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Two Nuts in Italy
By Sue Ellen Haning
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Sue Ellen Haning
All right reserved.
Chapter OneYou're Nuts
"You want to do what? Are you nuts? Don't the Europeans hate us? What about terrorists? Oh, no, I'll be worried sick about you," exclaimed an incredulous friend. I felt the need to discuss this sudden opportunity with my peers, but maybe I could just send them an e-mail after the fact. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, and called another friend and another and another, to be met with, "Remember, it is Jenny who is twenty-one, not you!" Howls of laughter followed, "You are going to carry a pack on your back all summer? A reality check is in order here." Then I heard a reassuring comment from my friend Robin when I explained the invitation extended me by my daughter Jenny to join her backpacking through Italy for the three summer months. "Why not? I'd do it," she assured.
"Really?" I asked. Then Lydia and Janie, concerned about my eighty-eight-year-old mother I had been caring for the past two years, sent me soaring back to reality with, "But who will care for your mother?" Others were not so encouraging, and the word "nuts" kept coming up in conversations in reference to the idea or to me. The idea thrilled me, and that thrill surprised me, since foolishness and frivolity are not normally a part of my nature, asevidenced by the term of endearment Jenny bestowed on me when she was fifteen. During her farewell speech the night she relinquished her crown at the local beauty pageant, she fondly referred to me as, "my mother, the Terminator." I looked around to see confused faces, both male and female. After all, what loving daughter labels her mother "The Terminator?" Thank God, she gave a brief explanation to the perplexed crowd. "My mother is an expert at removing all "social" blocks to my accomplishing the goals set for me during my reign," she said, then continuing with her beauty queen smile, "She is unequaled in making sure all daily tasks are completed, taking care of business, and forging ahead, conquering all that needs vanquishing." I was sure that every person in the room who looked at me saw Arnold Schwarzenegger. Suddenly my five-foot-four-inch formerly solid frame spilled into a puddle beneath my chair. While today we laugh at this, Jenny still introduces me occasionally as "my mom, the Terminator." It works well with any guys she's not too interested in.
My twenty-one-year-old daughter wants me to spend the summer with her. The thought still thrills me, and I take it as a great compliment. Each time I think about the possibilities of such a trip, I smile. I've been a teacher for thirty-five years and always sought knowledge. Now I can lose myself across the ocean. I can learn things by accident. I want adventure to find me. I want to be surrounded by things I don't understand and maybe even experience hardship. I want to relinquish control and surrender serendipitously. I want to live for three months with only what I can carry on my back.
Ahhhh, the pleasures of midlife! Usually with midlife comes empty nest syndrome. I have it. "Empty nest" is a phenomenon. It's scary, sad, and shocking, while also enlightening and challenging. It forces stay-at-home moms to re-invent themselves. For me, it is hard to shake the feelings of loneliness and uselessness I experience with children no longer needing me on a daily basis. At times, I feel obsolete, like my worth is challenged. My children have all moved away, and it's painful to love someone who is away-you can no longer share in their daily lives. With no children in the house, my thoughts turn inward, and realities I never before considered emerge, like I'm free, I'm going to die, What do I do with my hands, Break this painful silence, and then No, I like the silence, no one notices me, and other irrational imaginings. I have a chance to have another career. The challenge is going from full-time mom and teacher to whatever I want to become-artist, politician, bartender, landscaper, travel guru, writer, or welder. I have thoughts I didn't know I was capable of having because of this new position, but the mom-mode hangs on me. I can't shake it because I don't want to. If Jenny asks me to go with her, maybe she still needs me. Mom is the career that wins. I remember in my youth, the clock's hands seemed to drag along or not move at all, but once I hit my 50s, those same hands spin recklessly out of control, counting down the minutes until it is "my time." Would a three-month, devil-may-care trip abroad slow the hands?
In 1998, Jenny, her voice teacher, and I spent four days in Italy as part of a two-week, whirlwind trip through four European countries. Before this trip, we joined a world-wide organization for travelers called Servas. A list of available members, phone numbers, and personal information, was sent to us from the countries we planned to visit. Servas's members offered their homes to travelers who made prior arrangements with them. The stays were limited to one night unless the host extended it. We stayed in homes in Germany and Austria, and Jenny realized how much more she enjoyed these two countries because of the personal time we had with our host families. Jenny was fourteen and fell in love with romantic, slower-paced Italy. Curiosity had pinched her, and she wanted to experience Italy on a deeper level, to learn its culture. She vowed she would return to Italy one day and spend several months there. Now, at twenty-one, nothing could hold her back. Her plan was for us to take a backpack, little cash, no credit cards, stay in homes of Italians we did not know (or sleep on park benches if necessary), have no itinerary, keep to the small towns and countryside for the full cultural experience, take the opportunities given us to make things happen, and experience a summer of learning, adventures, and wonderful memories while just drifting with the wind. This was the idea that created disbelief in the minds of my friends, because once you reach the age of fifty-six, the world expects you to demonstrate reason, not reckless insanity, and staying with strangers in a country whose language we did not speak in the year 2005 screamed "Nuts-o."
