Posters and puzzles

Dunja Kaczmarek was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.  Dunja is one of the Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of be:longing and enjoys interacting with others who feel similar connections to other places and cultures as she does.

It’s a Thursday night in early May in Canberra, Australia.  I’ve just put my toddler to bed, my husband is leading his regular Thursday night World of Warcraft raid on the computer, and me?  I’ve just finished a puzzle and find myself crying in the dining room.

* * *

A month ago, my parents decided to sell their home.  My mum called me up on the phone and said she had just spent the night crying about it, but it helped, and now they had made their decision: they were going to sell the home.  Not next year, not in the Spring, but now – before they go overseas for the winter, and before the market turns down.  It was time.

So we spent the last weekend fixing the place up.  It’s a beautiful house and didn’t need much work, but we did the typical things you need to do to get any house ready for photos and open house inspections.  We got rid of clutter, we cleaned the eaves, we repainted the downpipes and external molding, we sold or gave away unnecessary furniture to friends, family and neighbours.  It wouldn’t all fit in my parents’ new apartment, after all.  Downsizing requires downsizing.

We also cleared my childhood bedroom.  I had been clearing it bit by bit for a few years already – grabbing an old jacket I still wanted to wear here, packing up old souvenirs and items into memory boxes there.  I had even donated big piles of clothes and boxes of knick-knacks in the last few months, before my parents made their decision to sell, buoyed by my recent obsession with YouTube minimalist channels.  But it wasn’t until this weekend that I really had to get to the bottom of everything and decide whether it was all worth keeping or not.

* * *

Today is three days after the real estate agent took the photos for their website.  The home was perfect on Monday.  Today, the mess of everyday life has started creeping back onto the benchtops and side tables.  Nothing we can’t clear by the first open house on Saturday, of course, but gosh, minimalists really mustn’t eat or drink or breathe at all if their houses always look as clutter-free as they do on YouTube.

The cupboards and wardrobes still hold lots of items, and my dad has been ferrying boxes of books, art, photos and excess pots and pans to their place by the coast, a couple of hours away.  He’s getting another load ready today, ready to take to the Bay tomorrow, and he’s been asking me if things are mine or my brother’s all day.  I’m at their place with my daughter, enjoying the sunny day, revelling in not being in the office, and soaking up as much of the place as I can before it goes under the hammer in just under a month.

“How about this one?  Yours or your brother’s?”

I bend down to have a look at the plastic storage container my dad’s pointing to.  There’s a Puzz3D packet sitting at the top of the box so I assume the whole thing is my brother’s, but I go through it anyway, to have a little look.  Ever since his early 20s, my brother hasn’t been as sentimental as I remember him in our childhood, and now in his mid-30s with two kids, he’s less sentimental than ever.  I kind of love that about him – he’s always been adaptable, not overly emotional, and somehow able to just get on with things when I’d have crumbled in the same situation, and I really respect that – but I also know that his approach can result in special things from the past getting thrown out.  Like his old David Jones name plate, for example.  I saved that from the rubbish bin just the other month.  What kind of a monster would throw out such a special memento a mere 15 years after it was last used?!

Underneath the Puzz3D Notre Dame box, there are a few folders with my brother’s writing on it and some old Disney Adventures magazines from the 90s.  But just before I turn away and tell my dad it’s all my brother’s, I notice a cardboard folder with something different on it.

“Puzzle, 40 pieces – Slagalica, 40 delova”

I flip it over and read the other side.

“Poster – DC-10, B-737, B-727”

“Oh, šta je ovo?” (“Oh, what’s this?”)

“Daj da vidim…  A, to smo dobili na avionu kada smo dolazili za Australiju.  Odnosno, to ste vi dobili – paketić za decu.” (“Let me see…  Ah, we got that on the plane when we were coming to Australia.  Actually, you and your brother got that – it was the kids’ activity pack.”)

“Okej.  Sve drugo je Reljino, ali ja ovo uzimam.” (“Okay.  Everything else here is Relja’s, but I’m taking this.”)

