmother spent the war in a constant battle to survive, feeding children with soups cooked from roots and nettle.
My mother spent five years walking and running barefoot without any shoes.
From time to time she was a Partisan courier, bringing secret letters through Cetnik, German, or Italian barricades, to Partisans running through open fire faster than the enemy's bullets around her.
Sometimes her feet were so full of sores and blisters that she could not walk anymore, but there was no medication. There was nothing to soothe the pain except the only remedy that they had, plantain. They would wrap their feet in rags with this miraculous plant and let this natural balm to do its job. It is hard to believe, but this natural salve was a miraculous salvation. But the main problem was to stay still and let both feet heal. My grandmother had to run often with the children to find refuge in nearby caves in the mountains during the fierce fighting between Partisans and Cetniks with Germans, or during bombing raids on Partisan villages. My mother had to carry her little sister, Boyana, on her shoulders and her youngest brother, Rade, in her arms over several kilometers.
While one foot was healing, the other that she was using forced her to jump like a goat until the blisters and blood came back again.
When the war finally ended in 1945, my mother was fifteen years old. My grandfather had returned home after the war, alive.
On his way back he was walking through a nearby village that used to be a Cetnik village, and there, to his surprise, he found his favorite horse, Zeka. It was Zeka who recognized my grandfather from afar. The more my grandfather approached, the more he was neighing trying to break away from his reins.
"It is my Zeka," my grandfather thought joyfully. "I recognize his whining.''
When my grandfather went close to him, Zeka put his head on my grandfather's shoulder and let him caress him. Then he raised his head and looked at my grandfather. Large tears flowed from his intelligent large eyes. My grandfather embraced the horse and cried with him.
He brought Zeka home and they started a new life with Zeka and the cow Zutka, but with great enthusiasm for the new future that they had fought for, a future in freedom.
For my mother this was a year of survival. Exhausted and malnourished, she got sick from typhus. After many days of fighting for her life, the doctor pronounced that she would soon die. My grandparents brought the priest to give the last rights to my mother. When they lit the candle and started to pray, my mother opened her eyes. She asked for food. The doctor put her on liquids for a month to help her stomach recover from the fever. Miraculously, she survived. She was not ready to die.
Once recovered, my mother was sent to the high school in a nearby town.
She lived in a boarding school in terrible conditions. There was no heating, no food, no warm clothes, and almost nothing else. The whole country was impoverished and had to rebuild from zero after the war.
They lived with military discipline in the school. They got up at five o'clock in the morning upon which they would go outside and do exercises, frozen like potatoes after a cold night spent under one blanket that never could warm them up enough. The exercises were followed up by a cold shower. So frozen, hungry, and tired they would go to the cantina to get one slice of see-through bread, smeared thinly with jam, and a cup of tea. Now even hungrier than before, they had to go to class and concentrate on learning until lunch. The lunch was not exactly what these poor hungry children were looking for, but they didn't have any other choice if they wanted to survive. The lunch was bean soup with moths swimming on the top, with another slice of thin bread. After lunch, there was school again until four o'clock. Between four and six o'clock, they had free time. But my mother wasn't lucky enough to have it. As she was the most intelligent in the class, she had to stay between four and six to teach the children with learning difficulties.
She had one hour for herself which she spent reading books in the library to escape for a moment the reality of a hard and cruel everyday life.
At seven o'clock the children had a poor supper, more or less similar to breakfast—one piece of see-through bread and a tiny spoon of jam or paté.
At eight o'clock when they would be forced to go to sleep, my mother would stay awake for a long time pressing her hungry stomach with her hands to stop the howling hunger feeling, weeping helplessly until she finally fell asleep dreaming of food.
At the end of high school, her heart got so weak that my poor mother was almost unable to walk.
When she went to see a doctor, she looked like a ghost. Her normally red cheeks were pale and hollow. This strong six-foot tall girl looked more like a ghost with only bones and skin left on her. "My poor child," the doctor said with tears in his eyes, "if you don't return to your village immediately and eat better food you will soon die.
