YouMy favorite memory from my mother is still fresh in my mind. I was 11, and my family was on holiday along the Adriatic coast Croatia. It’s about four hours drive from Sarajevo, Bosnia. After spending all day at the beach—swimming, playing cards, and snacking on syrupy figs from a nearby tree—I watched as one by one, families of beachgoers packed up their towels and colorful umbrellas, likely headed to dinner followed by a lazy stroll through town.
“Let’s stay another hour,” Dad said. “This is the best sun.”
While I long to follow the mass migration of people to hotels and restaurants along the coast, it was hard to resist the urge to do so. The orange light that just poured over the ocean felt luxurious and soft on my skin. I could feel tiny salt crystals in my arms.
In the distance, a ship was visible heading for nearby docks. Mama squeaked like a child, and jumped up from her folded chair. I was able to grab her hands, so she grabbed mine and pulled me from the towel. We were soon on our way. The pebbly bottoms were perfect for us to sit down and lock arms. We laughed with the anticipation of the next wave from the ship. In quick succession the waves crashed onto us, throwing our legs into the air and pulling under. We laughed as we ascended to the surface and tried to not swallow too much salty liquid or lose our connection with one another.
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Each time I recall this moment, I take the time to enjoy every detail. My mother, who was 89 years old, died from heart disease nine years ago. She is dearly loved by me and the grief that I experience now doesn’t fit in with any of my emotions. Instead, it has carved out its own singular realm and like breathing—it is ever-present and subconscious.
One year later, the war in Bosnia broke out. My entire family was under siege for four more years in Sarajevo. Mom’s love and sacrifice remained undiminished by the horrors of our daily lives. In a dangerous city, she would walk to work each day. She was willing to risk her life in exchange for a small salary and warm lunch that she kept in plastic containers and then brought back for us all. One evening, she got back and with a fancy flourish of her hand—as if she were a magician—pulled an egg out of her purse. It had been months since I’d had eggs.
Although my mother was small, her physique belied her strength and resilience. Her university picture shows her beautiful, and she reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor. Cleopatra. Heels, makeup and jewelry were all she wore. 5, as she walked 10 kilometers to get to work—every step of the way in danger from the blasts and bullets. She was brave and defiant, but also funny and stubborn like the time she accepted Dad’s challenge to quit smoking by listening to the hypnosis tapes he had given her for her birthday. She followed every cue—“lie down, close your eyes, repeat ‘I am a strong, confident woman who doesn’t need cigarettes in her life’”—all with an impish grin and a lit cigarette in her mouth.
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I was saved by her fierce fighting for my life. Unfortunately, our tight knit family became looser as a result of my new lease on the life. Our lives were separated for over ten years. We only saw each other once every few years. We shared so many precious moments and missed out on important ones together, even though our love has never wavered. Every visit felt like an attempt to make up lost time. There were so many things to do and such high stakes. Life We sometimes had to give up and stop trying so hard. It was hard to believe that we did so much running and didn’t take the time to relax.
On the first Mother’s Day after she died, I walked into an elevator in my apartment building and was met by a woman in her 60s locking arms with her mother who must have been in her late ’80s or early ’90s. They were beautifully dressed and chatty—giddy even. I was flinching inside.
“I’m taking my Mom for a nice brunch,” the daughter offered and smiled generously at her mother.
I smiled back and quickly mumbled “have a nice time” before slipping out as soon as the doors slid open. The doors opened and I exhaled a long, hardened, angry, and frustrated sigh.
“That woman is twice my age and she still has her mother!” I hissed to myself.
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While I understood that I was acting out of rage and had no hatred for those women, it wasn’t my intention to hurt them. my mother. To this day, the sight of an elderly woman with silky gray hair and delicate features sends me into a tailspin of questions: “Would my mom look like that? Is her hair styled in either a bun with long hair or a bob? Are her hands slimmer and more elegant? Would she still wear all her jewelry and makeup?”
I’ve inherited my mom’s beautiful rings and I keep them in several see-through containers in my closet. Each month, I choose a box from a pile of clothes and hangers that is spread out on my floor. Because I have to ration the perfume inside, I only choose one. After putting my nose in the container, I take a deep and greedy sniff before closing it. For a few minutes, I am dazed and shot full of adoration—and although my chest feels hollowed out, it is still too small to contain all my emotions.
Over the last nine years I felt as though a blanket that protected me from the cold outside had been removed in a single motion. I am exposed to life’s elements. I’m still learning how to soak myself up in the smells, colors, and details of happy memories.
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