Grandma Marija’s Ghost

On lazy Sunday mornings I loved to spy through the window as Grandma Marija tucked a stray, red lock of hair under her wide-brimmed feather hat and buttoned up her coat. She’d open the gate across the street and walk down the Volijak hill towards the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In those tricky socialist years when few openly confessed to being religious, Grandma Marija flaunted her devotion. Grandma Marija attended services every day even though the church was at the other end of town. Townspeople often saw her talking with the nuns from the nearby convent. She volunteered as the organist and organizer of after-work activities that only lonely Catholic widows attended. “She’s rushing off to church every day, she should stay there forever,” my mother’s family said. “Who knows what sins she’s trying to atone for by praying all day?” None of us had an answer. Even in our small town, where everyone poked their nose into everyone else’s business, Marija remained a mystery.

Even in our small town, where everyone poked their nose into everyone else’s business, Marija remained a mystery.

Marija was my father’s stepmother. By the time she met my grandpa Ante, a young widower with a small son, she was in her thirties. During her years of singlehood, large bouquets of flowers and scented letters were regularly delivered to Marija’s desk at the Elektrobosna factory. Nobody believed these were from a real admirer. “She’s sending that to herself. How sad,” her coworkers whispered. When she and Ante married, people were skeptical and worried for my grandpa. “Why didn’t she snag a man earlier? Something’s wrong with her,” they said. My mother told me Grandma Marija could never have real feelings for me because we weren’t blood relations. “Don’t feel bad if you can’t love her,” my mom said. “You weren’t born yet when she tried to ruin my marriage.”

Religion drove Grandma Marija’s opposition to my mother. She was furious that my father was bringing an Orthodox Serb into the family and launched an unsuccessful campaign to find him a more suitable Catholic girl. When her efforts to distract my father with other women failed, she took other drastic, long-term measures. She boycotted my parents’ wedding, and it took her years to allow my father to build a house on the family plot of land across from their home on the Volijak hill.

My parents tried to mend fences after I was born. We visited my grandparents on Christmas and Easter. These evenings seemed interminable to me. At the dinner table my mother would elbow me in silent reminder to praise Grandma Marija for her over-cooked cabbage rolls. When nobody was watching I pulled out red hair from the potato salad. I feigned happy surprise as I opened my Christmas gift only to find a pair of shoes in a size I’d outgrown years earlier. The wall clock in the living room had a wooden bird that chirped at half hour intervals. It did not move fast enough. A sense of guilt pervaded all these moments — maybe because I did not love Grandma Marija and felt tied to her mostly by duty.

Grandma Marija stopped going to church in 1993 when the structure burned down in a bombing raid. The church grounds where widows used to catch up on town gossip were now covered with shattered glass. With the core of her social life decimated, I wondered how Grandma Marija filled her days, if she had anyone to talk to. By then so many people had fled Bosnia. The streets were deserted. My parents had left a couple of weeks earlier. I’d begged and pleaded to stay a little longer while the ceasefire was in effect. Maybe things would stay calm. They’d reluctantly left me behind with my mother’s family to celebrate my fifteenth birthday. I was to join them after my birthday party. My parents had barely left when the fragile peace started to shatter. The ceasefire that had been dangled in front of us was forgotten. In the evenings we heard dispersed gunshots from the mountains where Serb soldiers were hiding out. Our electricity kept going out, leaving dishes half-cooked. The specter of war was becoming ever more urgent. On the telephone I could hardly understand my mother’s panicked voice ordering me to leave Bosnia. I promised to take the next bus out of town.

I wanted to say goodbye to Grandma Marija before I left. With my father gone, nobody was forcing me to the obligatory dinner at her home. I hadn’t seen her in weeks. She made it clear she’d never leave town. She wasn’t going anywhere, she said, no matter who tried to chase her away or intimidate her.

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