Mother Tongue

by Tania Amochaev

Chapter One


Three seekers wandered, lost, on rough roads past ancient stone houses in a nearly deserted village on a hill rising sharply from the Adriatic Sea. Less than a hundred miles as a seagull would fly from Venice, this troubled spot was at that moment in 1992 still part of Yugoslavia, a country fighting a nearly incomprehensible war over issues that arced back over hundreds of years of troubled history.

One of the wanderers, Zora, my seventy-year-old widowed mother, was in a town she 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 and question Mama directly.

"Of course I can find the home I was born in,” she exclaimed when he asked if she were lost.

“Well, where is it then, Zora?” he persisted.

“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.”

“OK, OK, I give up.” Harold smiled down at her, amazed at her apparently endless energy. “If you aren’t tired, we can keep going.”

Mama looked at my tall husband with a bemused expression. They were very close in spite of their physical contrasts. Mama was a petite, dark haired, dark eyed woman of seventy whose skin retained a radiant beauty. She insisted she was five feet and a half tall. That half was half an inch, and by now she had shrunk a bit from that grand height. English was her third or fourth or fifth 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 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, like a homing pigeon making contact with a fragment of ancestral memory.

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. I suspect ours was a mother-daughter friction within normal range, but theirs was a uniquely close relationship for a man and his mother-in-law.

"Weren’t you just a baby when you left?" he asked.

"I was, Harold. We had to escape after the first World War, when Mussolini took over.”

“So what makes you think you can find it?”

“Well, you know I went back, once, just after the Second World War. I visited with my uncle and aunt, the ones who lived across the street from my mother's house. The ones who stayed."

“How long did you spend here on that visit?”

“Oh, I only had a few days off from my work. And my mother wasn’t really feeling well, so we stayed pretty close to my uncle’s house.”

“But Zora, even that was almost fifty years ago."

I could feel her mind sifting through the intervening lifetime of events.

Everything had changed about the larger world, and yet in some horribly circular way, nothing had changed. Here she was, back where it all started. No longer a child or a young woman, but a widow with her own daughter and son-in-law, visiting a country that was again at war. Her country. One that was splintering back to the shards that last existed at the time of her birth.

"But I remember being here Harold, I really do."

She went on to describe what she remembered of the house and location.

"It was a short walk straight up the hill from the center of town. At the front door of my mother's house the dusty dirt road ran up from the sea and continued straight up the hill to the church. My uncle‘s house was right across the street. The church was at the top of the road, the sea at the bottom, maybe a five-minute walk. 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.

We were in the town of Medulin, on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, in the part of Croatia nearest to Italy. Mama's family, the Marinovič clan, had come there from Montenegro, settling some four hundred years before. It was a fishing village, already old even then, part of the Venetian empire and near a shipbuilding facility started in Roman times.

The houses around us were built of local stone, with some land around most, vines growing on old wooden arbors and gates. The roads were no longer the dirt of Zora’s memory, but they were run-down, crumbling along the edges, merging with weeds and rocks. We could see a small church at the top of the hill. Around the church was the cemetery, the one her mother's and father's families had been buried in for all those years. Her parents grew up thinking they would be buried there as well, as would their children. But it didn't happen that way.

"Do you have their name, their address?" Harold continued. "Did you ever correspond?"


He rephrased his question. "Did you write each other?"

He had to do that more and more with Zora. Even though she spoke English quite well, some expressions escaped her. It wasn't getting better as she got older.

"Oh, you know, I don’t write letters. And my family is worse. It was a small town. There were no addresses. You just asked for people by name."

"So you know their name?" he asked.

"Of course I know their name! It's my uncle’s family we're talking about." She slapped him gently, teasing, and she laughed. "Could you forget your uncle's name?"

"Sometimes I wonder," he said. "I guess I'm just nervous about wandering around a foreign country, near a war zone, not speaking the language, looking for someone without an address."

"But this isn't a foreign country, Harold. This is my country."

That simple statement said so much—far more than she had intended at that moment. She was in a place she left as an infant and visited only once again in her youth, but for Mama this 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, the coffee came black and thick in small ceramic cups. But in spite of how familiar it all seemed to her, we were still hopelessly lost.