It was a sunny Saturday in April 2017, but my grandmother’s house was dark. She was alone — chain-smoking in her dusty living room in Sao Carlos, Brazil, tan curtains drawn over the windows to better see the TV commentators rant over the state of the country — when the phone rang. “I’ve been looking for you for decades,” the man on the other end of the line whispered in Italian. “You were my ﬁrst love.”
It had been more than six decades since my grandmother had heard the voice of Aldo Sportelli, now 82. She pictured his youthful face and wondered what he looked like on the other end of the phone. Aldo’s voice trembled as he recalled the last time he saw her, speeding away from him on a train in southern Italy. Their stunted teenage romance left a mark on him, and he had spent years unsuccessfully trying to track her down.
For 10 minutes they caught each other up on how their lives had unfolded — both married for half a century, my grandmother widowed, Aldo’s wife in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, kids, grandkids, careers — and of course they spoke of Polignano a Mare, the town where it all began.
“I couldn’t believe it,” my grandmother told me over the phone that day. “You just don’t think this type of thing will ever happen to you.”
In 1951, when my grandmother, Marilena, was 15, she set off on her greatest adventure: a year-long trip to Italy with her grandparents. Her grandfather, Antonio Lerario, was an illiterate fisherman who, in 1885 at the age of 13, had left Italy for Brazil as a stowaway, his bed a sack of potatoes at the bottom of a ship. He joined thousands of Italian immigrants in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s seedy industrial capital, where he slept under bridges and sold bags of rice on the street.
He eventually saved enough money to open his own warehouse and went on to create a multimillion-dollar cereal empire. His rags-to-riches rise became core to his identity: It was a story he would repeatedly recount throughout his life and even on his grave — the fruit of decades of planning — which featured a sequence of scenes that traced his unlikely ascent on bronze tablets.
After the end of World War II, he decided to return to Italy on a victory lap and invited Marilena, his Brazilian-born eldest granddaughter, to skip school that year and come along. In April 1951, the SS Conte Biancamano, an Italian ocean liner, departed the Brazilian port of Santos to carry 1,600 passengers across the Atlantic.
The 14-day journey — my grandmother’s first outside Brazil — marked her society debut. To prepare, she ordered dozens of dresses, plumped with tulle and showered with rhinestones. Guests aboard the ship changed outfits three times a day. Dinner was a black-tie event, and women would descend into the dining room wearing their best furs. She was the youngest passenger in first class, which included counts, members of the Brazilian aristocracy and the archbishop of Rio de Janeiro. “It was all new to me,” she recalls. “It was all marvelous.”
After two weeks crossing the Atlantic, the ship docked in Genoa. Marilena and her grandparents took a train to Puglia, the heel of the boot, where they found a country struggling to piece itself together. World War II had been over for six years, but destruction lingered. A castle at the edge of town still had blood stains seeped into the walls.
The rubble, though, could not dampen the bleached beauty of Polignano a Mare, her grandfather’s hometown. The village is perched on hulking limestone cliffs on the edge of the sea. As a boy, Antonio would rise early to help his father catch fish and octopuses, slapping them into buckets and shaking them until they gave up their ink. They lived in a simple stone house in the center of town. But now, as a returning rice tycoon, Antonio and his family would stay in the most famous hotel in the region: the Grotta Palazzese.
The hotel was three stories, with a terrace facing the sea. But its real gem lay 30 feet below. Underneath the hotel, scooped into a cliff, was a vast cave, lined with wooden planks that held a luxury restaurant. Visitors from around the world came to dine.
Marilena, who spent her days people-watching from the hotel terrace, was never allowed into the cave. After catching some local businessmen ogling her from the restaurant, her grandmother started shooing her to the kitchen as soon as the lunch rush began. Even at 15 she exuded the kind of aloof, effortless glamour of a Hollywood movie star. Dark, pinned curls framed her face. She had heart-shaped lips, a dainty nose and a curious smile. Svelte with a tiny waist, she made any outfit look good.
Sequestered in the kitchen, she proved useful by helping the family who ran the hotel prepare meals. While slicing onions and peeling garlic, she picked up Italian and got to know the Sportellis.
Aldo Sportelli, two years her senior, was smitten. Lanky, with a shy smile, he would hang around the kitchen when he came home from school. “Ours was a relationship of kids,” Aldo would tell me. “It was my first infatuation.” They spoke about their lives, their plans for the future. He wanted to become an engineer. She had no idea what awaited her when she returned to Brazil.
After school, Aldo balanced trays and served the glamorous patrons in the restaurant; my grandmother spent her nights listening as the music from the parties in the cave below lofted in the wind. Every now and then, Aldo joined her on the terrace to watch the sun set over the Adriatic, always under the watchful eye of a family member.
As her year in Italy drew to a close, Aldo decided to make his move. One day, as she was going down the stairs to the kitchen, he went in for a kiss. Unsure of what to do, she slipped out of his embrace and rushed away.
