To Bernie, trying to make a rebel out of me wasn’t just a game, it was a necessity and she stopped at nothing to ensure I remained a loyal ally. Correctly convinced I both agreed with and admired her rebellious antics in theory, she operated on the assumption that I only needed a little cajoling to put my anti-establishment politics into practice. At first sign I might give in to our parents, she’d kidnap my action figures and hold them hostage. Then, she’d threaten me with their torture until I’d concede to confirming our alliance in opposition to what Bernie considered our cultural oppression. She’d strip G.I. Joe and Big Jim of their clothes, blindfold them with cut shoelaces or small pieces of fabric, bind their hands and feet with undersized elastics and set the bound prisoners in miniature on the back of her dresser for execution with my pellet gun. Or, she’d coerce me into co-conspiracy by holding a lit match next to various parts of their plastic bodies, moving the flame incrementally closer for as long as I remained silent. “Pledge allegiance,” she’d force through gritted teeth. “Pledge allegiance or else G.I. Joe gets it!” Once, she even pushed pins into the suction cup of a toy gun’s bullet. Holding the pins of the cocked gun’s missile mere millimetres from my left temple, while tightly gripping my chin between the thumb and forefinger of her pistol-free hand, she threatened, “Don’t give in. … Don’t give in to their tyranny,” just before she pulled the toy firearm away from my head and shot the sharp needles into my left thigh. This happened within an hour of our mother suggesting I start up with the Croatian dance club. I was nine-years old.
I was the youngest of four children by five years. Ivan and Maria were the oldest (nine and seven years my seniors), and they lived what you might call orderly, civilized lives compared to the rough and tumble existence me and my “middle” sister, Bernie (only our mother called her Bernadette), lead. Like those on my mother’s side of the family, Maria was olive-skinned, dark-eyed, fine-boned and fine-featured and had a rosy-tanned, healthy complexion that suggested she spent more time outdoors than she actually did. As if it could characterize her on its own, Maria’s hair was straight and dark and shined from the meticulous good care she took of it. This was in direct contrast to Bernie’s wild blonde hair, which was unruly and had a mind of its own: its wispy tresses (a mass of tiny wires that curled in, out, up and created a halo in the light) never seemed to rest securely on her head. Unlike Maria, Bernie had blue eyes, pale skin, bulkier features and a more substantial figure. Whereas one would say Maria had a strikingly exotic look, Bernie’s was more generic but not necessarily less attractive. Her eyes had a commanding ice to them that could pierce the air they gazed across and stab whatever they targeted.
Bernie prided herself on being the rebel of the family. She refused to do anything “ethnic” and rarely sat down to do homework or practice the piano on the wings of her own volition, things our older siblings did like clockwork. I became (though somewhat reluctantly) Bernie’s supplicant supporter as she actively snubbed Croatian dance school, rebuked the red kerchiefs and traditional dresses our mother asked her to wear, and scorned, even ridiculed, the mere mention of speaking the language.
“We live in Canada, for Christ’s sake,” she’d say to our mother whenever she addressed her in Croatian. “Speak English, French or a First Nations language. Last time I checked, we were Canadian.”
“But this is your heritage, Bernadette.”
“Upward and onward,” she’d say with contempt. “I was born here, Mother. I live here. I choose here and now.” To this, my mother would respond with an exhale of exasperation followed by a shoulder shrug and wave of the hand that were more passive aggressive in their abruptness than signs of concession. Afterwards, with both mother and daughter safely contained in their respective rooms, an extensive, cumbersome silence would take over the house.
The differences in our ages prevented me from getting too close to my older siblings. They, it seemed to me, never really experienced childhood, and, without key shared frames of reference, we weren’t quite able to unlock the iron gates securing the years between us. In the school pictures I consulted for proof they once experienced less austere years than the ones I was convinced they now lived, earlier versions of Ivan and Maria stared back at me with more seriousness and maturity than their respective young ages required (Maria in her series of ironed blouses, coloured leotards and plaid skirts; Ivan, strong and blocky even in his elementary years, in his casual tan pants, wool vests, sensible leather shoes and button-down shirts), looking not only like they came from a different house, but from a different viewpoint and era.
“Maria’s their puppet,” Bernie once told me when out of earshot of our parents. “You wouldn’t catch me dead in one of those peasant blouses they make her wear.” Then, with nose squirreled after sticking her tongue out in mock disgust, she said, “I’m just not built for the traditional. Neither is Ivan and yet he does everything they say.”
For me, the prospect of embracing my heritage played out as an option, not a necessity, and I always identified with being Canadian. Where my parents were born, where they grew up, the hardship they and their parents endured all seemed incidental to me as I enjoyed the relative safety, the space, the freedom and opportunity afforded me on the other side of the Atlantic, on the flip side of their early cultural consciousness. As a child, I thought the world in which they grew up was largely untouched by what I deemed important. Now I see things differently.
I keep an old photograph in the top drawer of my dresser. White creases like scars of old wounds run across it from its corners and sides, creating the effect of an unfinished asterisk. Underneath the incomplete web, my wool-clad Croatian great aunt and great uncle stand like giant garden gnomes on either side of me as a ten-year-old boy. They are wrinkled and small, hunched over, hobbit-like. Next to my great aunt (her grey hair hidden under the babushka that outlines her face) and my great uncle (wearing a bow tie and fedora), I look like someone who dropped in on them from the future in my meshed, black and gold football jersey and faded jeans. We’re smiling, though no one in the picture looks entirely comfortable.
Bernie was right. Ivan wasn’t built for the traditional. His blocky body wasn’t meant to dance. Yet, he followed the others as best he could, his footwork always betraying the shots and starts of a frustrated dancer who knows the steps, but has difficulty finding their rhythm. He ran rather than two-stepped, his hat always the first to fly off and end up God knows where on the stage. But, at least he danced. He danced for me because I was too much of a coward to do so. He danced for Bernie because she thought rebellion was better than compliance. He danced for Maria so she wouldn’t be the sole dancer in our family. And he danced for my mother, whose eyes were never dry and were never without a spirited kind of joy whenever Ivan scampered around frenetically under the theatre’s lights. Secretly, in the darkness that hid the audience, I imagined myself conforming to the mould Ivan set of the actively obedient and dutiful son and how I might make myself visible through quiet humility rather than obnoxious rebellion. In reality, I was never quite able to gain distinction through either one.
Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1
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