lake berryessa

view from markley coveJust back from one of the best vacations of my life: ten days in my favorite place with my favorite people, Northern California with my brother and sister.

Our first stop was the lake where we spent our summers as kids. Our grandparents had a place overlooking the water and a motorboat. They took us out on the lake to ski every morning with our cousins and aunts and whoever was visiting, and those summers spent crowded in a boat and running barefoot on the hot gravel, walking down to the marina store for ice creams (and splurging on It’s-Its when Grandma and Pop-Pop were particularly generous with their spare change), going out in the boat to look for deer at dusk on the rare and special evenings when Pop-Pop relented to our begging, sleeping on cozy mattresses lined up next to each other on the floor in beds we would make up each night and clear away each and every morning are what defined those childhood summers.

My grandparents warned us that it wouldn’t be the same, which we already knew. Nothing ever is, but when we arrived late afternoon, rented a boat, and my sister was the first to dive back in, she was grinning when she came back up. “The water is the same!” she announced, and it was: in smell, in taste, in color. There is nothing in the world so perfectly refreshing and nothing that makes absolutely everything feel so precisely right.


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moon on the summit


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duck tape and dodge ball

My kids went to American summer camp for the first time yesterday. My mom dropped them off to avoid any drama on the part of Five, who sometimes has last minute separation anxiety when I take him to school. She said they barely waved goodbye when they saw the other kids and the foosball tables.

I couldn’t believe how much work I got done yesterday while my mother enjoyed a nice, long talk on the phone with an old friend, and then she cleaned the house. We took a break mid-afternoon, sat outside, and my mother said, “I love your children, but it is so nice and quiet without them. I hope you don’t mind me saying that!” Of course I didn’t; They were my thoughts exactly.

When I went to pick the boys up, Five complained, “You said we could stay all day!”

“You did stay all day. It’s almost dinner time.”

“What?” said Five.

“It feels like lunchtime,” added Nine.

Which explains why they didn’t eat the lunches I had packed for them.

On the way home, Nine said, “We made boats with duck tape. What’s duck tape? Is it called that because it doesn’t sink?”

Later, from behind the shower curtain, as he rinsed shampoo out of his hair, Five told me about not knowing all the words for things. “Everyone asked me ‘You speak Spanish?’ All the time, ‘You speak Spanish?’ Why dem think I know Spanish?”

“Did you tell them you speak Italian?”

“No. I don’t know how say ‘italiano‘ in English.”

“So what did you say?”

“I just said ‘Leave it alone'”.

At dinner, Nine asked why the kids shout “FOOS” when the ball gets stuck in a place no one kick it. “In Italy we just move the ball and you don’t have to shout anything.”

Then he wanted to know about dodge ball. “Tell me the rules!” he demanded.

“I used to love that game!” said Grandma. “That was my favorite game!! Everyone gets in a circle and…”

“Well, that’s not how we did it,” said Nine, and proceeded to tell us the rules himself.

Posted in The boys, Travel | 3 Comments

his own hero

This morning I dropped Five off for his last day of preschool. First, we accompanied his big brother to the morning sports camp he is attending this week, and today Five rode on the back of my bike rather than on his own.

He is almost too big for the kiddie seat, and he is getting heavy to tote around, but we both like the closeness of it. I will miss his little hands sneaking under my shirt and rubbing my back, his hugs from behind.

We sing little ditties and he asks me math questions: what’s 600 plus 800? 32 plus 32? 64 plus 64? They are usually half in Italian and half in English and sometimes he calls out the answer before I do. I don’t know if it’s because he has memorized the problems or if he is some kind of math genius. I guess we’ll find out in September when he starts first grade.

The World Cup has fueled his obsession with soccer. He plays every day with his friends at school, and again in the afternoon when he manages to find a group of kids from the neighborhood at the playground, where there is a smaller than standard size soccer field with goal posts in the shade. Yesterday there must have been over a dozen boys aged five to 11 or 12 on that field, stopping to drink only at “half time”, and then starting up again.

