Happy Birthday, Mama!

Had she not changed her form on 1st October last year, my mama would have turned 70 today. Losing her literally felt like losing a part of myself. Both physical and emotional. I'm still learning to live this new life and give myself the courage, strength, optimism and joy she used to give me. 

Apart from my boys, two things help. First, I feel her so strongly. It's like she's here with me the whole time and only changed her form. And then there's the message she sent me in a fortune cookie a week after she left (exactly on the same hour): "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it has happened." I feel endlessly blessed, honoured, grateful and loved because she is my mama. And that keeps the smile on my face. 

Two days after she left, I wrote a piece about her for "Gloria". When I sat down to write it, I wondered if I was insane for insisting I could do it. The wounds were still bleeding. But I did it. And here, to honour my mama's birthday, the translation.

Larger than Life

My mama. Mine. But Jagoda Kaloper also belonged to others – and it was good that way. She was a gift. She gave herself to the world without holding back. She gave her personality, creativity, her energy, joy. She gave herself through her roles in the movies, her art installations, paintings, art movies, illustrations, graphic designs, toys, jewelry and activism. But also by always selfishly helping others. In the ‘70s, she travelled to Africa with the Fond Hungry Child to make sure food and medication she and others donated reached those who needed it. She helped her sister, her husband, me. She helped sick relatives, elderly neighbors. Her dogs, strayed cats, lost hedge hocks. Hungry birds. Doing things for others just came naturally to her. But she didn’t know how to take care of herself. She used herself up, she gave everything she had and that might be the reason why she left that early.

Jagoda was celebrated as a beauty, as an actress with a natural talent (she never attended any acting classes), a painter, video artist, illustrator, designer. She was a real renaissance personality with wide range of talents and professions. There are very few people who are what Jagoda was – larger than life.

Many were envious of her. Although widely celebrated, she rarely got the support she deserved. Social, financial, or practical. After her huge success in the ‘70s, the film business simply forgot her – and never really remembered her, except for supporting roles in smaller movies, memberships in juries or occasional screening of her films on TV. She dreamt of a retrospective exhibition of her visual work, and of a monography. That never came true.

A woman of such beauty, talents and success was a mystery to many. But for me there’s no secret: Jagoda was the only person I know who was directly connected to the universe. She was God’s child. Priests, especially Buddhist, need years of practice to achieve what Jagoda simply was - present in the moment, without ego, without intentions. She lived in the now. Whatever she created, she created in the now, directly connected to the source of creativity. She never learned her lines – she read them before shooting the scene and acted them freshly in front of the camera. This is how she kept her naturalness. She painted quickly, without planning - she would draw a rough sketch by pencil and then approached the canvas with paint. She was a terrible procrastinator, she created everything in the last moment, sometimes even after the deadline. We often hung wet paintings on the walls while the visitors were already entering the gallery. We would send her scripts at midnight of the last day for the submission. But somehow, she always did it on time. And she always created a miracle.

Her spontaneity and lack of need for planning, calculating and constructing could drive people crazy. And herself too. Her head in the stars, she didn’t have a feeling for time (and she would often tell me that time doesn’t exist). Countless hours were spent waiting for Jagoda. Who knows what her career would look like had she planned and pushed it. She always tried to get organized, make lists and plans, but that simply wasn’t who she was. It’s better that way. She stayed true to herself.

And exactly that was one of the most important lessons she taught me: “Ana, don’t construct life.” The moment I started living it, my life turned for the better: my talents blossomed, amazing people entered my life and things started going their own way, which turned out to be better, richer and more exciting than anything one could construct. She taught me many things (like “You can’t use rationally to unknot a chain.”) and I soaked everything in with endless trust. My mama is my idol, my role model, my best friend, source of my strength, my courage and my creativity. She stands behind all big things I’ve done in my life. She pushed me to continue writing, to send my manuscript to the publisher and my first article to newspapers. She encouraged me to resign and leave the corporate world. To start a doctorate, to take lessons at the New York City Ballet. To move to the USA – as painful as the distance was – to get married and become a mother (“Motherhood the most incredible experience in the universe, don’t deprive yourself of it”). She taught me to collect experiences, to bravely throw myself into any situation and never allow myselfto feel that I missed something. For her, I was the most beautiful, talented and fantastic person in the world. Her biggest love. And she is mine, next to Kai who inherited her black eyes big and deep like the universe.

Like every God’s child, she was endlessly humble. She was always put together, always wore make up, always did her hair, but never cared about brands, expensive things of trendy places. She never had facials, never went to hairdressers, manicures or massages. A woman celebrated for her beauty, the signs of aging bothered her. But she never had any treatments or surgery. Whenever I get angry with the 11 between my eyebrows, I just remind myself how gorgeous she was in any moment. Her beauty was literally shining from within her beautiful soul and any intervention on her face would just be disturbing.

