My next door neighbor, Mila, is originally from Croatia. She’s now retired, but when I first moved into this house just over 7 years ago, she was working in light industry while still managing her household and taking care of her disabled husband, Tony.
Over the years, we’ve talked over the fence many times and I’ve sat in her kitchen sharing a bit of slivovitz while listening to her talk about her life. Mila has had a very hard life, and I admire her greatly for her strength and ability to survive through tough times. This is really an understatement, but I just have no better way to express myself on this subject.
How else can I think or feel about a person who currently manages to do all the cooking, cleaning, and home maintenance whilst caring for a husband whose self-care abilities extend to feeding himself, but that’s about it? A woman who has outlived both her children, losing her remaining son just last year? A woman who survived living in a local concentration camp as a child during World War II, subsisting on roots dug up by her stepfather and watching corpses flow down the river bordering the island on which she was isolated?
Mila and Tony emigrated here in the 1970’s with their son, well before the war that tore the Balkan region apart so dramatically. But her mother and other family members were still living in Serb-controlled territory and endured much hardship. When she visited the country after the war was over, she found that her elderly mother was buried in a mass grave and the circumstances surrounding her death were questionable.
But what really touched me most deeply about Mila’s life story was what she told me last night as we sat in my dining room sipping cognac together.
I invited Mila over because I think she desperately needs a break from constantly caring for her husband. I’ve tried to secure respite care for her through city services, but Mila insists they will not help her without charging since she owns her home and is not totally destitute. I know she enjoys cognac and when I noticed a bottle tucked away in my cold cellar, I knew it would be a perfect way to give her some away time.
During some of our previous conversations, Mila had shared with me that she had lost a child back in Croatia. This son was only 8 years old when he died from sudden acute appendicitis during a school outing. Last night, when she shared with me more about her life as a young woman, this loss seemed even more heart breaking.
When she was sixteen, Mila met the love of her life. He was 10 years older than her, and a Serb. Even back then, this was a problem. She told me his full name, but also told me that most people called him Mika for short.
Mila left school. She wanted to marry Mika, but since she was not quite 17 she needed a “special paper.” But Mika’s mother was opposed to her son marrying a Croat, and Mila was leary of setting mother against son. So, even though she was 7 1/2 months pregnant, she walked away from her lover one day, telling him that she was returning to her parent’s house and that he should first talk to his mother before following through with the marriage.
She didn’t see him again for several years. During that interim, he had married a woman his mother had chosen for him.
By then she was married to Tony. She had two children: the 3 year-old son fathered by her lover, Mika, and a 1 1/2 year-old son fathered by her husband, Tony.
Mika happened to be riding by on a bicycle one day when he saw her on the street. He stopped her to talk and told her how unhappy he was with his marriage. Apparently he made some overtures to her, but she declined to get involved with him again.
She still loved him, she said. She would always love him, but…he could have come back for her sooner. He could have come to her before she married Tony and resolved herself to a different life. But he didn’t, and so despite her love for him, she couldn’t begin an affair with him.
And the son she lost to appendicitis so quickly back in Croatia? That was the son of her lover, Mika.
Mila told me that she would always remember Mika. He was the love of her life. But he couldn’t bring himself to overcome the barriers and disapproval of culture and family to be with her. And so her love is tinged with a bitter overtone, and she continues her days caring for a husband who took her and her lover’s son and supported him as his own.
I couldn’t help but cry a bit with her last night when I heard this story. She couldn’t tell me this story without tearing up, and couldn’t listen to it without feeling the same overwhelming emotions.
I told her how much I admired her strength and ability to survive, despite all of the terrible things that have happened in her life. I set aside the bottle of cognac and told her I would keep it for our visits, and that she needed to come over again in a few days or next week. And so I’ll reserve this special bottle for a special woman whom I greatly admire.