I was going to be a hippie, a gypsy-or a nut. I passed up my first opportunity in the 1960s. I was too "good" or maybe too scared to spread my wings too far. I never smoked weed, dropped acid, or took part in the mind-altering excursions. I guess the issue was control. I could stop drinking, but I didn't know how far the "trip" might take me, which made "tripping" prospects scary. Now at my age, tapes ran through my mind daily. I was hearing "life is short, enjoy the moment," and it kept squeezing through every crack in my Terminator guard. My clock continued ticking, and my daughter was giving me the opportunity to test the limits of my comfort zone. Suddenly I couldn't get enough of the idea. The old songs ran continuously through my head. "It's been a long time since I rock and rolled," "Where have all the flowers gone," "There is a house in New Orleans," "Come on baby, light my fire." My thoughts were in a never-before-visited realm. The thought of wreckless adventures was lighting my fire. I must admit that traipsing through a foreign country with nothing but my faith, a backpack, and an overly confident twenty-one-year-old had never been a dream of mine, but just thinking about the possibilities made it a dream. People do this all the time, right? "Go for it," I screamed. One last adventure before the ole body wears out. My knees, which had given me trouble for fifteen years, had been behaving lately. My thoughts scared me. I even dreamed of swimming nude in the Mediterranean Sea. I'm the person who was always afraid to put the kids in the car and go without another adult on board. As a child, my father took us on well-planned, two-week sightseeing vacations, but this time there would be no plan. Nothing was out of the question. I embraced the thought that I could see everything with different eyes and leave all my beliefs and securities at home. I want to risk! I want to be a young, or old, fool. Of course, every time I saw my friends, the reasonable thoughts returned. "What if this" and "What if that," they quizzed. "What if you get hit by a car? What if they treat you badly because you're an American? What if you get sick? What if the two of you are separated and can't find each other? What if your passport is stolen?" "What ifs ..." can warp you, and I couldn't deal with the word "if" any longer, so I beat "if" mercilessly until it was pummeled into oblivion. No more "ifs" in my vocabulary. Now I could get on with my plans. In my imagination, I could see the emerald, silver, and forest greens I remembered from our brief trip to Italy in '98. The fields of sunflowers waltzing in the Tuscan breeze tickle my thoughts. The juicy, red explosion of the world's finest tomatoes filled my mouth, as did the tough bread and tempting wines I remember as part of my experience long ago. "Yeah, why not," I told myself. So, one day during a daydream, I grabbed a date out of the air, May 25, chose Venice as our entry and departure city, and picked August 31 as our return flight, and bought plane tickets online for $835.98 each. We'd be sleeping three months and six days with no reservations. Next, I created an e-mail address to communicate our adventures and to send evidence of our continuing life to the worriers back home: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beginning in February, Jenny spent day and night on the computer learning what she could about Italy, our summer home where we hope to be temporary locals. She found websites for travelers and created profiles for us. "We'll find places to stay with the members of these groups," she assured me. One was hospitalityclub.org and the other was couchsurfing.com. These are worldwide organizations of travel lovers and people wanting to make friends around the globe with the incentive to volunteer being cultural understanding. Jenny was more computer savvy than I and wasn't frustrated by the glitches that plagued me whenever I was in cyberspace, so I kept telling that monster in the back of my mind to shut up and trust Jenny to find beds to sleep in. Of course, when you're twenty-one everything is easy, including sleeping on park benches. "Are you nuts?" rang intermittently in my ears. I was trusting in something that wasn't logical-a three-month trip with no plan. One day, Jenny announced she had found us a place to stay in Cecina, a coastal town in Tuscany on the Tyrrhenian Sea. She had met a guy in an Italian chat room. He told her if we got to Cecina, he'd give us a place to stay. Something gripped the pit of my stomach. It is only March, and our tickets are for May 25. Anything can happen in two months, right? I could break my toe and not be able to walk, the world could end, I could come to my senses, or any number of other possibilities. While Jenny spent hours and hours on the computer, I busied myself with making lists of necessities to take, shopping for backpacks, and reading about "how to fly by the seat of my pants." My knowledge of this type of living was akin to my acquaintance to life on Pluto.
