News of ujna Sibinka passing, reach us the minute we walk in the yard. I knew her for the past 20 years a rather colorful, curious and selfish village woman, my husband’s aunt.“She just passed, about an hour ago!” her grandson relates, matter-of-factly, with a labored sad look. She’s been bedridden since March, a stroke, a seizure, or something else… no one knows for sure as doctor visits and yearly physicals are not popular in this part of the world, especially for those past a certain age, and she was 80, no autopsies, and no forensic investigations… just in case someone might have… ujina. So the cause of her suffering and demise will forever be anyone’s guess. In a vegetative state for over five months she had her two daughters, son, and daughter-in-law attending to her needs. Not much attention from Slobodan, her husband of 60 somewhat years, but now with her gone he drags himself about the yard bent back with sorrows and red eyes lids squeeze dry crocodile tears.
"Serbian" of Romanian descend brothers Dragos and Slobodan shared the same yard their entire life. Dragos married Ruza, my mother-in-law, and Slobodan married Sibinka now deceased. From behind the curtain in Ruza's kitchen across the common broken concrete yard I watch a flock of relatives quietly working together to fix and fill Sibinka's coffin. Then, laid into her rather shallow box wobbly yet stiff, glassy eyes spying on the world, mouth open for an eternal breath and upward chin she's ushered down the stairs through the sunlight across the yard in a long dining room for her (priveghi) the wake.
Assorted pagan and "pravoslav" orthodox beliefs and rituals are as varied and confusing as the dialects spoken in this god forgotten rough country and watching this makes it even more puzzling! A rugged scarf is roughly tied around her head to force close her mouth, but rigor mortis peeks into a toothless black burrow, while her eyes stare into everlasting traffic. Her hands folded on her chest are covered with a towel a block against her taking any loved ones along for the ride. Frozen water bottles are placed into the coffin around her body to slow the decomposition, on this hotter than ever July day, but a heavy wool-blend blanket is placed on her tied legs to show the devil she won't follow. Pine incense is waved over her coffin in circular motions to chase away bad spirits, or maybe to scatter the stench of decomposition, which sucks out the already low supply of oxygen leaving a dense odor of death forever imprinted in one’s memory. The front metal gate is wide open to set her sins and sorrows free and to invite villagers to come and say good-bye, not many do! It means one of two things; her friends are all dead or she had none!
On her last night above earth she’s not to be alone, someone has to be next to her coffin, soft whispers fly over her from the hot sponge couches placed on both sides of the coffin where 8 women dressed in black are making the night schedule… through all this I check ujna Sibinka’s scary remains, not much left; bones poke through her brown, yellow skin resembling the color of the soil she’ll be lowered in tomorrow. With the midnight stroke her nieces cover her completely in shiny white linen of a Chinese tablecloth spreading out of her box and hanging on its sides. Before placing it on her face the cloth is waved three times touching her forehead this is for her to leave black thoughts behind and not come back... no haunting!
Her middle daughter oversees that the wake goes on rightly, she nervously thumps around straightening things in and about the coffin. Frowned from wrestling a sea of sadness Sibinka's daughter charges for the fly swatter and starts the chase and slaughter. In this country bugs roam free, it's the people that don't! The old Balkan country does no spraying, no pesticide, no insecticide everything is natural (prirodno) organic, a bug paradise, until a swatter is in use, so while stories are told about the deceased in soft reverent voices her daughter swats and whacks every bug dead. Skinny tall all in black very much resembling the dead she has everyone's eyes flinching in disbelief when “pleasc” she smacks them bugs dead; on the walls, on the food table, on the couch, and finally on her dead mother's chest!