The Eye of the Beholder


It was a day today. Just a normal day.

It was a Sunday, in northern Massachusetts, in the last week of October.

It rained all day and the wind kept sweeping back and forth across our yard, seemingly intent on scrubbing away all signs of summer.

The yellow leaves swirled through the air like dancers and the newly empty trees bowed to the left and to the right.

I sat in my comfy rocker with a blanket on my knees. I watched the weather and smiled.

It was perfect.

Like every other adult in the world today, my days are packed with responsibilities. Taking care of my grandchildren and one of their friends, shopping, cooking, entertaining friends, helping to look after my elderly Mom, dealing with two young and energetic dogs……

All of it is good and all of really does bring me joy.

But I am exhausted. I’ve spent the past ten days or so fighting off a visit to the doctor. Refusing to go on medications that make me feel worse than I did before. The nose is stuffy, the lungs are wheezy, the aches are chasing the pains across my spine and I have a mystery foot ailment that has me limping like an old sailor.

I needed one day to myself.

And my dear friend, Mother Nature, has complied. It is cold. It is too rainy to work in the yard. Too cold to clean the garage. I had some new friends here for dinner last night, so there is no need clean anything.

Today has been spent reading a very cool mystery novel (The Nowhere Child). It has been spent sipping tea and eating mini cannolis brought by our friends. Dogs have been snoozing on my lap.

Even my workaholic husband has been reading, snoozing and playing games on his phone.

Perfect.

As I sit here now, I am looking out at a gray, dreary dusk. The rain pours down. The wind keeps blowing.

As I sit here, the light of my house shines in contrast to the cold night ahead. I am safe. I am sitting. I gaze out into the golden glow of the leaves that remain on our beech and oak trees. I can see the last bright sign of life from our “Burning bush”. I know that winter is heading our way.

But all will be well.

Because every now and then, a day will come when my body tells me to simply sit down and shut up. I’ll pour some hot herb tea, grab a good book, and fold the fuzzy blanket over the dog on my lap.

Life is good. Especially when we don’t expect it to be.

Connections


My husband is a very good human. He is kind, thoughtful, gentle. Pretty much everyone likes him.

Paul was a shy and quiet child, but grew into himself as an adult. He’s a constant surprise to old friends who knew him way back in High School, because he’s now the most social one of all of us.

Now that he is an outgoing, confident adult (and a successful and well respected psychologist), he has begun to articulate what it is that makes him reach out to strangers.

“It’s all about the connections,” he tells me. “Life is about making connections with other human beings.”

I know that he’s right, but I am not always as open or as non-judgmental as he is. Still, I try to be open. I try to greet people with a smile and a welcome.

Today that attitude paid off for me, as I made a lovely connection in the most unexpected of ways.

I was shopping at my favorite guilty secret bargain store, Ocean State Job Lot. I went in for a few small items, but as usual, I was pulled in by the seed packets, the bubble wands and the plants. I was on my way home from a visit to my mother, and was thinking a lot about my childhood. I was feeling a little emotional as I went into the store.

I picked up everything I needed (or could justify to myself), including a pot of dianthus and one of lupine. I love both of these perennials, and mine are in need of reinforcements. So I plopped them into my cart and continued through the store.

When I got to the checkout, there was a bit of a line. I waited my turn, noticing the young man behind me who was talking on his phone with a work colleague.

I’ll be honest. I noticed him first, in my creepy old grandmother way, because he was very good looking. Southeast Asian, I thought, perhaps from Vietnam or Cambodia. Tall, slim, dark haired, with wide, light brown eyes that contrasted with his darker skin.

He had a tattoo on one wrist, and a sharp spike piercing his lower lip.

Cute. Interesting.

My turn came at the register, and the young cashier rang up all of my many, many items. She got the skin cream, the candy, the seeds, the olive oil, the potting soil and the potted dianthus.

Then she turned to the lupine. She spun the planter, and frowned. There was no price tag.

“What is this?”, she asked. When I answered with the name of the flower, she shook her head. She was looking at her list of items for sale, and the plants were not labelled by name. They were labelled by size.

