This is the third instalment of ‘Serbs and the City’, Sofija Stefanovic’s column about her experiences as a Serbian-Australian living ambivalently in New York. Read the first instalment, ‘This is a Mistake’, and the second, 'Rats’.
On our way out to a Gatsby-themed party in the Meatpacking District, I said to Michael: ‘Don’t let me lose my grandma’s engagement ring! It doesn’t fit properly on my finger!’, and off we went. He shaved a thin moustache, I wore a headband I’d made out of lacy underpants. We looked excellent.
My grandma died when she was 93. Her pension was small, and the only thing of hers I have is her engagement ring: a gold band with an aquamarine gemstone. It’s only worth about two hundred dollars. It doesn’t fit on my finger because my mother had the band adjusted when she was young and fashionable – she wanted it on her little finger. So it’s sized to my young mum’s little finger, slightly bigger than my little finger, from which it always slips.
My grandma was born in 1917, which means she lived through World Wars I and II, the Yugoslavian wars throughout the nineties, and the NATO bombing of Belgrade. She recovered from the Spanish flu when one third of Europe died from it (her grandma had even sewed a little shirt for her to be buried in). She convinced a German to smuggle her and my toddler uncle across a border during World War II, even though they’d all have been killed if they were caught. Need I add that she managed not to lose her engagement ring while this was going on?
I was born in 1982 in Belgrade, before the Yugoslavian wars started and my family moved to Australia, along with my grandma’s ring, books, and many smooth blue stones that my mum insisted on packing because they reminded her of the European beaches she’d miss. In Australia, she got me toys from garage sales: Lego and ponies, trolls and Barbies.
PULL QUOTE: When she was a girl, my grandma’s spinster aunts bought her the most beautiful doll, with a soft body and porcelain face.
When she was a girl, my grandma’s spinster aunts bought her the most beautiful doll, with a soft body and porcelain face. She clung to it possessively, hiding it from her siblings, until she left it on the furnace one day, from which the doll fell, her face smashing to pieces.
At the Gatsby party, I drank a cocktail and talked to a Romanian. We laughed about how we’re everywhere, we people from the Balkans, shitty regimes chasing nerds away, so computer types – like this Romanian and my dad – went to look for work in the west.
As a child, my grandma’s family lived in the schoolhouse, because her father was the principal. At night, she’d sneak into the gymnasium. She was small and agile, with childish dreams of being a gymnast. Eventually, she studied agronomy at university, and she smoked cigarettes. That was before World War II, before she met my grandfather, who gave her the aquamarine ring.
When I was young, my grandma told me stories about her youth and taught me old songs. They were often about peasants falling in love, and as she got older, she would sing them with growing gusto. The words were sentimental rather than meaningful, about flowers blooming, or lovers being thwarted by grumpy fathers. Like my grandma, I am tone-deaf, but swept up in her enthusiasm, we’d let our unmelodious voices ring through my aunt’s flat, where grandma lived in her old age, smoking cigarettes and tending her plants.
When I was here last night, collecting water,
There came a dark-eyed boy on a sprightly horse,
‘Could you spare some water, sister?’
Our voices would clang, recounting the young woman’s trembling hands, the jug breaking into two, three pieces, the handsome rider never to return. I also remember songs that were popular when I was a kid. Yugo-rock ballads from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, before they became enemies.
I dreamt last night you were gone
That I lay awake, on sheets of snow
I’ve got a great memory for lyrics: I can recall hundreds of songs, which I sometimes translate into English in my head. Perhaps this playlist is taking up space: maybe it’s using up the part of my brain that should be deciding whether it’s a good idea to wear a ring that’s too big.
After we got home from the Gatsby party, I threw off my fake fur coat and realised the ring was gone. I cried for a long time. Because my grandma had nothing to leave us except that little ring. Because of wars and families breaking apart. I cried on the phone to the taxi company, and to the bar at which we’d been. I cried because it had been a Gatsby party – the most unoriginal party theme since Mad Men. I cried because I am in New York and my family is far away. And because I think of my grandma when I look at the ring.
PULL QUOTE: I cried because it had been a Gatsby party – the most unoriginal party theme since Mad Men.
Today, the missing ring works like a phantom limb. I look at my bare fingers and imagine it there, and think about my grandma. But I’m afraid I’ll eventually forget it. I want to get a new ring to remind me of the lost one. Like Kim Novak’s brunette character in Vertigo: I want it to serve as a reminder of another; and I will play the psycho Jimmy Stewart character, blaming myself for the loss of the first, brutally possessive of the second.
We know how old age works. People remember their youth and forget the things that came after. We forget about wars and heartbreaks and bad jobs and the names of the bosses who terrified us. During her last few years, my grandma started hallucinating. In her delusions, young girls would ask her for knitting lessons. But she still liked to sing, and she still remembered the doll she’d broken.
I wonder if I’ll have grandchildren, and if I do, whether I’ll have anything to leave them. Maybe an old iPhone, or the pelt from one of my dogs when they die (which can then be repurposed for a Gatsby party). Will they think about my life, which will be distilled by then into significant anecdotes, a few paragraphs’ worth? When I’m old and I’ve forgotten my grandchildren’s names, will they at least understand the words, when I sing songs in my language, about water jugs and jasmine and snow?