Today my Father would have turned 87. This is the chapter from my new book, My Life Without Me, dedicated to him, Gojko Tesanovic (1923-2008)
3. My Father
– Never make decisions out of fear, he used to tell me.
I didn’t know how else to decide, so I stopped making any decisions.
– Take care of yourself, don’t give a damn what people demand from you if you don’t like it or want it.
He called me Jale when we were alone and intimate: and he talked to me as a man to man. It was a shame I was not one: I could tell from the way he talked to me. On the other hand, my father was pleased with my stubborn character and independent traits. That seemed manly enough to him.
I always hated my never born brother. I could only imagine him: small, tender, a sissy, getting all the privileges I didn’t have just because he was a man. If I loved my brother, perchance, that would have been even worse for me. It was easier this way, to turn into a man when necessary to pick up all the male wisdom my father was willing to share with me. God forbid that my mother heard any of that: the selfish advice, about economic and emotional independence, options to avoid marriage and children, free sex/secret sex, fast cars and an engineer’s technology instead of girlish pets and flowers.
Usually my father and I would end these sessions by going out for dinner together: alone, to fancy places. My father like to show off, with money and me. I pretended I was a man in those couple of hours, to please him. I didn’t mind being a girl, but he tried hard to give me a life where this handicap would not cripple me.
– When you were born, a girl, he told me, I was so ashamed. What will my colleges say, such a big man and he got a girl? But then a Serbian proverb says, that only best womanizers get girls. So you were my prize.
Once I entered the Italian office where my father worked. He had become the general manager of a big import export firm.
In those greatest hours of his success, he didn’t have much time to spare for me or family. In the hours he spent with us, he scarcely saw or heard us. From the point of view of a paterfamilias, his family had important things to do: collective walks with traditional family rules, telling tales about the past of the family, singing in verses, issuing warnings and orders, and preparing for the death of each of us.
The secretary let me in without announcing me. He stood up from his desk, offered me his hand with : pleased to meet you.. He simply didn’t recognize me.
I was on the verge of tears; what is it that’s different about me today?
My father started guessing, he didn’t even try to turn it in a joke:
– It’s the hair?
– Oh I know, the London dress?
– Wait, you have high heels.
– No way.
– So. says he, giving up, what?
– Nothing, said I, there is nothing new on me.
– Maybe that’s it then, said he… It’s that there’s nothing ‘new.’
I was not yet seven when my father bought us a fancy family grave in the central cemetery of Belgrade. We could have bought a flat for that amount of money, but Serbian culture is pagan and necromantic. A graveyard means more than a flat, for a grave lasts forever, while a flat lasts only while you live there. Plus, a very important distinction: the grave belongs to the family, while a flat by communist laws belonged to the state.
My father took us all to our graveyard and showed us our names engraved in marble. Date of birth and a dash…I didn’t even know what was missing there. I thought that now that we were officially born and registered in marble, we had to do something about it; like being admitted to a school.
I was proud, but then my best friend who knew all about that kind of stuff (and also that babies were not brought by storks), told me that the only thing that was expected from me in a graveyard was to die. I felt worried: shall I make it through the cemetery gates? Was I supposed to die at a certain time? My parents hadn’t given me instructions yet.
Of course those instructions arrived for me in due time: very soon my father explained to me all the possibilities in a mathematical way, who among us would die, first or last… We would be a family forever after, he said.
I felt taken care of and reassured. I never thought I would have any other family but them. How could any other family compete with this fine marble plot in the center of Belgrade, among the war heroes and anonymous rich people whose tombs were bigger than their homes? They persisted forever there, as opposed to those squabbling mortals whose houses were destroyed by bombings, looting, earthquakes, miseries…
When my father turned eighty, he changed all his funeral dispositions after a long dramatic brainstorming. Every time I would visit him before going on a long or a short trip ( for him this made no difference, the physical distance between the two of us was the only thing that mattered, the length of the umbilical cord was transgressed) he would seat me and repeat the funeral dispositions. And as time went by those schemes were longer and more detailed. We would not even be seated anymore, but we would rehearse his funeral.
That day he was lying in his very neat white bed, on his back and his eyes turned to the ceiling…he was hardly moving his lips, but his concentration was infallible. I wonder, can that man ever die? Or lose concentration on his death, and we whom he controls, as his proof he is still alive?
– So, my dear, I will probably die and you won’t be here. I will die alone but never mind, that’s the cruelty of life. Children never pay back their parents. The love and care they were given, they pass on to their own children…
I wriggled and felt guilty, even though he was ghastly right in some ways. I knew he meant harm, though. He was jealous of children — of all people that could not take him as the central figure of the world. And now, I, his own daughter, should pay for his hurt feelings. Who else?