“It’s a perennial” I said, looking over her shoulder. “But I don’t know if its a quart or a 6 1/2″ pot.” This seemed like a meaningless comparison to me. Quart? Versus inches? What?

The cashier was confused, so she called her manager. He had no more idea of what to think than we did. We all looked at each other blankly.

That’s when the man behind me leaned forward.

“This is a 6 1/2 in pot. It should be this price.” He reached forward to tap the page that we were all looking at.

I was delighted. What could have taken ten minutes had been reduced to one small, simple comment.

“Thank you so much!” I said with a smile. A real smile. Not a ‘I should be friendly’ smile.

He smiled back.

“Well, I work in a garden center,” he said.

As my transaction was finishing, I thanked him again, then told him that I wished I had more time to ask him for advice, because my gardening dreams are always more successful than my gardening realities. We both laughed, I thanked him again, and headed out to my car.

As I was putting my toys, makeup, and food into my car, the same man came out of the store and headed my way.

Wouldn’t you know that the universe had arranged for us to park next to each other?

The man held out his phone to me. “This is my greenhouse,” he said with pleasure. I looked at the image of the wide, bright, beautiful array of plants. What struck me was his pride in his work.

“It’s gorgeous!” I said with all sincerity.

We started to chat about his work, and I asked where it was located. It turns out that he is one of many growers at a garden center that I have known my whole life.

“My parents always got their plants from your garden center!” I told him with surprised pleasure. “I love it there!”

The young man smiled and nodded at the compliment. “It’s beautiful. We grow so much there, all year!”

Then he opened his trunk.

“This is what I grow,” he said with pride. He beckoned me over and we looked into the trunk of his car. Tomatoes, peppers, squash and four beautiful flower plants.

We talked for a few more minutes. I asked him for advice on how to get my lupines to reseed. He talked about the personalities and needs of different plants, and advised me to get to know each one.

And then he reached into his trunk and pulled out one of his beautiful young plants.

“For you,” he said, “If you want this sunflower.”

I tried to refuse, but only weakly. “Oh, I can’t take that from you!”

“I want you to have it,” he said. “This was a nice meeting.”

I took the sunflower baby, and I was filled with such happiness.

“You have made my day,” I said to him. “Thank you so very much!”

“Thank you!” he answered. “Good bye!”

We didn’t exchange names. We’ll never run into each other again. But just by chance, we were able to connect to another human being who shared our love of plants and our desire to reach out and just be pleasant to each other.

Grounded


Sometimes the world is just a big pile of quicksand. You think you are on solid ground, and suddenly everything liquifies. Your footing shifts, your balance overturns, you find yourself sinking into that pit of quicksand.

I saw a movie once, when I was about ten. A man was chasing someone, and he stepped into quicksand. I can still picture it; the black and white image of the hero, slowly sinking into the sand that silently came up to claim him.

I don’t remember if the hero ever escaped. I only remember how horrified I was at the idea of sinking, sinking, sinking into death.

Now that I’m a grown assed adult, I feel like I have more secure footing. I don’t often fear the quicksand.

Why?

Because now I know what it is to be “grounded”. I know that I have roots that go deep deep deep into those parts of life that give us a sense of being anchored.

I have three adult children who love me, love my husband and truly love each other. What a secure anchor.

I have two beautiful grandchildren who love and depend on their parents. Who trust the love and support of those parents.

And who love and trust me almost as much.

What a truly deep and secure anchor.

I have siblings who love me and support me, even when we get on each others’ last nerve. And I have a Mom who tells me she loves me every time we see each other. And who shares stories of things I’ve done that have made her proud.

I am anchored.

I am secure.

I am married to my first true love. We met in (ahem) seventh grade, and fell in love by listening to each other’s stories and struggles. He’s been by my side every step of the way, through college, and grad school and infertility and babies and kids and teens and the empty nest.

He is “Papa!” to our best beloved grand kids.

I am grounded.

I am grounded because now, at last, after all this time….now I trust myself. I must be doing a pretty good job, because so many people I admire and love have told me so.

I am grounded.

In my garden, where I look at trees I planted two decades ago. When I look at the daffodils still blooming after all these many years.When I look at the new little walk that I crafted two years ago, and at the baby lilacs that line it’s way.

