“Of course I can find the home I was born in!” Mama exclaimed, in response to his question. Climbing a hill that rose sharply from the Adriatic Sea, we three seekers wandered, lost, on rough roads past ancient stone houses in the nearly deserted village in Croatia.
One of the pilgrims, Zora, my seventy-year-old widowed mother, was in a town she had left as an infant. She was searching for the home she was born in, for the house in which she believed her uncle still lived. I walked with her, able to communicate with the people, for Mama had always insisted that her language was my birthright and would not be lost to me. My American husband Harold—the third pilgrim—spoke only English but was first to understand the challenges of our situation.
“Well, where is your house then, Zora?” he asked.
“It is near here; I am sure of that. I just need to look a little longer, Harold.”
“Zora, we’ve walked up and down every road in this village . . .”
“I know,” she interrupted, “but I can see it in my mind as clearly as if it were yesterday.”
“Okay, Okay, I give up.” Harold smiled and put his arm around her. “If you aren’t tired, we can keep going.”
Mama looked at my tall husband with a bemused expression. She always insisted her height was five feet and a half. That half was only half an inch, but Zora was anybody’s equal. English was her third or fourth language, depending on how much of a language you needed to know to count it. She spoke it well, but with a Slavic accent.
He was blond, blue-eyed, six feet six inches tall without shoes. English was his first—and only—language. He didn’t really know where in Germany his family had come from, or when. It had never seemed important.
Personally, I was afraid we were at an impasse. I knew that in Mama’s mind, the house of her birth was a sacrosanct memory. I knew because it had been featured in so many of the stories she had told me of her life and her childhood. I felt that I could almost find that home myself.
But this was her search for her past, and nothing was jelling. I was staying out of this phase of the discussion. Harold knew how to avoid pushing the buttons that I always seemed to land on. Ours was a mother-daughter friction developed over the stresses of a lifetime, while theirs was a uniquely close relationship for a man and his mother-in-law. This trip represented an important turning point in our lives. Zora had been struggling since the death of my father a few years earlier. Diminished and listless, her step had lost its bounce; her eyes their challenge. She rarely went out, and didn’t want to venture far when she did.
Then, unexpectedly, she decided it was time to reconnect with her family home. “Ti znaš, Tania” she said to me, “ne možemo više čekati. You know, Tania, we can’t wait forever for this war to end.” That sentence of Zora’s was a key milestone, and Harold and I quickly moved to support her desire.
Unfortunately, Zora’s personal struggles had come neither at the beginning nor the end of the problems for her troubled Balkan homeland. At the time of our visit, in 1992, the Balkans were once again at war. It seemed this one would destroy the country of Yugoslavia for good.
A few months earlier Harold and I had been sitting in the kitchen where I had spent my childhood. Mama served her personal version of doboš torta—a dessert she had baked for Harold—while I translated a letter from my Aunt Slavića in Serbia. Mama’s six sisters and their families were spread throughout Serbia and Croatia and she watched in horror, helpless, as their world crumbled around them. But Slavića closed her letter not with her loathing of the war, but with the joy of being close to her family and her many grandchildren. That, more than anything else, seemed to reach Zora.
Of course we did not want to head directly into the war zone, and would have to wait a few years before we felt it was safe to visit Mama’s sisters deep in the current battlegrounds. But after significant consideration and discussion, we decided we could safely explore the northwestern tip of Croatia—Istria—a peninsula just across from Venice. It was a part of the country that had not seen any fighting. More importantly, it was also where Mama was born.
We would go see the house where her parents—my grandparents—had lived. We would try to find her uncle, and reconnect with a part of her family that she had left as an infant.
“Remember, Tania,” Mama reminded me, of my own journey to the place we had lived when I was a baby. “How you found Campo, that awful refugee camp in Trieste, where we all lived? It was when you were in college and went back to Trieste. Now I can show you where my family lived when I was little.”
