prose

Vedrana Rudan: Mothers and Daughters

Vedrana Rudan was born in Opatija in 1949. She holds a degree in Education from the University of Rijeka, specializing in the Serbo-Croatian and German languages. She has worked as a teacher, a tour guide a journalist and has been a novelist for the past sixteen years. She has written thirteen books: Uho, grlo, nož (2002) (Ear, Throat, Knife), Ljubav na posljedni pogled (2003) (Love at Last Sight), Ja, nevjernica (I, non-believer) (2005), Crnci u Firenzi (2006) (Black People in Florence), Kad je žena kurva, kad je muškarac peder (2007) (When a Woman is a Whore and a Man is a Fag), Strah od pletenja (2009) (Fear of Knitting), Daboga da te majka rodila (2010) (Mothers and Daughters), Kosturi okruga Medison (2012) (The Skeletons of Madison County), U zemlji Krvi i Idiota (2013) (In the Land of Blood and Idiots), Amaruši (2013), Zašto psujem (2015) (Why I Swear), Muškarac u grlu (2016) (The Man in the Throat), and Život bez krpelja (2018) (Life without Ticks).

In Will Firth’s new English translation of Rudan’s novel, Mothers and Daughters, the reader can peer into the complicated relationship the protagonist has with her mother amidst the unique backdrop of post-socialist Croatia. When the protagonist’s aging mother suffers a stroke and must be moved to a nursing home, which she loudly protested against her whole life, a push and pull between mother and daughter ensues. Firth has captured Rudan’s sharp language and wit for English-speaking audiences and the tragicomic descriptions in the first chapter will leave you wanting more.

Read the first chapter of Rudan’s Mothers and Daughters below.
Translation by Will Firth.



 

 

1

 

My husband licked the prawns all over and tipped white wine into his mouth from a tall, slender glass. Garlic was in the air. I sat on the couch, felt my stomach in my throat, and watched the phone. Should I call or wait for her to ring? I was afraid of my mother, I felt guilty despite her being in the best nursing home in Croatia. The home is a large building on a hummock surrounded by a park. Lavender, rosemary, laurel, and banks of flowers. The parking lot in front of the main entrance is almost always full because children often came to visit their infirm parents. SUVs, Audis, Mercedes, and the occasional expensive Japanese model. When you enter the building you’re not hit by the smell of crapped diapers, dirty old skin, urine, and the stench of rotting human beings noisily putrefying. The door of every room has a little sign with the given name and surname of the two men or women in the beds beyond the door. The walls are white, studded with photographs of old people in carnival masks, old people in front of mountain cabins, old people on the waterfront promenade . . . We, who pay, can see right at the entrance that our old mother or father will depart into death happier than happy. The restaurant is on the first floor, separated from the garden by big glass windows; a carafe is in the middle of every table, each with an orange-colored liquid in it. I often passed through the restaurant, at every hour of the day. It was almost always empty and every single time carafes full of orange liquid stood on the tables. The restaurant made a sterile impression, as if no one ever ate even a crust of bread there, although about eighty people lived in the home. I found out that some were my age. I felt uncomfortable when the owner told me that. I really wouldn’t want to spend the last years of my life on excursions led by an overly cheerful young woman in a pink coat. I’ve known the owner for years. The day before my mother was accepted at the home, he and I sat in the enormous auditorium, at a conference table. What kind of conferences were held here? Who sat at such a huge table, what did they speak about, what did they plan . . . I didn’t seek an explanation from the owner because I was afraid my mother might lose her place in this institution at the final moment. A documentary was to be made in a few days’ time. He poured me a large glass of water: “Did you see the restaurant? We eat there too.” “We” meant him and his wife. I smiled at him the way I smile at complete strangers I want to make a good impression on. I sent him a message saying I’d be very glad to entrust my mother to his team. You wait for years for a place in state-run homes. They’re much cheaper—you can get a tiny one-room apartment for three or four thousand kuna.