Nine plays too, but he feels no need to boast about it, whereas all evening long Five regales us with stories of his most skillful, daring feats, the time he stole the ball away from one of the big boys, the time he passed the ball to another little boy who scored.

At the park yesterday, there were two little girls his age playing quietly with a sticker book on the bench beside me, and during half time Five brought his ball out and showed me his tricks, all the time with his eyes trained on them. When he knew they’d seen a particularly impressive move, he seemed to grow two feet taller on pride alone.

He is a performer and his own biggest hero. And after today, he is officially a big boy.

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The boys come home today! They’ve been away for two weeks on Elba Island with their dad, having a marvelous time. They’ve sent me pictures of the things they’ve built, the artwork they’ve created, their fantastic feats in water, on land, in trees. In the pictures they seem bigger than I remember them, taller, with browner skin, and more beautiful, as if that were even possible.


I have been forewarned that although they will not be bringing back the hermit crabs and various other creatures they found at sea, they are returning with bushels of lemons they picked themselves directly from the trees and countless scrapes and bruises, most of which were also procured directly in the trees.

I had a long list of things to do while they were away, but the time is what it is and mainly I caught up with work, saw some, but not all, long-neglected friends, ran and swam and read and talked to Lou. And then it was already over.


Last night, my last night as a single gal, I watched the World Cup game with friends and then we went out to the main square for drinks and dinner and it was the most beautiful evening, with a landscape artist’s sky and the pleasant, easy chatter of interesting people from different walks of life who have had dinner together many times before.

This town is small enough, and I have been going out as a single gal long enough, that it is impossible to spend a summer weekend night in the center and not run into people you know and love and stop to talk and it takes an hour to cross the square. This is one of my favorite things about life in Italy, but yesterday I’d been up since five in the morning for reps at the track and had worked nonstop the rest of the day – I was too tired even for an ice cream cone, and so I rode my bike home, slipped into bed and whispered a reminder to Lou that it was our last night alone.

The boys come home today!

(Mom, you can expect another phone call: the boys have already said they want your and Grandma’s special formula for homemade lemonade)

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Nearly half of Italy is mountainous and, being a peninsula, it boasts long and varied coastlines. Italians will ask you if you prefer the mountains or the sea, the way an American might ask if you prefer coffee over tea, and sometimes it seems as if the two were mutually exclusive, given the strong preference of most Italians for one or other or their unambiguous ideas about which is more beneficial to one’s well being.

On Saturday, the first day of summer vacation, I drove my boys to meet their father, and off they sped, down to Piombino to catch the ferry to Elba, the little Mediterranean island off the coast of Tuscany where they will spend a couple of weeks.

On Sunday, the second day of summer, I got up at four o’clock in the morning and drove with some friends to a race in nearby mountains, the ones in the picture at the top of this post.

The scenery was your typical Northern Italian fare: picturesque trails under dense foliage, through which shafts of golden sunlight sneaked through to shine on the line of bobbing heads in front of mine, a merry river snaking through the valley below, abandoned caves and stone cabins whose roofs had long ago caved it. There were rocky climbs and scrabble on the way down the other side, now a narrow single track worn into the dirt, now some steps built out of logs, a patch or two of merciful grass in a farmer’s field as we neared the end and, when once again we descended to the valley and were reunited with the very river that had seen us off, there was a sandy path at its banks, and certainly I was not the only runner tempted to slip into its cool embrace and let the current carry me the last mile in.

The boys sent pictures of where they are staying: the spectacular view from their terrace of a rocky cliff that drops straight down into the wide, deep expanse of blue green sea, the dusky pinkish sky and the two of them, already brown in their new swimsuits, lounging before so much beauty.

Their annual trip to the seaside as soon as school lets out is becoming a tradition of sorts. For the past two years they have taken off with their dad on the very first day of summer, and this year they were ready for the break. I was too.

While I am so happy for them to have this precious time with their father, and when we kiss goodbye, it is lightly and with smiles all around, there is an emptiness to my life when they are not in it. In exchange, I gain two weeks of freedom to go where I want, do what I please, sleep alone, not cook dinner. Lou and I relish our quiet, early mornings that extend long past the hour when the boys get up. There are no messes to clean up and the bathroom is always free.

