Family Ghosts

May 11, 2011

Gracious Living Day by DayI will tell you a story.

This story has been passed through several generations of my mother’s family and this is how I remember it.

Is it true?

My grandmother and her sisters alleged that every detail of this story is unquestionably true.

I grew up in a different reality from the one I am describing.  I am between worlds. I am not sure what to believe. But I remember their stories.

An old Serbian house

Things Fall Apart

My grandmother Branka (my mother’s mother) grew up in a wealthy landowning family in Northern Serbia. Her father was the most powerful man in their village. He owned vast amounts of land, vineyards, the village store and the village café. He was respected by the villagers, but he was not loved.

The family had one son and four daughters. The son (and heir to the estate) was the eldest child, and was adored by his sisters. They remembered him as caring, gentle and compassionate.

In the summer of 1917, the son was seventeen years old. In less than a week, he got sick with the Spanish Influenza and died.

In this traditional, patriarchal family this was more than a personal tragedy. They loved the boy and were deeply grieved by his demise. But right away, questions were raised.  Who will inherit the land? Who will carry the family name? Who will take on the task or running the estate?

The family went into deep mourning.

Every member wore black. Dark shades were drawn over the windows. No one went out of the house. They sat around the rooms of their sad house and cried. And cried more.

A few nights after the funeral, the family started hearing strange, loud noises. Windows were opened and shut with force; mirrors shattered.  Pictures were seen swaying on the walls, footsteps heard throughout the house.

No one could be seen.

These mysterious nightly visits lasted a week or so. The family was terrified. No one slept. Everyone just sat and wept in fear and grief.

The father of the family, that fierce, commanding patriarch, started to drink heavily. Plum brandy and wine were the only things that took his mind off the sad state of affairs his family had fallen into.

His wife was advised by the other women in the village to visit a famous Gypsy fortuneteller who lived in a large city two hours from the village. The Gypsy would advise them on the best course of action.

My great-mother’s mother and elder sister (fifteen years old at the time) went to seek out the Gypsy.

The old Gypsy greeted them kindly and told them that a young man was trying to tell them something. She said that she could hear his voice.

And so the son communicated that he has been coming to the house every night because the grief of his family had anchored him there. They would not free him. Their tears enveloped him and he had to wade through deep water at all times.

He also complained that they didn’t bury him in his favorite shirt. (How could the Gypsy know that they had kept his favorite shirt as a keepsake?) He needed that shirt, he said, as a comfort and a remembrance.

What should they do, his mother and sister asked?

The Gypsy answered that they must stop grieving and crying and must get back to living their own lives.

For now, they needed to bury his shirt in the coffin of the next young man who died in their village.

The mother and daughter returned to the village.

A young neighbor died a few days later from the same Spanish Influenza. They buried the shirt in his coffin.

The nightly visitations ceased.

But the family never recovered.

The father never stopped drinking.

The daughters married, became widows, suffered in their singular ways.

The land, the vineyards and the property were sold, the money spent.

There was another world war and angry, merciless armies tore through their homes again and again.

By the time I was born in 1959, no one from this influential family lived in their ancestral village.

The only thing the sisters had left were the stories.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Branka Holtzman May 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Pa sta si me opet uplasila!


Gordana Curgus May 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Hi Liliana,
What a great story. I’ve stumbled on your blog.
I would like to be able to share the story of my family and life graciously as you, but I’m not. We are from Sarajevo, and had to escape from this last 1992 war….we are here in US, Bellingham WA. It took us long time to feel and call it the home, but it is now. Nice to “meet” you here, I’ll be following your story, and maybe one day it will help me to open up and share mine, but still to emotional to talk about it, even after 19 years.
Regards, (pozdravi)
Gordana Curgus


Liliana May 11, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Dear Gordana,
thank you so much for writing. Even though I have lived in the US for a long time, I am intimately involved with happenings in former Yugoslavia.

I have family I love there – on all sides!

Please keep in touch and when you feel like sharing your stories, please do.

My family and I have gone through a lot and the only way to heal (I have found again and again) is to be open, honest and compassionate and hope that others will understand.

I send you greetings and hugs.
Mnogo pozdrava


Jelena May 11, 2011 at 8:13 am

What a great story! Thank you for sharing.


John May 11, 2011 at 7:11 am

Hi Liliana;

Thank you for the wonderful story. I think you would enjoy The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.


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