Last summer, while I was in Serbia, the wheat harvest started in mid July.
During those broiling, humid days everyone was busy from sunrise to sunset. In Vizic, my father’s family village, I could taste the dust on my tongue at any time of day or night.
Vizic Harvest, July, 2013
My uncles and aunts and cousins and every able bodied member of this tiny village of around five hundred souls worked endlessly to get everyone’s fields harvested before the rains fell. If the wheat got wet and moldy a year of hard work could be lost.
Everyone had a job to do. There were the organizers who directed the combines to the fields around the village perimeter. There were the combine operators and the hay collectors. There were the mechanics who stepped in if the combine engines broke down or needed a new part. There were the cooks who prepared meals for the workers.
Sam, Nikki and I helped as much as we could. Sam loved driving out into the wheat fields with the men. Nikki and I mostly helped by cooking, baking and cleaning. Nikki commented that she had never seen people work so hard.
During this entire time the village had been anticipating the death of one of its own.
Vizic, Main Street
Djoka Kotarlic, a man in his 60’s, had been paralyzed and in a partial coma since suffering a stroke two years earlier. For more than two weeks he had been slowly dying.
In the middle of the harvest season, at midday on a very hot Friday, Djoka Kotarlic finally died.
The news spread through the village in a couple of minutes but the work did not stop. The combine engines thundered til the end of the day.
My uncle Jova came home from the fields that evening, washed up, and we ate dinner together. Then he and my aunt Angelina went to the house of Djoka Kotarlic who was laid on a table in the middle of his living room with a handkerchief tied around his jaw. The village sat around him, quietly talking, keeping the family company through the night.
On Saturday morning while the village prepared for the funeral, the combine engines idled silently.
Around 11 am I put on my darkest, severest dress and headed to Djoka Kotarlic’s house with my aunt and uncle. People were gathered in groups all around their yard and veranda. I tried not to look at Djoka Kotarlic as I entered the living room to pay respects to his sobbing wife and daughters. But I couldn’t help myself. I quickly glanced at this grey, shrunken shell and had trouble recognizing the man so full of energy and mischief.
Everyone had a job to do. The family quietly mourned. Women prepared soup, roasts and baked bread in the summer kitchen. Men carried the coffin into the living room, placed Djoka Kotarlic inside and closed the lid.
The church bells thundered, both joyous and solemn, announcing the setting forth of the funeral procession.
The priest headed the long cavalcade. A few rows behind him I carried wreaths of flowers with the other women. The men trailed with the coffin on their shoulders. It was noon by now, the sun enormous and merciless.
We walked through the streets stopping by every house while the priest chanted a short prayer; a send-off for Djoka Kotarlic from each family in the village. After half an hour or so we made it to the church yard in the center of the village square. The coffin was taken into the old church and the priest held a long service. Some mourners went inside, others sat on benches under the linden trees. People offered each other cool glasses of water.
After the service, we continued walking through the dusty, unshaded streets. With all the stopping it seemed to take an enormous length of time to get to the cemetery but no house was skipped over. We walked outside the village, up a steep hill and through the iron gates of the ancient cemetery.
Vizic Cemetery; my niece Jovana kissing our grandmother’s grave
We headed to the shady corner where Djoka Kotarlic’s family has been buried for generations. I examined the stones as the priest chanted and the church bells loudly tolled. The old women wailed. The coffin was placed in the open grave and covered with dirt.
Slowly, people fanned through the lanes between the graves, visiting their own family members. I left a few stalks of wilted roses at the graves of my grandparents. At the exit, under an enormous oak, a wooden table was laden with flat bread, bottles of plum brandy, wine and mineral water. I washed my hands and face at the water fountain, then sat on the bench next to my uncle Jova and had a glass of water. He placed his arm around my shoulder.
In broken little groups we slowly headed back to the house of Djoka Kotarlic. Under the shady grape arbor tables were set with the best family china. We all sat down, cheerful and companionable, exhausted but light in our relief. Tureens of soup were passed around; then boiled chicken with tomato, dill or garlic sauces; roast chicken, pork, potatoes; roasted peppers; tomato, cucumber and onion salads.
As I chatted with cousins and childhood friends, the bitterness of thick Turkish coffee balanced the sweetness of walnut strudel and apricot torte piled high with thick cream.
The rains held for another week. People said that it was the best harvest year anyone could remember in a very long time.