Exactly two weeks ago in Zagreb, my father passed away. It was an end of a journey, and the reason for my silence. All of a sudden, I find myself seriously drawn by my roots. I returned to New York a couple of days ago but I keep on seeing visions of our family house in the countryside, where my father grew up and a couple of generations of my paternal family were born and raised.
It’s not just an ordinary house. I used to think of it as a decrepit scary place but the older I get and the more I travel, the more I recognize its special beauty. Protected by Croatia’s Ministry of Culture as a historical monument, Poklek is a stunning estate that dates back to the 18th century (perhaps even earlier, according to some records). Located in a picturesque village of Zagorska Sela, an hour away from Zagreb, the mansion hides many treasures in its interior – antique furniture, old books, funky objects of family heirloom… Every time I return, I try to spend some time browsing through this historical bric-a-brac – and it never ceases to surprise me.
Poklek was a country retreat for a wealthy German family, who sold it to my great-grandparents Agata and Ivan for peanuts in the early 19th century. They ran a post office in one of the rooms; another room was used as the village doctor’s office. In the beautiful sun-bathed salon on the second floor, my great-grandmother’s family of renowned musicians from Zagreb used to hold musical sessions, with an old piano, a harp and Agata singing. She had left a promising opera career in Zagreb to move to the countryside, where she married my great-grandfather and raised four daughters, including my beloved grandmother Mira.
The attic and the basement of the mansion always held the most appeal for me – mysterious, dark and spectacular – as did the old covered well outside. The stable was the secret site of the region’s first Anti-Fascist Front of Women meeting held by my grandaunt Zdenka, a political activist (and my childhood hero) who fought the Nazis during the Second World War and often used the estate as her hiding place. There are lots of other fantastic stories about the house – séances held to communicate with the spirits, ghost sightings and other such lore.
I returned to Poklek three times during my father’s illness earlier this month. Twice just to inhale its musty smell and once to bury my father’s ashes in the village cemetery. Leaving was more difficult than ever. Perhaps because my father was the last living link, except my brother and I, with the rich family history of Poklek. Perhaps because the house needs some serious renovations, which our family sadly cannot fund. Perhaps because I live too far away from Poklek to start any of the grand ideas my brother and I play with, such as starting a rural B&B or a cultural center.
For now, the house sits empty. My mom plans to spend time at Poklek when the weather improves. But when late fall comes, the house will once again be left alone, cold and aching for life. If anyone out there reading this happens to be Zagreb-bound any time in the future, I’d be happy to arrange a visit to the estate. It needs friends and visitors, while I’m mulling over ways to keep it alive.