I Finally Understood The Truth About My Mother In Croatia

Photo: fizkes | Mailson Pignata | sorincolac | Getty Images
Daughter hugging her mother

Sitting on a pew in the middle of an ancient church, I envision my grandmother standing up front as a young bride decades ago. Saint Martin’s Church is ornate, beautiful, and old. Built in the 18th Century, it has become a historical tourist site in Sumartin, on the island of Brac in Croatia.

As I sit, the noise of others talking interrupts my daydream, and it agitates me. I miss my grandmother so much that I feel a physical ache. My mind wanders again, thinking she may have sat in this pew at some point with her family filling the rest of the bench.

I have wanted to come to this island my entire adult life to see where my grandmother grew up. I’ve wanted my feet to touch the streets she walked. Wanted to immerse myself here, hoping to feel her with me again.

Thankfully, my grandmother’s presence became evident. Traveling with my mom to her mother’s birthplace also gave me an unexpected gift, which allowed me to bridge the emotional gap between my mother and me.

I agreed to go to Croatia with my mother because I knew it was on her bucket list. As her daughter, I wanted to give her this experience. Or maybe it is more accurate to say I couldn’t live with the feeling I would have if I withheld it from her.

Did I simply want to keep myself from feeling guilty, or was my offer a selfless and kind gesture offered with a pure motive?

I may never know the true answer, but I hope it’s the latter.

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When we arrived in Dubrovnik, I was surprised that Croatia felt like home. It’s gorgeous and rugged and filled with happy people. Life felt simpler there, and I loved that simplicity.

Each morning before my mom got up, I’d walk to a local cafe for a pastry and some espresso. This ritual became an emotional lifeline to me as I worked to be gracious to my mom. Being together 24/7 was challenging.

She and I have had a complicated relationship. She was neglectful and absent when I was growing up, but in her later years, she softened and became more loving and engaging. It took years to work through my anger toward her for how she failed me as a child.

Once I processed all that with a therapist, she and I met on common ground and built a relationship. I grew to enjoy her and to see her good qualities.

Photo of author and her mother, provided by author

She was loved by so many, and yet there was a side of her my brother and I witnessed that others knew nothing about.

Beyond helping my mother fulfill one of her dreams, I was thrilled to see my grandmother’s birthplace. As a child, she told many stories about "the old country." I heard all about her teenage years, her family, and the time she snuck out of her house to attend a dance with a boy she liked.

Though she’d been in America for sixty-five years, her thick Yugoslavian accent remained until she left this earth at 95.

My grandmother was my safe harbor when I was a child. Her home was the one place I felt protected and loved. Now that I’m a Gigi to my beautiful three-year-old grandson, I often think about her.

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Being on the small island where my grandmother was born was fascinating. The town of Sumartin, where she grew up, is so small that we actually connected with some people who knew my grandmother’s family.

We even had afternoon coffee with my mother’s distant cousin. He barely spoke English, but my mother’s Croatian was passable enough that they could communicate. She was thrilled.

In addition to the church where my grandmother was married, we also located the cemetery where her family — my family — was buried. What a sacred moment to walk among the headstones of her parents and siblings.

I watched my mother become energized as we connected with distant relatives and people who knew my ancestors. Her expressiveness was one of the reasons she was so well-loved by her friends, and I know that I am a lot like her in this way.

As I watched her, I remember feeling a twinge of sadness that I had never been able to spark this reaction in her. I saw my mother come alive for others but never for her children or grandchildren.

Here, in my grandmother’s town, It dawns on me that it’s possible my mother may have never wanted children. I want to dismiss the thought, but instead, I sit with it for a while.

Instead of seeing my wound, my lack, I feel sad that my mom may not have had the opportunity to live the wild and exciting life she craved.

Having hidden my sexuality for fifty years, I know what it feels like to deny yourself what you’ve always wanted, and it makes me ache for my mother.

Shifting my gaze from my trauma to my mother’s, I am stunned at what that shift does within me.

My experience is still real and valid, but it is tempered by an understanding of my mom’s trauma.

I realize that healing my mother wound is likely a lifelong endeavor. Sometimes, I believe I am healed and whole, and at other times, my wound seeps through the cracks of my emotional foundation. Childhood trauma is like this. There is no getting over it. There is only adapting to its damage.

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My mother died five years after our trip. Now, I remember Croatia fondly but also regretfully. In the wake of her absence, I wince when I recall the few times I expressed anger over something insignificant. I don’t like seeing my raw anger, but I can do nothing to change the past.

I tend to be hard on myself and often wish I could go back and behave better. But I also recognize that my desire to be better is somewhat fueled by the young girl inside me who often tried to earn her mother’s love.

Walking around Sumartin was a weird and wonderful experience. I was awestruck to be where my grandmother had spent her first twenty-nine years. I could feel her in the white stone buildings and the dusty, chalky streets. It felt like going backward in time.

Croatia remains a lovely highlight in my life. The friendly people, the incredible food, and the ancient buildings beckon my heart in a way I can’t describe. I’m happy that it made my mother happy to be there.

There was so much pride within the Croatian community. I always envied that my mom was full-blooded Croatian. My half-Croatian blood never felt like enough. And though my kids are only one-quarter Croatian, I wanted them to identify with that history as I did.

I used to tell my children about my love for my Croatian heritage. I would encourage my mom and her brother, my Uncle John, to tell stories about the Croatian community that surrounded them when they were young.

A few years ago, my daughter took a month off work to travel through Europe alone. Much to my glee, her younger brother decided to meet her in Croatia, and they traveled to Brac together. I was beside myself with joy as they sent me pictures from all the places I, too, had visited.

Their visit felt like a full-circle moment, and I was grateful they wanted to see the country and experience the heritage we share.

Someday, I will return to Croatia with my wife and experience its beauty with her. That trip with my mother feels like a lifetime ago, but I’m grateful we shared the experience, and I know it was something she appreciated.

I also see that the trip helped me better understand why my mom was unable to nurture me and my brother. I like to think this was one final gift from my grandmother as my mom and I walked the streets of Sumartin together.

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Kim Kelly Stamp (she/her) is a writer and speaker who writes about authenticity, retirement, relationships, and life on the road.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.