The first time I glimpsed Italy was through the porthole window as I sat on an airplane, as we started the final descent on the approach into Rome. Tears immediately welled in my eyes and my throat burned with the emotions I felt, and was surprised by, as I did not expect to have them. Someone passed me some tissues. I’m not sure if it was my seat companion or an attendant, as I never turned my head when they tapped my shoulder and reached in front of me, so I could take them.
I saw majestic mountains that had been landscaped into order with the tiers a thousands of years of cultivation brings. Massive forests in shades of olive hues, all planted in orderly fashion with property delineations evident from my aerial view. Sienna buildings situated in the middle of massive emerald lawns, tiny outbuildings and stoned garden walls. Hundreds of years worth of gardening and plant placement gave the impression of immaculate perfection that went on mile after mile as we soared above it.
My grandfather is buried there somewhere. The idea slammed into me with a palpable suddenness which took my breath away. He came to this country fighting at the call of his own and he never came home. He never came home. He was buried in a quaint Italian village, it could have been any one of the many we had just flown over, with a snow white headstone to mark his place and bright red gardenias planted at its base. He died for these people. So that they would not have to fear for their children or have them suffer the brutal injustices inflicted upon them by tyrants.
He left a very young wife at home, heavily pregnant; he never got to see the son they had. He left his wife and child safe in Canada, to fight in a war across the sea so that Italian mothers would not have to lose their children. He stood side by side men he could not speak with, knowing they would defend each other with their own lies if need be. Some battles don’t need explaining. You can look into anothers’ eyes and see the fear and determination to go forward, no matter the personal cost.
We can’t even imagine what they saw during the war or comprehend the courage it must have taken to feel what they felt when killing someone who was trying to kill them. They lived every day knowing they would lose friends. Death was a real and constant companion as was hunger, discomfort and fear. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing you would live on in the lives of the child you left in the care of it’s mother. The idea of your own immortality being held and kissed at night, safely against the breasts of the woman you love, was a burning memory that enabled them to endure the unbearable.
It must have been so hard for them to comprehend that in such a beautiful place, there was the real possibility that its savage destruction, might be the last thing they saw. They must have imagined bringing their wives and girlfriends there one day, to see how stunning the views and vistas were. They also must have made promises to God, to never leaving home again, if they ever made it out of there alive. So many didn’t.
Of course I had thought about my grandfather as I was crossing the Atlantic; I was naively full of excitement for my adventure and ready to explore a country that had been in my imagination ever since my father, his son, had brought home from his Italy deployment, a set of Tuscan espresso cups and saucers when I was a child. With my first glimpse of the country, I suddenly realized that this trip was so much more than simply tracing my grandfather’s steps. It was connecting me to the people he had died for; to see the country he had died fighting to protect so that his own family would remain safe and untouched. Italy reached out and called to me before it embraced me.
Many emotions ran through me, gratitude being foremost. I was alive because he died. How many others were alive as well, because of the sacrifice of so many men who left their families, left their children, in order to protect them? I was filled with wonder at the beauty, appreciation of the rich history, awareness of how long man had been sculpting out their place in this country and I was inspired.
And I was heart broken for my Dad who never knew his fathers touch or experienced the love of the man who died defending his right to grow up in a free and democratic society; my sorrow was multiplied, my profound sense of loss was all encompassing seeing the distant evidence of men who never made it home. Knowing that one of those tiny white markers might be where my grandfather laid all alone for all these years and that it would be me, his oldest grand daughter, who would be the first person in his family, to ever visit his his grave. To mark his place in tears, as well as stone.