I started thinking about the possibility of experiencing her country, her homeland, with Mama. I found myself wondering why we had never done it before. After all, I was already in my forties, and she was seventy. Now that we were going, I could hardly wait to see it through her eyes, and share her stories while in her home. I also hoped it would help pull her out of the deep sadness she had fallen into with the loss of my father.
A few weeks later Harold and I sat in the back of a taxi, with Zora and the driver in front. We were heading south from Trieste along the Adriatic Coast on the Istrian peninsula, perhaps the most beautiful part of Croatia. The small village of Medulin, our destination, was located near the city of Pula, at its southern tip. We were in a taxi for the hundredkilometer trip because no rental car company was willing to let us cross the border from calm to chaos in their vehicle. Croatia had declared independence from what remained of Yugoslavia, the place once listed as the country of birth on my passport. The war of dissolution was ongoing.
Yugoslavia was a land that might well have been overlooked based only on size and population, but instead it ignited the spark that had led to World War I. It played a role in Germany’s loss of World War II, and it was closing this same century at war with itself. The taxi driver quickly made the complexity of the situation we were heading into more personal.
He told us that he was himself a Serb who had fled the wars, one of many who had landed in Trieste. He and Mama spent the entire trip discussing the situation. Mama talked of her sisters in Serbia and Croatia, for both of them had families still in the midst of the fighting. I translated sparingly for Harold, afraid he might not be entirely confident of our decision to make this trip. The driver confirmed that our destination, in Istria, was remote from the embattled areas and was removed from the direct crisis. He, at least, was confident we would be safe in our search for Mama’s roots. In that taxi, we didn’t yet know that the challenges would lie in the search itself.
The taxi dropped us at the Hotel Brioni, in the city of Pula. Perched on the coastline, it was near the summer estate of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. In its glory the Brioni had reigned proudly, but now, rundown and nearly empty, it was a far cry from the Old-World grace of the Savoia Palace in Trieste, where we had started the journey. Nothing here had been maintained in a long time; perhaps not since the communists took over Yugoslavia after World War II, and certainly not since the present conflicts had started in the late 1980s. Things looked grim as we then headed out to rent a local car. No tourists were interested in taking a trip into this unsettled situation. No crowds would stand between us and our idea of finding Zora’s house.
The town of Medulin was just a few miles from Pula. We at first encountered scenes that had certainly not existed at Zora’s birth. What had once been a charming beach was now littered with Communist-style dilapidated buildings, hotels that looked like highrise slums. The people milling around clearly weren’t on holiday. We learned later that many Croatian refugees from the conflict had been given shelter at this waterside resort area, and that it had become an informal refugee camp. We continued along the waterfront road, then turned inland, toward the old town. Zora had come to life as we traveled south from Trieste. When we approached the center of Medulin, she told me which way to turn, when to keep going. She had suddenly been transformed back into the strong woman I used to know—energized and confident. The town, in contrast, was quiet and nearly empty. It was seemingly untouched by the uncontrolled development and crowding near the water. Continuing upward along the hill, we parked the car near the top and started exploring, relying on Zora to lead us to her home.
The houses around us were built of local stone; vines grew on old wooden arbors and gates. The roads were no longer all dirt, as they had been when Mama was young, but they were run-down, crumbling along the edges, merging with weeds and rocks. A cemetery surrounded the small church at the top of the hill. Mama’s parents grew up thinking they would be buried there, as would their children. But it didn’t happen that way.
Zora led us up and down several roads, sometimes pausing with a distant look in her eyes to touch a wall or stare at a door. She had left there as an infant and was searching for the house she was born in, one in which she believed her uncle still lived.
She kept looking. Many houses matched the image in her mind, but she was searching for her home. Had she assumed that she would breathe the air as she approached her mother’s house, and, like a baby calmed only by her mother’s milk—unique, unlike any other mother’s milk—she would recognize it? But she didn’t.
