September 8-16, 2019
From Derventa, we headed over to Sipovo, a tiny town in the northwest part of the country where my dad was born and where he is now buried. I say that we went to Sipovo but in reality, my dad was from a tiny village 5 km away from this tiny town. In the past, this village might as well have been 100 km away from the civilization. When I was growing up, the village seemed so remote to me. It was a place where you could rarely see a car, my grandma could hear one miles away and could often recognize whose car it was. This was a place where large numbers of sheep, horses, and cows adorned the hills, where children, in equally large numbers, ran around freely, playing tag, hide and seek, made recorders from the branches of hazelnut bushes, looked for wild strawberries, rode horses, played ball, etc. At the time, every family in this village had many kids (4-10+) and the place was like a bee’s nest, always crawling with people and animals. My grandparents had 8 living kids following 11 births, and then 13 grandkids. This meant that at any given time, there were more than 20-30 of us visiting their small, 2 bedroom home, all gathering at the same time.
My grandparents had two small wooden houses in their main yard. One we called the ‘old house’ built right after the World War II and that is where most of my aunts and uncles were born. The ‘New” house was built in the late 60s/early 70s and that’s where we stay when we now visit. I remember the time when our grandparents and most of us kids used to sleep in the ‘old house’, all in the same room of max 200 square feet, that somehow never felt too crowded. This side of my family is pretty known for getting along, maybe because we’ve always been together in large numbers or because we had the best grandma that kept us all together, all of us feeling like we were her ‘favorite’. Our family has grown over the years, currently counting at 63 of us living and 4 that that we miss daily.
Today, this village, like most villages around the country, is like a ghost town. Kids have grown up and moved away (at least moved into the town), elders got older, many of them not among us anymore. There are not many domestic animals left to roam around the hills and there are no kids running around. The unspoiled nature is now full of wild animals, wild boars ravaging whatever vegetable and crop fields are left. I almost hit a big brown bear one evening as I was driving from one uncle’s house to another’s. I’ve often said that this is probably my most favorite place on earth. As a young child, I’ve spent every holiday there, and since then, I’ve come back to it as often as I possibly could. Since my dad died, Sipovo has gained even more significance in my life. I love everything about this area – all my beautiful aunts, uncles and cousins, old house, breathtaking nature, all the memories.
Our large family has had family reunions when such concept didn’t exist. We’ve never visited our grandparent’s place alone. Whenever one family would head there, everyone else flocked to their home at the same time. We have gathered there for any school break, family Saint day (Slava), xmas, etc. The first time we had an official record of these gatherings was in 1997, shortly after the civil war ended and everyone returned to their homes after horrendous 9 months of being refugees in other parts of Bosnia and Serbia. Most of them returned to Sipovo finding their homes ravaged, most of their possessions stolen or destroyed and some homes and auxiliary buildings burned down to ashes. I remember then taking our first group family photo. My grandpa, who never asked for much, asked me then to take a photo of him and grandma so they would have a good one for their tombstones. Today, the photos I took of them on that summer day in 1997 are the same photos smiling at us from their tombstones every time we visit them at a village cemetery close to their home.
Our family gatherings have gained in importance over the years, with a lot of us being spread around the country and a couple of continents. When my dad passed away, I grew even closer to this side of the family. To me, they are all a great reminder of him, all investing time and energy to keep us connected. We started having official family reunions after my dad’s death, every year growing in numbers. Even once our grandpa and grandma died, we continued to gather annually, in whatever numbers and under whatever festive circumstances we could manage at the time. Among other festive traditions around these reunions, these gatherings are usually accompanied by fun greetings over local radio waves with folk music following messages such as this one “Happy family reunion of Markanovic clan, gathering today in the home of their late grandma Sava and grandpa Obrad. All the best from family x”. In the past 15+ years, our gatherings have become somewhat legendary in that region.
This year was no exception. We organized our official gathering a week after our arrival to Sipovo. There were 39 (out of 63) of us in attendance this year.
However, prior to having this reunion, we all gathered together for one even better reason this year. We all participated in the best possible family project.
My oldest uncle Gliso and aunt Stoja have lived up in the village all of their lives. They are in their 70s now and life has not been easy on them. Almost 50 years ago, they built a house in town (to have a place for their later, more fragile days). They have never lived in it. It stood empty for years, sort of like a long term care insurance policy.
This house was partially burned down during the civil war and they never got to rebuild it completely. It was always too expensive, it required too much work, it was almost impossible to find resources to rebuild this house in addition to their post-war rebuilding efforts back in the village. Years went by, they grew older, villages became deserted, only a few older folks stayed up there. Winters are harsh and long, they have no reliable transportation to town (and doctors) and they have just gotten too fragile to stay up there almost alone.
So this year, our big family gathered together to get their house in the town remodeled to the point that it is functional enough for them to move to town, closer to the rest of the family.
We all spent a week working on the house, every day, all they long. It was a joint effort resembling building of a house for Habitat for Humanity. Everyone had a role in it. I acted as a general contractor moving things along, bringing in supplies, Pedja was organizing most of the work, Petra and him installed laminate flooring, one uncle set up kitchen sink and cabinets, another cousin and uncle set up the bathroom, put up water heater, sink, safety railings, aunts and cousins brought food and coffee, etc. Everyone contributed in some way, by free labor, supplies or furniture. This was such a fun week. Even with ton of work, we were happy, every single day – lots of laughter, teasing, tons accomplishments. This has been the most rewarding part of our trip so far. This week in Sipovo was the best demonstration of our close-knit family.
Fast forward to 2 months later, I’m happy to report that today, on 11/23/2019, uncle Gliso and aunt Stoja are moving to their house in town. This will be the first night ever that my aunt Stoja will spend in her house.
My family is gathering today to help them move, cousins organizing transportation, aunts and uncles prepping a small celebration to mark this big day. They’ll even roast a pig to celebrate this move.
I’m so proud of everyone!
I’m sorry to miss this iconic day for our family but I look forward to the pictures of the most rewarding labor of love.