Forgetting and Remembering a War

UN helmet

Excavating memories of Bosnia, I stumble on buried sadness and shame. Since my husband’s death there is no one who shares this time of my life with me, no one who understands – and so I can forget. Even when the Balkan war was raging, like any war that’s not yours, it was more than most can fathom so questions do not get asked, stories are never told. But the recent conviction of Karadzic and the new novel by Edna O’Brien – The Little Red Chairs (beautifully reviewed here) launched me into emotional archives.

I arrived on New Years eve and heralded in 1993 by drinking too much beer with British and Danish soldiers in the basement of a hotel-turned-UN base in Kiseljak, just 20 miles outside of Sarajevo. UN Peacekeeping seemed like a chance for me to make a difference – an idea quickly squashed by hopelessness and a murky mandate. I followed orders and stuck to the rules like a good neutral, well-paid international civil servant.

My job was to take notes at meetings with now-convicted war criminals. In bombed-out factories and airport hangars, freezing schools devoid of students, the men smoked, drank slivovitz and monologued about ancient grievances. On the way to one meeting, we passed burning houses, doors open, laundry flapping – the people fled – or worse. As I watched the thugs suck on their cigarettes, it was the smoke of the village that made me cough until tears ran down my face. The reports I wrote up were received on waxy paper that faded within weeks. At night, when I hid under my covers listening to the HVO (the Bosnian-Croat army) moving through the streets and thought of the violence of neighbor on neighbor, I wept and felt guilty for being there and doing nothing, ashamed for being part of the human race.

Whenever I could I spent the night with my husband-to-be at the Holiday Inn where he lived with the rest of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I envied them the good work they did, delivering tangible results – reuniting families, bringing in relief supplies. Neil brought cigarettes to prisoners and did his best to make everyone laugh. A natural rule-breaker, he looked to save lives, smuggling people out of the city more than once. I fell for him because of that and for the laughter. Also at the hotel were the many journalists who passionately exposed atrocities and relentlessly pushed for the world to see what was happening on their doorstep. I was quiet at these dinners, not wanting to identify myself as part of UNPROFOR – the Peacekeeping Operation regularly under fire by them – for me – doing nothing. I felt a fraud.

On one snowy day, I sat in the back of the armored car driven by the sweet young British soldier who’d been assigned to drive my boss. The 5 ton vehicle strained to get up the winding hills over Sarajevo. The view was incredible –  the hills from where the Serbs lobbed thousands of shells into the city, torturing their former neighbors for more than 3 years. One big gun erupted – as if shot for our benefit or warning – just as we passed. The massive car lifted and we continued up the road deafened, to the well-fed town in the hills above the city they were strangling.

My boss and I sat across the table from him and his wife and between bites, chatted about their work as psychiatrists, the time they spent in my old neighborhood not far from Columbia. She made some comment about New York being a good place for psychiatry. He mentioned the poets Charles Simic and Kenneth Koch as if they were friends. He asked how the food was where we were based. Only after the crumbs were swept off the table did he discuss his map – getting up with a toss of his hair to point out his version of the future – using the word ‘cleaned’ in referring to entire area of Bosnia and into Croatia. Cleaned. Of the many men I met who did terrible things, he was most clearly evil.

Perhaps forgetting makes sense for what is there to do with such guilt? Who do I ask for forgiveness? So I bury it and wait for the discomfort, the sickening feeling to fade. What is to be gained by remembering? Or what might be lost in forgetting? There was little I could have done – but I did so little.

This House, This Home

 

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Armed with addresses of houses within our budget, I’d drive-by properties to take a look on my own. Pulling up to this sweet place for the first time, the atmosphere seemed to change and I felt like I’d gone back in time. It was late summer and the white cape dwarfed by trees with a hedge setting the property apart from the quiet street, called to me. This one, I told Mary Lou, I want to see this one.

