Today We Would Have Departed

Today is the day we would have sat on our suitcases to zip them up, flattening down carefully selected outfits and collections of mini lotion tubes, and Mark would have offered to carry his sisters’ bags down, until 7 of them congregated in the entry. We would have given the sunflowers and kiwi berries one last soak, crouched to say goodbye to the cat under the couch, and turned the porch light on as we latched the door. We would have eaten grapes and salami sandwiches wrapped in foil in Terminal B as we watched the sun set over Dulles airport, waiting to board the plane, knowing that in one short night and one long day, Nonno Franco would be wearing his shirt full of pockets just beyond customs in Milan holding boxes of peach nectar and brioches, and the cappuccino that I would get at the airport bar would be the best I’d ever had.

After months of zig-zagging between resignation and hope — Italy has recovered! but New York is a mess — Sicily is offering 1/2 off hotel stays! but only to Europeans — the emotional spikes got softer and softer until they finally lay flat. We asked the airline to issue us vouchers for another year, but no one is sure when that will be.

We were going to go to the Marches where Enrico’s father grew up, where it was his job as a child to buy ice for a handful of lira from the man who would chop off a block with an axe, and Franco would wrap it in a cloth and race home in the noonday sun — “Via, via!” — with the melting ice strapped to his handlebars, past the farms where earlier that morning he and his father had traded the sole and seabreams they had caught in their net for peaches and cantaloupe and watermelons still warm from the sun.

I thought it would be sad when the day of departure came around, but it already feels far far away, like a carful of cousins who stayed for a good long week but are now already 7 states and 2 motels away, and their sheets have already been washed and dried and folded away, the extra chairs stacked back in the garage, and we have returned to following our hearts or to-do lists, sleeping in our own beds, spinning new scenarios in the privacy of our own minds.

Before we canceled the reservation on Vrbo.com, we had planned to argue over bedrooms when we arrived at the centuries-old house on a cliff above Ancona where the pictures showed stone stairs leading down to a sandy inlet of the Adriatic Sea, and at lunchtime we’d toss hot pasta with olive oil and garlic and red pepper flakes and wrap salty prosciutto around melon slices and eat it in our bathing suits under the myrtle trees on the patio, and I didn’t mind that the house had no air conditioning because I like it hot, or pipes so old you could only take one shower at a time, because we would have been all together and it would have been new — to me.

Tables would have been set end-to-end in the courtyard of a Milanese trattoria to fit all of Enrico’s aunts and uncles and cousins, and there would have been dinners that rolled on until midnight with his friends from university, and maybe I would have cried from laughing at the story of the forgotten tent poles when they were camping on a beach in Greece. And we would have met the family of Isabella, the exchange student who stayed with us last September, and the girls would have hung around in beachside bars with Italian teens and I would see vistas opening into their lives where there were none before, and my Italian husband would be like a fish released back into the sea, not waking up thinking about the situation on Ward D2 or the back-to-back appointments until 9:00 pm, but he would be shimmering with plans of which rugged beach we would conquer that day, which hill town we would climb, which odd lamb dish only made in this one village he would track down, and he would do all the leading, and I would feel like I was sitting in the back seat and just looking out, not having to drive the car, decide which way to go or what to do.

We will remember this summer not for these things, but for an ordinary quiet so deep it rivals a symphony. Siestas will keep happening every day after lunch, and I will keep taking walks after dinner when the kids are in bed and the fireflies are starting to shine like diamonds sprinkled in the twilight. We will pair up and go down the list of things that needed to be done but never were, like repainting the antique wrought-iron garden chairs, figuring out how to recaulk the bathtub, and translating the fable their Italian grandma remembers hearing when she was little. I will keep taking Sofia out for driving lessons in half-empty state park lots, and Mark will finish a middle school math class on Microsoft Teams, and we will take a long drive across the Appalachians and hug my parents with masks on and the kids will run free and I will write and sleep, and we will notice how many different kinds of bees there are, and how a zinnia bud looks like a cut gem before it opens. 

The Horror and the Beauty

Easter came too early this year. With a plague terrorizing the planet and most of the world in lockdown, the traditional day of celebrating new life felt more like a funeral.

We still went ahead with hiding candy for the kids under daffodil tufts, dipping hard-boiled eggs into dye baths of pink and purple, and dressing up in button-downs and yellow sweaters. We roasted a leg of lamb and even attempted via WhatsApp group calling to sit down with Enrico’s father and brother, quarantined in Milan for 35 days now, but the timing didn’t work out and we just ate alone.

A new ceremony was added this year. After the kids ate the ears off their chocolate bunnies, we set the laptop at the end of the table and turned on YouTube to see Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli singing live from the empty Duomo of Milan.

The broadcast begins with the camera panning over scenes of barren Milan, Paris, New York, and Bocelli’s voice speaks of hope as it if were something almost impossible to muster. In these once-vibrant cities, the only signs of life are a single car at a stop light or an only man riding a bike, and when I see a flock of birds flying off a roof in empty London, I want to cry. 

The silent eye of the camera even hovers over Porta Ticinese in Milan, one of the city’s original gates which was a traffic nightmare, dangerous to walk through, always jammed with honking cars, screeching trams, and trucks spewing exhaust fumes. Now the only thing moving is a single tram inching through the silence, and my heart breaks for everything we have lost, even the things I didn’t want before.