The next day when she arrived in her village, my grandmother Mara fainted on the doorsteps of the house from seeing her daughter in such a weak and starved state.
After a year, when my mother got back her strength and health, she was ready to leave and continue her studies. She wanted to become a lawyer. That was her long-time dream since she was a child.
Unfortunately, the decision about her future wasn't in her hands. Back then, it was the Communist Party and its leaders who decided everything.
This was the Party that fought and won the war with Tito as head of the new-born state: the Socialist State of the Republic of Yugoslavia.
They created brotherhood and equality among every religion, and had strong beliefs in the new future of an educated youth. They also believed that the key for a successful future lies in forgiveness. It was time to forgive the fact that Cetniks had been German collaborators. Therefore, the Communists decided to give better positions and better schools to Cetnik children. By doing this they immediately had a whole new generation of communist sympathizers. Teaching them communist ideas meant, at the same time, making the young people teach their parents, who were against communism, about the new communist ideology espousing strong atheistic beliefs.
So the majority of the country became atheistic, celebrating communist leaders as God, blindly believing in communism as a better way of living over any religion.
So when my mother knocked on the door of the communist leader in her region, she faced one of the first disappointments in her young Partisan faith.
"I am ready to go back to school," she said. "I want to become a lawyer."
"My dear child," he said with fake warmth in his voice. "We have already sent your documents to the teacher-training college. "This country is crying out for education and good teachers, and I am sure you will be one of the best."
He opened the door to walk her out and wish her good luck.
My mother was too young to fight, but deep in her heart she felt the injustice. She went to the college and finished in record time, but she never forgot her dream of becoming a lawyer.
She again went to see the communist leader asking him to send her to the Law University of Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina where many of her acquaintances with Cetnik backgrounds had already been sent to study.
"My dear child," he said again with the same fake warmth in his voice, but firm and authoritative. "We already have the job for you. We are sending you to a village where a school has just been opened. This village had been forgotten for so many years during the war, and until now its poor children did not have a chance to receive any education. Due to the circumstances, many of them are already fifteen years old, and yet hardly know how to read or write. There is a very hard task in front of you, but we believe in you. I fought together with your father during the war against the Nazis, and I can see that you are as strong as him. We need people like you, strong and intelligent to educate and help our impoverished nation."
The next day my mother was on her way to the forgotten village. It took her two hours by foot to reach the summit of the mountain. Once she was on the pinnacle, she saw the remote village. Its houses built of unbaked red bricks were hanging on the cusps of nearby hills like tiny boxes. Only the school that was freshly painted white looked like a white shell in a small meadow below the green hill. It was early autumn, and a hot sunny day. The billowing yellow wheat fields were bathed in golden rays of sunshine. The scattered hills were full of rich plum and apple orchards whose branches were bending beneath the abundant fruit. Somewhere in the distance she heard the sound of a shepherd's flute accompanied by contented sheep grazing over rich pastures.
Everything looked so idyllic that, for a moment, my mother almost forgot reality. She closed her eyes and let the warm wind cool her fiery cheeks from the heat.
She was weary, thirsty, and hungry. She continued walking and stopped by the first house on her way hoping to get a glass of water. She saw a woman sitting on the threshold of a house with a bowl and spoon in her hand and a bunch of piglets poking around her. While the piglets were stubbornly trying to get in, she was keen to keep them out by hitting them with the same spoon.
She stared at my mother as if she had seen someone from another planet. With her beautiful long dark curly hair, white silk V-neck short-sleeve shirt and dark navy blue pants with white buttons and flat blue shoes, my mother certainly looked completely different from anyone that she had ever seen.
She jumped to her feet and wiped her hands on her vintage black apron, and then placed back under her scarf sweaty strands of hair that were hanging out.
