By Catherine Kapphahn
When I was growing up in Colorado, I would have never associated the word “secretive” with my Croatian mom. I thought of it more like “withholding.” As a child, I sensed her unspoken history, fleeting and faintly drawn in my mind. Still where there are family secrets, cracks appear. The one I remember pierced my sleep as a child in the middle of the night.
My mom’s cry was a soft wail; it hung in the air, this sound of sorrow. I slid off the bed, tiptoed down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom doorway. I peered in, listening to my dad trying to comfort my mom. She was curled on her side, facing away from him, lost in a different time and different place.
I wanted to see what she saw, hear what she heard, feel what she felt, wherever she was beyond this bedroom. I waited a moment before I asked, “Mama, what’s wrong?” I was confident that I could save her; I was a fearless nine-year old. “Tell me,” I demanded.
And she responded by silently reaching out her arm to me.
I went to the side of the bed, and held her slender hand.
She wasn’t able to find the words to tell me what was wrong on that night, or any night for the rest of her life.
My Croatian mom wasn’t like any of the other American mothers that I knew. She wore black leather pants and high-heeled boots to the grocery store. She wasn’t shy to break out into a flamenco step in public even if it embarrassed her only daughter. She walked five miles a day in our sleepy suburb, and men in cars honked at her swinging hips. She had stunning green eyes. She laughed heartily and loudly. She loved me fiercely and would do anything to protect me. When a car almost hit me, she slammed her fist on the hood of that car. I was her last blood relative; she was the last woman in my family.
When I was twenty-two, my mom was dying of ovarian cancer in Colorado. She told me confidently, “I know where I’m going, don’t be sad, Katie.” She was a woman of strong faith and she was ready to let go even if I wasn’t. When she fell unconscious, I sat on the bed and held her hand. When she took her final breath, I held on.
After my mom’s death, I was unprepared for the force of grief. Her unspoken trauma was bound to me. It took a long time for me to figure out that to become whole, I had to untangle her silences. It would be many years before I heard an interview with the psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, where he said, “The nature of a traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created.” I felt so relieved to know: trauma can defy words.
At twenty-two, the loss loomed before me. The inheritance of trauma is complicated. I didn’t just lose my mom, I lost the family that I did not know. I lost her history: I lost her childhood stories, her orphaned stories, her World-War II stories, her almost-dying-from-TB stories, her escape-from-communism stories, and her immigration stories.
I didn’t know the name of the village where she was born between two world wars. What were my grandparents’ names? I didn’t know what my mom witnessed during WWII as her parents wasted away to tuberculosis. I didn’t know how much her grandmother struggled to keep them afloat in communist Yugoslavia. I didn’t know hardly anything about my mom’s TB, the disease that followed her throughout childhood into young adulthood. But when she changed her clothes, I glimpsed a scar beneath her lower ribs.
By the time I was twenty-four, in my second attempt at college, I found myself sitting in a circle at a desk, at Hunter College, in New York City, in a memoir writing class. I was terrified, but our lively Italian-American professor made us believe that we deserved to write, that we each had a voice, and that our stories had worth.
Even though my mom believed that I could do anything, I didn’t. And now that she was gone, it was strange that I even ventured into that first writing class. I didn’t own confidence when it came to learning. I’d struggled to learn to read (my mom had to teach me at home in a language that was not her own). I’d wrestled with basic grammar, agonized over my writing inadequacies, and lacked the ability to comb out tangled sentences. Still, there is nothing like grief to get a writer started. Writing felt messy, fragmented, confusing, agonizing, and yet, somehow I could not turn away from it.
My mom’s story forced me to become a writer.
Around the time I finished graduate school, I discovered that I was dyslexic. This made sense. I knew what it was like to witness my teacher sitting across from my mom, trying to convince her that I should repeat third grade. I knew what it was like to sit cross-legged on the carpet, staring at a jumble of math problems on the board, willing myself to vanish rather than be called upon. I knew what it was like to see a red F glaring at me from my first high school paper on, of course, The Scarlet Letter. I knew what it was like to fail one, then another, college placement test. I knew what it was like to shamefully survive a college remedial English class, just barely.
I’d spent my life searching the outside world for clues to figure out who I should be on the inside. I’d spent my entire education breathlessly trying to find the words, hacking through language, trying to translate myself, so I could have worth. I scrambled to make up for, to scream at, to suffocate out my dyslexic mistakes. It was my secret I didn’t know I was keeping.
When my newly discovered dyslexia and grief collided, they sent me reeling into something I couldn’t grasp. Adrenalin pulsed hard through my body, making me dizzy, shaky, nauseous, making me crumble onto the neatly cut grass of campus, wondering how to get home. It made me crawl, on my hands and knees, up five flights of stairs to my apartment, as everything in me whirled in fear. I struggled to stand up. What was happening to me? For years afterwards, there were times I floated beyond my body, in distressing separation. My soul split from the self: you are not here.
Still I kept trying to do this thing that is so hard for dyslexics: I wrote. I had to prove something to myself; I had to do this for my family. And so, I returned to the book about my mom again and again, word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, and year by year. There were times I hunched over the computer screen and sobbed; why was I making my mom suffer the loss of her parents again? There were times I laughed and sang with my Croatian family who was coming to life for me on the page. I got to know Marijana, my mom, as a young woman, trying to fight for her life, on a mountainside TB sanatorium, Brestovac. Oftentimes I wondered how could someone like me do this, but then I turned to my mom’s story and escaped with her from 1950s communist Yugoslavia to Italy, to Argentina, to Venezuela.