We sit around the table watching scenes of Bocelli singing “Domine Deus” braided with images inside the majestic Duomo, so empty you can take in its gorgeous marble patterned floors, ornate crucifixes, and silver effigies of cardinals. The kids are goofing off, some of us are lulled into a trance, then — for a few seconds — the camera visits a statue of a skeletal man, every string of muscle in his arms popping out, every tendon, vein, and bone in his hands exposed. A figure from a horror movie, and I call out, “What was that?” 

“What’s wrong with him?” Virginia says. 

“What, who?” the kids ask.

St. Bartholomew the Flayed, one of the twelve apostles, was skinned alive. He is usually shown by medieval and Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, holding his limp skin including the face and hair, drooping and sad. 

We are not used to this type of art in America. Art here seems to be about beauty, transcendence, serenity. Churches in Italy show paintings and mosaics and stained glass windows of saints being tortured, beheaded, and stabbed, or masses of believers being slaughtered and dumped in ditches, their skulls displayed in glass cases. When I see these gory images I am at once fascinated, ashamed to be fascinated, and shaken, returning to the images in dreams and day thoughts, trying to untangle what humans have done to each other, what horrors I have been spared.  

A few summers ago we were touring a church in Puglia, when Luke who was 7 years old, dragged me over to an enormous painting of a woman with a bloody spot where a breast should have been, and a group of people about to cut off her other one. 

“What’s happening?” he asked. I summoned Enrico for help, who knew right away, and with a matter-of-factness I couldn’t have called up, said in Italian, “That’s St. Agatha.” Agatha was a girl who vowed to stay a virgin and was punished by a Roman prefect when she refused to marry him.

I grew up in a culture where death is kept at a safe distance — something abstract that happens to plants or in nursing homes. We glorify youth and avoid aging. Ever striving to grow, renew, uplift.

My life in a way is a story of turning the other way — chasing parties, glitter, and beautiful distractions, or as I matured, seeking wholesomeness and light, productivity and feel-good philosophies.

But decay, dissolution, and death is an essential part of this universe, of being here. Denying this reality is like walking through life as a petulant toddler — grabbing this, rejecting that, throwing tantrums when we don’t get what we want.

The newspaper that thumps against our stoop every morning — one of the few things that enters from the outside world — functions like the art of old Europe. Pictures and stories show me miles of cars waiting for food bank hand-outs in San Antonio, dead bodies left in the street in overwhelmed Ecuador, thousands of gallons of milk once destined for schools being dumped into lagoons, millions of people laid off or not needed anymore as entire industries vanish, stampedes of thousands of Kenyans trampling each other for rations, convoys of Italian military trucks called to carry coffins away from overcome morgues. 

And I am forced to sit in the pews, and watch. The lockdown keeps me from looking away and rushing off with all of my busyness. I must sit in this pool of sorrow.

But it’s OK. I am not ready for hope. I have protected myself for too long from suffering, of myself and others.

The pandemic has given me the gift of truth. We are all vulnerable and powerless over the things we try to run from — pain, sickness, disintegration. Accepting this truth and mourning the world’s losses is how I will find my way out into the light, like Bocelli who at the end of his lamentations walks down the aisle of the Duomo out onto the steps outside, and sings “Amazing Grace” to an empty square: “I was blind, but now I see.”

The Christian story of Easter is about death as much as it is about birth. Hope doesn’t have to be a happy band-aid — it can be the sun behind the clouds, the answers in the shadows, the tears that flow both for what is lost and what is found. 

Italian churches are able to express all of this — the beauty and the horror, the sadness and the joy, the descent into purgatory and the re-emerging into the light of grace.

We will emerge from this tragedy one day. We will be able to leave our houses and meet again. We will laugh, hug, look into each other’s eyes from less than 6 feet away.

We will emerge, I imagine, emaciated and shaken, like Bartholomew the Flayed. Stripped of our outer layer, we will be tender. Hungry to be grateful. To love the rain that collects in puddles, the brown sparrows that peck at the dirt, the tiny flowers we once dismissed as weeds.

These Italian Pastries

We only had 6 hours on the island of Lipari. It was August 7, 2019 and my family and I had arrived by traghetto from mainland Sicily around midday. For the daily dip in the sea essential to many Italians on vacation like Enrico’s father who was with us, we went straight to a black pebble beach called Canneto. Those who dared swam with the jellyfish, and in our wet bathing suits, we all ate Sicilian bread called pane cunzato piled high with salty capers, marinated eggplant, and sundried tomatoes.

In a drive around the island, we stopped at a cliff where prickly pear cactus with yellow fruits and magenta bougainvillea tumbled down a dirt path towards the sea. In the distance Stromboli exhaled white smoke from its crater and the wind blew it along like a song.

At a single stand, a single man was selling little bottles of Malvasia wine and figurines carved out of volcanic rock. I was drawn to a bag of hand-made cookies, as if they needed to tell me something, so I counted six euros from my wallet and took them home.  

In a very brief piece published today in a literary journal called River Teeth, I try to understand why — of all the things I needed to bring home from Sicily — it was these Italian pastries.

Happy to share it with you: These Italian Pastries at River Teeth.

Flamethrowers

Mayors in Italy, where life is on lockdown, are getting mad at people
for jogging, playing ping-pong, walking dogs.

The governor of Campania says in a press conference
at a wooden desk, gold-fringed flags behind him:

“I’m getting word that people are planning graduation parties.
We’re going to send over the carabinieri
with flamethrowers.”