An old woman named Mrs. Henderson lived here before us. Her only son lived down south and somewhat reluctantly, she was moving to be closer to him. She’d lived in the house for 45 years. We quizzed her about the yard – Azalea shrubs, a Dogwood (that has long since died) Forsythia and a long bank of Peonies. She and I sat on the porch together. With every breeze, the leaves seemed to applaud. It’s been a happy house, she told me as she watched Neil lead Molly across the lawn. I knew she liked us and wouldn’t dicker about our lower bid. Charming Neil and earnest me with our darling daughter, almost two. They will be happy too, she must have thought.

living room

This 1938 Cape with charming glass doorknobs and a fireplace, hardwood floors badly in need of refinishing and a water tank barely able to accommodate one of Neil’s hot baths became ours. The place needed a lot of work but our budget was limited so we did little to improve it. The year Neil died, I somehow managed to put a new roof on.

When I fantasize about winning the lottery, I don’t imagine buying some fancy joint, I’d finally fix up this one. I would put in a new bathtub, finally refinish the floors, replace the drafty old windows, maybe add second bathroom on the first floor. And I’d definitely tear down the garage of such sad history and replace it with a sweet live-able studio.

house in snow

At times, I wonder about remaining here – mostly because of money, doubts about whether I can do it all myself, but also, because unlike Mrs. Henderson’s years, on our watch, this house has seen great sadness. Within a only few months of moving in, money began disappearing, Neil started sleeping all day, losing jobs and ignoring home responsibilities including his wife and daughter. Finally, I learned of his addiction. Years of struggle followed – cycles of hope and despair until he ended it all here at our home. Someone else might have moved away but I never blamed this house and memories fade with time. Somehow, we always come back to joy here because, there is our love, Molly’s and mine. One I dreamed of.

chair window

My journals written in my twenties and early thirties are full of longing for a home, a craving for a place, for love. And even with sadness, old and new, this place has been that. Next year Molly and I will have been here 20 years. Our home, this house, remains rich with the most profound love I have ever experienced – for my daughter who I have raised within these old walls. And this is her home as well as mine, this house where the floors have never been refinished, where the old pipes leak and that cast iron boiler just better hang on for at least another winter.

I have spent these last snowy days inside this shabby, beloved house watching the light change through the hours, sitting in the warmth of sun pouring in the windows. Later, I will light a fire and finally, climb the creaky stairs to bed and with sweet old Tetley curled at my feet, I will sleep. And I think, this is a house of happiness. In fact, sheer joy. And when Spring comes and the leaves come out, I know they will applaud again.

Sunday Silence

I lived without a television from the late 1970s through the early 90s and thus have lots of television related social gaps. Dallas? Laverne & Shirley? Mork & Mindy? Missed them all and didn’t miss them.

The boob-tube, or idiot-box as my father referred to it, came into my adult life when I got together with my late husband in Sarajevo. He loved it even risking his life for his favorite television shows. To placate the the journalists who made up most of the guests at this Holiday Inn smack on the front line, the satellites on the roof were carefully angled for best reception of CNN, ITV and Sky News. Neil figured out that if he could shift a dish just so, he might see his shows. Donning his flak jacket and helmet in case any snipers spotted him, he crawled across the hotel roof. Armed with a walkie-talkie, he communicated with a friend stationed in his hotel room. Neil shifted the dish until Captain Kirk and Spock were in perfect focus.

When Neil and I moved-in together in Zagreb, he insisted on having a television with the necessary dish. I settled easily into watching his English comedies (and I sheepishly confess to still being hooked on Eastenders). Initially, like all beginning romances, it felt cozy and fun especially after living without electricity and minimum home entertainment for over a year.

From having no TV presence, my life soon became dominated by it. It was constantly on. I learned to tune-out the canned laughter and Rocky machine gun fire. But I never liked the constant noise. Eventually, I asserted myself and demanded that Sundays be TV free until after 5:00 PM. No cartoons, no morning news programs – no irritating commercials!

Sundays became blissfully silent. I still stick to this rule – even when Molly’s at school and I am alone in the house. While I confess to now having my own addiction to shows like Downton Abbey, Homeland, British Mysteries and the news, I never turn it on until the evening, no matter the day. Even so, I still watch too much and it’s an incredible time-suck, don’t you think? But never on Sundays. That silence feels sacred.

