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. 

A Graduation At Home

Sofia’s graduation ceremony happened last night on our TV. The basement carpet received my sister’s pink tablecloth as if it were a concert lawn. Big bowls of guacamole that Virginia had just made were set on it, plus a platter of fried pumpkin flowers her little brothers and sister had picked from the garden that morning. With her laptop logged into Microsoft Teams, Sofia broadcast the ceremony in her just-ironed white gown, with its tape-on collar and pine green sash, WWHS printed down the front in gold lettering.

The opening procession was like turning the pages of a scrapbook, every slide bearing 9 photos of 9 different kids standing in 9 different places, each posing with the “Wilson Grad 2020” yard signs that a band of mothers had sunk into the ground at each graduating senior’s house or apartment building. In the background was the tinny sound of the high school band, orchestra, and choir singing “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire, a concert from another era, a time when people could sing next to each other and parents could sit in the audience.

I look at Sofia’s face under her satin cap, her features still those of a child. The baby photo that we placed in the yearbook shows her bald head and monkey face, curiosity drawing out the only wrinkle in her brow, and her body launching from her grandfather’s arms in front of the Italian country church. How much love we felt for this baby, this wondrous act of nature — the only one of her that will ever exist in all of time.

She is sitting with us now, instead of with her friends, surrounded by her siblings who are dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, Under Armour shorts, and bikini tops, while she is draped in white satin, a mortarboard hat on her head, green tassel hanging down, like a master of ceremony, an angel, a sage from another realm. 

“I know this was not the graduation or senior year you expected,” the mayor says in a pre-recorded greeting in front of a hedge on a sunny day, “but don’t let that take away from how proud you should feel in this moment.”

“Our nation is hungry for change,” she says. “The pandemic set the stage for creating a new normal, and as cities across the country begin to open up, including our own, people don’t want to go back to how things used to be.”

I had bled so much for all that was lost, without knowing that only three months later I would no longer grasp for the way things were. Going back would be like returning to the school where you learned how to read and where you played kiss and catch. Seeing how tiny the chairs and desks are, how spare the playground that you once thought was a wonderland.

It took 45 minutes to announce all of the graduates. Senior portraits rise up and dissolve away. Hundreds of names, hundreds of faces, each one so different, each expression, hairstyle, every shape and color of every face. I wish somehow that I had met them all. I only knew a handful. Now it’s too late.

When Sofia appears, it was like the screen radiated with a thousand watts and the image of her face came toward me, glowing and hovering there, and then it was gone. A new face appears, a new name is pronounced, another college is listed underneath in italics, and the violins keeping playing “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over, as name after name, and face after face is honored.

Soon it will be over. Even though we made two dozen cupcakes with buttercream icing and gold and black sprinkles, even though we lit handfuls of sparkly candles, even though there were homemade gifts and cards and a call from the grandparents, the silence will come. I will get the kids tucked in bed, and my husband will finish all the dishes, and her sister will turn on the TV, and Sofia will be alone on the couch again. I don’t want the silence to swallow her up.

It’s the endings before any beginnings that are the hardest to bear.

Friday Night Pandemic Diary

Restaurant sign only open for take out and delivery during coronavirus

It’s become a lockdown tradition to order out on Friday night from a neighborhood restaurant. We’ve tried Mexican, Korean, French, Italian-American, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, and tonight, Indian. I wonder which of them will still be here when we emerge.

At Masala Arts, you can order the Community Package of 4 main courses, 4 breads, and 2 appetizers, and they’ll give you a free tray of 30 eggs and 4 toilet rolls. We already scored a 12-pack of Charmin mega rolls at CVS on Monday, so we go a la carte.

I tuck 2 hand-made masks into my back pocket, a credit card, and two $5 bills for homeless people we might run into on the avenue. Diana gets out her brother’s hand-me-down bike, and we head out into the goldenrod evening. 

At the top of the hill near SuperCuts, we pass a group of older teens with masks hanging off their faces. Restaurants and dry cleaners say they’re open, but Tenleytown feels empty, like it’s made of scaffolding.

When we pull open the door to the restaurant, Diana says, “There’s no one here!” Instead of a take-out and delivery operation, the place looks exactly the same as it did before the pandemic. Just the bodies are missing, as if they had been vaporized.

A man with a mask is on the phone taking another order, so we walk around, noticing the spice orange walls, the sensuous Indian sculptures, the charcoal drawings of women with real gold jewelry attached. I wish I wore jewels on my forehead and garlands of gold around my waist and ankles.

As I take our warm paper bag of food home in my arms, a bald man I’ve never seen before is resting his forehead on the Mexican restaurant patio post as if it were a walking cane. I drop $5 in his empty 20-ounce Pepsi cup, and he says, “God bless you.”

In the CVS parking lot, Duane has returned to his station on a blanket-padded milk crate, writing the next installment of The Black Fields Chronicles: THE HOBO on his cell phone. He always says “I’m blessed” when I ask how he is. I give him the second bill to help pay for dinner, we say good-bye, and Diana coasts down the hill toward home.

After we eat all the lamb korma, coconut curry chicken, and rock salt cilantro naans, Mark draws dolphins on Virginia’s feet and faces on her toes with a ballpoint pen because it feels good. Sofia starts melting chocolate chips over a pot of boiling water, and it’s time for people to get ready for bed. Virginia vacuums the rice off the floor in a knit strapless dress because it’s her turn.

When I tuck Diana in, she says, “I’m grateful that restaurants are open.” I stay in her room and write about this day while she falls asleep, because she doesn’t like sleeping alone, and because it was a beautiful, sad, special, ordinary day.

Quarantine Goals

After riding her bike on the sidewalk in front of our house, Diana, 6, stops at our weeping cherry tree, grabs some of its small bitter fruits, and says, “Now I’m going to do my spitting-far practice.”

Quarantine Blessing

Today was the first time in years my husband was home for a weeknight dinner. His evening appointments have slowed. He was worried, but a break from his schedule feels like a gift we are going to hold gently.

He sat across from me and between Diana and Luke, and when Sofia set down in front of him a bowl of her red lentil and farro salad with roasted carrots and arugula, he said in his deep voice, “This is beautiful.” I know he meant it, even though he loves meat.