I am grounded.

My feet are firmly on this earth. My heart is firmly held by my love for those who still walk here. My soul feels the roots of the plants I’ve put in, reaching into the very heart of my soil to find life.

I feel so grounded now.

Nothing can knock me off my secure footing now.

Just a Ripple in Time


Girls at play

I was standing outside today, watching the kids play. It was a beautiful, cool fall day. The leaves were swirling around in the wind and the kids were running up and down the driveway. The smell of the air was musty, leafy, wet and so familiar.

I remembered walking through piles of fall leaves as a kid. I watched my grandchildren kicking the pine needles and leaves in front of themselves, and I remembered how the crumbly mix used to remind me of old cereal left in the bowl. I could feel myself back 50 years ago, walking through the neighborhood where I grew up.

As the kids raced by me, shrieking and howling and spinning with that special toddler mix of joy and unbounded energy, I realized that I was standing in Momma alert mode. You know what I mean? Johnny was running off to my right, and Ellie and Ella were off to my left. I stood with my feet apart, my hands clasped behind my back. I could survey the entire yard that way, keeping everyone safe and in my view, while still keeping my distance to let them play.

Ellie

There was, I swear, a little ripple in the air, and I suddenly realized that I had stood in that very same spot, so many times, watching different children run and play.

For a moment I almost felt dizzy. I looked hard to my right. Where were my little boys, my Matt and Tim, who used to ride bikes up and down this very same driveway? I turned to the left. Where was my baby girl, my Katie? Shouldn’t she be chasing her friend Jessica across the grass on this beautiful day?

I tilted my head back, looking through the branches of the pines at the bright, clean sky.

Of course my little ones weren’t there. They are grown now.

The shrieking, jumping, dancing little whirlwinds in front of me are Kate’s children, and Jessica’s.

The sky is the same. The grass is still my grass. My house stands right where it has stood for all these years. Some of the pines have come down, and there are newer, smaller trees. But the wind is the same, the smell is the same, the crushed brown mixture of cereal bowl leaves and needles is just the very same as it has been for all of my adult life.

I stand in the cool sun, my hands clasped behind my back. I close my eyes, just for a moment, standing perfectly still.

I hear them laughing and calling, I hear those playful voices. In this moment, I am not sure who it is I’m listening to.

 

Achieving Vintage Status


Boy, do I have great news!

I am NOT old!

I’m vintage!

What a relief.

I discovered this fabulous fact yesterday, when I took two young German friends into Boston for a day of sightseeing. We took a lovely boat tour of the Charles River, where the sweet young tour guide recounted Boston’s history through the eyes of someone two decades old.

She hadn’t heard of the famous song “Dirty Water,” the old Boston anthem. She didn’t know anything about the Blizzard of ’78.

I felt about 100 years old. My wrinkles were suddenly more wrinkly. My hair was whiter, my shoulders more stooped. My life wasn’t even history. It was pre-history.

Just call me Dino the dinosaur.

Then the young ‘uns and I headed into Harvard Square. I bit my tongue, hard, to stop myself from saying things like, “Back in the day, this place was really cool.”

We wandered through Harvard Yard (“I remember the time……”) and into the Coop (“We used to come here to…..”). We passed the local Starbucks (“This used to be our favorite bar.”) and the old gourmet grocery (“Our Russian tea was over here….”)

I was still Dino. With every step, I felt my teeth getting looser and my joints getting stiffer. I glanced at a store window on one point and was surprised that the reflection looking back at me wasn’t Granny Clampett.

Then it happened.

The kids told me they wanted to go into “Urban Outfitters,” a trendy store I’d heard of but never before entered. We crossed the street and went inside.

And I saw this:

albums

An entire wall full of albums. Albums!!!!

Of course, they weren’t labeled as “albums.” Instead, the sign said, “Vintage Vinyl.”

I burst out laughing, my old lady wheezy voice filled with amazement. Albums are back! ALBUMS! Remember when we were told that CD’s were going to make albums completely obsolete? Well, I do! Now they’re back. They’re hip, they’re cool, they’re freakin’ vintage and they sell for 28 bucks a pop.

