Years ago, when Chicago’s beloved Cardinal Bernardin was dying of pancreatic cancer, he wrote a book titled “The Gift of Peace.” The stories of his life were especially reflective because he knew that his health condition was terminal and that he had only a few months to enjoy his days left on earth. While he might have always been led by his faith, this book showed a spiritual readiness for what lie ahead. I remember closing the book, and crying for hours. I have only done that with one other book…”The Bridges of Madison County” and I still blame that one on hormones.
As years have passed, I don’t remember many specifics from his life story, but I have always found comfort and pleasure in the way he described heaven.
“As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that has been very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace.
It is the first day of November, and fall is giving way to winter. Soon the trees will lose the vibrant colors of their leaves and snow will cover the ground. The earth will shut down, and people will race to and from their destinations bundled up for warmth. Chicago winters are harsh. It is a time of dying. But we know that spring will soon come with all its new life and wonder.
It is quite clear that I will not be alive in the spring. But I will soon experience new life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, he is now calling me home.
Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into life eternal will be similar. I will be home.”
As soon as I get off the plane and onto Italian soil, I relate to these words and appreciate the comfort I feel in this beautiful place. I can’t think of any other way to share my feelings than to write a list of the things I love about Italy. So, in no particular order, here goes!
I love the way people shop in small markets and seem to buy just the few things they need for the next day. As soon as I get to a new town, I scope out the shops for a place with fresh bread, fruit, veggies, and cheese. As I watch women leaving with a few carrots, tomatoes, a potato, and some greens, I can taste the soup I imagine they will make that night and want to follow them home for dinner.
I love that cafes and coffee shops are extensions of homes. As I sit and linger, I watch people pass by, greet the server, and stand at the counter enjoying the daily routine of espresso drinking. There are moments when people hang around but cafes are one place where I see that Italians do not always linger.
I love the way people are really affectionate and enthusiastic here. Very few people pass babies without a loud “Bellisimo” and cheek pinching; greetings are always big, mushy cheek kisses; people pass on the road with “Buon Giorno” greetings to strangers; and you should see what happens with couples who are in love. Mama mia!
I love shopping for dresses here. At home, women who are small on the top and big on the bottom have the option of looking like a sausage butt, constantly tugging at too big, falling sleeves, or needing to get things altered. Here, women are built like me, so everywhere I go, I can buy dresses that feel custom made. Really…it is a problem because I know I have way too many dresses, but it’s so exciting to find ones that fit so well, and the sales ladies are so enthusiastic, so even when I say “no more,” I walk out of the store with two new colorful dresses to stuff in my already full closet. (When I recently told Bones about buying a new dress, she actually went to the closet where I am storing some clothes and reported how many dresses were there. I think she thought that would make me reconsider buying another. Hasn’t worked yet!)
I love the old men here. I swear, it’s like they refuse to give up the suave days of their past and conform with modern ways that men and women interact. It’s not unusual to walk down the street and receive greetings and cheek kisses with words that seem like they might be too lusty to be appropriate in 2013. Since I am not sure what they are saying, it is hard to be offended, but I always imagine a flashback of days gone by. It might get frustrating if I lived here, and I certainly don’t wish that men reverted to those social mores, but when in Rome…
Not to be outdone by the older men, I love the older ladies, too. I look at them and see traces of my Gram and her sisters. Where else do you see women mopping sidewalks, cleaning up litter and picking dead leaves off of trees in public gardens, and yelling at children who are not their own when they get out of line? The “it takes a village” concept of raising children seems alive and well here in Italy. Once, I saw an old woman sitting in church watching as a small child was dancing near the altar while the parents stood by. After a few minutes of dirty looks, and obvious words of displeasure, she got out of her pew, picked the child up, and handed him back to his surprised parents. Nobody in church looked offended or upset, it was just the way it was going to be and those kids, who I believe were tourists, sat quietly for the rest of the mass, with eyes as big as saucers watching their new “Nonna” from a distance.
I love the teeny, tiny cars that make my Mini Cooper look much too grandiose. The little Fiats and Smart Cars that line the streets are not only cute, but perfect for the tiny Amalfi roads.
Speaking of Amalfi, I love the coastal highway. Although this area is overrun with tourists and in main cities, it seems hard to find a passing person who is actually Italian, it is still a beautiful place to visit. The twisty road hugs the coast from a distance high on cliffed edges. The colorful buildings and luscious blue water offer views that I have never seen anywhere else. I like to think that I am walking on a movie set and just wait for Sophia Loren to show up to perform her lines.
I love the Italian language. I have taken a few daylong Italian classes, but really have difficulty remembering much. Sometimes, I think that is a good thing because instead of focusing on what people actually say, I am watching their facial expressions, rapidly moving hands, and passion for whatever they are sharing. The laughing, talking children are my favorite because their words sound like a mix of talking and singing.
This probably goes without saying, but I love the food here! In the book “Eat Pray Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert describes how much time passes in Italy, based on her need to buy new clothes because of all the sumptuous food she enjoys in Italian restaurants. Sometimes, okay often, I eat when I am NOT hungry, just because I am walking past a pizzeria and the smell drags me in. Like yesterday, I had bread with my breakfast, a calzone by the beach, and a slice of pizza in the middle of the day. I love that the pasta is always served “al dente” and you are given just the right amount to enjoy. the sauces are fresh and light, but the noodles can be perfectly hard and heavy. I love the sparkling water that comes with meals. It makes me feel all elegant and grown up as I slowly take a few sips. I also can’t stop eating the fresh produce which is often sold from trucks along the street. My hotel room looks like a market with a dresser topped with strawberries, bananas, oranges, and apples. By the way, I also love that there are so many fresh things to eat here that taste better than home…the Parmesan cheese…balsamic vinegar, olive oil…all those things we consume in the States just taste more delicious in their hometowns.
I love that people here move slowly and have down time in the middle of the day. Stores outside of tourist towns are often closed from 2:00-5:00 pm so people can eat a big meal and spend time resting with their families. The streets are virtually empty and up can hear sounds of cooking, and chatting (or yelling), and clanking silverware from the windows above. While there are likely kids on couches watching tv and playing video games just like at home, my imagination creates much more family-friendly scenes of shared meals and storytelling of days gone by.
Now that I have started this list, I can’t stop. As I walk down the road, I look around at the things I see and think to myself, “Oh, I love that, too!”
I recognize that I idealize Italy from the vantage point of a visitor, and that many things are much less perfect than I describe. That’s why, on this trip, I had the revelation that I will never move here because I don’t want to uncover those less that perfect realities. Instead, I choose to lovingly appreciate all that is good here and take pleasure in all of these things I love.