– Don’t dad me, take that safe (he had a mobile safe from World War II, a very heavy metal box) and open it…you have dispositions in two copies there. The news is that I want an open coffin funeral, announced in the public media so that people don’t miss it.
– But who would miss it? All your people are already gone, even Mom.
– I count on your people, and my granddaughter’s people. You are a public person, so you will write a nice necrology, publish it.
– But Dad…
– Don’t you dad me, he said and put the white sheet over his mouth.
That meant the conversation was over and he wanted to go to sleep. But his face was covered like that of the newly deceased.
My father talked to me always as a commander to a soldier. His own dad talked to him that way… and everything different was considered a joke. He could joke, oh yes, but never when funerals and coffins were concerned.
OK dad, a big public funeral, I lied to him… and that would be my revenge, I thought. But a couple of years later, when he indeed died, I was not sure whose revenge it was, his or mine. How would we know we had won?
4. Dad’s Funeral
– All these years he really treated you badly, said my good friend attending my dad’s funeral.
And thus I didn’t give him an open coffin funeral. So many years of his mortal fear, rage and fantasized abandonment of life, and here he was, at his life’s end at last. Would that rage kill me, too? When my mother died, he had turned to me to care for him. In his last decline, he had become my child. Two family traumas for the price of one.
When he died, on March 30, 2008, I lost a father, a husband and a son. Oh, nothing incestuous in our relationship: only culturally perverse. But when the whole nation behaves in one way, feels strongly about it , as a tribe, what’s perverse about it? Even I, who felt weird at first, accepted it quickly. We play the games we are taught to play by our parents, peers, enemies, frenemies. And I love games.
So as to play my father’s favorite game of death obsession, I had to learn all the rules. Time was on my side.
After twenty-six years of his funeral rehearsals — in the last nine years, particularly meticulous and dramatic fantasies — the day came that I had to perform. Without him. Gosh, what a stage fright. My Life without me became, all of a sudden, my life without my father. An orphaned life with only me in it. Not that I came into a full existence then. On the contrary, I dropped off his stage altogether.
At his funeral, I struggled to remember the forgotten lines and instructions, too bewildered even to weep.
What did I think: that I could invent his funeral from scratch? How silly of me…
After his death, I had rushed through his desk drawers in search of written notes. Among an incredible rubble of metal, money, photos and notebooks, I find a few jottings, written years ago. They hardly spoke of his funeral. Instead, his notes advised me: give some money to my housemaids. Make sure that your daughter does not marry before she finishes university. Watch out for that leaking tap on the first floor in the mountain house…
That was my father speaking, the father I lost when I inherited a widower and a child. What about the suit he wants to wear in his coffin? The photos and texts for the funeral announcement?
I found another file folder. More of his notes, but full of trivial doubts. In his obituary, should he be announced as an engineer, or as the general manager of his firm? Should only our beloved relatives attend, or must we put up with the whole crowd of them? What about food for the mourners? Well, yes. What about food?
– I heard his voice: Jasmina, wake up.
– Jasmina, you know very well I don’t eat hot and greasy food, and I don’t approve of alcohol. I cannot stand seeing drunk people at my grave.
– No booze at your funeral, dad, no, God forbid! Even though Serbian people will get offended by that lapse in hospitality. You know how strongly they feel about a real drink at a funeral.
– Ok, says dad’s voice. – Cut their booze with water. White, the color of brandy. Ha ha ha.
When he died, I wore my silver leather jacket: it was new, it was fancy. When I feel down, I have to perk up. Wearing leather, I went to the funeral agency. They seemed knowledgeable. Endless questions and prices. I found myself saying nonono to everything the said, every bossy remark and demand for funds. Burying him with my own hands would have been easier. At least I would know what I was doing.
– Why that silver leather jacket? his voice asked me, enraged. – I told you to dress like a lady, like your Mom would dress! We still have a whole closet of her things! Pull them out, put them on! They are expensive and well suited for any serious occasion.
– But Dad, she was small and fat, and I am big and thin.
– Never mind. A silver jacket is more outrageous than a small cashmere one! You are not paying due respect to me, his voice was raving.
OK, I know he is not watching me, I thank God he spared me that religious crap. I was policing myself, now that my life was without him. I no longer needed him in order to be who he made me. Is that the function of a parent, or of any authority?
My performance at his funeral was as sloppy as his scribbled instructions. If I could have stopped crying, I would have laughed. I was not crying much. That’s why I was not laughing, either.