Right beside the Vintage Vinyl was a display of….wait for it……

Record Players.

Like, pink and pale blue record players.In big clunky cases. Exactly, precisely, completely the same as the ones we used at our slumber parties in 1966.

record player

The mystery lyrics of “Louie, Louie” suddenly filled my head, and stood up a bit straighter.

The kids headed off to shop for clothes, wall hangings and rugs while I wandered around the place. I was the only one in view with a head of white hair, but suddenly I was feeling just a bit more spry.

I made my way past coffee cups shaped like butt cheeks, planters shaped like bald heads, a random collection of little clay baseball caps and Hello Kitty phone cases.

And I came across a table loaded with Polaroid cameras. Like the one my Dad used to pull out at our elementary school birthday parties.

I am not kidding. Polaroid cameras.

polaroid

And it comes with actual FILM. You have to buy FILM.

There were lots of people buying them, too.

‘Cuz they’re, you know, “vintage.”

I was feeling better and better. When the stylish young folks glanced my way now, I wasn’t worried that I looked like a brontosaurus. Oh, no. Now I stood up straight, highlighting my hopelessly out of date white jeans and smoothing the waves in my silver hair.

“Sheesh,” I thought to myself. “Everyone in here is so modern. Poor things. How unhip can you get.”

I smiled graciously as the youngsters moved around me to stand in line for their vintage goods.

On the way out the door, I passed a display of macrame plant hangers.

macrame

Exactly like the ones we had in college, in our dorms and on the porches of our first apartments. Can’t you just see the cigarette butts and the chipped coffee cups on the three legged coffee table standing under it?

Vintage.

Like me.

 

 

This House


We bought our modest little house 28 years ago. We bought it from a family with three young kids. At the time, the house itself was only about 5 years old. When we went to see it, it was messy and filled with toys. There were socks on the floor, if I remember right.

We bought the house. We filled it with our three children. We filled it with two cats, several good dogs and a lot of family and friends. We filled with our lives, messes and all.

SONY DSC

Yes. There was lots of finger painting in this house.

Over the years, we haven’t done a lot to change the place. We haven’t had much extra money at any point, so our improvements have been limited to repainting the walls, adding a few new windows, putting our hot tub on the deck.

Slowly but surely, we have also changed the yard. When we moved in, the front yard was guarded by seven towering white pines and one big choke cherry. There were no flower gardens at all. Since then, we have had five of the pines taken down and have added perennial beds, rhododendron, tons of wildly growing forsythia and even a vegetable garden and a strawberry patch.

irises

Finally: a good patch of perennials!

The yard where our boys used to play baseball for hours has become a fenced in space for the dogs. The rock garden where I once planted little “hens and chicks” has turned into a thriving raspberry and blackberry patch.

Over all these years, our yard has been filled with birthday parties, baseball games, a trampoline, countless piles of leaves and several scarecrows. There was even an ice hockey rink for several winters. Our yard has sported Christmas lights and Halloween pumpkins and even a few May baskets.

But the wheel of time has turned, around and around again.

The house has guarded us as we have aged. It has seen the sadness as the dogs and cats have died off and been replaced by eager, loving puppies. It has seen the children grow from squabbling toddlers to rebellious teens.

It has stayed steadfast and ready when the children eventually moved out. Like me, I believe that the house was waiting for them to come back.

Over these many years, this little house has held in our grief and kept us safe. It has watched us celebrate births and weddings and countless holidays. This little house, set in the middle of our mostly wild yard, has rocked to the sound of music created by our sons and by their friends.

It has held in the wonderful smells of Sicilian Easter Pie and Christmas octopus. Of meatballs and Chinese dumplings and roasting chicken. It’s walls have somehow expanded when the place was filled with young people celebrating the birthdays of our grandchildren. It has always seemed to me that the house itself has loved the times when it has been well and truly filled.

Kids cooking

Cooking for Nonni’s birthday.

 

This house has seen its share of abuse, too.

It has been peed and pooped upon by humans and animals alike. It has had chocolate icing smeared on its walls and Southern Comfort regurgitated upon its floors. It once had a child’s hand go right through a pane of glass.

This house is a home.