"You must be the new teacher," she said happily. "And you must be hungry and tired." "I am rather thirsty," my mother answered. "Come in please," she invited my mother, while she was pushing the pigs to get out to make some space for my mother. "I am making butter. I will serve you fresh buttermilk. It will refresh you. Let me grab the pot." While she was serving, my mother looked at the interior of the house. The whole house was just one big room with floors made of mud. In the middle of the room there was one hand-made wooden table and wooden chairs. In the corner there was an antique fireplace with chains and pots hanging in the middle. In another corner, there were mattresses made of straw on which they slept.
The woman came back with a child-potty filled with buttermilk. "Here you go," she said to my mother proudly.
"Who gave you such a beautiful pot?" my mother asked trying to stop herself from laughing.
"The forester's wife gave it to me when she left the village. I am keeping it only for special guests," she answered. "Well, don't keep it anymore," my mother answered mildly smiling at the woman, "unless you intend to have children, and give me some water please from anything but this pot."
"What a gift the communists gave me," she thought on her way to the school: to teach people the difference between a child-potty and a mug.
The next day when my mother entered the class to start school, to her big surprise she saw thirty boys in the classroom. There was not a single girl. She looked outside the window and saw the men of the village staring inside. It was the first time in their life they saw a woman in pants.
Furious and red with anger, she hurried outside to talk to them.
"Does this village have girls or only boys?," she asked ironically. "Where are the girls?" she asked the first man that she saw standing beside her. "Well," he answered stuttering, "the girls are at home or in the fields watching the sheep. They don't need school. They will be more useful at home helping than losing time learning to write."
"Well, if you think that, as a woman, I have lost my time learning you are wrong. The law says that everyone has to go to school. It is the ultimate must in our new country. As of tomorrow I want to see the girls in school. Anyone who does not send a girl to school will be sent to prison," my mother exclaimed.
And she went on. "I know that life in the village is very hard since I was myself born in a village. Therefore, I will be willing to help you if you help me. Since each of you has five or more children, I will always give some time off to all of them to stay at home from time to time so they can help you with your hard work, and you can alternate them equally. I came here with one task—to help you and give you education, and I will not leave from here until I accomplish my job."
The next day the school was filled with girls and boys. In the next two years everybody in the village became literate. My mother gave extra classes for old people.
Furthermore, she gave everything she could for this village to advance in every way possible, both culturally and intellectually. She taught young women how to dress and how to cook, and she taught men how to respect women. She also taught them how to build houses in a more modern way with cement and wooden floors and separate rooms. She cleaned lice from children and taught everybody the importance of hygiene. She was even sharing her monthly ration of food with poor families. She was buying clothes, shoes, and books for poor children. She soon became the village idol. There was not a single celebration in their houses without my mother. She was invited for Christmas and Easter and the family patron day, which is a very important celebration in the Orthodox religion.
From time to time she had to go to town for a municipal school meeting. In the winter she would walk for several hours to get to the town, down mountains covered with deep snow without any tracks. In this icy wilderness there was nobody on her way except wolves peering behind the bare trees at her with their bloodthirsty eyes. My mother would just whistle to scare them and make them run away, just as she had done when she was a child shepherd protecting her sheep from wolves.
Exhausted after long meetings on her way back climbing up the rugged mountain terrain to get back to the village, she dreamt about city life, and most of all about movie theaters and libraries. Her soul was longing for new horizons and new knowledge.
On one of these days when she was mentally and physically exhausted, my mother went to see the president of the municipal council.
"My mission is finished," she said with a now much stronger voice than before when she was seventeen years old. "I want to go to the University of Sarajevo to study Law," she insisted.
"My dear child," he answered again with his soft voice; "Do you really think that you can finish your mission when you decide so? Today's young teachers are very spoiled and ungrateful. You live in a natural paradise. Besides, I have heard that you are going on a regular basis to villagers' patron celebrations, which is, as you know, very much against our communist policies."
My mother was enraged. She had reached the limits of her forbearance and tolerance. Her normally high eyebrows went up even more, and gathered into small thin arches above her dark eyes that blazed with anger.
