I have a poem up at Panorama, the Journal of Intelligent Travel. That’s an excellent place to place a poem that draws on travels with my mother.
I was only 32 when I went to Italy with Mom. She would only be 55, then, in this photo taken by me on that trip.
Mom loved expensive handbags and good haircuts. This photo shows both, as well as the length and grace of her arms, and her beautiful smile. She’s standing outside the door of the Tempietto Longobardi in Cividale, Friuli, Udine.
This was taken before the Temple of the Longbeards became a UNESCO world heritage site. Mom and I were able to go in and look around in a way that you just can’t, now.
The temple was built in about the eight century, very soon after they left paganism and became Christians. It may be the only remaining Longobardi (Scandinavian) church. It was built on the site of an old Roman house with scavenged Roman columns, but the choir stalls are purely Scandinavian looking, which thrilled me. I have breed recognition for anything Scandinavian.
While we were there, I rented an audio tour, a lovely recording by a woman with a cool British accent. In describing the frieze, the narration said that they were “suave and mysterious.” No one really knows who these figures are supposed to be, but the commentary referred to them as them as “six virgin martyrs, bearing the gift of their lives to Christ.” Accurate or not, I loved that description so much, it made the hair rise on my neck.
This trip with my mother wasn’t easy at times. I’d recently found and started contact with my birth father, and she had so much anger over it. There were times on this trip when she descended into harangue, trying to leverage my love for her into hatred for him. Irresistible force, meet immovable object. No one on earth is as stubborn as I am.
But those harangues were spaced out over the course of three weeks. In between stretched days of Italy’s wonders, the sweet smoker’s voice of my history teacher mother in my ear, gently explaining what was noteworthy, special and important about whatever we were seeing with her trademark intelligence, wit, and barely perceptible lisp. Today is the anniversary of Mom’s death. I’d give just about anything to hear her voice again.
Read the poem here: Directions to the Six Virgins
I’ve been working on a poem for a poetry challenge I’m doing with my friend Alex, and realized the poem would be greatly enriched by my journal notes on this particular little chapel I saw in Italy in 1993. It was impossible to look it up on the almighty internet because I couldn’t remember what it was called. It’s a small chapel in northern Italy.
I knew I’d written about it in the travel journal that my sister gave me before I left on my first trip to Europe. My mother and I went to Venice, Florence, and various points in Friuli, and spent a few days in Amsterdam on the way home. The journal held the overly careful notes of a traveler who knows she will probably only pass that way once in her life. I didn’t know that I’d be back with my sister a few years later. So I wrote everything down that I could bear to. I even made some strange little sketches.
It did come home with me. I knew that, because I’d taken it up to Seattle in 2004, eleven years later, to read to my mother as she was dying. I thought it would calm her down and give her something distracting and lovely to hear. That was a romantic idea, but it had nothing to do with the honest physical struggle involved in her leaving this world. I don’t remember seeing it since that day.
So, this evening I remembered that I’d transcribed the original journal soon after coming back. By hand.
I probably thought I was too honest in the original. It was an interesting time in my relationship with my mother, and I might have recorded some of the more tribulational events of the trip in the original journal. My marriage was a shambles, that probably earned a mention or two. And there was that panicked phone call from the same sister who’d given me the journal, a call that had ruined a lot of the vacation for me. Probably, none of that made it into the duplicate, but that’s okay because my memories of the hard parts are unfortunately sharp.
Excited, the hunt began for the duplicate. Where the hell was it? I checked every bookshelf in the house, and listen, I have so many bookshelves. Finally, I opened the old trunk that sits at the foot of my bed. There, under the Jack Wild scrapbooks and photo albums of past marriages and my high school diploma and senior pictures, I found the duplicate.
That’s a nice little book to write about Italy in, isn’t it? Very Florentine.
Here’s the front page, in which I’ve happily started to edit my reality.
The sad and funny thing about that page is, the Twin Towers are gone.
So, of course, is my mother.
But underneath that duplicate book was this little beauty.
That same book went to Italy and back, and it holds all the truth I need, as well as my notes on the Tempietto in Cividale.
I wish I could open a door and find my mother happy, healthy and smiling. But I have this little record of our time together, good and bad, and I’m all set to go on that poem.