Milorad and Emina were, more or less, a typical mixed heritage couple in Bosnia in the 1980s – high school sweethearts whose love was crowned with a happy and harmonious marriage. They were university educated, tolerant atheists; in other words, “progressive”. He didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter; she didn’t celebrate Bayram or Ramadan or even Kurban Bayrami. They didn’t fast, cross themselves or bow in worship. God was not mentioned in their home, not as an adage and, thankfully, not even as a profanity. Their parents, on the other hand, celebrated all these religious holidays and, naturally, Milorad and Emina went to their parents’ homes on these occasions out of respect and courtesy, more as family gatherings. They showed no emotional attachment to these traditions which was understandable in some way because, after all, they were a modern couple who, as it was said in those days, had overcome religious dogmas. They were the new generation of atheists, young people with a broad outlook and an openness to modern ideas.
Soon they had children of their own. Since neither had followed their respective cultural customs, their son was not named after Milorad’s grandfather Stojan and their daughter was not named after Emina’s grandmother Hatidza. Instead, they named their children Tim and Una – short, neutral names so that no one could guess their faith or where they came from, a decision which would later prove to be very wise.
Then came the craziness of the 1990s and the war in Bosnia. As tolerant and progressive people, fortunately Milorad and Emina did not trouble themselves for one second whether it was a civil war or “aggression on a sovereign country”. They viewed the situation in the country as collective madness and wanted no part of it. As a logical consequence of that thinking, they decided to apply to move to America. And America, that generous land of endless opportunities, ushered them quickly through the immigration process and offered them refuge in Fort Worth in the great State of Texas, probably so that they wouldn’t have to struggle in New York, Boston or, God forbid, Los Angeles – all murky metropolises with chaotic traffic and a fast-paced life where either snobs and recent arrivals or the impoverished lived.
The children, Tim and Una, grew, blending easily into their new environment. With every passing year Milorad and Emina were languishing and fading into their surroundings where they socialized mainly with people like themselves – mixed couples, exiles or illegal immigrants -– people who did not judge them for their ethnic origins, at least not in the same detailed way as in the land they left behind.
Soon after their departure from Bosnia, Milorad’s parents passed away, one right after the other, within a short span of time. He knew that his father, already affected by the pain of his son leaving home, could not survive the blow of his mother’s death and he died of a broken heart. Milorad couldn’t attend their funerals since he didn’t have a passport and he didn’t even light a candle in their memory because, quite honestly, he didn’t have the courage to tell his family that he was going to the nearest Orthodox Church in Houston or Dallas. After Emina’s dad died, she told her husband she wanted to bring her mother to live with them under the same roof. Flexible and generous by nature, Milorad had nothing against this idea. To the contrary, he had hoped that with her gentleness and warmth she would influence Tim and Una to “de-Americanize” and learn a bit of the feeling and attachment to family and roots which had enriched his and Emina’s lives and the lives of most of their entire generation.
But, no, that did not happen. With each passing year Milorad felt like he had been shipwrecked on some unknown distant island whose inhabitants were alienated not only from one another, but also from themselves.
Then one evening during dinner, as both teens were fixed on the screens of their cell phones and mindlessly chewing pizza, Milorad sat staring blankly at the television screen with its muted sound. Emina was massaging her temples to relieve a migraine which had been bothering her for the past few days, and nanna Mujesira was staring at her cold chowder whose surface had developed a thin, wrinkled film. Then Una suddenly looked up from her cell phone and blurted out that she had a boyfriend named Jesse and she planned to bring him home the following weekend to introduce him! Everyone around the table was instantaneously jolted out of their silence. A smile even passed over Milorad’s face while nanna Mujesira innocently asked:
“Is he ours or Mexican?”
“No, he’s neither ours nor Mexican; he’s American, nanna”, replied Una.
The next weekend preparations for Jesse’s arrival began early in the morning. Milorad cleaned the barbeque, nanna Mujesira stretched the pita dough, Emina arranged the layers of baklava, Tim brought in the refreshments, and by three o’clock everything was ready.
At 3:30 Jesse pulled up in a red Ford Mustang and parked it behind the other four cars. (You see, in America every adult member of the family has a car and a separate bank account.) When Jesse entered the house, Una introduced him to the family. Feeling completely at ease meeting everyone, Jesse smiled widely revealing his pearly white teeth which were especially noticeable against his dark skin.
The commotion that followed in the house was unusual. Milorad was in a total muddle with the barbeque, Emina dropped a glass salad bowl which broke into smithereens, and nanna burned herself on the oven rack when she was removing the pita. In spite of it all, everything turned out well, and soon the table was set with a banquet of delicious foods – just what you might expect in a close-knit family where two skilled chefs worked together in the kitchen blending centuries-old culinary traditions from different cultures.
Jesse liked the food. He sampled every dish and after each morsel nodded his head in approval and then broke into a broad smile showing his pearly white teeth which became even more apparent against his dark skin, now just slightly moist with perspiration.
Around 7:30 Una announced that she and Jesse were going upstairs to her room because their favourite television series would be starting soon. Tim said he was going to work out at the gym, while the other three continued sitting at the table. Not long after, Emina quietly started to clean the table, put the dishes in the dishwasher, pack the leftover food into glass containers and place them in the refrigerator. Nanna went to her room while Milorad sat motionless at the head of the table, a half empty bottle of beer still in front of him. The silence was broken only by the sound of dishes clanging in the kitchen and the blended chorus of the crickets which could be heard through the open front door.
When Emina withdrew to their former bedroom which, since recently, belonged only to her, Milorad went out on the wooden veranda. The evening was pleasant and the breeze was warm and gentle. The chorus of crickets and the warmth of the night reminded him of the summers he had spent with his grandfather Stojan during the hay mowing in the village where he would spend the day bringing water to the farmhands. He reminisced about the burned bark of the core of the cherry tree fastened to the “lilo” stick for the feast of Saint Peter. And leaning on the veranda’s wooden railing he released a long and painful sigh as though it had come from the depth of his soul. Right at that moment he heard the sound of slow, sluggish footsteps behind him. He turned around and saw the delicate silhouette of his mother-in-law Mujesira.
“What’s wrong, son? What’s troubling you? Let me guess. You are thinking, if only he were Mexican, right? But don’t worry, it will pass. That’s how it was for me at the beginning. My old man and I tossed and turned in bed at night consoling ourselves with our fate when you and Emina got together. But time heals everything. And that’s how it will be for you. There is no sorrow or misfortunate which a man cannot become accustomed to in the end – and even learn to love. Look, it’s like the two of us – we got used to each other. Now I couldn’t imagine someone else being beside Emina. And sometimes I have the feeling that I even love you like my own son.”
Milorad nodded his head and gave a slight lopsided smile. He felt a momentary urge to rest his head on her shoulder but hesitated. Finally, he touched her arm and rested his hand there a few seconds before squeezing past her into the living room to turn off the silenced television. He climbed up the stairs to the second floor and headed down the long hallway to the guest room. The light was still visible under the door of Una’s room, and in his and Emina’s former bedroom everything was quiet. He opened the door of the guest room, moved toward the bed, undressed himself and laid down. He pulled the blanket right up to his chin, and for the first time since childhood, he joined the three fingers of his right hand and whispered: “Dear God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and forgive me all my transgressions.”