My grandmother’s family was not happy with the budding romance. For a fisherman turned cereal magnate, the son of a hotel owner was not what he had in mind for the family heiress. Aldo’s mother eventually sat him down and told him the social distances between him and Marilena were too large to bridge. “At that time, I thought they were right,” Aldo recalls.
The two continued an awkward but flirty relationship over her last few weeks at the hotel. Before she left, she asked him to sign a keepsake memory book for her. He sketched her face and wrote, “Marilena, if you allow it, a friendship can be an enduring bond. Will it be that way with us? I hope so.”
When it came time for her to leave, he went to the station and watched as the train pulled away. It was one of the saddest moments of his life, Aldo says. He waited until it disappeared into the horizon before turning around.
My grandmother went to Italy a girl and returned to Brazil a woman. Her skirts clung tighter on newly developed curves, she wore silk stockings, her lips were colored red and her eyes made up. In her trunk on her way home, she packed her very first pair of high heels.
In college, she met my grandfather. He was the president of the student center where she spent her days surrounded by friends, playing guitar. By 1969, she was married with four children in tow. Her marriage was a happy one, but my grandfather’s jealousy somewhat contained her curiosity about the world. He discouraged her from playing guitar, lest it draw unwanted attention. It sat unused in a cupboard until she eventually gave it away. When they ate at restaurants, she faced the back to avoid other patrons’ wandering eyes.
Shortly after my grandparents got married, they moved three hours away from Sao Paulo to a town in southern Brazil, where my grandmother found the conversation boring and the people tedious. My grandfather enjoyed small-town life, but my grandmother struggled to adjust. After he died, she gave up on the few friendships she had, preferring to spend half the year with my mother in the United States.
When she heard Aldo’s voice on the other end of the line that day in April, she had been married for 52 years and widowed for four. She didn’t know it yet, but one last adventure awaited her.
While my grandmother became a housewife and mother, Aldo Sportelli did as he planned and studied engineering. For most of his career, he would work on urban planning for local communities. In 1959 he met Beatrice, a friend of a friend, at a party. He married late, at 35. They had two children, Vito and Sabrina.
For decades Beatrice suffered from depression, and the marriage was hard on Aldo. Their circle of friends was small, and they rarely traveled outside Polignano. After his mother died in 1995, he was filing through letters she left behind when he came across a familiar face in a white wedding dress: his beloved Marilena, on another man’s arms. Her grandmother must have sent her wedding photo to the Sportellis.
“I thought, ‘Where is she? What did she do? How is her life?’ ” he recalls. “The thought that I would never again be able to hear from the young girl who captured my boyhood heart tormented me.” And so began his search.
Aldo tried to reach the photographer who had taken the wedding photo, but he was long dead. Eventually, he came across an address under her name, but it was for a warehouse that had been passed down to her with no listed phone number. He emailed the mayor’s office of Sao Paulo, asking for information on a Marilena Lerario. “We’re a city of 12 million people,” Aldo said he was told. “We can’t help you.”
Meanwhile, in 2012, Beatrice was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The Alzheimer’s progressed quickly. She eventually barely recognized her children, and any emotional connection she maintained with Aldo and her kids dissolved.
Aldo dedicated his days to making sure Beatrice had what she needed, as her health deteriorated further. She refused at-home care from nurses and relied solely on him for her every need. He had only a few hours a day to himself, when she was sleeping and he could call a caretaker to watch her as he ran quick errands.
Finally, two decades after he started his search, he contacted the daughter of an old family friend who worked at the Brazilian tax authority, and she agreed to help. She found Marilena, who now went by her married name, and passed him her phone number. When Aldo phoned Marilena, it had been nearly a year since his wife had spoken a word. “I never forgot you,” he told her on the phone that afternoon. My grandmother was speechless.
The next day, Aldo called again. He wanted to know more. What did her children do? What were her days like? “I don’t even know what he looks like, and we are talking every day,” my grandmother said to me that week on the phone. The problem rung familiar to my millennial ears. “Let’s look him up on Facebook,” I suggested.
Sure enough, Aldo Sportelli, at 82, had a Facebook account. My grandmother used Facebook mainly to share political ramblings from dubious sources and was shocked when, with the jab of a few keys, I pulled up Aldo’s photo. Looking dignified sitting in a mahogany chair, wearing a red tie, he had white hair but the same sad eyes and shy smile he had at 17. “He’s handsome,” my grandmother said when I showed her the photo.
When Aldo called again, she asked him to write her a detailed letter about his life. He scoffed at the idea. “Nobody writes letters anymore!”
So I suggested the most modern communication I could think of: a video chat. My grandmother had never done anything like it, but I promised to help with the logistics. The following weekend I went to her house for a family get-together and messaged Aldo to arrange the call. My family gathered around the living room, eager to catch a glimpse of him, the man my grandmother wouldn’t stop talking about, as the phone rang.
There was Aldo, in a blue sweatshirt, sunglasses slung around his neck, beaming. “You didn’t use to be blond!” he said. My grandmother burst into giggles.
