Biseri | Silvia Josephine Zele

Silvia Josephine Zele

Article 2: ‘Fires, Butts and Snakes, Are Not Playthings’
(Volumes 1 and 2) by Milena Miklavčič

[Original title: Ogenj, rit in kače, niso za igrače (1. in 2. del)]

Fires, Butts and Snakes, Are Not Playthings – Volume 1 ISBN 978-961-281-251-5
Fires, Butts and Snakes, Are Not Playthings – Volume 2 (Grandmothers, Daughters, Granddaughters) ISBN 978-961-92872-5-5

Sometimes we can get so busy searching for factual data and documents relating to our ancestors, we don’t spend enough time thinking about the lives they led. As most of the older document sources focused on recording data about the men in each household, it can be difficult to find much information about the women who lived alongside them.

I believe it is very important we record details about our living ancestors and their life histories while we can, and leave the material for future generations to enjoy.

Milena Miklavčič, an author, journalist, and columnist, who has lived in the town of Žiri, Slovenia for all of her life, decided to collect the stories that elderly Slovenes told her. She has published many of the stories in two books, Ogenj, rit in kače, niso za igrače (1. in 2. del), which have become publishing success stories in Slovenia, so much so that there are long waiting lists for them at the public libraries. A TV documentary has even been made about Volume 1.

The storytellers share intimate details of their lives, and express their feelings towards the people and events that shaped them. The books focus mainly on the lives of women, but there are also stories told by men.

It may seem such stories would only be about suffering, but I see a different theme running through the books—the strength of women.

According to Milena Miklavčič, our Slovenian grandmothers and great grandmothers, born in the first half of the 20th century, usually had four main wishes: that their husbands would not beat them, that they would not go hungry, that they would have a roof over their heads, and that they would not die during childbirth. For men, sex was once something that was owed to them, so they saw it as an inalienable right they could demand from their wives at any time. However, for women, sexuality was usually considered a sin, and above all a duty, which often did not bring anything other than suffering and the birth of children.

Below are translations of three of the stories in the second book. DNA testing for genealogical purposes is becoming more and more popular; Silva’s story is a cautionary tale not to assume that all mothers and fathers listed in records were the biological parents of the children listed.

Silva (1931)

The answer my mother gave to anyone who asked her why she had so many children was that she had as many as ‘God gave her.’ Father, who would be standing by her, never contradicted her. As long as God was his only rival, he was never angry. He spent at least five or even six months a year in Carinthia, Austria, where he toiled in the forests. When he would come back home, he was happiest when Mother cooked barley stew for him, as he loved it very much.

I recall I could hardly wait for his visits, as he would always bring a small piece of chocolate for me each time. One day, I stood in front of him, shifting from one leg to the other, while saliva built up in my mouth at the thought of the expected sweet treat.

Suddenly, father stood up and stared at mother’s stomach. “I see that during my absence ‘God has paid a visit’!” he shouted at mother and hit her in the chest, causing her to stumble into the stove. Never before had I seen my father hit my mother, so I got a terrible fright. Such a fright I wet myself; not that they noticed. They very rudely shooed me out. Mother suffered a beating before she succeeded in explaining that she wasn’t pregnant, but that her sister, Marinka, was. To save her sister from shame, mother had taken to wearing a ‘pillow’ stuffed under her dress. But father was never fully mollified. We raised the baby boy mother’s sister gave birth to as one of our family, but father never liked him. Father also stopped going to Carinthia to work. Whenever he was asked why, he replied that there were too many vagabonds hanging around the village.

Mirko (1932)

My father always said I did things well, but that I could have done a lot better. I remember a time when my brother and I had a fight. I was very upset, so I retreated to the barn to cry. I hugged our dog to me. The next day ‘Pazi’ mysteriously went missing. When father saw me searching for him, he told me that the dog was no longer with us because he was making a sissy out of me. If I had not been raised to feel such fearful respect for my father, I would have beaten him to within an inch of his life.

Mihaela (1930)

My mother was a general practitioner, but as there was a shortage of gynecologists for many years, at least to 1961, she was also in charge of the gynecology clinic. Sometimes she came home so shaken up by all she had seen at the clinic, she simply pushed her dinner aside, leaned on the table, and cried. Grandmother, who cooked for us, would try to comfort her but to no avail.

Mother said she often felt like vomiting in disgust for all the depravity she was a witness to on a daily basis. Ljubljana was full of people who wanted to get rich or become successful as quickly as possible. There were many teenage girls similar to Fanči. She had already had two illegal abortions before mother persuaded her to give birth to the child of her third pregnancy. Mother suggested she give the child up for adoption. She found a woman who was unable to bear children, and Fanči moved in with her until the birth of her child. Right after the birth of her son, for whom she received money and a gold ring, she disappeared. Two years later, she once again knocked on the door of the clinic. Over the next ten years, mother found new parents for at least three babies. Mother helped many more women in a similar fashion.

Milena Miklavčič’s personal motto is: “Everything that happens, no matter how awful, is good for something.” It is such an optimistic view of the world we live in that keeps us going even in the bad times.

Milena Miklavčič