Late morning Jas and I make our way downstairs, eyes puffy with jet-lag. On the kitchen table there’s a basket of fresh bread and a platter of cheeses alongside sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. As we start to eat my father-in-law Akif comes in from the garden and hands me a freshly cut rosebud.
School is out and I’m in the garden, next to the fountain Akif built, reading a book. I hear the front gate open and a tribe of students enter asking for Akif. I point to the house and they slip off their little shoes and go in to visit with their retired teacher and tell him all about their progress. When they leave they’re each holding a small bar of Kinder chocolate.
There’s a fire in the outdoor oven. Akif and I take turns shoveling white hot coals over the cast-iron bell that covers a pan of braising veal shank and potatoes that earlier he’d shown me how to season. We all gather around the table for a late dinner and play cards into the night.
These are the memories of a typical day with my father-in-law though typical is not a word I’d ever use to describe him.
Akif was an elementary school teacher for most of his life. During the war, after his release from the Serbian detainment camps in his hometown of Donji Vakuf, he met up with my mother-in law Mirsada (now deceased five years), Jas and his sister Jasmina, (all who he had sent to the relatively safe town of Umag) and traveled to the refugee camp in Savudrija, Croatia. When he saw the children there bored and idle, he started a school for them.
Education was not just Akif’s lifelong profession but the fabric of who he was. I know this first-hand from having apprenticed in his kitchen. We each spoke a little Italian and even less of each other’s native tongues; but cooking filled in all the gaps–it was our language. Akif spent hours upon hours teaching me to stretch dough, stuff miniature cabbage rolls, shape cevapi (beef sausages), make bread, meats, stews, sweets, and juices from fruits and flowers. He had endless patience for me and my million questions.
That he cooked at all made him a wonder amongst the community as this usually falls under the duties of women in Bosnia. It was even stranger that he loved and excelled at it having learned from his father who had owned a coffee shop. Women from the neighborhood would come to watch Akif make baklava complaining that they could never get his technique down of rolling and cutting the pastry into shapes that looked like roses.
As a father, Akif was happiest when his children Jas and Jasmina were together, even if he wasn’t with them. He thrilled over Jasmina’s visits to the U.S. and when we were all together he’d often ask me to take pictures of them. In regards to me and my brother-in-law he referred to us as his (“my Christa,” “my A.”) and treated us as though we were indeed his own. When I was pregnant and craving American food particularly french fries he cooked me a batch every day and he was known for passing off new clothes and gifts to A.
The loss of his wife Mirsada was one of his greatest sorrows and he continued to reminisce and dream of her until the end of his life. I think the only thing that made this easier was his children and grandchildren. L., D. and Cookie called Akif, Deda, and he would spend hours playing with them. Cookie he could talk with endlessly over Skype, dancing a stuffed bear across the screen for her.
Akif visited America this past January along with Jasmina and L.–his very first trip–to celebrate Cookie’s first birthday. None of us realized that it would be one of the last times we’d spend with him. He passed ten days after we returned home from Bosnia in July of lung cancer. Though he was sick and could barely walk up the stairs, one of the last things he did before we left for the airport was lift Cookie onto his lap and hold her.
Farewell Tata. We’ll miss you always.