When do you watch television?

Let Them Pass: August 1992 at a Croatian Checkpoint

Desperate scenes of refugees arriving by the thousands, crossing oceans, deserts, fields and forests carrying little beyond the weight of their terrible stories in search of safety and life, remind me of an encounter I had 23 years ago a few months after I began working with the UN in Croatia. 

zagreb

 

Yvetta and I replayed the highlights of our weekend as we sped through Zagreb on our way back to Knin, the dusty, sanction-bound town in the Serb held part of Croatia where we both lived and worked. Yvetta headed the UNHCR office responsible for relief and refugees. I was assistant to the civilian chief of Peacekeeping of Sector South in Krajina. Yvetta always ran a bit behind schedule but today she was late because she’d picked up a Satellite phone. It was August in 1992, pre-cell phone days and this new equipment would allow her to make phone calls from her car. It was worth waiting for.

Now it was Sunday and time to go back to work, back to what was for now, our home. We’d enjoyed our two nights at the Intercontinental Hotel – luxurious hot baths, television, busy streets and even Chinese food. We were heading back to our UN jobs in dusty, desolate Knin where electricity and water were intermittent.

We knew that after 5:30 we might be refused at the Croatian-Karlovac checkpoint so Yvetta stepped on the gas of her little UNHCR issued Honda. A few days earlier, we’d had to sweet talk our way through the checkpoints to get out and now we might have to do the same to get back in to the UN Protected Areas so we could make the three hour drive back before dark.

On Friday, we’d had to charm Serb soldiers, Kalishnokovs slung over their shoulders, red faced and rheumy-eyed from drink, to let us pass. “Nema problema” they said. As far as they were concerned, they’d move the mines blocking the road but we needed to ask the Croatians to move the ones on their side. Yvetta unfurled the UN flag from her car and stretching the cloth between us, we marched down the deserted road, lone marchers in a surreal parade past ghosts in burnt-out buildings, once shops, past houses once filled with normal life. Stepping carefully between and over the anti-tank mines, we walked the equivalent of a city block through no-man’s-land, giggling nervously at this weird spectacle no one could see, glancing at broken windows, into the dark rooms.

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Two Croatian soldiers stepped out of the small hut, looked at us like we were crazy, gave a cursory glance at our blue UN Passports and agreed to move the mines. We flinched as they kicked the heavy green metal out of the way while we jogged back to the car. Yvetta navigated us over the pitted road and through our now hysterical laughter, we called “Hvala!” to the soldiers, giddy with the insanity of our lives in this war zone.

Two days later and we were late again. Jokingly we wondered if we’d have to make that march through no-man’s-land but the Croatian soldiers let us pass with barely a glance. About half way to the Serb checkpoint, we were met by a cloud of dust and another car with flapping UN flag followed by 3 civilian cars and a UN truck driven by two Peacekeeping soldiers from Nigeria.  In that strange landscape of the time, civilian cars were more of a surprise than the Africans on this road, since sanctions meant there was no fuel for the local population. Paolo, Yvetta’s colleague from UNHCR Sector North pulled his SUV up beside us.

“Can you help?” he asked. “One Bosnian family has no papers. The Serbs let us through but I’m not sure the Croatian side will.” Paolo,  a soft spoken Italian with thinning hair, wiped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief.

We looked at the clobbered looking car behind him – a muddy Yugo with a worried looking father driving, his wife beside him and two little girls in the back. The man’s knuckles like white marbles, clutched the top of the steering wheel. Paolo told us, they were Moslems fleeing Bosnia and he was determined to get them through to Zagreb – they could not be protected in this Serb-held area.

Yvetta, swiftly turned us around and led the way back to the Croatian police we’d just left.

Our little convoy pulled up close to the checkpoint and all of us UN staff gathered to give the impression of greater authority. I glanced at the little girls in the back of the Yugo – they looked between 6 and 10. One had such thick glasses her eyes appeared larger through the lenses. They sat quietly. The mother, hair pulled back in a scarf, stared straight ahead through the windshield towards Zagreb as if it might disappear if she looked away. The father looked like an accountant with his business style slacks and button up shirt, too big over his slight frame. He opened the car door and stood there, not taking his eyes off Paolo and Yvetta as they spoke with the authorities who held his families fate in their hands.