A greeting from God jumped off the page of a book I was reading by Wayne Dyer. I handwrote it on bright yellow paper and made one for each of us to carry. It said:
Good morning! This is God. I will be handling all of your problems today. I will not need your help, so Have a miraculous day!
I had the three-by-three-inch pieces laminated and told Jenny we would read these every morning and be relieved of any worry. She replied, "Okay, Mom, whatever you say." She evidently already had this faith. I was doing this for myself, and we both knew it.
Everyday I felt younger and younger. I got the twenty-one-year-old spring back in my step. I laughed more. Every time someone said, "You're nuts!" I responded amidst my own laughter, "You're right!" I dreamed in Technicolor. I listened to tapes on learning Italian. I checked the days off the calendar, but the most difficult task was finding the perfect assisted-living facility for my mother. Her funds were limited, and she has always promised she would live to be a hundred and ten. I've tried to help stretch her money by caring for her in my home as often as possible. Having dementia means she experiences daily confusion and insecurity. A smaller, homey place would be better than one of the grand, fancy, Taj Mahalish facilities that house hundreds, display fresh cut flowers daily, offer choice menus, have gold-plated door handles, chandeliers, lush carpets, high ceilings, entertainment and activities managers, in-house nurses, and a never ending list of amenities attempting to assure the residents they are "going out in style." I began visiting places, and the more I visited, the more impossible became the task of finding someone to replace me in my mother's life. Being an only child continues presenting challenges I despise. I visited facility after facility, but they were too big, too expensive, too dark and dreary, or they contained someone who screamed mindlessly all day, or something equally disheartening. This is my mother, and I can't ask her stay anywhere I wouldn't want to be, so the search continued and continued and continued. Finally, I found the perfect place. It was small, clean, homey, room for only five and supplied the perfect new friend, a cheery Alice, to room with and to remind Mother all is well. There is nothing easy about dropping your mother off for someone else to care for, no matter how crazy you think she is driving you. My mother is sweet, not demanding or crabby as so many become in later years. I guess you could say she has happy dementia. But, after listening to her repeat the same questions I answered for what seemed like hundreds of times a day, I thought I was losing my mind. Once I kept a tally on her favorite question, "When can I go home?"-seventy-five times in one day! Yes, she varied it, and sometimes the question became, "Don't I have a home? Who's paying my rent? How did I get here? Can you take me home tomorrow? Take me home." How could she still be asking these questions after living here for five years? I was about to tear my hair out, but why did I feel like I was disposing of her? She cried when I took her to her new home on May 15 because she had no idea what was in store for her or why I didn't want to take her to Italy with me. "I can walk as far as you any day," she reminded me, and while this was not true, in her feeble mind, it was very true, and she was more aware than anyone that I am all she has in this world. I thought if I didn't get away soon, I would be committed to an institution for the criminally insane. At the time, it all sounded like excuses. Oh, the guilt we inflict on ourselves! Back in January, when Jenny's plan to traipse across Italy itinerary-less was in the embryonic stage, we invited both of my sons to go with us. Jarrod, thirty-one, a blossoming real estate mogul in South Carolina, didn't have time. Jake, twenty-four, a ballroom dance teacher in Austin, also declined. I must admit I was relieved since three (or four) can be awkward, demanding, or at least drastically change the dynamics. By May 1, after intellectualizing and analyzing the idea for a few months, Jake wanted to go with us. My imagination went wild, and I envisioned the same people who might have offered hospitality to two females just scoffing at us and thinking, "They've got a man with them. He can provide a place for them." (Is this one of those southern ideals?) My mind was drowning in negative thoughts about Jake going with us. Sure, I wanted him to go for his own experience. He was the perfect age to take one last fling before he settled into the realities of life for sixty or seventy years, but his interests were different. Jenny and I were good travel partners and had taken spring break and weekend trips many times in the past few years. Jake's ideas about a good time were different. His sister, on the other hand, thought his decision to go was great. She handed me the yellow three-by-three-inch card and said, "Here, Mom, read this."
Excerpted from Two Nuts in Italy by Sue Ellen Haning Copyright © 2009 by Sue Ellen Haning. Excerpted by permission.
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