The coffin came first, and without an escort. The flowers were late. The mourners were scattered, mostly early because of a faulty time announcement. Everybody stood around, idly smoking. Inside the cemetery’s kapela, it was damp.
My daughter and I entered the kapela to take our place by the coffin. Music was already playing. We had to take condolences. A gallery of old faces I could not remember, but should have. As they spelled their names or just shared tears, I witnessed bits and pieces of my childhood. So fragmented, so scattered. Cairo, Milan, Lugano, London, all those exotic places where I flew with my Dad. A globe at his graveside.
They played some commonplace funeral repertoire. I should have taken care to play music he had loved. Like his favorite Bosnian song about “Jasmina,” the sentimental song that gave me my own name.
– You look better now than when you were a youngster, quavered one of my father’ s friends.
– I was a kid then, I said, now I am a woman.
– Right, he said, with senile agreeability.
-You hardly changed! said another old friend. Remember when I brought you medicines for your dad?
– Yes I do, I lied.
-You remember when we sat in that café, and we talked about your childhood, and how I took care of you once when your parents were away?
– Sure! Yes!
I am startled at his aged grin and his will to go on chattering. There is a funeral underway, and I am supposed to run it! Gosh, I always had this nightmare of being a director of a huge important orchestra, when no one knows I am really an impostor. The blazing stage lights are on me, eager faces stare at me from the audience and the orchestra pit. The first violin awaits my signal to start….
– And I held you in my lap, remember? Until you ran away from me and I had to chase you! When I grabbed you finally, I had to beat you so you would never do that again!
This ancient man in his cashmere black coat, with a stick and a Bogart hat, had beaten me as a four year old?! My God in heaven! I felt like battering him with his own stick. Instead I sadly smiled.
-Yes, I always used to run away from grown ups.
– I certainly taught you a good lesson, he said proudly, and here you are now a successful adult!
– You have lost a great man, says one fine old lady.
– Was she his lover? I wondered. It was no great secret that he had many women besides my Mom. He used to ruefully boast: I could not eat the same soup every day — but I never neglected my family.
So, this little old lady, what does she want from me today?
– Yes madame? I say.
– He was tall, strong and a man.
She flees, ashamed. Yes, I got it right.
– Oh my dear, oh my dear, weeps an old widow who lost her husband. They were family neighbors for a couple of years ago. The husband drank a lot of vodka at my Dad’s house. When he collapsed at last, my father tried to revive him with a bottle of oxygen. Had he died from the vodka, or died from the rescue attempt? That was the metaphor of my father’s emergency care. Once, when our pet parrot escaped its cage, my father, in attempting to keep it from an open window, killed the parrot with a broomstick. How desperate my mother was, and how angry I was. We scolded and sulked as if a cow had given us milk and kicked the bucket.
– My husband could not come, I came just to see you… says the mother of my dead childhood friend.
I cry with her, but I cry for my dead friend, her daughter. Last time we met at the same place, this same cemetery, my friend was in the coffin. My father was unconcerned with the dead woman, but full of pragmatic concern for her father. His cruel words drove me crazy:
-The poor old man, now he has nobody to bury him.
My relatives are talking behind my back. Something has going wrong.
Oh no, dad’s coffin is full of flowers but there is no name! Just a slip of paper saying “No Sign Requested or Paid”.
No way, I made that clear in the funeral office! I said no Orthodox cross and no Communist star, I didn’t say no name!
It’s a bureaucratic mixup of funeral administrative language. Why should one know such things, really? My mistake, my sloppiness, his mistake, his sloppiness; all those instructions about matters which were none of his business.
I wring my hands, an administrator finally comes to help me.
– Where is my father’ s name! I cry.
– You said, madame, no sign requested. You didn’t pay for that.
– But his name must be announced. How should people know they are coming to the right place?
– Well, you should know.
– Oh come on, I don’t know all those people, all his friends!
My friend once went to the wrong funeral. She cried her head off there, only to see her friend standing in the opposite kapela, so she had to do it again. The dead and the old are just like babies, anonymous, all the same, like flowers…
– I can fix that, says the funeral clerk.
– How much? say I promptly, echoing dad’s words. When something goes wrong, just offer the money. Oil it.
Money money money…I wonder, when my father is really gone, will I stop fretting about money and start having better sex, as Freud once promised?
Off he runs, into the crowd… The music adagio is now very loud My father’s best friend starts giving a last oration.
