Chapter 1: Photo Play

The fall after Gelsey left for college, I often sat in my study toward evening, the hour when she used to return from high school. Brooding about her absence, I gazed at postcards from my last trip to Italy ten years before. Those postcards, taped above my computer, softened my sense of loss.

My first trip to Italy, Gelsey was five. I left her with my parents in South Carolina. Every day, she and my mother sat at a small table, pouring tea and passing cookies.

On that first trip to Italy with Gelsey’s dad Jack, I was so nervous about using my first-year Italian that I couldn’t sleep. We landed in Milan, but our bags did not. Jack was furious. “What? No shaving cream? No underwear or deodorant?”

I wasn’t much bothered. The minute we stepped onto the street, my father’s favorite gesture—a bouquet of fingers raised in threat or greeting—met me at every turn. For the first time, I felt kin to an expansive horde. Two days later when our bags caught up with us in Venice, I rushed to the back of the customs’ shed. The agent fired a barrage of Italian. I knew exactly what to answer: “The valises contain camicie, shirts; scarpe, shoes.”

Bene, Signora!” He bowed over my hand, his moustache tickling. “Benissimo.”

After that, I played Italy by ear. Touching my heart and flinging my hand wide, I begged an extra night at a Naples hotel and won. An American woman kept repeating, “Swimming pool, swimming pool” to an uncomprehending clerk. I leaned forward and offered “piscina.” They beamed at me.

It helped that in Italy troubles occurred amid spacious, coherent settings. Trains went on strike, gypsies stole your camera, necklace, purse. But above the empty tracks rose a lofty gallery. Light kissed the marble terrazzo. Gigolos might pinch or gypsies jostle, but plump putti witnessed it all, little wings above their dimpled backsides.

Postcards from that trip show bright sunlight flecking the Roman Forum and the Vestal Virgins with their sightless eyes. Leonardo’s Annunciation shimmered with soft Florentine sfumato—that enveloping Tuscan haze which softens every scene with romance. The Virgin raised her open palm to the angel as he knelt and offered her the lily. Relaxed yet poised, her open palm held him at bay. It was the perfect gesture—she put him on hold while she thought it over. The angel smirked: “We all know what she’ll decide.”

Gelsey had often posed this way. Framed by my study door, her unhurried expression suggested that she was taking her time; she would have to see. When my teasing punctured her control, she joked back, delivered the news of the day, a taper of youth and gossip. Eventually she slumped to the floor, worn out and glad to be home.

Light flickered through autumn twilight. Those days, with Gelsey gone, evening closed down much too soon. Across the room, leaning against the wall, stood a huge photo collage she had made with a piece of plastic board as big as a table. It was her high school graduation present to me, the photos spanning her nineteen years. If I couldn’t have the girl herself, I could at least have her image. Thank you, Mom, and good-bye.

My favorite photo showed her and her pals, windswept and laughing, posed with Munich’s municipal marble lions. The photo was from her high school German trip. She had won a place among sophomores from all over the United States because her German teacher, Herr Hanson, had taught her to care deeply about Germany. Herr Hanson, as Minnesota-Swedish as you could get, made German jokes, cooked Wienerschnitzel with the class, and had them writing German lieder about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In the photo of the Munich lions, one of Gelsey’s guy friends sat on a lion’s back, another pulled his tail, and Gelsey tipped back her chin, caught in the upstroke of gaiety. Beside her, a lion’s noble snout and gray ruff balanced her casual, amazing élan. Warmed by their gaiety, I wanted to join them, to romp through Munich as part of a glorious adventure of being young and beautiful among the monuments.

Since my divorce from her dad Jack and remarriage, I’d stayed home, building up my freelance writing and teaching career. During that decade of transition, European travel was essentially out of the question. Instead, Gelsey and I took little trips across the Mississippi River to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Museums had been our joy since Gelsey was two and got down and dirty with a Judd cube at the Minneapolis Walker Art Center. “The museum is not a playground,” scolded a guard. I quickly scooped up the kid, embarrassed but secretly amused. From college Gelsey wrote that she was taking a yearlong art history course with a Renaissance expert. She was “having a blast.” I should have been happy, but I knew exactly what might happen. Each year, she’d disappear further from view, taking away the only partner I had believed in until my second marriage.

As I gazed back and forth from her photos to my postcards of Italy, an idea presented itself. I had recently been awarded a travel grant to expand a collection of art poems. It was generous enough to cover both our expenses. We would visit Germany first. She could show me the country she loved. In Nuremberg I hoped to meet her host-mother, the “other Mutti” who had befriended her during her student visit. As I watched them embrace, I would tell myself not to be jealous.

Crossing the Alps we’d descend into Italy where I’d traveled several times just before and after my divorce. When I proposed the trip, the symmetry appealed to her. She had no other plans that summer after her freshman year.

“Let’s keep travel journals, Mom,” she proposed. Fabulous, I said, and bought us two spiral notebooks—hers blue, mine mauve. Both had cats on the covers. “When we start driving each other nuts,” she said, raising and lowering her eyebrows like Groucho Marx, “we can vent on paper. If we’re very very good, we’ll get to peek.” Seemed a bit unlikely, but worth a try.

Gelsey’s Journal

Ok, visits to Grandma’s! I used to count to ten, and sure enough, Mom would start screaming at her. Thank you, Heaven, we escaped after a few days to that freezing cold beach cottage. Dad and I worked on art projects, while Mom walked by the ocean. I wasn’t dumb. Didn’t take me long to guess what that division meant.

Remember how I loved mac and cheese—Dad’s and my favorite quick-dinner choice? Mom would come back, hair a mess, and we’d stuff her full of Spätzle. German food: bland, white, and soft, going down. Keep that in mind.

I never believed Mom’s wailing about adjusting to “prairie plain-speak.” Moving to Minnesota was not really the problem. It was the first uprooting when Grandpa took them all to South Carolina. Every summer the whole family “escaped the heat”—I can hear Grandma–she is such a snob. What she really meant was going north where there was “culture.”

I know what Mom’s trips with her parents were like—either roly-poly Italian cousins and aunts squeezed a kid so tight she choked, or Mom and Sissy and Grandma took long train trips to North Dakota where the “girls” swam with the leeches or had to escape a bull who was gonna gore them. I’ve had my own share of grandparent excitement. Remember how I toddled off a plane in Baltimore, and Granddad grabbed me so tight I squealed? Remember how the cousins and I had to guess which of Granddad’s huge fists held the doughnut holes? At least Dad’s family was funny and neat and clean.

Mom’s Journal

Just be glad, little Miss Neat and Clean, you didn’t meet your father’s mother. She put neat and clean in a category all by itself, labeled “Everything is mine and don’t you dare spill on it.” And while we’re at it, just so you know, your penmanship is hard to read, just like your dad’s.

Gelsey’s Journal

Listen, Madame Critic, I may not have your Palmer-method penmanship, but you are my journal goddess. There, I’ve thrown you a bitta bohunk, just to keep you happy.

Odd how bad her penmanship is, just like her doctor father’s. I used to attribute his illegibility to writing prescriptions with only half an hour’s sleep. I’d sneak into his room at Bellevue Hospital, but hardly ever shared the cot with him. I may be Gelsey’s “journal goddess,” but she writes in her father’s hand, sniffs through his long nose, and tosses her Baltimore grandmother’s straight blondish hair. If we ever share one notebook, it won’t be hard to see where she leaves off and I begin.