The mountains or the sea? A mother’s life or a single gal’s? Who says they are mutually exclusive? Can’t I have – and love – them all?

Posted in running, something beautiful, The boys | 3 Comments

an aunt’s love

My ex has a host of aging Italian aunts and there is one in particular who has, since her mother died three or four decades ago, lived alone in a little apartment at the end of the main street in the mountain town where she was born. She never married, never traveled and by the time I came along, she never left her apartment, relying on relatives and a woman she paid to do her shopping and the housework.

Her endearingly naive view of the world is largely based on telephone conversations with the other aunts and their nieces and Italian television (black and white until the nineties, when someone in the family finally convinced her that color TV was safe). She watches Mass every day and can be relied upon to spread news of any family intrigue over the phone.

She has an impressive sweet tooth and is exceedingly generous; as a result, she is always foisting boxes of chocolates and candies on us. She always has a treat to give the boys.

When we were dating, my ex took me to meet her and she showed me old photographs of relatives who had emigrated to the United States decades before. “Do they look familiar?” she asked. “Maybe you know them.”

She calls me every year on my birthday, just like everyone else in the family. “I have a box of chocolates here for you!” she invariably announces. “When are you coming to see me? When are you bringing those boys? I will keep the chocolates here for you until you come. So come! I’m expecting you!”

Then, when we go she takes our picture with a disposable camera, and shows us the pictures from our previous visits, and those of other family members. She brings out pictures of my ex with the boys and while I look at them, she searches my face for some sign of regret or softness, some signal that it was all just a small misunderstanding and not for real. I assume she does the same to him.

After we split, my sister-in-law informed me that the family had decided not to tell her. “We’re not sure how she’ll take it.” They only told her after she started calling everyone, distraught, insisting that I must be angry with her for something she had done or something she had said, since I never came with my ex and the boys anymore when they stopped by to see her.

After hearing the news, she called me right away. “I am calling you because I want you to know that I will always be your aunt, no matter what. You are still my niece.”

Once, about twelve years ago, she fell getting out of bed, and had to be hospitalized. She was so mad at her brother and his wife who found her and insisted on calling the ambulance. Later, at the hospital, when the doctor asked her how long it had been since she’d seen a doctor, she is rumored to have answered, “Oh well, let’s see… it must have been 1964. Or 65?”

After that she agreed to have a nurse come by and see her regularly, and someone checks up on her at least once a day. Over the years, she has been hospitalized from time to time for various recurring ailments. Which is why I was not too concerned when my ex informed me that she was in the hospital again, except that this time he said she didn’t look herself.

Then a cousin texted me last week that she wasn’t doing too well, and my father-in-law called twice. Sunday night he seemed particularly concerned, having just been by to see her, and noting that she could barely talk.

Today was a national holiday and we went up the mountain to see her. Indeed, she did not look herself. She was half her former self, frail and tiny. Her shoulders looked so small, little knobs in a white nightgown, and she could barely speak.

She was happy to see us but very upset that she had left the boys’ gifts at home. “I still have their Christmas stockings,” she whispered, and I was appalled I’d let six months go by without taking them to see her.  I told her we’d get the stockings the next time we see her, possibly at her birthday party in September, a party she throws every year for everyone in the family, and starts planning again in October. “All right,” she said. “And if I’m not here in September, you will all have the party anyway.” She seemed immensely reassured when we all nodded and voiced our agreement that yes, of course, no matter what, there would be a party in September in her honor, whether she was around for it or not.

And looking around at the two other aunts, my kids, one of her nieces, crowded around her hospital bed, I was reminded of the opening passage in Diana Athill’s “Instead of a Letter”, in which Athill’s dying grandmother, alone with the young Athill, asks her, “What have I lived for?” and silence ensues.

It is a question this kind, sweet, innocent aunt will never need to ask herself, or any of us for that matter, the answer being so plainly clear.

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