In my city there is also an institution where they put maniacs, geriatrics, underage lesbians, and underage gays, whose parents think a stay among maniacs and geriatrics will set their children back on track. The accommodation is cheap there too, but the manager knows me and said to me in confidence: “Perhaps this shouldn’t be the first choice for your mother. Before you bring her here from the hospital it might be good to have a look yourself and see what it’s like. You know, there’s a shortage of staff and a lot of patients, and even the four-bed rooms are all taken up. If you really intend to come, please be prepared for what you’re going to see.”

I backed out.

Two streets from our house is a small old people’s home with just a few rooms. That appealed to me most because my mother would be close by, but still far enough away. I’d be able to visit her every day, or several times a day, and then leave her room and shut her out of my head until the next day. I called the owner of the small home.

“What condition is your mother in?” he asked.

“Normal, I suppose,” I said.

“Is she independent and mobile?”

“She could be mobile, but for the time being she refuses to walk or eat at the table.”

“So she’s not in a terminal phase?”

“No, far from that, she’s going to outlive you and me.” I wanted to cheer up the doctor and tell him my mom wouldn’t cause much work.

“Good, come and have a look, I’m sure we’ll reach an agreement. The price is three thousand five hundred kuna a month, comprehensive care.”

“What does that include?”

“Everything.”

The home was a one-story yellow building located between the fish market called Tuna and Tomo’s Butchers. A dark-blue, iron tuna dangled above the door of the fish market. From the front of the shop where meat was sold, big ox eyes watched me sadly from an ox head without a body. Next to Tomo’s was a dental surgeon. The stomatologist greeted his patients with a giant molar. A threat? A promise? It was a good thing that I walked there, otherwise I wouldn’t have found anywhere to park. I rang. The doctor himself opened the door for me. He had donned a white coat over his suit; it was unbuttoned, he had a light-blue shirt, a dark-red tie, black shoes, and he watched me with his blue eyes. Around his neck, a stethoscope. Why do doctors always wear a stethoscope around their necks, even when they’re in their little office talking with patients’ relatives? A doctor, a real doctor, always has to be prepared—what if the relatives suddenly felt sick when they heard how much they’d be paying for grandmother’s heart scan?

“You’re well?” the gentleman in the dark suit asked after closing the door behind me. “Yes, thanks,” I smiled bravely. I always smile when I feel uncomfortable, and I certainly felt it now—discomfort and a jolt from the overpowering stench of urine and feces.

“You’re pale,” the doctor said. “Shall I show you the room or do you feel our institution isn’t what you expected?”

“Show me the room.” My stomach squirmed in my throat.

He opened the door of a dark room of about ten by twenty feet. Eight beds. Grotesque contorted figures covered by sheets. Fluid was flowing into some of them, others stared rigidly at the ceiling. The stench was unbearable. I looked at the doctor, I wanted him to move, he was in my way, but he stood there in the doorway and didn’t budge.

“It’s hard to find carers these days, unfortunately. No one wants to work, and everyone complains.”

Something began to howl in the corner next to the window.

“Old Ana’s been restless recently.”

I pushed him aside, Armani penetrated my nose, I rushed for the door and grabbed hold of the handle, but it was locked.

The doctor touched me on the back. “Please, come and sit down for a moment.”

Trembling, I dropped into a comfortable red armchair.

The doctor sat down next to me and placed his well-manicured hand on mine, which was well-manicured and shaking. “Calm down, it’s all right . . .”

“That’s terrible, terrible, Jesus, I think I’m going to be sick . . .”

“No, you’re not. Just breathe, breathe.”

I breathed and breathed, and his blue eyes smiled at me.

“Death is abhorrent if you see it as something nasty, something that only happens to the bad and to others. You shouldn’t let such prejudices get the better of you.”

“But the people should be washed . . .”

“We do wash them, but we don’t get around to it often enough, the carers keep resigning on us.”

“I know death is normal and we all have to die someday . . . ,” I began to cry, why, I don’t know, “but like this . . .”

