Remembering Marija (By Diana Reiss Končar)

One does not expect to be writing a letter like this, especially about someone who is so alive, about Marija.

Like many people who love her, I wake up to find the traces of her everywhere: her prints on the wall, some new, others from nearly three decades ago when we first came to know each other in Belgrade. On the breakfast table, there are CDs of her cousin's Balkan fusion band. There's a memory game Marija found at the Alhambra in Spain. The silk shawl she pressed me to buy in the Fez medina. A notebook of addresses she compiled, photographs to send. A gift she'd brought: silver and cobalt earrings that are simple, and beautiful, as she is.

What I remember before all else about Marija, from those first years back in Yugoslavia, before the war, was her kindness to foreigners, to strangers. Many lacked the patience or interest to understand difference, and in most cases, the burden lies with the outsider to fit in. Marija was inclusive and welcoming from the first greeting. She seemed to possess the rare understanding that the foreigner comes from an equally valid and vital reality. Her generosity of spirit and respectful interest was unfailingly present. And always, the great pleasure of her humor.

We had the whole summer once, in Dedinje, working in the studio there, making etchings and lithographs. Doca, an 80-year old printmaker, was with us: being mean, and loving, teaching us a lot. That summer he was printing from a series of plates from the 1800s made by a British traveler, images of the Adriatic port of Split with its Roman ruins. All the place-names were written in Latin. The three of us began to speak some invented Serbocroation-Latin language. We still call each other Marijus and Dijanus till this day.

Alongside her kindness, it is Marija's fearlessness that is imprinted on my memory. In Belgrade then, she was doing abstract expressionist prints that many found exciting and beautiful, it was work both compelling and easy to like. At other times, she needed to explore new ways and images for herself. If people didn't understand, it didn't stop her. Marija kept doing what it was she wanted to do. She enjoyed a warm camaraderie with other printers and loved discussing each others' work. She also possessed a clear inner pathway and so had little need for outside approval.

It was evident that Marija loved many things about Yugoslavia, and was rooted and at ease in that complex country in a way that was unique. Though her family ended up in cosmopolitan Belgrade, her father had worked as a doctor in the countryside, so that Marija was comfortable in both worlds. When the idiocy of the bureaucratic morass became too much, she would take me up to her parents' unfinished cottage in the village of Lestane, where she was on close terms with village elders. Over a stone oven, she would make coffee and laughing, explain the surrealistic nuances of life in the Balkans.

In the era when we met, Yugoslav art students enjoyed a sort of intensive course of study I've never witnessed elsewhere. From studio classes to crushing and mixing their own pigments, to the renovating of frescoes in Byzantine monasteries. Each year, they would also go on focused excursions abroad, loading up in a bus to travel to Western Europe; a kind of road trip crossed with total cultural immersion.

After hearing such accounts, I once asked Marija if she could say, among all the places they had traveled, which she liked the most. "You know," she said, "I think many of our guys, they would choose London or Paris or even Berlin. "But me," she continued, and I remember her eyes lighting up thinking back upon it, "it was Holland." For five days, between museums, cafes, exhibits, cafes, conversations with people she'd met, Marija said, "I virtually never went to sleep."

She thought she might make an effort to visit some day for a longer period. A couple of months. A summer perhaps. Her base, she knew, would remain Yugoslavia.

In 1987, after I returned to San Francsico, Marija wrote every three months. After a time, there was suddenly a gap, for nearly a year.

And then finally, letter came:There was a black and white photo inside: Marija, sitting cross-legged on the floor, she appeared illuminated. In her note, she made a joke about her small body that was now huge like a pumpkin, with Rade inside. Some months later, the beautiful baby was born, with dark eyes and cap of brown hair. She wrote about taking Rade to the park. The stories he told her as a little boy... Her sense of wonder at what she was learning from her son.

And all throughout it, news of the expanding Balkan war. In the US and the West, people who had never heard of Bosnia were all of a sudden experts. News about the bloodshed, little news about the thousands who had refused to join the national armies and gone underground.

In 1993 came another letter : Marija and Obrad had had to leave.

There's a likeness of Marija on the website of an artists' group she belonged to. A photograph of her, in overalls, her coffee-colored eyes and the words below it that I assume she left us: "Curiosity first, always."

One reads it and thinks, "Yes, that's Marija, exactly."

One recalls her taking up Spanish for no decreeable reason, at 50. Her scientific, medical, esthetic and metaphysical interests. Her quiet, unpretentious brilliance. I appreciated Marija's ability to handle dualities: She could accept the human condition, but also dream of something beyond where we find ourselves. It's evident in her visual and verbal jokes about clichés and clichéd behavior; which capturing them in order to dissolve them.

How much she enjoyed everything new. Last year with her fellow printmakers in Andalusia, it was Marija, who at every turn, wanted to stay longer in the caves, arrive to the fortress at the earliest light, stay past closing hour at the museums.

There is way that I will miss Marija, perhaps the most, and I imagine it is shared by many who know her.

Before that, it needs to be said that as being human, we often, even if unconsciously, and even with people we love, damper each other's imaginings. Sometimes, out of depression, or fear, an absence of vision, a lack of belief or joy.

Marija was one person in this world who could be counted on never to damper dreams, that which can be imagined.

How often one can recall her listening attentively, pressing her friend to continue, to imagine further. Along she might offer a refection, some suggestion, but always with conclusion that that which is imagined is possible. I can hear her laughing and exclaiming, "Do it, do it!."

With formidable bravery, in these weeks since Marija's passing, Obrad and Rade were searching for the best time and way to gather to honor her life. To go forward or to wait? At one point, he considered the spring: "The spring is more like Marija," he said, "not the winter. Yes, she is like spring."

And it is true. Indeed, during these last months of her struggle, it was the image of Persephone, symbol of spring, that came continuously to my mind. The goddess gathering flowers in the fields, stolen away suddenly by Hades in a chariot to the underworld. Perhaps the story of Persephone came to mind in part because Marija's grandmother was from Greece, and that history and those myths also her inheritance. But more than that, it is because of Marija's energy, her celebration of our humaness, her constant practice of renewal.

Long distance, I listened to the love of her family, her mother and father and sisters, Aida and Dragana, and to Rade and Obrad, spending every ounce of strength to keep Marija comfortable. It seemed that she had already come back from the other world, after that terrible weeklong coma in Berlin. Throughout it, there was the sense that Marija would come back, certain Marija would come back: to be with the people she loved the most, or if the time had arrived, into the Immensity.

Somehow, I have the sense that she is with us. That, after our own particular darknesses, she'll rise up within us again. That we'll continue our conversations with her.

It's her heart that I miss the most.

Marija my sister and friend,I am so grateful to have known you.

Volim te puno, puno.