Harold started feeling uncomfortable. We were, after all, in a war-torn country, one that didn’t seem warm and friendly to him. It felt strangely abandoned, almost derelict. He was the first to acknowledge the challenges of our situation and question Zora directly.
“Weren’t you just a baby when you left this area?” he asked as it became clear we were not going to find the house.
“I was, Harold. We escaped after the First World War, when Mussolini took over. But I went back with my mother, just after the Second World War, in the late 1940s.”
“How long did you spend here on that visit?” “Oh, I only had a few days off from my work. It was short.”
“Zora, even that was almost fifty years ago.” I could feel her mind sifting through a lifetime of events.
Everything had changed.
Nothing had changed.
Here she was, back where it all started: a widow with her own daughter and son-in-law, visiting a country that was again at war. Her country—splintering back to the divisions that last existed at the time of her birth.
“I remember it was a short walk,” she said.
“Straight up the hill from the center of town. The church was at the top of the road, the sea at the bottom. We just have to find the right road.”
The problem, I finally understood, was that this description of the small road with the church at the top and the sea below fit almost every road of this town on its small hill.
“Do you have their address?” Harold asked. “Did you correspond?”
“Correspond?” she said, looking at me.
Harold rephrased his question. “Did you write each other?”
He had to do that more and more with Zora. Even though she understood English quite well, some expressions escaped her. And her comprehension had recently started slipping.
“Oh, you know, I don’t write letters. And my family is worse.” Zora turned to me, and switched languages, as she often did. “Kaži mu, tell him, that there were no addresses. It was a small town. You just used people’s names.”
“So you know their name?” Harold asked.
“Of course I know their name! It’s my uncle’s family we’re talking about.” She slapped him gently, and she laughed. “Could you forget your uncle’s name?”
“Sometimes I wonder,” he said, a bit obscurely. I could tell he was starting to question what Zora really did remember. “I guess I’m just nervous wandering around a foreign country, near a war zone, not speaking the language.”
“But this isn’t a foreign country, Harold. This is my country.”
That simple statement said so much. I wondered then what Mama was really looking for in coming here right now. My father’s death had hit her extremely hard, and she hadn’t been able to recover back at home. Here she seemed renewed. Was she reexamining her life in America? Did this explain her re-energized demeanor?
She was in a place she had left as an infant and visited only once again in her youth, but for Mama this clearly didn’t feel foreign. They all spoke her language; their dialect was one that lived deep in her memory. The waters of the Adriatic sparkled around us, the harbor below was still full of fishing boats, and the coffee came black and thick in small ceramic cups.
But no matter how familiar it all seemed to her, we were hopelessly lost. No matter what she was seeking, we weren’t finding it.
“Let’s drive down to where the shops are, at the bottom of the hill, where we came in,” I finally said, frustrated. “There was a café there, and some men were sitting outside.”
We drove to the center of town. It was nearly deserted, with only a few people near the shops. A young woman stood outside the door of the café and pushed her baby carriage back and forth. An older woman emerged with a cake box and they walked away together. Suddenly I saw the post office. “They probably have a phone book in there, and we can try searching in it,” I suggested.
The post office was open, but, like everything else, seemed almost abandoned. Finally a young woman appeared at the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked in Serbo-Croatian. Zora had spoken it with me all my life, insisting that her language was my birthright. She said we spoke po našemu. It meant in our way. In our language. “We’re looking for my mother’s uncle, who lives here,” I replied, po našemu. “Do you have a phone book?”
“Certainly.” She understood me without a problem. “It’s a bit old. We haven’t had a new one since the war started. Has he lived here long?”
“Over eighty years,” replied Zora, laughing. “Bogdan wouldn’t move from here if you put a gun to his head.” It wasn’t perhaps the best figure of speech, given how her own father had left, but it got the point across.
There was no Bogdan Rojnič listed for Medulin. We also found no listing for Matte, Bogdan’s son. “I am sure we got letters from them,” said Zora. “But that was before we left Yugoslavia.”