“Without papers? No guarantee, no enter Zagreb.” the soldiers shook their heads and shrugged almost sheepishly.

“Wait! I have a phone!” Yvetta surprised herself with the memory. “Can he call someone? What if he calls and you can talk to them and they tell you they will come get him?”

The police shrugged again. She waved the father over to her car and all of us gathered around, our UN badges dangling against the hood of Yvetta’s car.

“Is there someone you can call? Do you have a number?”

The man nodded and said in English, “I think.”

The phone shook in his hands as he dialed the number. We all watched him carefully, collectively willing someone to pick up at the other end. We heard ringing. “Halo?”

“Damir! I’m in Croatia!” he exclaimed, “We are here! We are here!” Through sobs, he spoke with his relative then passed the receiver to one of the soldiers who asked a few questions then handed the phone back to the man.

“Hvala, hvala! We are here!” the man said through tears. His guarantor would come to Karlovac and they would be allowed to pass. The father burst into tears and embraced his little girls who’d climbed out of the car and now stood beside him. The mother collapsed on the dashboard in sobs. Yvetta and I dissolved in tears.

I wept for miles, overwhelmed by relief, by sadness. I wept at the desperation of that family, their lives packed into a car. What had they left behind? What had been taken from them? And they were lucky ones.

Multiplying by numbers and gravity the glimpse I had of that family’s story by thousands now fleeing their homes, saddens me. Watching barbed wire fences erected to block their movement as they stand at the border, enrages me. I think of this family – just one family – and the relatively tame drama of their simple crossing back in 1992 when things in Bosnia were just beginning to simmer into what would become an explosion of violence, harassment, of war crimes, massacres. I think of that one family as I watch the current scenes of families, fleeing the rubble of their lives, trying only to get across to safety however they can. Mostly, they seem to carry nothing but their children. No one takes to unknown roads with infants unless they are desperate.

I conjure the face of that mother staring at the horizon imagining a better life, willing it to be. The father, ill equipped to navigate a war, only knowing one thing: to get his daughters to a place they could safely sleep. I recall the bewilderment magnified in the glasses of the little girl in the backseat of the car. And how we all wept with relief when word was given that they could pass. That’s all they wanted to do – to pass, to join the caring friends, relatives, who waited. I think of them now, 23 years later, while watching thousands of refugees trying to cross borders to a better life. They do this because there is nothing left to leave behind. I would do this too. I would not take my eyes off the place I needed to get to. I know better than to think such a fate is impossible for any of us.

  • There are so many organizations that do great work but I send my donations to MSF (Doctors Without Borders) as I remember the great work they did in the field and also, most of their budget goes towards programs – not administrative costs. Check out Charity Navigator to see how the NGO of your choice rates.

If You Can Read…

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The walk to Kingsbridge Library meant passing a ferocious dog. I dreaded that stretch of sidewalk. Running as fast as I could, heart pounding, I kept my eyes on the corner ahead, willing the dog not to leap from the second floor terrace from where he snarled. But on the day I went to sign up for my first library card, my heart beat with anticipation so I barely noticed the barking canine. The requirement was you needed to be able to write your name and after practicing like mad, I was ready to sign on the dotted line. I can still conjure that moment when I received the manila piece of cardboard, my name typed on it, a ticket to borrow books for free. The first and most precious document I’d ever signed up for and I was 5.  Through the library and reading I entered a world beyond any walls or city streets I knew.

A few years later we moved to our new neighborhood on Broadway across from VanCortlandt Park and Riverdale Library became my new destination. According to my memory, walking to either library took about half an hour but a quick Mapquest search of my old addresses indicates that they’re both less than 15 minutes on foot from where we lived, the distance greater because of the always heavy load of books I carried each way.

