I often think about a favorite brown and tan houndstooth scarf I lost in a garage a few years ago as I hurried home from work, hands full and my mind on other matters. It was made of soft merino wool and big enough to be a shawl. I liked to wear it on cold days over my coat to cut the chill and show it off. It must have slipped from my shoulders, where it was loosely hung, and landed on the asphalt floor without any sound to alert me. I’m certain that it made someone’s day when they found it, but I have lamented its disappearance ever since.
The scarf had come from Italy and I loved its “throw caution to the wind” design. Rows of identical checks occupied the middle ground, interlinked and orderly; then the checks broke free of one another and took off running like AWOL soldiers, scattering and changing shape until they reached the edges of the fabric and vanished. Those Italians know how to craft their designs; they don’t worry about what happens to them at the end of the day. They accept impermanence without a fuss.
Take Venice, a city that will sink one day and drown in the water that gives it life. If you go there, you may be struck, as I was, by how the Italians embrace their aging city with little fanfare, coming and going nonchalantly from crumbling buildings that wear their decay like a badge of honor. I walked the streets there for hours on a recent visit, taking in the views, all the while wishing I might grow old the Italian way. I stopped in some stores I passed to look for a scarf like the one I lost, but no such luck.
I once knew a little Italian girl named Lorraine Ribis at a time when I was little, too. We were classmates in third grade and sat at school desks across the aisle from each other. The desktops were grooved and scarred from years of use. At the beginning of the school year, each child arrived with a length of oilcloth to cover the desk’s surface and make it smooth. Festooned in colorful cloths, our drab classroom came alive. Lorraine’s oil cloth was bright red and mine a light shade of green.
In the right-hand corner of each desk top was a circular hole where once a reservoir filled with ink had supplied thirsty fountain pens. It sat empty and obsolete. We liked to drop paper clips into the hole and fish them out in the desk’s belly below; it gave the hole a purpose.
One day when I came to school, Lorraine’s seat was empty, no familiar notebook visible on her desk. She had stepped off a curb the day before and been crushed by a cement truck turning the corner. Sitting high up and looking out, not down, the driver didn’t see her in the street. Her mother had been nearby watching. In class, we weren’t encouraged to talk much about what had happened. I felt sad and frightened; no one ever knew. I still revisit the scene in my mind; it unfolds like an old-time movie, no color, no sound, just swift action and a small, lifeless body on the pavement. Lorraine’s oilcloth remained on her desk after the accident until one day my teacher, Mrs. Stein, rolled it up and took it away.
When the ambulance rolled up to the door on an overcast morning in December to take my mother away to the funeral home, there was nothing shocking about it. She was in her ninetieth year and had been bedridden the month prior with a failing heart. I knew we were approaching the end and she did, too. The night before, I had been by her bedside in the house she loved when she told me she was short of breath. I offered and she declined a trip to the hospital. Her voice was hoarse, her words indistinct, but her message was clear: she wanted to die at home. As I nodded in acquiescence, she stretched out her frail arms to smooth her rumpled bed linens. She had been meticulous in her life; she hated unmade beds and wasn’t going to leave this earth in one if she could help it.
I record this story with an appreciation of my mother that I did not always have. She was gone from me for much of my life, unavailable in her bedroom with the door closed when I was a child, unavailable in distant places with my father as I got older. They travelled the world together to ever more exotic destinations, snapping photos and bargaining for art and antiquities to line the shelves of their home. They were inseparable and always had each other in sight wherever they went. My brother and I remained in the rearview mirror and managed mostly on our own.
Years later, and by then in her eighties, my mother was left on her own when my father died. Resentment and anger might have permeated the time we had left with her. We might have remained strangers. But that is not our story. My mother, with all her flaws showing, came back to reclaim her children, and my brother and I came back to repossess her. Little by little, bit by bit, we reconstructed our relationships. My brother came east to visit often and stayed in my mother’s house. My mother and I ran errands, drove through the countryside, sipped coffee together, worried about her declining health. She saw her grandchildren more and was present at all of our family gatherings. We spent the last years of her life celebrating the homecoming of our prodigal mother.
During the years that they traveled, my parents returned to Italy again and again, amassing a large collection of Venetian blown glass in all colors and sizes. My mother loved to sit on the living room couch, facing her wall of glass pieces, in silent contemplation. I like to think that she was imagining herself a young woman again, an artist, bohemian, unfettered, running down cobblestone streets in an ancient city, searching for her future.
One large vase, rounded and ample in the middle, then tapering toward its mouth, was her favorite, as it is mine. It is called End of Day glass. As the work day ends, the glass blower gathers molten leftovers from his pots, retrieves discarded bits of colored rods, and shapes them into a marbleized whole, a new form that comes to life with the remnants of everything that came before. When I look at the vase, now on my own shelf, I marvel at its beauty; I feel its heat; I weep for what I found.
Throughout her career as a clinical psychologist, Bonnie Chwast listened with great appreciation to the stories her patients told her. Now in retirement, she is finding time to tell some of her own.