It might not be elegant, or stylish, or worthy of a photo shoot. But it’s a house whose walls need noise and life and delicious smells and voices and laughter.

I love this middle class, not quite rural place. I love the slightly off kilter walls and the weird little nooks that the builders left in. I have grown to love the narrow closets that barely hold our towels and the spidery garage where we store so many tools.

I love my house. The only house I have ever owned and lived in.

And that’s why Paul and I have decided that when the house falls quiet, it will be time for us to move on. When the children are grown, and the parties have stopped, it will be time to pack our bags.

We love this house.

We don’t want it to fall silent, or to become sad.

When we aren’t cooking dinners here, when we aren’t hosting family and friends, when the music has mostly stopped, then we’ll tell each other that its time.

Time to cut the grass, pull the weeds and get the garden ready for another season. Time to clean out the garage, give away the extra dishes, put the photo albums into a big plastic box and call a realtor.

When the house is quiet and sad, that will be our time. Our time to move on to the next phase, the next step, maybe the last step.

And if all goes according to plan, that will be the time when we sell this funny little house to a young family with loud and messy children and maybe a shedding dog.

We owe this house at least that much.

 

 

“Il Mondo è Una Famiglia”


Before I begin this last post about our trip to Europe, I have to preface it by saying that in a million years I could never have been as warm and kind as the people I’m about to describe.

I know myself. I love having guests, but I need to know they’re coming first. Also, I like it better if I have a clue about who they are.

With that, let me tell you the miraculous and wonderful story of our day in Roccabascerana, province of Avellino, Italy.

My paternal grandparents came to the United States around a hundred years ago. Growing up in our big family, I knew that they had married in the little village of Roccabascerana. I knew that my grandfather’s brothers married my grandmother’s sisters, and that all of them came to the Boston area.

I have always wanted to go there, to see the place where our family has its roots. At last, a few weeks ago, that wish came true.

Now, I have to tell you that I had reached out on Facebook to try to find relatives still in the area, and I had connected with one man who thought it possible that we might be related. But he didn’t speak much English, and I definitely didn’t speak much Italian. We exchanged a few messages, then lost each other.

So when I got to the village with my husband, my sons and their girlfriends, I didn’t plan to try to find any actual living relatives. I was content to see the streets, the church, the piazza where my family had once walked. I took pictures of the war memorial where the family names were inscribed.

Avellino

I was happily crying my eyes out as I thought about my Dad and his parents, and all of my family who have gone. I hugged my boys and listened to the church bells in the peaceful air of the town. The only living thing other than us in the whole village, it seemed, was a sweet little street dog who came to greet us.

As I was thinking of heading back to Pompeii to process my experience, the kids noticed a building that seemed to be the local Town Hall. “Let’s go in!” they said, “We can ask about the family.”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want the embarrassment of my bad Italian or the bad manners of showing up on someone’s doorstep unannounced. But as I was trying to back out, the kids and my husband kept pointing out how much I’d regret being so close to my family and not meeting them.

We were in a little tug-o-war when a car drove up and parked. A well dressed, dark haired woman got out and looked at us. There I stood, sweaty and tearful, surrounded by my kids.

“Prego?” she called, opening the door to the building. She gestured me inside. So I stepped in.

When the woman turned to me and raised her perfect dark brows over her brown eyes, I stammered out the fact that my family had originally come from this town. I told her my last name.

“Si,” she answered easily. “Antonio.” She named the possible relative I’d found on Facebook so many months ago. She lead us all into another room, where she explained to another woman that “This woman from the US is a cousin of Antonio.”

“Ah, si!” said the second kind woman. “His family lives in the village of Squillani.” I had heard this name my whole life, too. It was where my grandmother’s family had lived, I thought. “His mother was Maria Domenica. Who was your grandfather?”

Then she picked up the phone and dialed without even looking up a number. My kids were delighted, as was Paul, but I was still internally thinking, “Wait!!!!!”

Antonio didn’t answer his phone, so the kind woman (who kept speaking rapid fire Italian as if I might learn it if she just tried hard enough) indicated that we should all get in our cars and follow the two young men who worked with her and who were sitting wide eyed over the whole thing.