In elementary school, I tore through books about dogs and especially Collies, obsessed by Lad and the Sunnybank Collie series by Albert Payson Terhune. By 6th grade and through Junior High School, I haunted the Nature section particularly loving memoirs by naturalists and accounts and guides about surviving in nature. A country girl trapped in the city, I became a Euell Gibbons devotee, stalking mostly park dandelions and my favorite – fragrant Black Locust Blossoms delicious because of the sugar and batter they were fried in.

When adolescence hit, I discovered May Sarton and coveted a life like hers, observing nature, befriending the animals. Now, as an adult, I recognize a loneliness in her pronounced solitude and realize that probably resonated with me too. I read travel books and dreamed of living in Australia with all that weird wildlife. From a library in the Bronx I learned about tracking animals and when my parents bought a weekend house in the Berkshires, I wandered the forest searching mud and snow for prints and once, came upon a deer walking ahead of me on the quiet path – the ultimate prize for my solitary walks.

Reading was a common thread in my otherwise fractured family. Our faces were in books the way today’s kids are in their phones. The day my father moved out he told me he wanted to pursue his dream of writing, (not that he’d fallen in love with another woman) and that reading was his excuse for not writing. Within an hour of his reveal, he began packing his books, removing familiar titles I’d grown up with, leaving empty, dusty shelves.

My mother devoured The New Yorker, novels, and religiously, The New York Times. When she gave a sharp shake of her paper, I knew that meant she was about to read a passage that incensed or amused her, wanting to share her outrage or joy with me. If I also had a section of the paper, I’d do my best to snap my own pages to communicate my annoyance, on the ridiculous chance that she might understand my code and be quiet. I confess, now a mother myself, I do this — wanting to read something with my daughter who of course, also hates it but tells me so and I stop.

My sister and I are crazy about each other and in our weekly phone gabs, drill each other about our lives. What are you making for dinner tonight? (We wish we were at each other’s tables …) How’s work? What are you doing this weekend? And of course, what are you reading? Inevitably, we both have a few titles to recommend and so my daunting tower of books-to-be read grows.

Family Christmas presents are easy – we all love books. Kevin is an omnivorous reader with eclectic, far ranging interests. My other brother always has something specific and often obscure – a literary title or the latest guide to wild mushrooms.

When Molly was little, our Saturday morning of errands always included a stop at the Westport library – not our town but a far better endowed one than the one I live in with  a beautiful space and key: lots of parking.  We’d go through the shelves together, picking out picture books to add to the vast choice she already owned, for our nightly 5 books-a-bed reading. We lingered in the play area, her scouting out new friends over the wooden toy collection while I scanned the new book section. Did I tell you I work in a bookstore? My librarian friends who knew me from the store teased me about my ‘bus-man’s holiday’ – and of course, I knew them too. We’re like that, us book people, we just can’t get enough.

I cannot imagine my life without reading, without the crazy towers of books around me and it astounds me that not everyone shares this pleasure. During the years I gave tours at the United Nations, when I had groups of children, I always paused in front of the beautiful photo above, taken by former UN photographer and  dear friend John Isaac, to talk about literacy. I’d ask them, “What can you do if you can read?” The children piped up and I’d add “Cook!” (because I believe anyone can) and we’d go on endlessly with our list concluding, that if you can read, you can do ANYTHING.

IF YOU CAN READ YOU CAN DO ANYTHING! Sorry to yell but I just want to shout that from the rooftops.

PS: Conversely, if you can’t read… well, you’re screwed. Here’s some depressing information about the unnecessary illiteracy rate in the United States:  http://literacyprojectfoundation.org/community/statistics/ 

What Would You Say to the HONY Guy?

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Let’s say you were walking in Grand Central or relaxing on a bench in Central Park, and the guy from Humans of New York sauntered over and asked if he could take your photo? Would you agree?

In case you aren’t familiar with Brandon Stanton’s work here’s a link to his website or you can follow his HONY site on Facebook. These vignettes – a photo and a few sentences, capture a flash of someone’s life. Usually, people look straight at the camera and within minutes of meeting, tell this stranger intimate things, sometimes sharing secrets — and in doing so, expose themselves to the world. The results are moving, transformative or sometimes, like his kid and dog shots, simply delightful. They are snaps of life, a compelling, random smattering of who we are, what we do, what happens to us, us humans in New York, on this planet.