“You know . . .” The doctor glanced at his cell phone and rejected the call. “Just alter your point of view. Imagine this room where the old people are now as one full of babies in diapers, and everything will seem different. It’s strange that people think old folks’ shit stinks, but when it comes to baby doo-doo in diapers they even find it cute, as long as it’s not diarrhea. Why the difference? All of us shit and piss, and we all stink. These folks here don’t know what’s happening to them, they’re not suffering. There are a million ways to kill pain these days. They’re waiting for their final hour, and it’s all painless. It’s a great achievement for people to die without pain.”

“Yes, it’s a great achievement.” I heaved myself out of the armchair. “Could you please open the door for me? My mom wouldn’t be happy here.”

“I respect your choice, madam.” He offered me his hand.

I looked at the door. If I accepted his hand he’d open it, if I refused he’d plunge a needle into me, and then who knows how long I’d have to perish there painlessly in the reek of shit and piss. I gripped his hand firmly and gave a hearty laugh: “If I’d known about you I would have brought my father here, unfortunately it’s too late for that now.”

“Think about what I told you. For old people, the most important thing is that they’re not in pain. Homes are excessively expensive today, everyone wants to make money on the weak and frail. Our price is more than fair.”

I went out into the glaring morning light. Buses and trucks thundered along the broad street. I needed something to drink, something strong, that instant. A song resounded in the Vijolica tavern. Drunken male voices were singing “a bunch of flowers that comes from the hills” in Italian—quel mazzolin di fiori che vien dalla montagna . . . I changed my mind and wanted to go straight home. But then I looked at the ox head on the front of the shop, and when I turned my gaze I saw the big molar. I puked my guts out on the crosswalk. A young mom was pushing a stroller. The little girl smiled at me. I ran to the other side so as not to end up under the wheels of a bus. My mom had to have the best, only the best was good enough for my mom, even if it cost nine thousand kuna we’d pay nine thousand kuna. My mom would never become a thing waiting in its own shit until God finally had mercy. Never!

“I’m glad your carer ladies are constantly smiling,” I said to my friend, the owner of the Felicita home. He gave me a hearty smile, from ear to ear, as if we hadn’t known each other for years, as if I was just another customer. There was no spark in his brown eyes, his teeth were much better than when we last saw each other, when he was running a restaurant in town. “I tell everyone at the very start: ‘Sweetheart, if you can’t keep up a smile from the beginning to the end of your shift, you needn’t apply.’ That’s why they’re cheerful. Just between us, the mother of the richest woman in Croatia lives here. She was here yesterday—the richest woman in Croatia—and she said to me: ‘When I grow old, I’m coming here too.’”

I laughed loudly and cheerfully like the female TV-show host chortles at a joke from her male colleague when they present the “Croatian Golden Oldies” together. My mother was supposed to go to the home on the recommendation of the doctor, it wasn’t my idea. I never told her it was a home, I’d just mention the term “rehabilitation center” from time to time. She arrived there from the hospital where she’d been after a stroke. They wouldn’t have admitted her at the hospital if the head of the department wasn’t a good friend of ours. When Tiny found her grandma lying piss-soaked by her bedside, she called an ambulance. “A stroke,” the ER doctor said and left again.

We’d been to Vienna, we travel a lot. I called Tiny, and she told me. My husband phoned our neurologist friend, and the next day we met up with him.

“I don’t know, I have no idea. She might hang on, or she might exit, you never know. For now she’s alive.”

My mother lay in a hospital room strapped to the bed with leather belts. A fat needle was in her neck and fluid dripped into the vein. On the bed next to my mother’s lay a young woman. Her husband was calling her name in despair. I knew he was her husband because only spouses and immediate relatives were allowed to visit. He stroked her hand and caressed her face. The woman breathed with a rattle.

“Mom!” I said loudly, because at times my mother would go totally deaf. “How are you?”

She looked at me with bleary eyes.

