Nostalgia is a funny thing.
For me, it manifests itself on an entirely sentient level, inspired by smells, sounds, sometimes by the way lights and shadows fall on a given day. But words are, by far, my biggest triggers.
I can’t exactly tell you what these words are. For some, there is no English equivalent. For those I can convert, their English counterpart just doesn’t have the same effect for me because English wasn’t my first language. I was born in Sarajevo in the 1980s and learned what was then called Serbo-Croatian, as my mother tongue.
There’s a point to my saying that, if you’ll bear with me for a line or two.
I recently came across an essay by Nicole Pasulka, Once Upon A Time: On Loving, and Losing, Your Favorite Childhood Books, in which she laments no longer having the books she read as a child, books she had stored at her parent’s place, having told her folks to pitch them after selling her childhood home.
“I’d assumed my picture books were sentimental toys, no different from dolls or stuffed animals. The ‘important’ novels and anthologies I bothered to save were symbols of my education and my ideas. Now, for one of the first times in my life, it’s the object that matters, not just the idea,” Pasulka writes.
Her essay reminded me of my childhood books, still sitting in my mom’s house, tucked away in a drawer, along with other items from ‘back home.’ My childhood books – all in Serbo-Croatian – never were sentimental toys. They are the only objects that matter to me because they house those words I cannot translate. They contain stories and rhymes and characters that, much like those in your storybooks, helped shape my character. Unlike Pasulka, I kept my books at my mom’s not because I had shelved and temporarily forgotten them. I wanted her to protect them, like she protected me when the war broke out and she brought me to Canada.
After reading Pasulka’s essay, I asked my mom to dig them out and I brought my books home. While my prized collection includes translations of Grimm fairy tales and a copy of Alice in Wonderland with wonderfully eclectic illustrations, my most treasured book of all is a collection of Serbian poems for children written by Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj. More than a century old, the collection is iconic back home; three generations in my family have grown up with it. The poems are something of a cross between nursery rhymes, pedagogic pleasantry and old-world cultural tales of children growing up in small rural villages.
My favourite poem in the collection is a one-way conversation between a young girl and her grandmother. The entire thing is a series of rhyming questions coming from the little girl.
Were you once young, like me? Was your hair brown, like mine? Did you have a dolly, like mine?
Then the poem flips.
Will I grow old, like you? Will my hair one day be grey? Is there no cure for growing old?
It really doesn’t sound nearly as nice in English.
I don’t know what I love more – the poem or the illustration that accompanies it. A young girl, with brown hair, sits by her grandmother, clad in a headscarf and long dress, by a wood stove. It’s a simple, rural scene, one I lived many times before the war started in 1992.
Growing up, my favourite person in the world was my maternal grandmother. She wasn’t an educated woman in the traditional sense, but she was the smartest woman I’ve ever known. She could read only enough to get by in her small village. She’s the one who bought me my copy of Zmaj’s poems and inscribed her name, not mine, inside its cover. I spent many childhood days with her, keeping warm by her wood-burning stove, watching her cook, sometimes knit, listening to her tell me stories about my family.
In many ways, that world doesn’t exist anymore.
Yugoslavia broke up. My parents split up. My grandparents died. I haven’t been to Sarajevo in more than 20 years. I haven’t visited my grandmother’s village in a decade. I’ve drifted from my original home and whenever I do visit, I feel like an outsider there.
But the words and images in my old books, they take me back. They have retained a sense of the world I knew as a child. It’s why they are among the few objects of worth to me.
And there’s no way I’ll ever part with them.
Adela Talbot is a Western News reporter and editor of Read All Over. Contact her with any books-related stories, especially information on recent releases from Western faculty, staff or students, at email@example.com.