– We knew each other for 80 years, he begins…
We are flabbergasted, but it is the truth. Young people shiver where they stand. These old men knew each other from the day they went to school, as neighbors, as little kids.
Then this survivor, this octagenarian, starts telling a long, long tale: of friendships, miseries, woes, wars, and scandals. He attacks the present politicians who failed to give my dad a state funeral speech. He blames the new regime. He commiserates with himself, about his own fallen career…
Yes, my father’ s best friend was cruelly deposed in one of those purges so typical of communist regimes. If we don’t purge them, they will purge us, a politician explained to me. That’ s the nature of the business of power in a communist regime, where opposition parties are forbidden, but factions must fight each other. As an engineer and technocrat, my Dad managed to escape a thousand such purges. He could even play the outspoken patriot, talking some common sense to ideology. Not just another power-broker, but a capable expert, a creator of national wealth. A man of good will, sensitive to human weakness and trouble. He had helped fallen people who never forgot him.
– The businessmen of your time were responsible and serious people, the friend’s oration goes on.
– They took care of all the people in our country. They didn’t put money in their pockets and lie to the people. We communists had a morality and a responsibility towards the public. Your integrity never failed anybody, either personally or politically. Even during the darkest times, when dark forces tried to undo the work of revolution, you, Gojko, chose the right side. Often, you were reduced to silence. Yet you preferred to carry your secrets to the grave rather than to accuse any man of wrongdoing.
I wondered what intrigue the old man referred to. Something important and historical, and I knew he was right: those secrets had indeed been buried. We children never get to know our parents’ secrets except through accident or some mistake. Some bungled gaffe, like this funeral. Like this untidy gush of love and admiration that his best friend, an honorable but dishonored man, was giving to him in earnest.
This was his honest fifteen minutes of glory. Nobody from my father’s huge firm had showed up to deliver this graveside speech. My father was their famous manager, a capable manager never in trouble with law or business. Why then? Because, it occurred to me: because of them, not him. Because of the corruption and political scandals that had trapped them after he left. Until his very last day, my father could not believe the stories he was hearing about his own firm. He thought he knew all these people, his employees, his successors, his nation. And yet he didn’t. Dark times made men dark.
All his long, long life, this old man had served silently as my father’s his best friend. Now his last words were coming:
– Even though, on the last day when I came to see you, you could not recognize me, I fulfilled my duty and took the honor to bury you. Here I am now, performing…
Tears are coming to my eyes, but the funeral clerk is standing before me with paper and a pen.
I sign, and he points to my wallet.
Monemoneymoney: I gave it, a lot, in a hurry, oiling the death machine. Everybody is staring us, instead of listening to the speech or meditating on my dad’s career.
Off the clerk runs. Hopefully he will return with my father’s name properly written on a big wooden board. I gave him the money. A lot. But wait, I forgot to say the name!
The music is playing. We don’t know what to do next. We have to kill another twenty minutes in that kapela. People are fussing.
A strange photographer comes in the first row and takes photos. I am used to being a public figure, and I used to enjoy it, but not today. Or maybe so. Why would this celebrity be different? So I pose, I put up my hair. For some reason I always think I look better that way. Even at my dad’s funeral.
Here runs the clerk again, without the board. The music stops abruptly.
– Madame, this is the bill, our computer is not working, I don’t know his name.
My cousin, behind me, is pushing me.
– Mina for heaven’s sake, give him more money!
I pulled out of my pocket heaps of red money, bank-notes scatter around.
– Get them, I scream to the clerk. He does it deftly and swiftly and runs off with the loot.
– Ooooooh echoes the crowd.
Most of them were at his funeral because, at some distant date, my father had given them money. A friendly act in times of their miseries, woes, wars, and scandals. They say of him, that he was a generous man. And he was.
He always wanted money, but never believed in money. He believed in transactions, to buy people and love and respect and his worldly goods. Among the people of his generation, he was a guru. Yes, a communist guru, and now I realized it.
The clerk is finally coming with his big wooden board. God knows what is written on it. He props it in front of the coffin, and the music commences again. My cousin the musician taps his ears.
Couldn’t you tell them to play a decent record?
Next time. I could bring much better music and more people, next time I bury my dad. But there will be no next time.
And his coffin is not yet buried.
It requires more money, I guess. OK, no more crying, but paying. I shoot another heap at the clerk. The coffin starts sinking. The photographer takes pictures. The audience is shuffling, gossiping, leaving… planning their own funerals…
They will want it done better, less sloppily… but they did admire that crowd of mourners. Some great old guys and spies, like only my father could gather.
Then that hole closed on him, and they dispersed.