My cousin Mira, ten years older than I, has always been a mystery to me. She did things that upset our family and made them whisper about her behind her back. But the moment I (or other children) walked into the room everyone stopped talking and there was an awkward silence.
Mira’s mother Mileva was my father’s older sister.
As a young girl I didn’t think of Mira as a beautiful woman, but in retrospect I can see why men found her attractive. Although she was very short, she had a well developed and voluptuous body, heavy chestnut hair and thick, sensual lips. Her eyes were her best feature, though, large green eyes, always sleepy and half closed.
I am lying. Mira’s best feature was her voice. It was light but powerful, clear as a bell despite the fact that she smoked. My mother said that Mira sang like an angel.
I only heard Mira sing a few times, but her voice is so deeply embossed in my memory, I can recall it instantly. Mira loved singing old Serbian and Bosnian songs. When I hear those songs, even now, I always think of her.
Mira also played an accordion and owned a beautiful instrument that she slowly took out of its case on special occasions. But it always appeared to me that everyone in our family, from her mother Mileva to my own father, seemed eager to keep that accordion safely hidden in its case.
For as long as I knew her, Mira lived in her parent’s house. I didn’t question it at the time, but now I wonder why she didn‘t get away. She was a very successful woman. An artist and a designer, she was a fashion buyer for one of the biggest department stores in Yugoslavia.
When I was ten years old my mother told me that Mira was an alcoholic. She drank plum brandy and wine, my mother said, she was wild and she did bad things.
When I was fourteen I found out from my cousin Milica, that Mira went on drinking binges that lasted days. Milica said that Mira lived a “bohemian” lifestyle. She took her accordion case from café to café and she played as much as she wanted to. And she sang until her voice was hoarse. She smoked and she drank. She seduced men.
When her revelries were over, Mira went to Milica’s house and slept and slept and no one bothered her. Milica’s mother was my father’s younger sister. And when Mira woke up, they ran a bath for her and made sure that she was fed and that she looked respectable. They never talked about what Mira had been doing. Then Mira went back home. Until the next time.
When I was fifteen, Mira got married. There was no big wedding, the family didn’t get together to celebrate, she was married quietly at the local court house. Her husband was an unassuming, uninteresting man, as prosaic and commonplace as she was dynamic. Quickly, a son was born.
My parents, sister and I were living in the US by this time but we went to Yugoslavia almost every summer. When we visited I always spent some time with Mira and her family.
Mira and I were never close, there was too much of an age difference and personality difference for intimacy between us. But we liked each other and found each other interesting.
We liked to talk. She was curious about everything. She wanted to know about my life in New York City. About my college classes and the books I was reading. She herself was (surprisingly to me) well read and informed but never showy with her ideas. She wanted to know what I thought about things.
At the time, and even more now that time has passed and I am able to understand her from a mature perspective, Mira surprised me with her open mindedness and flexibility of perspective. Unlike me, she was self confident. She had nothing to prove, didn’t need to win an argument. She didn’t care about being right. What Mira loved was engaging in the pleasure of information exchange, of finding out what another person thought. She was happy to be influenced and to change her mind.
Mira and I never talked about her “bohemian” lifestyle. Not directly. But I remember a summer afternoon, when she, my sister and I sat in our grandfather’s old veranda and talked about “the meaning of life.” I cannot remember the exact words she used, but I remember the intensity with which she explained to us that there are many different kinds of people and many ways to live a life. Not just one way, she emphasized. Many ways. And I remember how thoughtful and wistful she became when she said that it was hard for those people who are different from the norm.
And I remember feeling two things: admiration for Mira for knowing herself and accepting who she is, and pity for her for being caged in a society that wanted to keep her and her accordion locked out of view.
I also remember that the three of us parted that afternoon with embraces full of emotion and understanding.
A few months after I was married, I received a phone call from my father. Hardly able to speak, he was crying and terribly agitated. There had been a terrible car accident, he said. Mira and his sister Mileva had been killed early that morning.
At twenty two, death was a distant theory with little relevance to my own life. Or the life of people I knew and loved. When my father told me about the tragedy, I felt like everything I understood collapsed in a heap. My certainty in the reality and stability of things became fundamentally altered. The solid rock I had been standing on to view the changing world became a soft coral.
I wanted to comfort my father at this painful moment, but the role was so unfamiliar to me, I didn’t know what to say. I had never seen or heard him cry.
“What happened?” I asked instead.
My father calmed his voice and told me how Mira and her parents drove early that morning to an AA meeting from their village to the nearest town. Mira’s father was driving, Mira sitting in the passenger seat and her mother sitting behind her. Mira was angry and didn’t want to go to the AA meeting. She was screaming at her parents, enraged, telling them that they were forcing her to do things that she didn’t want to do. Throughout the drive she was getting more and more agitated. Her parents tried to calm her down.
And then, at one fateful second, she grabbed the steering wheel from her father and swerved the car to the right. A large truck was parked on the side of the road. The right side of the car crashed into the truck and dived under it.
Mira and her mother were killed instantly. Her father survived, badly hurt, but he lived and he told what happened.
The irony of a large truck parked on a quiet country road was not lost on anyone in our family. That road must have been completely empty at that time of early morning, no cars, no trucks. Only that one truck, waiting like fate, and that’s where Mira grabbed for the wheel.
And in my mind, but never out loud, I wondered if she wanted to escape so badly that she reached for the wheel when she knew the damage would be unchangeable. Maybe she couldn’t take the torturous contradictions of her life a second longer.
Who can ever know?
All I know is that I have always remembered her fondly: as a free spirit, a kind older cousin, a person thirsty for knowledge and experience.
But the most concrete part of her, the part that is as real to me now as the day that I heard it last, is her voice.
It sounded just like this. Listen: