In my experience, children will look at Venetian art as long as you want them to if there’s a dead saint’s body involved and the promise of unlimited gelato.
Eight years before this bone-and-ice cream fantasy could come to fruition, I was lying in a Kansas hospital bed with a MRSA infection spreading across the abandoned cavity most recently occupied by my breasts. At 32, with small children, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of invasive lobular breast cancer. And because all that wasn’t enough fun for one calendar year, I also got divorced. Instead of focusing on my health, though, all I cared about was one utterly outlandish thing: Living long enough to take my children to Italy.
Seven years later, living in an apartment sandwiched between noisy college kids, I was no closer to this fanciful goal. We were living beneath the poverty line; how could I afford a trip to Italy?
When I returned to the Young Survivors support group every month, there was always another empty seat at the conference table. Moms just like me, even those who had passed that magic 5-year survival mark, were dying. It was clear I needed to take my children to Italy for their fill of arts and culture. Immediately.
It was always going to be Venice. I figure la Serenissima and I have a lot in common: We’ve both been invaded, scarred and conquered. And just like me, Venice is constantly wondering when her time will be up.
It takes me a solid year to save the extra money we need. I write book reviews for 11 publications, sell my collection of art books, clip coupons, save every penny of my tax refund. One week I review five books in five days, a new personal record, speed-reading the novels during school pickup, in the pediatrician’s office, during basketball practices. I scrawl my reviews longhand on the back of doctor’s bill envelopes, then transcribe my work into the computer late into the night once my kids are asleep.
I research the cheapest places to stay and find a convent with spartan rooms, no breakfast and a 10 p.m. curfew. We aren’t Catholic, but it’s the only place I can afford. When Alana, 14, and Miles, 10, finally kiss their father goodbye at the airport, sling their backpacks on and hold hands through security, I’ve calculated we have $27 a day for food.
Our morning routine is as follows: Argue bitterly until 8 a.m., leave the convent for the day by 8:30, then stop at the cappuccino-scented cafe next door for a glorious, chocolate-filled ciambella. We aren’t sleeping well; our cots are rock-hard and I’m pretty sure they’ve been in service since the First World War. The nuns, bless them, think we are lunatics. They are right.
This particular day, I have a half-dozen free activities mapped out. I’m careful to lay out my plans at the exact moment the children’s mouths are filled with pastry, to cut down on complaints. During morning briefings, I always lead with the saint whose remains they’ll spy that day through a centuries-old reliquary. Morbid? Maybe. But I know my audience.
“I’m starving!” Miles sobs as we round the bend to the next cafe displaying a bounty of pastry options. If Miles were telling this story, he would report he’s never received a solid meal in my care.
“Fine,” I sigh, realizing we’ve already dispensed with one-third of our daily allotment and it isn’t even 10 a.m. I turn my back on the kids to buy them a treat. When the cashier hands me my change, I spin around to find both kids have vanished.
Prickly heat spreads up my legs in panic before I spot them on their hands and knees, crawling across filthy pavestones. But why?
A Venetian matron is giving my children directions as she points to the ground. She’s in her 90s, her hair dyed the color of dried apricots. She wears a formal suit, carefully pressed, blue as a Canaletto sky.
“Her necklace broke!” Miles yells.
“Mommy, the pearls are everywhere!” Alana chimes in, her hand cupped with treasure like something you might see behind glass in the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s square.
My daughter empties her booty into the woman’s outstretched hand.
And then it’s Miles’s turn.
In his enthusiasm, a few pearls get stuck inside his clammy hand before bouncing back down to the cobblestones, rolling in every direction.
I reach inside my fanny pack to uncrumple the glassine bag from my first brioche of the day.
“Put them in here!”
The signora’s eyes are hidden behind enormous brown sunglasses, but she nods.
Hundreds of pearls are still in motion between people’s feet, escaping into tiny cracks. With her walking stick, the signora is pointing in the direction she came from, and it’s clear she has marked her path with a telltale track of freshwater bread crumbs.
Alana shoots me a proud smile as she adds her next handful to the signora’s crumpled bag.
“Grazie, grazie,” the old woman whispers, a faint smile finally appearing on her face. I feel panicky watching the kids growing grubby on their hands and knees. Miles beams up at me as he worries an entire row of trapped pearls out of a crevasse with someone’s discarded toothpick. I swear I was never one of those crazy germ-phobic moms until that MRSA infection tried to kill me. I force myself not to spoil the moment by pulling out my bottle of hand sanitizer.
“Le perle appartenevano a mia madre e mia nonna prima di lei,” the signora finally tells me, placing her ancient hand on my arm.
The pearls belonged to my mother, and my grandmother before her …
After the final pearl is recaptured, we are a trio again, continuing on toward the day’s promised saint. As we parted from the lovely old woman, her reserve melted suddenly as we said farewell. Without being asked, the children hugged her, and she kissed them goodbye.
“I was so proud of you two! That necklace has been in her family for generations.”
I want to remark upon how nice it is the woman wears her pearls as she goes about her daily life instead of just saving them for special occasions. Perhaps she realized the necklace should be enjoyed every day instead of being locked away. I want to tell these sweet kids what a great metaphor that is for life: bad things happen all the time. You can’t allow that to make you fearful. Things you treasure — pearls, breasts, a marriage — these things can disappear any time. All that matters is that you keep moving forward.
We stop beneath a madonella, a small shrine built into the corner of an old building. The outdoor altar displays a faded painting of the Virgin Mary, protected by curved glass fogged over with centuries of grime. Red wax from a long-extinguished prayer candle has melted into the cracks below.
I stop myself from turning this into a teachable moment. Besides, Alana is busy framing a picture in the viewfinder of her camera, humming to herself. Miles happily drums his hands on the ancient marble cistern in the middle of the piazza polished to a high gloss by decades of old men’s bottoms.
A part of me wants to lecture my children on the importance of doing everything in their power to survive, just as the city of Venice herself has managed to endure for so many centuries.
Still, I force myself to be silent.
I have the feeling they already know.
Andrea Hoag is a longtime book critic and 14-year breast cancer survivor in Lawrence, Kan., who has returned to Italy with her children a half-dozen times. Follow her adventures on Twitter at: @AndreaHoag