The book became my meditation and I kept returning to her. I immersed myself in my mom’s life. I spent years interviewing my dad and researching; he knew more than I did and was generous with his fact-based memory. I’d discover one clue about my mom and then spiral a scene from it. I believed that I could find truth of her history in my imagination. When I finished the first whole draft, I was euphoric as I walked down New-York-City sidewalks. Publication seemed to be right around the corner! Then came years of rejections from literary agents, book contests, and independent presses. This book felt like an underdog.
When dyslexia’s chronic self-doubt plagued me, I’d stand with my mom in her story, a young woman, holding onto the railing, on an ocean liner traveling from Genoa to Buenos Aires, across the Atlantic Ocean. While I was writing this book, I went through three miscarriages and two births, the ups and downs of marriage, my father’s cancer treatment and death. Many times I’d stop writing, and then I’d run into someone who’d ask me, “How’s that book about your mom going?”
When I felt alone in my life, I got to spend time with my family in the book. I was a child running into the kitchen, while my mom stirred a pot of tomato sauce with a wooden spoon. She smiled and wrapped her arms around me. I placed each of my bare feet over hers, and we held each other and swayed, while she hummed the theme song of Doctor Zhivago.
When I struggled with research despair, people magically showed up in my life. Someone whose mother rode the same ship as my mom did across the Atlantic; someone who worked at the end of my street who could translate a Croatian letter; someone who could help me figure out what it was like to ride a train from Buenos Aires, over the Andes, to Chile in 1955.
My mom never knew me as a writer, but she guided me on the pages where I explored the geography of her illness and immigrations. Believe me when I tell you that throughout my childhood, there were no signs that I could write a book. I didn’t keep journals. I didn’t jot down words. I didn’t tell stories. I didn’t dream of a writing life. I didn’t fit into any literary identity, but I was transfixed by the realms of the body, movement, and emotion.
If dyslexia fragmented my learning life, this book helped me integrate how I learn and who I am. Over time, it taught me my worth. The journey of writing through my mother’s life revealed something about my dyslexia that was astonishing. It turns out that my brain is drawn to making inter-connections, finding parallels; it can knit together things that, at first, seem far apart, but are really close together. I might struggle to summon words, but images, sensations, and sounds flow freely, and I just need to translate them.
One day a box with my name on it arrived in our mail box. “You know what this is?” My husband asked me and our two sons.
I shook my head.
“What?” I said confused. Even though that’s all I had been working on, I’d forgotten it was coming, and suddenly I felt disoriented. I laughed.
“Let me! Let me, carry it up!” my seven-year old Rafa piped up excitedly and held out his hands. He proudly carried the box up the stairs to our apartment. My husband cut open the box and handed the book to my thirteen-year old son Radek. “The cover looks good.” He eyed it critically; he had been instrumental in deciding which cover design was going to be the one. We huddled over the book, staring at the photo that my dad had taken on the island of Hvar, the only time I traveled to my mother’s country with her in the 70s.
In the cover photo, my mom and I are walking down a narrow stone street, our backs to the camera. We walk toward a painted-blue door with lace curtains over the windows. There is a hanging lamp, and the stone street is curving downward. The connected-stone houses create walls of history on both sides of us. A woman waters her hanging flowers on the balcony above. My mom is mid-step, walking with one hand in her slack’s pocket, elbow slightly out. She wears a blue-striped fitted short-sleeved shirt, and holds her bag casually with her right hand. I am a sun-tanned six-year old girl with brown pigtails, in a dark skirt with a bright green swimsuit; I am mid-step; my right white leather sandal hovers over those polished ancient stones. I follow my mom a few steps behind.
For over twenty years, I followed her. As I excavated my family’s secrets, I wondered if her unspoken trauma make me more vulnerable to trauma itself. I know that I experienced how trauma and resilience can cross generations. I’m certain that my body carried my mom’s untold stories and losses, and my grief filled me with the need to process them. But what astonished me the most, when I wrote about her, was my mom’s grit, her improvisation, her insistence on living her life despite all the hardships. After so many years of withholding myself from the world, I finally emerged because the story demanded it of me. In this book, I claimed an elusive Croatian identity and resurrected the family that I never knew.
When I was a child, standing in the doorway in the middle of the night, listening to my mother’s cry, I desperately wanted one thing: for my mom to find the words to tell me what haunted her. In giving my mom’s history a voice, I conjured an entire language for us both. Her story taught me that if you look hard enough into despair, there is also a universe of hope.
Mothers & Secrets
“Mothers & Secrets” was first published in Newtown Literary.
Catherine Kapphahn is a writer, educator and speaker. Her memoir Immigrant Daughter: Stories You Never Told Me received The Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award. It was also shortlisted for a Del Sol Press Prize. She has received artist grants from the Queens Council on the Arts and City Artist Corps. Her writing has appeared in Motherwell Magazine, Newtown Literary, the Feminist Press Anthology This is the Way We Say Goodbye, and CURE Magazine. She is an adjunct lecturer (City University of New York) at Lehman College in the Bronx, where her students’ brave stories continue to inspire her. Catherine also is a yoga teacher. She grew up near the mountains in Colorado and now lives between two bridges in Queens, New York with her husband and two sons. You can find out more about Catherine at www.catherinekapphahn.com