Archive for July, 2015

Memory is a powerful tool. Our memory has the ability to transport us back in time with something so small as a wisp of a scent, a few notes of music, a glance at a faded picture, or a well-loved toy. The memories produced can be good, taking us to nostalgic times, or bad, bringing to the surface things that we’d hoped were buried forever.

Ever since I watched the movie, Still Alice, a wonderful film about a successful woman who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I’ve been thinking about memories a lot lately. It would be excruciating to have to go through that, knowing that little by little, memories would fade, everything from the names of your children to where the bathroom is in the house. It’s a terrifying prospect and I do everything I can in hopes that I don’t ever get to that point. (Did you know that there are studies that show red wine can help prevent dementia? I’m on it.)

A few nights ago, a dream made me recall one of my favorite childhood memories. To explain it, I have to back up a little. A few years before I was born, my paternal grandparents bought a rustic little cottage on Devil’s Lake in southeast Michigan. By the time I came along, there had been a proper bathroom added with a stand-up shower and hot water, but when we grandchildren were very small, we took our baths in the kitchen sink, splashing to our hearts’ content while our mothers read books or chatted at the kitchen table. The water on the floor would be cleaned up when we were through and counted as a decent mopping. We, of course, remember none of this, but the stories have been passed down to us over the years.

As babies, we had our cribs up on the second floor, a wide open space with only two, small, closed-off bedrooms, one for Grandma and Grandpa, the other for whatever couple might be staying there that night. When all of us grandkids were sleeping over at the same time, the grownups would simply push two mattresses together on the floor and we would all camp out, ending up like a bunch of puppies in the morning. The nights were stifling hot at first and we would all try to get the best spot in front of the fan, but sometime in the middle of the night, we would get cold and pull on all the covers that we had kicked off earlier. In one of the corners of the big, open, room was a single bed, off-limits when we were all there at the same time, in the spirit of fairness, but when I was there by myself with just Grandma, that little bed was mine, and, oh, how I loved it! (I’m sure my cousins thought it was theirs, too, when they were there alone, but for all intents and purposes in this story, I shall refer to it as MINE!)

The bed was right next to one of the windows in the front of the cottage (front means facing the water) and I would always sleep with the window open. The smells and sounds there were so different from my house in the suburbs. There were no drag racers going up and down the street on mini-bikes, just the gentle lapping of the water along the shore and an occasional boat taking a nighttime cruise. During the summer weekends, the lake was very busy, as it is now, and there were many more boats and people out at night, but when I went up with Grandma during the week, all was peaceful and quiet. The smell of the water, very pleasant, clung to everything and even today, no matter where I am, when I smell water, it puts me right back there.

I always slept like a rock and woke up very early at the lake. Fresh air and water have a way of doing that to a child. I would wriggle out of my blanket cocoon and squint out at the sun rising over the water. It always started out as smooth as glass, but when the little waves started to pick up with the wind or boat traffic, the sun made it look like there were millions of diamonds sparkling under the water. I treasured my time there and I didn’t want to waste one minute of it. My home life was scary and unpleasant, but I was always safe at the lake. I could sleep with no worries or fears. Grandma made each moment special. She didn’t think it was dumb to want to sit and read all day, or eat tons of Oreos, or anything at all.

When I would go up with Grandma, we’d usually be up for one or two nights by ourselves, then on Friday evenings, everybody else would come up. Grandpa, my mom, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, sometimes more, sometimes less. We’d catch up, beg to stay out and play in the water for as long as we could, then run around in the dark until our mothers forced us to come in and go to bed. Nowadays, there is cable TV, a DVD/VCR, and all sorts of electronic gadgets to keep our kids busy, but we only had a small black and white TV that didn’t get hardly any channels in, so it wasn’t worth watching anyway. The bathing suits were hung outside to dry for the next day and we were shooed upstairs to our mattresses so that the grownups could talk without our curious ears. Upstairs, we would whisper amongst ourselves, careful to watch for anyone coming to check on us, whereupon we would always pretend to be asleep. Eventually we would drop off for real, but would wake early the next morning to start all over again.

It was a magical place, then, a place where I belonged. Over the years, like everything in life, it has changed. The cottage has grown to accommodate all of us and all of our children. There was more space added and there are real bedrooms upstairs, but it’s still the same cottage I grew up in. It’s a beautiful place, and there is still a hint of magic in it for me when I visit, but I’m not there nearly as often as when I was that child. I still love to see the diamonds sparkling on the water, but I haven’t seen the sun rise there in many years. Life gets in the way, sometimes. We take paths which lead us to other things that take priority on the weekends: children, band, theatre, catching up on work, work itself, and it gets harder to connect with our past. It happens to nearly everyone in some way, shape, or form, and yet, we have the precious, beautiful memories of those places, people, and times when we felt whole. The lake is a memory that I hope I will always carry with me through the end of my days.

I invite you to share a favorite memory with me here. Recalling memories is one way we can hold onto them, or a gentle reminder to call that person we haven’t thought of in a long time. What will you remember today?

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I’ve been on a bit of a holiday from things: work, home, and, yes, writing. (Actually, I have a summer job, but that’s my fun one and I don’t really consider it work. I enjoy it too much!) I did actually plan to try and write a bit when I was in Italy, but there was just no time, so now I’m jumping back in. I do want to try and finish the novel that I’m working on, at least the unrevised bit of it, this summer, if possible, but first, a blog post. I won’t bore you with all of the details of my trip, but just a few highlights.