* * *

That evening, I open the folder up and carefully look at everything.  I open the three-pack of posters – one of a DC-10, one of a Boeing 737 and one of a Boeing 727.  All three are black and white illustrations, designed to be coloured in by kids.  The DC-10 poster has some red, green and blue crayon on it – mostly straight lines up and down, left and right that don’t follow the lines of the drawing except in a few places (I’m guessing my brother’s fine work as a 3.5-year-old), but the other two are untouched.  I imagine we had lost interest after the first one, more excited to observe the flight attendants or feel the force of the plane accelerating on the runway through our little bodies.

Next, I take the puzzle into my hands.  The pieces are all there – all 40 of them – and I see snippets of trees, plane windows, runway concrete and the letters “JAT” on the different pieces.

Without thinking, my hands start picking the pieces up, instinctively finding the edges and corners and starting to construct the frame.  And then I’m filling the puzzle in, piece by piece.

By the time I see the words “Ljubljana Airport” come together, the tears are already filling up in my eyes, a lump growing urgent in my throat.

At 9pm, my husband takes his usual break from his raid and comes over to tell me how badly he and his crew are playing tonight.  When he sees my face, he immediately takes me in his arms and asks me what was wrong.  I break down.

The tears flow and I find myself unable to speak.

“What happened, darl’?”

Eventually, through a thick throat, I blubber something unintelligible even to me, and then chuckle. 

“Ogh.  It’s so silly.  You’ll laugh”, I sniff.

“Laugh at what?”

“Ogh.  I’m crying for Yugoslavia again.”  I point to the puzzle, and my husband looks at it and nods.  “For us.  And for my parents.  And for those bloody sweet people working in the advertising department of the Yugoslav Airlines in the late 80s who came up with this idea for the kids’ activity pack.  It’s just so cute, and simple, and fucking nice.  And it’s just so fucking sad that that country doesn’t exist anymore.  It’s just gone.  Just gone.”

My husband hugs me closer as I cry and laugh and feel silly and raw, and so sad, and so alone in my feelings, and surprised by this feeling I haven’t felt in ages.  I give him a squeeze, wipe my eyes, blow my nose and go to make myself a chamomile tea.

* * *

A little later, I come back to the puzzle.  I take a photo of the finished picture and then pack it away, back into the cardboard folder it came in.

It took me 30 years to find this thing, about 4 minutes to put it together, and mere seconds to take it apart.

And suddenly I think about how similar that trajectory is to the story of Yugoslavia itself.

It came together after the Second World War on the back of many earlier years of change in the region, stayed together for 40, 45 years, and then it was gone in 5.  Just like that.

But the story of Yugoslavia is very different from that of the puzzle, too.  Unlike the puzzle, you can’t come back to Yugoslavia whenever you want.  You can’t put it back in a box and not think about it anymore, either.  It’s gone, never to be assembled again.  But it has also left an indelible mark on everyone who believed in it or was touched by it at one point or other.

It left a mark on my grandparents, for example, each of whom passed away at various points during its demise.  On my parents, who had to reconceive, recreate and relocate their lives after it crumbled.  On me, who was a mere baby when we flew away from it all, not knowing we’d never be able to return.  I never experienced it for real, and as for the puzzle, I probably would have sucked on its 40 pieces had I gotten my tiny hands to them on that plane.  I’m so glad, and sad, that I didn’t – for both scenarios.

And it left a mark on countless others around the world, too – those I’ll never know or meet, except maybe a few – who also once believed in a movement that was so grand, so all-its-own, but were left to process its sudden disappearance for the rest of their days on this earth, wondering whether it ever really existed or whether it was just an illusion all along.

I wonder how many others have found themselves crying about it like I did tonight over the years, as they stand in their dining rooms, alone in their feelings.  I wonder how many others don’t know what to do with any of it either.  All we have is puzzles and posters now – and memories, if we’re lucky.

I think I’ll frame the posters soon.

© Dunja Kaczmarek, 2022