“How are you?” I raised my tone.

The young man was speaking to his wife: “You have to try and hold on, you can’t leave me. Wake up, darling!” He flinched when I yelled at my mother.

“Sorry,” I said, not looking at him but at my mother’s bound arms, “my mom’s deaf.”

He didn’t reply. I turned toward him and saw his face was wet with tears. A rattle came from his wife’s chest.

My mother didn’t recognize me. Or she did but was unable to speak. I left feeling shaken up and strangely unprepared. My mother had been in a particularly foul mood recently. She was always complaining about intolerable pain in her back. We took her to the pain clinic and they prescribed her morphium patches. We stuck them on her sore back. One lady looked after her by day, Tiny was with her at night, and everything was under control. But then, overnight, a stroke. And now those leather belts that prevented the spindly body from rolling out of bed and crashing to the floor. So naked and gaunt, she looked like a wizened old Jesus with a greasy perm on his head. “We’ll fill her with fresh blood and give her a few intravenous drips. That will boost her. But you do realize that it’s nothing long-term, your mother is already at a ripe old age . . .” Our friend eyed me with concern, as if my mother’s life mattered to him and he was worried how I’d take all this. He put his hand on my shoulder and accompanied me to the exit. Ten days later my mother was a new woman.

“I didn’t want to tell you,” she looked at my husband and me with her pale-brown, watercolor eyes, “but when I felt the leather belts on my arms I thought they’d put me away for not paying my TV subscription. You remember they sentenced me to jail or three days of work for the public good? So I thought this was it . . .”

I was glad my mother was herself again. She really had been sentenced to three days of unpaid community work. Once she carelessly opened her door for two men. They told her they had discovered by X-ray radar that she hadn’t been paying her TV subscription, and it would be best for her if she admitted her guilt immediately, because otherwise they’d have to arrest her. So she admitted and signed. She begged us not to protest about the sentence, but we found the whole thing ludicrous. How could anyone take a virtually immobile old woman and force her to do unpaid community work? It was a nightmare for her. For a while, she was so terrified that she barely let me into the apartment. She’d only open the door when my weird howling got through to her periodically stone-deaf ears.

“Mom, you had a stroke because you didn’t drink enough fluids and because you overdosed on Ultram. On top of the morphium patches, you were also taking Ultram. You’ll have to stop that if you intend to live a bit longer.”

“They don’t give me anything here to stop the pain, tell them to give me a patch, call them, they have to give me a patch straightaway,” she shouted.

I recoiled and glanced at the bed where yesterday the young woman had been. Now an old man was lying there, stark naked and unconscious.

“Don’t yell, Mom, there are seriously ill people here. I’ll tell them to come and put on a patch.”

“When?”

“Right away, I’m going to see the doctor now, hang in there, Mom, I’m going now, because the visits are just fifteen minutes.”

“Please tell them I need a patch.”

“Morphium patches?! We have her under constant observation, she isn’t in pain at all,” our friend said.

“But they told us at the pain clinic . . .”

Our friend sneered. “Your mom’s simply hooked. She’s been here for three weeks and we’ve taken her off everything, my nurses tell me she’s not getting anything at all now. I’m convinced of it too. She breathes calmly when she thinks no one’s looking, but as soon as she sees one of us she gets restless. From today on she’s off morphium, Ultram, and tranquilizers. And, of course, I’m sure you realize, she needs care twenty-four hours a day. She’ll have to go into a home.”

“A home?!” I was taken aback.

“Yes, a home. She needs care day and night.”

“She has a woman who looks after her.”

Our friend became impatient, pulled a cigarette out of its pack, and probed me with his light-brown eyes. The ward my mother had been admitted to was incredibly tidy, with new beds, new blankets, quiet and friendly nurses, and new equipment.

“Donations . . .” He returned the cigarette to the pack. “Without donations this would be a dismal hole.”

“She doesn’t want to go into a home, she’s always said that.”