“Ah . . . Did you live here, as well?” the young woman asked.
“Oh, I was born right here, in Medulin. My father was Martin Marinovič; my mother was Katarina Rojnič before she married. Bogdan was her brother. Their families lived here for centuries. But I left when I was very young,” Mama continued, turning back to us. “I can’t imagine what happened to Bogdan.”
“Do you have a mailman who might know the local families?” I asked. “Maybe someone older?”
“There is an older mailman, but he has gone for lunch. He will be back around three.”
“Thank you,” I said, relieved at this new possibility. “We’ll come back.”
We walked over to the café, got some coffee and some torte. The local cakes were very familiar to all of us, as Mama had baked them all my life. As we sat down the young woman suddenly came out from the post office, looked around, and then approached the outside table where we were sitting.
“Izvinite, molim vas. I’m so sorry,” she said, flustered. “I just remembered. He won’t be back this afternoon. He finished his rounds early and has gone fishing for the weekend. You can talk to him next week.”
Her words were devastating. Next week we would be on a ferry to Venice. It looked like our chance of finding what we came for—Mama’s family home and her relatives—was evaporating.
It had seemed so achievable, this plan to stop in a town just across the water from Venice and find Mama’s home. Now we just sat and stared at each other.
“Tell us what you remember,” Harold finally said to Zora. He wanted to learn as much as possible about this quiet spot where her story began, and about those who stayed when her family was forced to leave. Maybe it would lead us somewhere.
I looked at Mama, trying to imagine her thoughts, barely knowing my own.
“Ne razumem ništa. I don’t understand anything. In my mind it was all so clear,” Zora finally said. “When I was a girl, my mother talked about Istria all the time. About how hard it was for her to have to leave. About their life here.”
“A lot like you talked about my childhood with me when I was younger, right, Mama?”
“That’s right, Tania.”
“It’s the reason I can remember life in Trieste, from when I was a baby. You talked about it so often,” I said, referring to my own young childhood. Because of my Mama’s stories, I knew what it was like to have vivid memories of a time when I was very young.
“Yes, that’s right, Tania. And of course you found Campo when you went back. I was sure I would find my Mama’s home, too.” She and I talked, po našemu, in our language, while I translated for Harold. It was a familiar mode; we could have been back in Zora’s kitchen in San Francisco.
“I remember being in her kitchen so clearly,” Zora continued. “She would cook dinner, I did my schoolwork and helped my sisters with theirs.”
“Mama talked about the time when I was born,” Zora was in full storytelling mode. “About living across the street from Roža and Bogdan. About your grandfather, Deda Marinovič, fishing. About purple grapes and ripe figs. She was convinced that the days were clearer, that nature was celebrating the end of war. That life was getting better. But it wasn’t to be, you know.” Zora’s voice drifted off as she visualized a past she only knew through her mother’s voice. She could hear it as if Katarina was with us in that moment, in Medulin, talking to her. Po našemu. For Katarina had always told stories to her daughters when they were young, painting a picture of life right there, in Istria. Zora heard about a woman in love with her husband, her children, and with her beautiful homeland. But there was always a hidden tension to the stories, for Zora knew how they ended, and that nothing was as simple as Katarina’s telling made it sound. For Zora, her mother’s stories—with Venetian ships, wars, an ogre called Mussolini, and threats of exile—were riveting, and she never grew tired of listening, especially her favorite story: the one about her. The one about the baby that couldn’t wait.
“Our lives changed when you were born,” Katarina would tell little Zora. These stories often started with the words: “Sve se opet promjenilo. Nothing was ever the same again.”
Part I: KATERINA
The baby who wouldn’t wait
“Ova ne čeka. This one won’t wait,” were the words that always got Zora listening, because that story was about her.