What would you say? Presuming you don’t say fuck off, I don’t want you to take my picture and it’s none of your B-I-bizness? How would you answer his query: What’s your biggest struggle? What was the happiest moment of your life? What was the saddest moment of your life? Could you answer these questions on the fly without wracking your brain? (I can’t) If you could, would you reach down into your heart and reveal to Brandon and the world, your deepest wishes, desires, regrets, dreams? Your pain or joy? Would you be honest like so many hundreds have been with him, with us?

I’m not sure. I surprise myself, for how can I blog and write memoir yet feel private?  In this unguarded cyber-space and in my memoir, I share intimate details of my life, past and present, the struggle of my marriage to my late husband, living with his addiction, after his suicide, I write about dashed and now, renewed hopes and dreams. I write to better understand myself. I am private in that I have no longing for fame, only for connection. It’s this feeling of connecting that is so moving in Brandon’s work, we feel it because he made it, he won that trust from his subjects. So why would I shy away from his camera and his question? Because I don’t know what I would say.

‘What would you say to HONY’ could be the new party question to replace ‘what do you want to have on your epitaph’. What sound-bite would I want to sum up my life for the world to see?

‘In spite of some terrible shit in my past, I’m joyfully ready for the next adventure and most of all, determined not to live in fear.’

That might work.

What would you say? Or would you (nicely) say fuck off?

Favorite Things and Cultivating Detachment

Thirty-five years later, I can still hear my roommate’s tragic voice and pronouncement: “That was my favorite bowl.” Linda enjoyed eating her salads and soup from the over-sized blue-glazed, handmade piece of pottery I had just accidentally shattered to bits. Apologizing profusely, I guiltily attempted to match the largest shards together. There was nothing to be done. While saying she forgave me, her big sad doe-eyes told me otherwise. I felt terrible. I also hated her a little for making me feel so awful. Perhaps it’s my guilt about being angry with her that keeps this memory so fresh in my mind.

Since then I have suffered similar losses of ‘favorite’ mugs, books, bits of clothing – ruined or lost by others. I always remind myself to try and let the thing go and not to amp up the guilt the way Linda did. Accidents happen. I live where it’s easy enough to shop for a new ‘favorite’ to fall in love with, to infuse with new memories and tea stains.

These musings were brought on by hair-line cracks I recently discovered in my favorite tea pot. My attachment to this thrift-shop find is merely that it is beautiful and made in Italy near where Molly was born. See how lovely it is?

teapot 1

It’s so easy to infuse meaning and sentiment into anything. While this is a nice pot, I have a back-up, Less charming but certainly as functional for my morning brew.

teapot 2

I remind myself not to get too attached and yet, surrounded as I am by so many things, sometimes that’s a challenge. But definitely not as hard as it once was.

According to Buddhism, the origin of suffering is attachment. I railed against this non-attachment stuff as a twenty-something woman living in Kyoto and longing for love. I associated this way of being with lack of passion. Of course it didn’t help that I had an unrequited crush on a strapping, young, handsome American man who had just emerged from a year of living in a monastery. I really wanted to crack his detachment…

Decades later, I get it. After a while, accumulated losses gave me a new appreciation for non-attachment. Eventually, these kind of scars turn into well-worn tracks of the heart, weirdly making it easier to navigate the next time. And there will always be a next time – be it large or small. Broken bowls? Cracked tea-pots? Eh.

The beautiful teapot does not seem to leak – not yet – but I’ve stopped using it since discovering the cracks. But why should I? Without use, it will become invisible to me, it’s importance will fade. I know I could put a plant in it, turn it into something else. I never really do those things – it would sit and gather dust and be forgotten.

I think I’ll just keep using it until one day, the boiling water seeps through and floods the counter. It won’t surprise me – not really. Until then, I’ll work on letting go and have another cup of tea. And if it cracks on R or Molly’s watch, I won’t blame them.