I was in bella Italia, beautiful Italy. The flight was long, cramped, and boring, so I’ll spare you the details. We were fortunate enough to immediately get our tour group’s bus from the airport to our hotel in Rome, driven by the talented Carlo, our driver for the week. An Italian motorway gave way to increasingly smaller city streets, passing through buildings covered in graffiti. I thought the graffiti would go away once we got into Rome proper, but that was not so. In fact, it seems the only way to not have graffiti on your building in Rome is to build a locked gate around it, but then the gate will have graffiti. I found it extremely surprising that a city with a heavy tourist population would have so much vandalism. A lot of it is political, but still, graffiti is ugly no matter where you go.

If you don’t look at the graffiti, Rome is beautiful, in a chaotic way. There are no traffic rules. Absolutely none. Seriously, if there are rules, no one is following them. I don’t even know why there are lines on the road. Tiny cars veer in and out from between large trucks and busses while scooters rule any in-between spaces and even sidewalks. Crossing the street almost gave my mother heart attacks, but we followed the advice of our local guide, Elena: “Shoulders back, chest out, don’t look at the drivers, close your eyes, and GO!” She was right. Roman drivers can sense even a small inkling of hesitation and will keep going if you pause before crossing. It’s kind of like being a teacher. Still, everyone seems to take it in stride; it’s the way things are done. And in the midst of all of this chaos, beautiful ruins, thousands of years old, are scattered through the entire city. Public water fountains flow with water from the ancient aqueducts and the Coliseum seems impassive to the tourist busses that rumble by.


View of Rome

Rome is extremely walkable, as were all of the cities, if one holds their purse close, closed, and zipped. Gypsies, or Romani, are everywhere, selling cheap crap or trying to scam naïve tourists into taking pictures for 5 euro or taking a rose, after which they get very close to you and say, “Give me money.” If one avoids the heavy tourist areas, or just flat out ignores them, it’s not a problem, just annoying. In the areas by our hotels, we walked around quite comfortably and safely, even at night.

Vatican City was amazing. Although Oldest Child had immediately given me his copy of The DaVinci Code as soon as I decided to go to Italy (as an inspiration to sneak into the private collections), the amount of historical treasures that were actually on display was dumbfounding. Paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and priceless works of art are all on display, no need to go hunting behind the scenes. The Sistine Chapel was overwhelming and brought me to tears with the sheer passion of the work painted not only on the ceiling, but the walls. Silence is enforced there and prayers are said. Michelangelo’s most famous Pieta (he carved several) is on display in St. Peter’s Basillica, more beautiful than I had ever dreamed. I got to be inside of St. Peter’s Square, a place that we watch on Christmas Eve and Easter every year, jammed to the gills with people. It was nowhere near as full as it is for those holidays, but it is an immense area. I’m not Catholic, but I could have spent days in the Vatican.


St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

We took a day trip from Rome to Pompeii, the town that was buried by ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The amount of work that has been done and how much of the original town has been uncovered is astounding. Private homes, shops, wells, and, yes, brothels, are all still there, some looking as if their owners could come back at any moment. Our guide, Enrico, took us everywhere that he could, throwing in as much humorous information as possible and making sure our group saw all of the important things. There is actually a lot more of Pompeii that remains buried, but Enrico seemed confident that it would stay covered. The expense would be just too great and the important buildings had already been excavated. Still, walking the same streets that were once a real place, not a tourist attraction, was humbling and eerie. There were three casts of victims on display: a baby, a man and a dog. Even though they were only the molds of those unfortunates, the bodies have long since decayed, it was emotional to see the horrified expressions still evident after all this time. If I had to choose one word to describe Pompeii, it would be “haunting”.

After three days, we bid a fond “arrivederci” to Rome and moved on to Florence for a change of pace, but once we got there, our pathway to the leather factory we were to tour was blocked by a medieval football game. Apparently, it’s a really big deal there and gets quite rough. One of the most famous squares, or piazzi, was completely blocked off and there was a huge police presence, which our tour director sweet-talked us through. To make a long story short, we did get past the (fun) craziness and got to our wine-tasting, pizza dinner and leather tour on time.

We had a lot of free time to explore in Florence but also got to take a day trip to see the towns of San Gimignano and Siena, both nestled high in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Both have kept most of their medieval buildings and are, rightfully, very proud of them. We quite happily wound our way through the ancient streets, admiring both buildings and landscapes alike. Both of those towns are places where I would gladly go back and spend a lot more time exploring more of what they have to offer.


City wall of San Gimignano

Venice was next, after a quick stop in Verona to see “Juliet’s balcony”. (FYI, Juliet was a fictional character. The play, by William Shakespeare, was based on warring political families in Verona at the time, but it remains a work of fiction.) Venice was stunning at first glance and remained so throughout the time we spent there. During the daytime hours, there were throngs of tourists to elbow through, and some particularly despicable Gypsies, but there were no scooters threatening to kill us, no busses to dodge, just water taxis and gondolas gliding up and down the narrow canals between homes and churches. In the evening, after the day-trippers leave, Venice is peaceful and breathtaking. Our hotel was across a large canal from Piazza San Marco, so we had to take a water taxi back and forth, an experience in itself. When it came time to go to the airport, we went by water taxi. It was fabulous!.



The best part of Venice, however, was that I got to meet my friend, Sabrina, for the first time. We had started communicating almost a year ago online and she was able to meet my mom and me there. We had a wonderful afternoon, just walking around, talking, and getting to know each other. Hopefully, we’ll get to meet up again in a couple of years, perhaps in London. The sooner, the better!

I was given a great gift in this trip, and I have my mother to thank for that. My world was expanded, my appreciation and respect for another culture increased, and I found that while I’m not even close to being fluent in speaking Italian, I am a fairly functional tourist. My next trip isn’t quite in the works yet, we are sending Oldest Child to college next month, after all, but I’m looking forward to what ever adventure comes my way


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