“You don’t have to tell her she’s going to a home, I’ll tell her we’re taking her to a rehabilitation center—that sounds nicer. And, by all means, you can add that you’ll take her back home when she’s better.”

“Will she get better?”

“I don’t know. At the moment she’s well and, most importantly, completely ‘clean.’ Take no notice of her wailing, she’s a manipulator.”

The head nurse in the home wore a dark-blue coat. She gave me a big smile. “It doesn’t have to be straightaway, but please do tell her as soon as possible that she’s in a home. Your mother isn’t stupid, and it’s better if she hears it from you, rather than the cleaning lady.”

“I can’t. As long as I can remember, she’s said she doesn’t want to die in a home. I feel guilty.”

“Guilty? The old people here are happy. Have you seen the photographs on the walls? They even have a dance course, they can make lovely paper animals, which helps them develop their motor skills again, we have an entertainer, a hairdresser, a masseur . . . This isn’t an almshouse, it’s a five-star hotel.”

“You know, my mom has grown used to morphium patches. We used to stick them on her back because she had terrible pain, she told us the pain in her back was hideous. When she had the stroke we took her to the hospital, and there they discovered she wasn’t in pain at all, my mom was just hooked. They took her off morphine patches, and at the moment she’s clean. If she cries and howls and asks for some drug . . .”

The head nurse gave me another big smile. She had blue eyes. “We got the discharge report, don’t you worry, we know how to deal with that. They’re all the same, always asking for a tranquilizer or something. We’ll stick a placebo patch on her back every three days. We don’t like to zonk out people here, we like them to be alert. We love them but, as you know, they’re like children. Don’t you worry, we’ll keep her calm without the drugs.”

I left the building where my mom was, somewhere. I didn’t have the courage to go and see her. I decided I’d visit her in the late afternoon. Visits were allowed the whole day, and if I went at the end of the day, the night would be shorter for her. The nurse told me that the old people have a phone with a direct line on their night tables, there’s a TV in the room and a large bathroom, and they eat or are fed five times a day. The women who look after them are constantly smiling, those are the ones with the pink coats. The therapists wear white coats, and the nurses blue ones.

 

I picked up the receiver.

“Why weren’t you up here when they brought me?” she snarled.

“They told me to come once you’d settled in and got used to things a bit. I’ll come later, do you need anything?”

“The trip in the ambulance was horrific. Every bone hurt—and still hurts . . .”

“How do you find it up there? It’s one of the best rehabilitation centers in Croatia, you have a TV in the room, and a large bathroom. Have you been to the bathroom, have you done a number two today?”

A sneer forced its way through the receiver to my ear: “My daughter, I can’t move, I’m hardly alive. If you’d come and see me you’d know what state I’m in. They put me in a diaper . . .”

“Mom, try to perk up a bit and get yourself out of diapers, you’re not in intensive care anymore, there’s no need to depend on the help of others. And you have to exercise every morning, you have to go for a walk, the more the better. A nurse said: ‘Your mom has to walk and walk.’ And when you’ve recovered completely, you can come home again . . .”

“Bring me peach-flavor iced tea, tissues, napkins, and baby lotion. They’ll give me a rub down with it every day.”

“You seem tired somehow. Why are you so lethargic? Thank God the worst is behind you.”

“What was the worst?”

“The stroke. You were tied to the bed with leather belts, do you remember? They fed you intravenously . . .”

“When are you going to come?”

“Rabby is sad without you, she keeps gnawing at the grill of the cage. I bought her fresh food, I stroked her on the back a bit, you can really feel how much she misses you, she sniffs the air . . .”

“When are you going to come?”

“Your Italian pension came this morning, brought by a new mailman. He said to me: ‘What a wonderful little buck you have, as orange as a brick.’ And I told him: ‘It’s not a buck, it’s a doe—a she.’”

“When are you going to come?”

“I thought you might be overtired today and could use a bit of rest. I’ll come tomorrow.”

She hung up.

 

 

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