She was born in 1932 in a village called Kazance tucked away in the mountains between Bosnia and Croatia, youngest of six, there were thirty years between her and her oldest sister. Grandma was fifty years old when she gave birth to my mother – she told her daughter that she never really wanted to have her at such an old age, but that she was the best of all her children.
My mother Milica (Melissa) didn’t go to school, although she should have. The war was on and the neighbouring city, Banja Luka, was under siege by the Nazis throughout World War II. She would often recall living through those years as a child and the fear that ran through her. As an adult she still didn’t like the sound of aeroplanes, was afraid of fire and had an ingrained hatred of fascism. One of her sisters taught her to read Cyrillic, but mostly she learned how to knit, weave, sew, make clothes and how to look after the farm animals.
Grandma, who was known for her love of fauna, would always chastise her daughter for not being kind enough to the farm animals. One summer’s day she was asked to tend to the bees by her sister Jela. Milica didn’t have the gift for handling them and soon they set upon her, entangled in her waist-long hair, nipping her scalp, neck and face. She survived of course, but never forgot. She never got on with snakes either and would run as fast as she could to escape angry jumping stripeys.
During the second world war, she survived typhoid when she was just nine – all her hair fell away during the fever – disease and chronic illnesses was spread by visiting armies engaged in guerrilla warfare in the forests and mountains. She was sent to hide high up in the hills many times along with all the other children when enemy soldiers passed through the village, crossing from Croatia to Bosnia and back. She would spend days tucked away in bothies dotted about the mountains, tending sheep and goats along with her friends. Mothers and the elders felt it was safer for their children and didn’t want to risk them being taken away by the Germans and Croats.
Both her brothers were murdered in a Nazi camp in Yugoslavia. They fought against the Nazis as part of an anti-fascist resistance movement hoping to free Banja Luka from occupation. They were neither pro-loyalist or communist. The political history during that time was very complicated. When communism came after the war life altered for the peasants living in the hills and they lost ownership of their land. They were visited many times by Yugoslav militia to be asked to work voluntarily in the cities to rebuild a new country. My mother would return to the tops of the mountains to hide, along with her female companions, to avoid going. She felt it was more important to stay and look after her parents. However, things changed. She had to decide whether she was going to stay at home or leave for good.
She was the last at home to look after her parents and came to England in 1962 with just one piece of luggage, to marry my father and to work at Salt’s Mill. She weighed seven stone when she arrived – farm work had taken its toll on her body – she was a tall woman. The other mill workers would try to fatten her up with fish and chip suppers from Saltaire chippy, but she stayed skinny for years.
My mother was a straight woman, with a dry laconic sense of humour. She didn’t drink alcohol, smoke or eat sweet food like chocolate. Sometimes she was vilified for speaking her mind – she had no fear of shooting from the hip at any man or woman. She was assertive with strong opinions on politics and culture and would engage in man talk at the table – she had little time for fishwife tittle-tattle.
Despite being a war child and growing up in poverty, she still had much love in her heart and was wholly and deeply committed to us. She loved completely. She loved children and they knew they were always welcome at our house. When times were tough, she fed the entire street of kids who would turn up hungry at lunchtimes. She always found it in her heart to give. For this we loved her too. She made the house welcome to everyone who came by and the living room would be full of people chatting away, drinking Turkish coffee and tucking in to gibanica.
She battled with illness all her adult life and was eventually diagnosed with a terminal cancer which took her away from us after two years of struggle. She was stoic throughout, still loving completely. An unforgettable woman: mother, daughter, sister, wife and of course, baba.
Published in Family Legends – A collection of special family stories from Scottish Book Trust’s national story project. Author: Jelica Gavrilovic