I’m named after my mom’s best friend from her twenties, Julianne. They lived in Palo Alto, California together, where my mom worked as a nurse and Julianne worked at a university. Julianne befriended my mom, who was in a bad relationship and needed a friend. Julianne helped my mom regain her strength and her faith, giving her the courage she needed to end the relationship and move out on her own. My mom moved into one half of a duplex and together they prayed that someone nice would move in next door. The next person to move in was my dad.
My parents moved from California to be near to my mom’s parents in Indiana, where I grew up, and Julianne went on from that university in California to working for the Universidad de Sevilla, Spain. I grew up hearing stories of Julianne and repeating the foreign word, Se-vee-ya, to myself. As soon as I was old enough to understand where Spain was, I knew that was where I was meant to travel.
Traveling was a tradition in my family growing up, but not the fancy way of flying in airplanes and taking taxis. Nope, we were all piled into our six passenger minivan, made seat forts with our Ninja Turtle sleeping bags and spent the miles fighting over who got to play with the Bop-it next. I loved every minute of it. From my suspiciously sticky back seat window, I saw the plains of the Midwest, held my breath as we climbed the Rocky mountains and fidgeted to get out and feel the sand of Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The four of us kids slept, ate ungodly amounts of potato chips and (believe it or not, read books and quizzed each other with Brain Quest flashcards. My mom made a fight for education in every minute of our free time) and counted the hours we’d been on the road. No amount of highway mileage was too far for my mom to want us to see a certain destination, so driving 22 hours was not an unusual amount. By the time I was 16, I had seen or driven through 48 states and down the coast of Mexico.
We knew she was terminal in her fight with cancer by my 17th birthday. My parents insisted that we celebrate; I wanted nothing less than to remember it was my birthday. I knew that age 17 would always be the age that I would have to say, “I was 17 when my mom died”. I wanted with all my heart to stay 16, stay the same age that I was when my mom was alive, stay the same age that I was before she told us she had cancer. Once I turned 17, she was going to die. Once I turned 17, I would have to start my life of living without her.
I was lost in those months once she was gone, but I hid my grief and pain as much as I could. People surrounded my siblings and I, consoling and loving us in ways so innumerable that we still can’t count them all. Food always found its’ way to our fridge for months, whether or not anyone was shopping. Friends were always even less than a phone call away. I will forever have an undying gratitude for the magnitude of love I felt during those months and years and even present day. But I am my mother’s daughter. And as such, the attention and care became stifling to my confused, lost heart. At school, I went through the halls feeling like I was an exhibit at a zoo. “Watch, it’s her, she lost her mom,” “Wait, was that a cough or a sob? Is she going to start crying now? Is this grieving?” My guidance counselors gave me these long looks after they embraced me, their eyes almost saying “ok, ready, set, grieve!”
I needed to get out. I needed to follow my mom’s lessons about the world; there is always something beautiful to see at the end of the road. I needed to see that the world is more than the pain that I was feeling, more than the overwhelming tides of exhaustion and hopelessness that consumed me. I connected with the local university and a local church; they were on their way to Tegulcigalpa, Honduras for mission and I knew I had to go with them.
I received a tremendous amount of support to pay for my ticket and I left to regain my spirit. And through travel, I did. I returned the next year and received the same affirmation of the goodness of the world that I desperately needed the year before. I began dating a guy my mom had always liked and our first dating adventure was to drive to New York from Indiana. We drove for hours and drank coke on Times Square as the New Year’s ball dropped and confetti rained down on us.
Fast forward 7 years and here I am, once again driving in a car on a road trip to see the world. I have that boy by my side once again, but now I have a ring he gave me on my left hand. We’re roadtripping for 9 days from our home in Germany to the Atlantic coast of Portugal and back, hugging the southern coast of Spain, the south of France and northern Italy along the way. We drove into Sevilla on Day 4, Christmas Eve day, after climbing the cliffs of Portugal and munching the tapas of Lisbon. Sevilla is a city of ambiance, complete aesthetic delight but was built on ideas from adventure. Queen Isabella listened to Christopher Columbus talk about “finding Asia” on his quest and she knew this was the beginning of another era of the “New World”. She expanded the royal palace, Alcazar, for a whole section dedicated to quests like Columbus’s. But painted on nearly every building’s walls is the true face of Sevilla; depicted as crying, the concerned but proud Mother Virgin Mary looks over Sevilla to bless every voyage, every journey, every traveler. Sevilla holds a statue of the Virgin Mary, south of the city center, made famous by her tears leaking from her stone face. The tears are now studded with crystal, but the Virgin Mary of Sevilla still blesses her city to this day.