"I have heard that your wife is a teacher," she said. "Yet she didn't move from the city to work in a village, not a single day! Here is her chance to live in a natural paradise. I am giving her and you this fabulous opportunity. As for the activities in my spare time, I can only tell you one thing. Going to celebrate Christmas and Easter, or the villagers' patron celebrations is my only leisure and entertainment. That is my cinema, my theater, and my library. If you think that I can spend my youth without electricity on the top of a godforsaken village you are wrong. I am young, and I want to live my life and my youth now!"
There was a moment of silence.
Then with his face as red as a lobster, he reached into his pocket for his handkerchief to wipe away large drops of sweat that ran down his forehead.
"Hmm," he said taking a deep breath. "I can see that you have your father's character. I will not fight with you anymore. I will let you go and study, but since you have already finished the teacher's college, you must go to the Pedagogical Academy.
The next autumn, my mother arrived in Sarajevo. Bright as she is, she finished university within two years and immediately got a job in a high school as a professor of Serbo-Croatian language and Biology. Although she didn't become a lawyer, she was filled with happiness. She was one of the most recognized and respected professors. Besides, she had also at last fulfilled one of her great dreams: living near a movie theater and library. She finally could live the life of an intellectual and the life of a young girl. She also found "the man of her dreams'' and got engaged.
But after several years, a sudden illness changed my mother's life forever. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor without any hope for survival.
While she was in the hospital waiting to receive surgery, one of the greatest surgeons in the former Yugoslavia came to visit her.
"My young girl," he said, "I am a very busy doctor. But since everybody from the Executive Council is calling me asking me to help you, I have decided to perform the surgery." My mother looked at him: "No, thank you," she said. "You are old, and as you can see your hands are trembling. You need to take a pill to calm down every time before a surgery. My chances of surviving are very low, but what if I survive and you cut one of my nerves. I don't want to live paralyzed with a crooked mouth. Thank you with all my due respect. But I prefer to give these two new young doctors a chance. They will do it like a new young seamstress. They will watch carefully how they cut to avoid any mistakes."
Later on, when they were shaving her head to prepare her for surgery, my mother made some jokes: "If you cut me, you will not get a tip," she said to the doctor. "How can you laugh Novka," the doctor asked in surprise. "You know that you may not wake up. And even if you wake up, with the kind of tumor that you have, your chances of surviving are no more than six months."
"If I wake up," she said without any fear, "I will survive. And if I don't wake up, I'll see you in another world."
Before they started the surgery, the whole group of doctors came to the operation room. They all wanted to see this special woman and this special case.
When they opened her head and saw the tumor, one of the doctors said helplessly, "We should not even begin to operate. It is better to close this up as there is so little chance for survival."
Another doctor said, "No, we will try. I know this woman. She comes from a region of Yugoslavia where the people are persistent and enduring. She is strong both mentally and physically, and I believe in her and her strength."
Miraculously, my mother woke up and, as she promised, she survived. The first thing that she asked for after she awoke was for a cigarette and a coffee. She refused pain killers and instead started to sing.
Before she left the hospital, Doctor Milan who had performed the surgery, repeated that, unfortunately, even after the surgery she should not be expected to live more than six months.
"I will live longer than you," she said.
Several years later, my mother went to the same hospital to visit one of her friends Cica, who was there as a patient. It was in the evening and the hospital was closed for visits. When my mother rang the bell, Doctor Milan opened the door. "Hi Doctor Milan," she said. "Can you tell me in which room is Cica?" He stood there speechless, staring at her. His face became white and frightened. Then he ran away. Knowing that Cica was my mother's friend he went straight to her room asking in a panic, "Please ,Cica, tell me if Novka is still alive, or I have just seen a ghost?!"
Cica burst out in laughter. "She told you," she said, "that she would live longer than you …"
My mother was right. She is now eighty-four, and she is alive with the same young and optimistic spirit.
Unfortunately, Doctor Milan passed away a long time ago.
After surgery, my mother decided to leave the town. Life in a town became too hectic for her weak health.