It was the summer of 1922, the grapes were still green, the figs just ripening, and the fish were hiding farther out at sea than usual as Katarina struggled with the approaching birth of her seventh child. The First World War was over, and new babies had already come tumbling into their world. Four girls filled the house with noise; the two lost boys were still missed.
In their small town of Medulin they perched on a hill overlooking the Adriatic, a sea she would never tire of watching, even when the Bura winds howled over it toward Italy. She knew the massive stones used to build their houses would keep them warm and safe from the fiercest storms.
Prokleti Italiani, she thought. It was the damned Italians, not the winds, threatening them now. Just a few years ago it had been the Hungarians, and before that the Austrians. It was always someone. Endless wars. Perhaps the beauty of their homeland was so irresistible the fighting over its control would never end. This baby, the seventh she would bear, wasn’t due until August, but Katarina had known she wouldn’t wait. She always knew when they would be girls, and it was no different with this one.
“Ova neče dugo čekati, Martin,” she had said to her husband as he was getting ready to go out to sea a few days earlier. “This one won’t wait much longer.”
“Luckily Roža can help when you need it,” he replied. They were at home, across the road from Katarina’s childhood house, where her brother Bogdan lived with his wife Roža and their young son. Martin was happy that Roža was a good midwife. She had taken care of Katarina through Slavica’s traumatic birth after the war’s end. He knew she would take care of Katarina now, while he was gone. “I really have to go out for a few days on this ship, you know.”
“Yes, I know, but I still worry about you going out, Martin.” Every time he left she felt uneasy. “It’s not over yet, is it?”
“Not really. And no ships will protect us . . .” Martin caught himself. He didn’t need to talk about it just now. “I’ll be back soon, duša, my soul. Everything will be all right.”
Martin knew it wasn’t looking good. World War I was long over, yet the spoils were still being fought over, and their home was in the middle of it all. But he didn’t want to worry Katarina just now. She had been slowly getting over her personal tragedies from that last war, going forward day by day, remembering anew how wonderful their life here had always been. He couldn’t bear to have her frightened again. There would be time to talk about it when he returned. He had some plans to work out in the meantime.
Katarina was right. The baby really couldn’t wait to get out. A few days after Martin left she sat in Roža’s kitchen, looking out the window at her own home. Martin was still out to sea; Bogdan was at work. Babies and children ran around outside in the open courtyard, near the vegetable garden. She could hear the pig grunting and the chickens pecking in their enclosure. The jezva, the old copper Turkish coffee pot, was on the wood stove, still hot from the midday meal. Aromas of strong coffee mingled with ripe fruit smells. A bee buzzed in through the open door, mistaking the flowers in the old clay jug for the ones growing outside.
Katarina had grown up in this kitchen; she still knew it better than Roža did. How many generations of women had cooked Turkish coffee the same way on that same stove? How many had waited here for their babies, imagining the lives to come? She was just slipping into a gentle reverie as Roža bustled back in from picking tomatoes.
That was when she felt the first pains. She gripped the table before her, its wood polished by her own mother’s hands, its edges rounded from years of use. The olive tree out in back, the one that had replaced the one this table was crafted from, was already ancient in its own right. It felt good to hold on to something she had known since childhood, to ground herself as this new baby pushed her way into the world.
July 21 it was, the heart of that warm summer of 1922. Roža got her across the road to her own bed, the one she shared with her beloved Martin. The place where she had given birth so many times already, and where he himself had been born.
The new one was born a few hours later, before her father came back from his voyage. Of course it was a girl, and she literally burst into the world, as if she knew her parents were counting on her to bring in a new dawn.
“Pa koliko je ljepa. My, she’s so beautiful,” breathed Martin a few days later, when he saw her.
“You think they are all beautiful,” Katarina said, happy he was home. Back with her. Safe.
“That’s because they are all beautiful.”
My beautiful wife and my beautiful babies, he thought. I should feel like the luckiest man in the whole universe!
If only it was that simple.