If there was ever a harmony between two opposing religions, it exists in the beauty of Sevilla. Beautiful Moorish buildlings, white walls with tiles adorning the doorways and red tiled roofs, pack the streets and black bulls were found grafitted on severfal buldings here or there. Bull-fighting is an ancient sport of Spain, but Sevilla is the home of bull-fighting and houses the championships for the matadors every year. Green vines entandgle the pillared terraces where people stop to eat and the narrow streets are lined with bright orange trees. (Not for eating, however. They’re too bitter, but they’re instead used for fragrences, cleaning agents or medicine). The Islamic culture lives and breathes in the pointed oval windows and sacred geometrical stone carvings lining the doorways, but right next door is the largest Gothic Catholic cathedral in Europe. Sevilla’s history is one of bloodshed as these two religions, monarchies and cultures clashed, but present day Sevilla is a representation of the peace and harmony that since grew.
And I saw the city as the magical, almost mythical city I’d dreamed of for a decade. This was the Sevilla of my mother’s youth, the city she talked of taking me to before I knew of Spain. I was there for her, to fulfill her dream of taking me to see this piece of the world. I went through the city looking for pieces of my mom, looking for hints as to why she had wanted to come here with me. I paused at every sight, trying to take as many pictures of the beauty as I could, trying to navigate the small doorways and steps, opening my eyes wide as if I could take in the entire city if I just tried hard enough. I looked in doorways and small alleyways, thinking that I would see a glimpse of some art or scene that would remind me of her. It was a tremendous, exhausting day. I maxed the memory on my camera, dropped my husband’s cell phone in the looking pond of the Alacazar and then managed to fight of panic attacks for losing my husband’s cell phone in the looking pond of the Alcazar. It was quite a day.
But no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find her. I didn’t see traces of the proud, smiling woman with ready hugs and sharp, inappropriate wit. I looked in the faces of the women we passed; I searched in the faces of the robust Spanish cook in a tiny café who laughed at her own broken English and smiled proudly at my painful attempts to order breakfast, the caring Alcazar guard who informed me in her own unhurried way that there was no way to recover my husband’s cell phone but then laughed and gave me a long, sympathetic hug. I looked in the uplifted, lit face of the woman praying in the infamous Seville Cathedral, her face turned up to the figure of Jesus on the cross and her hands turned up towards the heavens.
But I didn’t find her. I couldn’t see her in any of these women, as unique and beautiful as they were.
As we left the Alcazar in search of tapas, I felt defeated. I’d been waiting my whole adolescence and adulthood to come to Seville, to feel the connection with this magical place I’d dreamed of, to find the parts of my mother when she was young that I’d never known. Did I fail? What if I couldn’t find my mother here? Was I letting her down?
In the swarm of tourists circling the Alcazar compound, we passed a garden with a family looking at a beautiful, intricate fountain surrounded by the orange trees that line the streets of Seville. The young boys of the family were starting to walk off, bored now that they weren’t allowed to throw any more oranges at each other and then the dad too left, chasing after the boys. The mom was hurriedly gathering the backpacks and water all tourist families are burdened by, but the little girl wouldn’t move. She was encapsulated by the fountain and the moving water. Her small hand was moving leaves on the water surface and when her mother took her other hand to lead her towards the boys, she jerked it back and began to cry. She didn’t want to go, she wanted to see more.
In a cliché moment of traveling self-realization/epiphany, I got it. I got why my mom wanted to take me to Seville and why I was meant to be here.
I wasn’t supposed to find my mom In Seville. Her dream of taking me to Sevilla was her dream of having a daughter that would have the opportunity to see the world and the curiosity to explore its’ mysteries. She wanted for me to have the spirit of that little girl, to want and desire to see more, experience more. I was in Sevilla to find myself, find the piece in me that is still her daughter, still learning and growing and connecting with the woman who will never stop loving me, even in death.
At that moment I felt my mother’s embrace, the hug that I will always remember in my heart and be able to conjure up the feeling for the rest of my life. Her arms go around and cross behind my back and she squishes my head to her shoulder while her own head rests on top of mine. Maybe it was the Spanish breeze, maybe the sweet wine and the salty olives, but I felt the reassurance, comfort and squeezing love that someone can only get from their mother’s embrace.
I finally went to Seville. And there, inside myself I felt my mother’s hug squeeze my heart and her voice whisper in my ear, “Well done, my daughter. You made it.”