So off we went. The boys didn’t speak English, either, so we weren’t exactly sure where we were headed. I was hoping that we were going to the village of Squillani, where we could look around, have lunch and take photos. I was both thrilled and afraid that we were actually headed to Antonio’s house.

And you guessed it, I bet.

After ten minutes of hairpin turns over beautiful, tiny, mountain roads, we stopped in front of a lovely big house and the boys hopped out. As I cautiously got out of my car, I saw them knock, and heard them tell the young woman who opened the door, “The American cousins of Antonio are here.”

Yikes!!

I was really embarrassed to be banging on the door of a total stranger! There were six of us, none of us fluent in Italian, and all of us nervous and excited.

With a show of grace that I could only dream about, the woman smiled at us all, thanked the boys, and invited us in. She called to her husband, who came in with a puzzled look on his face. We stumbled through introductions, apologies and welcomes.

The next three hours were an amazing, life changing and really fabulous affirmation of every stereotype you’ve ever heard about Italians. It was proof of the power of family, of food, of shared laughter.

I could never, ever, ever have pulled off what this family did for a group of strangers on their doorstep.  Antonio and his wife, and his brother Mimo and his, took us in as if we had known each other all of our lives.

They sat us down, gave us cold drinks, offered coffee. We looked at pictures, finding similarities in our faces and in shared stories. We got to know a bit about each other.

At some point I realized that the women had disappeared, and being Italian myself, I suspected that there was a meal being prepared (in spite of our attempts to assure them that were not here to disturb them or to drop in for a meal.)

I was right. As predicted, after about a half hour a door opened, and Antonio’s beautiful wife, Angela invited us upstairs to eat.

And we shared one of those meals that you know you’ll dream about for years. Without any plan or preparation, these amazing women put out a “lunch” of spaghetti with homemade sauce, sausages, zucchini frittata, olives from their property, a bowl of bread the size of a bathtub, cheese, salami, wine, fresh figs, watermelon, home made lemon ice and delicious sweet esspresso that will haunt my dreams forever.

We met Antonio’s daughters, who are charming, funny, interesting and who speak English! My sons played with his young son. We all laughed, we shared jokes somehow.

We all friended each other on Facebook.

It was amazing. Amazing and humbling.

We found out, Antonio and I, that we share the same great-grandfather. We are indeed cousins.

But before we knew that fact, this family welcomed us in just because we were there. At one point, when I was once again trying to explain that I hadn’t intended to bother them, Antonio asked in a gruff, no-nonsense voice, “Why? What are you sorry?”

“I didn’t mean to bother you….”

He gestured around the table to where our families were eating, laughing and drinking together.

“Do we look bothered?” I think he said.

He raised one finger, and both of his slightly pointed eye brows. Exactly the gesture that my Dad used to make. Exactly the same expression on his face.

“Il mondo è piccolo.”  Yes, I agreed, the world is small.

“Tutti una famiglia.”  We are all one family.

I can never express how profound and moving it was for me to see my sons laughing with some of the cousins who never left our home place. My deepest wish now would be for some of them to come here to visit us, so that I could cook for them, and tell them how my connection to them and to that beautiful place has shaped me for my whole life.

 

 

 

Immigration…and Emigration


For my entire life, I have thought about the idea of immigration. I was raised on the stories told by my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Stories about coming to America. Coming to the land of education, opportunity, promise.

I have always, for all of my 62 years, viewed my heritage through the lens of immigration to the United States. Growing up in a middle class suburb of Boston, I was aware that my grandparents had raised my parents in far grittier, far poorer, far more crowded areas of my home state.

I knew that my grandparents had left Italy in the earliest years of the twentieth century. I knew that they came here because they wanted to find work. They wanted a steady income. I knew that they came because they wanted their children, my parents, to have an education and a chance to escape the endless pressure of poverty that had marked their own lives.

As a child who came of age in the 1960’s, I was raised on the idea of the American “melting pot.” I grew up with the image of Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft. I imagined my grateful grandparents arriving in this country.

I never thought about those same grandparents leaving everything they had ever known and loved.

It wasn’t until my just finished trip to Italy that I stopped to think about the leaving part of immigration.