When she applied for a teaching position in a little school in a village nearby Sarajevo, my mother couldn't even imagine that this decision would change the course of her life forever. Instead of marrying her fiancé doctor as previously planned, she married a musician, my father. Instead of staying in a village for her recovery period and going to join her fiancé for her new life in the flat fertile Vojvodina region, she stayed for thirty years in the hilly Bosnia until the next war in 1992 forced her to leave her beloved country together with my father, my brother, and me. She would be forced to leave our apartment in the beautiful suburb of Vogosca near Sarajevo, which my parents had bought only seven years before the war and worked hard to pay for it.
She had previously spent seventeen years in the village of Ljubina, teaching, helping, and giving herself wholeheartedly to the village and its people.
She was the mother of the village, the lawyer, the nurse, the social worker, the marriage counselor, and the salvation for anyone who was seeking help.
Instead of dying, as the doctors had thought, she decided to carry on with life, marrying, and becoming a mother. My mother and my brother Boris' mother is one of the most special mothers anyone can ask for. She is generous, strong, brilliant, and a fighter, all with the strength and softness of her huge heart. She is my life embrace and my inspiration, my six-foot-tall mountain, my love, and my pride.
My mother gave birth to me in the library where I grew up, with all of the world's greatest writers and classics around me: Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tomas Mann, Shakespeare, Ivo Andric, and many others that I read starting at the age of ten. She taught me to love the written word with a passion, and helped me desire to create the written word myself.
So many stories to tell about my mother, so many people that she helped, but never enough words to describe her generosity remembered by many, still as we speak.
A poor man, a father with seven children would come crying on our doorstep. "My dear sister," he would say, "I can't send my children to high school. I don't have money for the bus." "Wait a moment," she would reply. "Your children are very intelligent and they must continue their education." She would return with the money for their bus passes.
Another man would knock on our door. "My sister, Novka," he would say. "Only you and God can help me. My neighbor is suing me falsely for building my barn on his land. The city has sent me a letter and I must go to prison. Can you save me from my misery? Who is going to feed my children if I go to prison?!" Knowing the peasant mentality, she knew that behind this hides jealousy. A neighbor who can sue a neighbor because of an inch of land can only be a bad man.
"Go home and don't worry," she would say calmly. The next day the poor man received a pardon from the city and came to bless and thank my mother with a turkey under his arm. "This is for you," he would say proudly. "Bring that back home," she would answer on an offended tone. "Your children need this more than mine. Whatever I do, I do from my heart and for my heart: never for a bribe!"
Often, on the day of her salary, she would arrive without money. My father would ask, "Novka, what happened to your salary? Are they cutting budgets?" "No," she would answer laughing. "I spent it on books and clothing for the poor children in the village." My father would shake his head and say, "If you continue like this we will need sponsors to by clothing and shoes for our own children." "Don't worry," she would say softly. "You are a musician. You will make money playing at weddings. We will never starve. The others need it more than us."
On another day, a poor woman ran from her abusive husband and would arrive with four children clenching her fists from embarrassment. "My dear sister, Novka, my children have not eaten all day. I have nothing in the house to give them." "Bring them in," my mother would say. "They will eat with my children."
Anyone from the village who was sick and could not find space in the crowded hospital would come to ask my mother for help. Within several hours she would find space for them.
My mother had connections everywhere, cousins, and friends, from officials, to doctors and lawyers, but she only used this privilege to help the people. She had deep respect and sympathy for these beautiful, simple, hard-working, and suffering people. In return, she received their love, admiration, and blessings, even today.
From all over, scattered in all corners of the world because of war, her former pupils and the people she helped are still sending messages of deep gratitude and love, to their teacher, their own Mother Teresa, my mother Novka.
Perhaps, after all, the communist leader of her municipal council was right. Maybe she was born to be a teacher, a special teacher, who will not only provide the best knowledge to kids, but also help poor suffering children and people through respect, love, and unreserved giving.