by Jennifer Baljko

When you need to quiet your mind, sometimes it helps to return to your childhood, both yours and your parents’.

Lost in a dense forest with prickly bushes attacking my calves, I started thinking in expletives.

I was on a hare-brained outing with my father, the kind that usually began with his trademark self-satisfied grin, and, a few hours later, ended with me swearing I would never follow him again.

This time, we were searching for rocks in Croatia. They were somewhere along the Adriatic coast, over stone walls and under a canopy of a thousand chirping cicadas. These milky-tea-colored slabs had lived in my dad’s memory for more than 50 years, and he was anxious to find them.

I first heard about the rocks when I was seven.

Stories about my dad’s hometown, Kukljica – a fishing hamlet near Zadar, always seemed to include them. They were on the side of the island that faced more islands, away from the white-washed houses and the harbor where burly fishermen set out before sunrise. They were where the locals sunned themselves and old men mulled over their destinies.

Before my grandparents and their four children sailed to the United States in the 1960s, my father had found every rock in Kukljica, or so it seemed.

“There are these big rocks, right on the water,” my dad said, sitting on the edge of my bed, arms stretched wide. “Your great-grandfather ate lunch there. He would go with some wine and fresh bread.”

On other nights, the rocks transformed into Olympic diving boards.

“Your uncle and I would dive off the rocks and see how deep we could go before we had to come up for air,” he recalled. “We would catch fish with our bare hands.”

The older I got, the taller the tales got. One year, the rocks and their greatness reached Biblical proportions.

“You know those rocks in Kukljica…,” my dad murmured during a car ride. “I swear God talks to me there.”

“Good one, dad,” I sneered. “What does he tell you?”

“Maybe, one day you’ll understand,” he smiled.

Years later, I had nearly forgotten about the rocks. I only knew I needed to go away when I booked my flight to Croatia.

My world was in a tailspin. I was on the verge of a divorce, ending a 12-year romance with my college sweetheart. Croatia would be my escape hatch, I figured. It was a far-off place made mystical by countless bedtime tales. The idea of going there warmed me like a fuzzy blanket.

While not ready to tell everyone about my broken relationship but realizing I couldn’t bear the chaos of my life alone, I asked my dad to come with me. Ignoring warnings from my siblings that vacationing with my dad would make me insane, I wished for the opposite. I wanted my dad to make everything bad magically disappear.

For a moment, he did.

A few hours after my plane landed, I told him that my marriage was a failure, that I was a failure. He put his arm around me. I cried on his shoulder.

“Don’t worry, baby,” he whispered. “You’ll be okay.”

For my dad, visiting Croatia was a waterfall of buried memories. Excited about retracing his youthful steps, he dragged me out exploring, usually only giving me enough time to slide on flip-flops and grab a towel. One day, my dad recounted age-old village gossip, pointing out houses, gardens or other curious artifacts that had historical family significance. Another day, he took me to an olive grove and showed me trees planted by my great, great grandparents. Now, we had to find the rocks.

We started on a well-used trail and then veered off, climbing over stone walls marking property boundaries and stumbling over overgrown and neglected brush. The further in we went, the more the trees twisted into a maze and their roots snaked around my legs.

Eventually, we fell into a clearing. It was not the remote discovery I had anticipated. Along the concrete promenade, Germans, Italians, Czechs and Croatians sunbathed. They had stayed on the main path, the one leading off the main road without obstacles. The path of least resistance.

In my dad’s eyes, these bronzed bodies were among the uninformed souls, the ones who would never understand Kukljica’s spirit. I longed to join their ranks and slip my battered feet into the cool water.

“Around the bend is really the best spot,” my dad said, refusing to let me slip into conformity.

A few hundred meters away and far out of sight from the throngs of sun worshippers, rocks almost as big as my dad’s 5’10″ frame outlined the jagged shoreline. They were almost as big as I had imagined them as a seven-year-old, and they were as isolated as my dad described.

My dad picked one long and flat enough to rest on and threw down our towels. He took a deep breath, enjoying the serenity that comes with being alone with your own thoughts and the sound of the sea splashing the land.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he exhaled. “This is heaven.”

It started to sink in. This was not another wacky outing with my dad. This was my father’s gift to me.

This was where the fertile land of my ancestors met the sea, where my great-grandfather ate lunch and where my uncle fished with his bare hands. This is where God and my dad talked, and where my dad hoped I would find the same comfort.

I, too, inhaled deeply. I closed my eyes and dove into the sapphire water, wondering how far I could go before coming back up for air.

The following summer, I quit my job, shoved my divorce papers in a box and headed off solo around Europe.

Croatia called me back. It called my dad back, too. I met him again in Kukljica. We picked figs, barbecued fish and shared wine.

While we sometimes walked side-by-side looking for a perfect swimming spot, my dad and I rarely stayed together. We were compelled to search for our own rock, our own place to quiet our minds.

Even today, as life leads me down a new road, I find myself scanning beachfronts, parks and hilltops, searching for a rock where I can rest for a minute and just breathe. Having found a few suitable ones already, I know where they are.



Jennifer Baljko is a freelance writer living in Barcelona. This story won the Gold Award for Family Travel in the First Annual Solas Awards.
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