Last week I traveled with my husband, our two sons and their future wives to the small village where my paternal grandparents were born. I had always heard about the little town in the “hills above Naples.” I had always heard about the difficult agrarian life, about the lack of opportunity.

I wanted to see that little village because it was the place of my roots. I wanted to see it because my father always talked about it, and because I have missed my Dad every single day for the past ten years.  I had a romantic image of what it would be like to walk on the streets where my ancestors had walked.

But when I got to the little town, winding up its narrow streets, my husband and I were with our sons and the women they plan to marry. I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that struck me when I came into the tiny town center. Getting out of the car in the blistering heat of Italy in July, I felt as if I was carrying the weight of my father and his parents on my aching back. I walked to the small stone monument dedicated to those who had died in the World Wars, and there I read the names of ancestors I would never know.

I was sobbing when the church bells rang at noon, holding onto my youngest child, but thinking of the thread that tied him to my great grandparents. Did my grandmother and father hear those same bells every day? Was this the church where they were brought to be Christened as babies?

The day went on, filled with more blessings than I can name. I met loving, gracious, kind relatives that I had never know before.  I stood on the terrace outside of the little local church, with the most gorgeous valley spread out below us. I heard my sons and their loves talking about marriage. I hugged my husband of 40 years, knowing that he understood how precious this moment was for me. After all this time, to be standing in this place…..

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying to myself with real surprise. “It’s so peaceful and so rugged and so beautiful.”

Later in our trip, Paul and I went to Sicily. The kids had gone home, but we had more time and we wanted to see the home place of my maternal grandparents. These were the grandparents I knew best, and I felt my Grampa with me every step of that trip. We got to Augusta, where my Grampa had grown up and where my Nana’s parents had lived.

I smelled the sea and the orange blossoms and the dry wind, and I was struck right in the heart with how beautiful it all was. While I was in Sicily, I ate seafood, I swam in the Mediterranean, tasted the wine, saw the olive trees.

And one thought kept going through my mind, “How did they ever leave this place?”

We had hugged our kids goodbye as they headed back to Massachusetts, to jobs and friends and lives. I was truly sad to see them go, and there were a couple of tears when they left.

But now that I had begun to think of immigration as “emigration”, all I could think about was the leaving that my family was brave enough to endure.

How did they do it? What desperation, what fear, what sorrow could have pushed my young grandparents to leave behind their language, their food, their music, their parents, in search of something better?

What desperation, what depth of love, what deeply held hope could have given my great grandparents the courage to hug their children goodbye as they boarded the ships that would take them across the world forever?

I thought about the beauty of the sunsets in Sicily. I thought about the light on the mountains of Avellino. I thought about how hard it was for me to give up the sound of English for three short weeks.

And I thought about kissing my children goodbye, knowing that I might never see them again.

I’ll never think about immigration in the same way again. Those who leave behind all that is known and secure must be powered by a hope that I can only imagine.

 

What I Think of Italy


Wow.

I have waited 62 years to finally set my feet on the soil of my ancestral home. Finally. I have breathed the air of Rome, walked the streets of Naples, toured the history of Pompeii. I have bathed in the waters off of Sicily, eaten octopus and giant shrimp grilled in small local cafes. I’ve had the wine, ridden the trains, busses, subways and boats.

I think I’ve finally gotten a sense of where my family was born.

And it was nothing like I expected, while it was just what I had hoped.

I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m going to try. Because, you know, blogger, writer….that’s what we do.

Italy has a lot of delicious fruits. One of them is a funny looking, yellow melon. It’s kind of bumpy, lumpy and odd looking from the outside. I have no idea what we’d call it in English.

But when you cut into it?

The fruit is sweet, soft, delicate and full of flavor.

That’s how I think of Italy.

From the outside, there is a lot to feel creeped out about. There is a definite problem with trash and litter. Even the most scenic roads are lined with smashed beer bottles and unwanted wrappers. While there are trash containers in every city and town, it doesn’t seem as if they are ever emptied.

The buildings are uniformly old.  Some are truly ancient, and many are simply left to crumble into the landscape. Others were probably built during the second world war, and have stucco facades that are peeling and broken. Some are newer, but even those often have a look of neglect.