She was humble, never asked for things. But she still supported my excesses: my first pair of Manolos, my massages, my trips, my love for Viennese balls, even my secret passion for gossip magazines. She never judged others – she either understood them, or she had nothing to do with them. She didn’t have time to waste, she was too busy living her life.

Jagoda was constantly doing something, always in a rush. She cooked, cleaned (she didn’t have help with that either), walked her dog Chichi, fed cats, paid bills, talked on the phone, took her car to the service, sewed, repaired, mended. Created life. She adored dancing. Going to the theatre, movies, vernissages. To the museums, exhibitions, and bookstores, where she would look at art books. Meeting her friends. Have a glass of red wine. Fish and chard. Being in her apartment in Medvedgradska Street filled with antiques she collected for decades. Watching TV. She loved costumed movies. Cuban music, music from the ‘20s, Sting, Yves Montand, Juliette Greco, Paolo Conte. She had a huge number of friends and acquaintances. Everyone loved her and beamed when they saw her. That’s how it was in the hospital in Vienna – people who didn’t know her work or her public personae, and only knew her in her worst moments loved her as well.

But most of all Jagoda loved being on the island Zlarin, where her father was born. She was proud of her Zlarinian blood and would tell me that our name Kaloper appeared in church annuals already in the 15th century. She walked around the island in white dresses, with red corral jewelry, red lips and her black eyes. During one summer she had a little gallery in which she painted and exhibited gorgeous paintings of corrals. I think that was the happiest she’s ever been. She couldn’t continue paying the rent and the gallery, which became heart and pride of the island, turned into a bakery. We spent endless summers together on Zlarin, celebrating life. We went for long hikes on which we were breathing in our island and picking wild oregano. We were lying next to the sea for hours, soaking up the sun and looking at the sky. We were the happiest in the moment when we jumped into the sea. Mama first, then me. She adored the sea, especially being under the sea, she was diving deep and long and swam like a dolphin.  The sea healed her, rejuvenated her, embraced her. She adored our old family house, full of ghosts which others were scared of and she loved.

She had Zlarinian temperament, which I inherited. She could get terribly angry in a second, shout at people and fight. We inherited this peppery temperament from her grandmother Ćaćinica (her nickname was “Daddy’s girl”) whom she adored.

Jagoda was often misunderstood. She was angry that media always looked back at her role of a sex symbol, her nudity on film or that one stupid naked picture in “Start” magazine. She always said in her interviews – but people either didn’t want to hear or understand it – that nudity is natural, that art history is full of it. Her nudity came out of endless innocence, celebration of life, urge to show the truth. Sex always had a higher purpose in her movies – to show the character or tell the story. Or, like in her famous film W.R., it was a way to criticize the society. OK, I admit, maybe nudity also came from her need to celebrate her own beauty and the need for attention.

She was extremely stoic and courageously went through rough times. And she had plenty of those. She was terribly hurt by her parents’ early deaths – her mother Jelena died when Jagoda was only 12, and her father Mate when she was 24. When she was 29, she fell of a tree and squashed a vertebrae. Doctors claimed it was a miracle she was able to walk after that, and she suffered terrible back pain for the rest of her life. She never complained (but yes, she would get angry instead). She stayed strong through the separation with my father, when I was 9. It crashed her but she quickly got back on her feet and found strength in work, friends and beautiful life two of us created for ourselves. She was hurt by my horrendous back surgery when I was 15. By the war in Croatia. By the lack of money. But the worst blast was my move to Vienna when I was 17. Still, she knew how important it was for me and although the separation forever hurt her (and me!) like an open wound, she stayed strong.

Two of us always stayed connected by an umbilical cord. She created a close, honest, intense connection with me, which was bursting with love. We were mother and daughter, but also best friends and sisters. We saw each other every day on Skype. She was the first person I’d call if I was bothered with something or happy about something. She came to Los Angeles when my son Kai was born and selfishly helped for the first four months of his life. She adores (yes, present tense) Kai. She was ecstatic to become a grandmother because she knewthat I will pass on to Kai that endless, unconditional love we felt for each other.

I don’t know how I’m going to manage life without her. I promised myself I will consciously cherish and live everything she taught me and she was. Take on her courage, strength, optimism and love for life. As one of her friends told me yesterday: “Love is the only thing that survives.”

All of Jagoda’s love returned to us through the love we received when we announced her passing on. Her spirit is shimmering in the wave of beautiful thoughts of countless people. I feel them and they are helping me a lot, and I know they make Jagoda happy. But I must admit that kind wishes for her to rest in peace don’t feel right. Yes, peace is important in the sense that she’s not suffering as she was for the past few months of her life. But Jagoda is such a strong energy, there is no peace for her. She is still here with me, shining, strong, I feel her intensely and I know that now, free and light like a breath of wind, she is floating, skipping, wondering and enjoying. As in life, as in the eternity.