I’m waiting for a flight to Italy. My mother is seeing me off.
The summer between her sophomore and junior years of college, my mother planned to take a trip to Europe with a high school girlfriend. But a handsome young man in Navy whites asked her to marry and she said yes.
Growing up I heard that story again and again: How my mother was planning to go to Europe the summer she married my father instead. That’s why she’d never been to Europe. That’s why she hadn’t finished college.
I’m waiting for a 3 p.m. flight to Italy. My mother has packed my bags for me. “Do I have underwear in there?” I ask, patting my large green suitcase. “Of course you do,” she answers.
My mother would have loved that trip to Europe. She’d have visited the Louvre. She’d have sat in cafes, spent hours in bookstores, and strolled the banks of the Seine.
Just minutes before my flight, I tell my mother there’s a problem; I might not be able to go. She cries out: “No, no! You must go!”
When I was 12, my mother returned to college. Around the same time she and my father divorced.
The spring of my sister’s junior year abroad in Paris, my mother and I boarded a plane (I was 16, she 44) and we each took our first trip to Europe. Together.
I unzip the bags my mother has packed for me and find an entire backpack filled with potato chips. No guidebooks.
The year I graduated from college, my mother received her PhD. She never remarried. When she was in her 60s, she left her job in museum education and began to take yearly trips to Europe.
In dream after dream I miss my 3 p.m. flight to Italy.
My mother has dementia now. She still lives alone—except for her personal care attendants. She is surrounded with beauty: books of poetry given to her by past boyfriends, coffee table art books, and paintings of sunflowers that remind her of the fields of flowers in Italy. Almost always, there is a vase filled with fresh sunflowers on her dining room table.
It’s 2 p.m. and we haven’t yet left the apartment. “We’ll miss the plane!” I exclaim. “We’ll make it,” my mother replies calmly. “But it’s an hour’s drive to the airport …” My mother is unperturbed. “We’ll see,” she says.
Recently, I received an email an old friend of my mother’s. She wrote:
Your mother and I were supposed to go to Europe together that summer … but the engagement led your mom to cancel, and I accepted a friend of hers as my traveling companion. We sailed on the French Line’s Liberte, which was quite a treat …
Suddenly our family’s private myth became a real story, with a real woman whose plans were disrupted by my mother’s engagement. Someone else took my mother’s place on the boat, and saw the sights she would have seen.
The dreams came the night I received this email.
Of all the places she visited, Italy was her favorite.
That’s one country I’ve never yet seen.