The ground is dry and the plants are brittle. Weeds encroach often on small vias and byways.

But.

If you are lucky enough to be invited into one of the dry stucco homes, you will be amazed and overwhelmed by the beauty. Everyone seems to have floors of marble. Walls are painted in bold and beautiful colors. There is art on those walls. There are little touches of charm and beauty.

We have stayed in some very spartan places on our trip. In some cases the faucets were a little loose and shower doors didn’t close all the way.

But every single one of them had lovely decorative touches. Vases, glasses, tablecloths in vibrant colors, pots of flowers on the balconies.

And inside of every house, it seemed to us, there were people who were the very embodiment of kindness and warmth. Even though we speak little to no Italian, people tried to communicate with us. They used words, gestures, facial expressions, more words. The seemed to believe that if they just tried hard enough, everyone would understand each other.

What a wonderful concept!

People we didn’t know helped us to pump gas, to check out in the grocery store, to buy items we needed. People were patient when we repeatedly explained that we couldn’t understand. They laughed with us, not at us, when we made mistakes in Italian. They applauded and complimented us on our meager attempts to master their language.

Italy is like that funny yellow melon. On the outside, you aren’t really sure you want it. But once you cut into it, and taste the sweetness inside, you know that you’ll be craving it forever.

canary-melon-3

Molto delicioso.

Time For Some Sweeping Generalizations


Munchen

Isn’t it funny when your broad generalizations and assumptions are proven to be true?

And isn’t it funny when they aren’t?

Having spent three packed days touring the beautiful city of Munich, I have some broad and sweeping generalizations to share. Feel free to shake your heads or just laugh at me. Feel free to agree!

  1. Germany is just as organized, clean, orderly and proper as I always thought it would be. Of course, we were here a couple of years ago and saw Berlin and part of the North, so we already had an idea, but holy standardization! The gardens are all neat. I am not kidding. Every little Bavarian house has window boxes filled with pink and red geraniums. Every lawn is trimmed.  There wasn’t one fallen tree or broken branch anywhere.  Even the dogs are orderly and polite. People bring them to restaurants and cafes, they go into stores. They walk sedately on leashes and sit down when their owners think the word “sit.”
  2. Schnitzel is as good as it sounds. Really. Seriously. Ever since the “Sound of Music” first came out, I have yearned for “schnitzel with noodles.” It is crisp, crunchy, tender and yummo. Last night we had it at an Austrian gasthouse. The serving we were given will last us for days.
  3. People are people. Some of them are old and some of them aren’t. They come in all colors, sizes and shapes. I have seen the most gorgeously dressed women, with gleaming brown skin and dark, deep eyes, dressed in swathes of pure white gauze, smelling like a garden of jasmine. I have seen tiny white-blond toddlers in pink shorts chattering away as they skipped along beside their mothers. People have exchanged smiles, and people have looked away when I sent them a smile. In general, I find native Germans and Austrians to be helpful, polite, friendly but not intrusive. I like them!
  4. I love German showers. I know, it sounds stupid. But they are so…..clean! We aren’t staying in pricey places, believe me. But the bathrooms are all equipped with these fabulous glass sided showers. No tile anywhere. Some kind of floor that looks like wood or wide slate and the glass sides and door (when there is one) are firmly attached to that floor. A small drain is along one side. The shower heads are big “rain” style things and I now yearn for one in my little home bathroom.
  5. As I feared, people here are in complete horror about the President of the U.S. They understand that he is interested only in the well-being of his own country, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what happens to the rest of the world. They’re afraid that his lack of understanding (also referred to as “his stupidness”) will mean that he doesn’t get the fact that we are all interdependent and that if they fall, so will we. They no longer trust the U.S.  To quote one very intelligent and highly informed friend, “But how could so many Americans vote for this terrible person? We hear his words about women, about immigrants. How could even one person vote for this person?” Good question.
  6. Home is where the heart is. I miss my dog. I miss my grandchildren like a lost limb. I miss the smell of my own woods. But the world is a beautiful place, and the people who live here are fascinating creatures. Tomorrow I will be able to move on to all those cliched perceptions of Italians when we take the train to Milan!

Auf Weidersehn!