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Grandma's spirit wears Chanel
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Pass it on
I'm reading
Grandma's spirit wears Chanel
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Grandma's spirit wears Chanel
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
14 December 2017

Grandma's spirit wears Chanel

Sofija Stefanovic reflects on grief, loss and places that feel like home.

Written by Sofija Stefanovic

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

Image by Flavia Brandi

When we left Yugoslavia to emigrate to Australia, I was five years old. At Belgrade airport, after smoking a cigarette with my mother, my grandma Xenia squatted down to my level. She put her hands on my upper arms so I was looking at her familiar face. “You will never see grandma again,” she said, “Because I am old, and I’ll probably die soon.” We all cried.

But I did see her again. She visited us in Australia half a dozen times, and each time she gave the same morbid warning. And then, there she’d be again, rolling her suitcase through the arrivals gate of Tullamarine airport, in heels and her Chanel suit.

She had the suit from when she was a businesswoman. She wore it each time she flew. She thought you should always arrive from the aeroplane looking your best, even if it meant having to sit very still and upright during the flight so you don’t crease anything.

In the 50s, when she was young, my grandma travelled everywhere. She was an agricultural engineer, and she went to conferences around the world. Yugoslavia was socialist then, promoting gender equality, and often she’d be the only woman in a stuffy conference room somewhere in the world, everyone puffing on cigarettes and discussing cross-pollination of flowers.

When I was young, she took me to the park and explained the parts that make up a flower. We held insects in our hands and marvelled at how tiny they were, yet how perfectly they worked. She told me stories about living through both World Wars and all the Yugoslavian wars too. She chain smoked, and talked about when she was a little girl like me, how she dreamt of being a gymnast.

A few years ago, I was on a work trip in the Northern Territory. My mother called and I pulled up next to some camels to answer. The dromedaries you see in the Australian outback aren’t native: their ancestors were brought in 1860 from India, as part of the Bourke and Wills expedition. With the advent of rail technology, camels became useless and ended up feral: running through the desert unmanned, thriving on the flora. As the camels regarded me halfheartedly, my mother told me my grandma Xenia had died back in Belgrade. She was 93.

I remembered my grandma as I’d last seen her: In Belgrade on her 90th birthday, weighing almost nothing, her spine curved with age. She was an immaculately dressed, joyful prawn. She was smoking of course, cigarettes having been her great love for almost a century.

As I quietly cried on the phone, the camels stood watching me, scruffy and relaxed. I realised they too were immigrants going about their business in Australia—just like me. Observing them languidly munch the native vegetation, batting their long eyelashes, I felt an affinity. Thinking back to the grey place I was born, which is so different to the desert in which I found myself that day, I thought, I wonder if the camels think about where they came from?

But these camels were born here. And there are no old camels to sit the babies down and explain: “You come from a place far away, called India. Relatives, who look just like you still live there. Let me tell you their stories.”

That day, our crew drove to Uluru, and approaching that big rock, I imagined my grandma here. She’d be looking at everything up close, tearing bits off of plants to smell them, letting the red sand run through her fingers. When I got out of the car the faint smell of cigarettes reached me, and rather than suspecting the living people around me, I thought: That’s her. I looked up, like a child might, hoping to see a friendly ghost in a Chanel suit, flying overhead with a cigarette in hand. And then, with my face tilted to the sun, it occurred to me that next to this big rock, I’d look as tiny as an insect to someone flying above.

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija is a Dumbo Feather contributor who’s interviewed the likes of Julian BurnsideAkram Khan and Abigail Disney. She lives in New York. She is writing a memoir called Miss ex-Yugoslavia (Penguin, 2018). She also hosts the literary salon Women of Letters in New York City.

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