My Grandmother was a short woman with a hawkish nose and a certain distant look in her eyes that I couldn’t interpret or understand for the longest time. I spent my childhood summers in her house on the island and in the winters I had lunch with her and my cousin in her small apartment in the capital on Fridays.
Her flat was in the building that was temporarily erected for construction workers and that now, more than seventy years later, still awaits its long promised demolition. As she grew older and more frail, she lived there entirely, closer to the rest of the family, until that day I found her curled on the floor. Her place was simply furnished, with basic chairs, tables, and beds, a gramophone and two fireplaces, one in each room. She used to place tangerine peels on top of them, a scent I can still feel in my nostrils. There was no art on the walls, only revolutionary posters proclaiming that grave was better than slavery and war better than cooperating with the occupation.
I loved her cooking. She could cook many things, but obliging my cousin’s and my wishes, she settled for a very limited winter rotation including tomato soup with dumplings, my favorite, and traditional Croatian meals like brudet or pašticada. We ate in the kitchen, sitting on the bench that doubled as a storage space, small windows in front of us and the pantry to the right.
I think of her often these days, of her and that uberstocked pantry of hers, of how momentary and how fragile life is, of how much pain she carried for the longest time and how much she tried to shield us all from it. When she was a child, my Grandmother lost her father in World War I. She then lost her husband in World War II. She raised two kids during the war, alone. When my cousin was diagnosed with autism, she dropped everything and dedicated every fiber of her soul to making sure he had the best life he could have.
Since I was twelve or thirteen, I was in charge of buying supplies. Incidentally, this was also the age when I started being the smartest person in the world, alternately berating her and making fun of her purchasing habits. She would make me buy supplies for what was literally more than the half of her, admittedly small, pension. And it couldn’t wait, not for a day. As soon as money was in her purse, off I was, carrying flour, sugar, salt, oil, canned tomatoes, you name it, going back and forth to the store like a mule, until the money was gone and the pantry was full up to the ceiling.
As I grew a little older, and in my mind wiser and more eloquent, I tried to explain to her how, yeah, she might have had a bad break or three, but how these were different times. How my generation was not like hers, how the past was not coming back. How we were more advanced now, how progressive the world was, how silly it was to think that something bad might happen. She never argued with me. She would just look at me, or more likely through me to something only she could see, muster a sad half-smile, pat me on the cheek with her wrinkled hand and then just slowly turn away. So, I would go and buy everything she asked for, because I loved her and would have done anything she asked me to no matter how silly she was.
And then, the bombs started falling and my father and I came to say our goodbyes, the third and the fourth generation of her life to be swallowed into the chaos. She didn’t cry, I’ll give her that. She was stronger than either one of us was or ever would be. She patted me on the cheek and gave me another one of her sad, distant smiles. Only this time I saw something, I saw everything in her eyes. Perhaps not yet fully understanding what it was, but knowing it would be with me until I died.
It’s not like hers, but I have a well-stocked pantry myself, I had it long before it was of any use. I have lived over twenty years of very privileged life, but I never forgot. I can live off my supplies for a month, and I can leave my apartment within five minutes and never come back. Every time I go over my checklists, I think of my Grandmother and I think how everything can change so quickly. How, thanks to her, I’m a little better prepared for the days when, not if, bad things come.
But, I also think that thanks to her, I’m better prepared for the days before bad things come. How in every ocean I sail, every mountain I climb and every desert I cross, there is a little reflection of her, how in trying to live my life to the fullest, both for me and for dear people in my life, I can look back to her, pat her on the cheek with my slowly wrinkling hand and say that I love her, that I am thankful, and that, yes, I do understand now.