A Life Owed (part 1)

“I will be there tomorrow! Don’t you go anywhere before I arrive — I must meet her!” Uncle Boško hung up the phone receiver and pulled out the small leather suitcase from underneath the bed. The suitcase was his wife’s. Boško didn’t own a suitcase. He never needed one.

Uncle Boško didn’t own a tie either. He never needed one. He wasn’t sure which one his neighbors might have one. In the town of Irig, most men would only wear a tie either for a wedding or for a funeral — unless they were former officers in the Yugoslav People’s Army (the JNA) — in which case they would wear their uniforms to the funeral, immaculately ironed to disciplinarian perfection. Uncle Boško didn’t own an officer’s uniform. A military career was not for him. His soldier uniform was thrown into the Drina River in 1944. He used to say that World War II took him all the way to the Black Sea. When asked to explain what he meant, he would jest: “Well, I threw my uniform into the Drina, which flows into the Sava River, which flows into the Danube, which ultimately flows into the Black Sea!” He never elaborated on why he threw his uniform into the Drina in the first place. “The war was over for me and I needed new clothes,” he’d wink and smile. But Boško did save his soldier’s cap. That greenish-grey cap made of thick cloth was still covered in dirt, grime, and grease. The shape of the embroidered red star at the front of the cap was barely distinguishable. 34 years had passed and he had never washed it. The cap was hidden in a dusty wooden case that had barely seen any daylight in the basement where it was kept for decades. Boško took out the cap, slapped the dust off it twice and tossed it into the suitcase. He didn’t have time to roam around Irig town to look for a suitable tie. He needed to move quickly if he was to arrive on time for the wedding of his nephew, my father.

Boško neatly folded two dress shirts and his only suit, which by that point was five years old and three sizes too small. After trying it on, he realized that the jacket would have to be worn open and that the pants could barely be zipped up underneath his sucked-in belly if he walked upright with the exquisite posture of an aristocratic butler. That was good enough for him. He packed the suitcase and got into his 1972 Lada car. The Lada has never had to make any trips longer than 30 kilometers. Boško hoped that the 400km trip to Mostar would not be too much for the Russian-made steel bunker on wheels.

The drive to Mostar was Boško’s first long-distance trip since 1944. Following the end of World War II, Boško hardly ever left the region of his hometown again. He claimed that he never had the need to. The Srem region of northern Serbia supposedly gave him everything that one could ever want in life. According to Boško, Srem produced the most amazing sausages and cheeses in all of Yugoslavia. The region’s vast grain fields could feed the whole country and the locals made bread of unparalleled quality far and beyond. The local vineyards produced a Riesling that could rival any bottle from Germany’s Rhein region. The orchards bore apples, plums, and cherries that could be turned into the most delicious jam and also into the most potent alcoholic concoction. The earth spawned the ripest and juiciest vegetables — plenty to feast on during the summer and enough to be pickled and preserved for the winter. “Why go anywhere else?” Boško would rhetorically ask as if to challenge any naysayers. “We have everything here! And let’s not forget the music! The Csárdás, the Tamburitza, the Kolo — I can’t live without the music! To me, this is heaven on earth!” Boško couldn’t live without the good plum brandy either — music and brandy often went hand-in-hand for him. He never wanted to leave Srem, but for the wedding of my father, he would make an exception and make the long and winding drive to Herzegovina in less than a day. Not because of my father, but because of his bride-to-be: my mother.

…to be continued…

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