Aldo kept calling. Week after week he wanted to know how she was. He reassured her before she had surgery to remove a tumor and wanted to know how she felt when she came back from the hospital. “Have a safe trip!” he would say before she traveled to see my mother in Miami. “Let me know when you get there.”
“It is nice to have someone care about me again,” my grandmother told me. “On the days he doesn’t call, you know I actually miss him?”
The messages soon grew rosier: heart emoji and photos of flowers. “For when you wake up: Good morning,” he messaged once, when it was daytime in Italy but still dark in Brazil.
My grandmother, who had spent the past few years shutting herself off from the world, came back to life. On their calls, her Italian flowed as though she had never stopped speaking it. She began dressing up for their virtual dates, putting on lipstick and fixing her hair. “Poor old man,” she would say, as she excused herself from the family to talk to him yet again. “He has nobody.”
In March 2018, it was Women’s Day in Italy. Aldo painted Marilena’s name in blue on the trunk of a blooming tree in his backyard. “Most men give their women flowers,” messaged Aldo. “I got you a whole tree.”
Marilena became the talk of the town. At parties, other widows and family acquaintances would pull me aside and say with a smirk, “I heard about your grandmother!” Her friends would tell the tale to anyone who would listen. The hairdresser, distant relatives — all knew the story about my grandmother and her Italian boyfriend.
The new romance split my family. My uncles were protective and wondered what his real interests were. But my mother was thrilled. “We have to take you back to Polignano!” she said. My dad agreed. My grandmother, however, rejected the idea. “He has a wife!” she would remind us, laughing the whole thing off. Still, my mother was persistent. Soon, Marilena called Aldo with the news. “We’ll be there for two weeks in September,” she said. Aldo agreed she should come but said he was anxious. “I still haven’t forgotten the first goodbye,” he told her.
In September, my grandmother landed in Bari, nervous but smiling, accompanied by my mother, my dad, my aunt (her eldest daughter) and me. She wore a festive purple-and-white flowery shirt and matching eye shadow. In one hand, she clutched her iPhone. In the other, she held a present for Aldo, wrapped in blue ribbon.
Aldo had agreed to meet us on the road to Polignano. But when my grandmother called to tell him she had arrived, he had bad news: He couldn’t find anyone to care for his wife. She had taken a turn for the worse right before we arrived and had refused food for 10 days. He apologized and asked to meet in the morning.
“Don’t worry, I’ll see you tomorrow,” my grandmother said quickly. She hung up and tried to play down her disappointment. “It’s better this way. It would have been too hurried to meet up for two minutes.” But in her distress she soon started to question the whole trip. “Why do these things happen to me, even in my old age?” she asked, marching straight outside and lighting a cigarette.
“He asked me if I smoke,” said my grandmother, who has smoked a pack a day for as long as I can remember. “I said no. He hates smoking.” She packed mouthwash in her purse to hide the habit. “My boyfriend jilted me, so I deserve a cigarette,” she said, and laughed.
When we arrived at the hotel, a bouquet of pink roses was waiting for her. “Welcome to your hometown,” Aldo had written on the card. “I hope you don’t wait another 68 years to return.”
Don’t make it too big,” my grandmother yelled at my mother through a cloud of hair spray. She woke up early to get ready for their meeting, and her hair had become a focal point. “It’s not me,” she declared after seeing herself in the mirror. “I want to look like myself.”
Defeated, my mother went back to work, teasing the stiff curls lose. “How do I look? Do you like these sunglasses?” my grandmother asked. “They were popular in the ’80s.” After one last cigarette, she was ready.
We drove past miles of twisted olive groves as my grandmother fixed her shoulder pads and sighed. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? An old lady, seeing an old man,” she said. “I don’t know. The good thing is, I know through FaceTime he’s got teeth and he isn’t bald. He’s got such a great mind. He’s so cultured. He talks about the dukes and the counts, the owners of the city. The guy’s intelligent. He has a great memory.”
Aldo asked us to meet him at the church of San Vito, where Mass would soon be starting. The church resembled a stone fortress, with a bell tower rising over Corinthian arches overlooking the Adriatic.
When we pulled up to the entrance I spotted him. His back was curved, and with a cane in one hand, he clung to the arm of a younger woman I assumed was his daughter. I jumped out of the car. “Aldo? It’s so nice to meet you!” The man nodded and smiled weakly. I peppered him with questions in pieced-together Italian and said my grandmother would be out of the car soon. “I’m sorry, I think you are looking for someone else,” the woman next to him finally said. I was harassing the wrong old man.
Across the parking lot, leaning against his car, the real Aldo was waiting. With sky-blue eyes hiding behind silver Ray-Ban sunglasses, slicked-back hair and a tan jacket hanging loosely around his shoulders, he was as cool an octogenarian as I’ve seen. When my grandmother saw him, she leaped out of the car and walked toward him, her arms open. “So beautiful,” he said, trembling as he hugged her. She blushed and introduced him to the family. “It’s a historic moment, a miracle,” he announced.
We walked past iron gates and through the silent patio toward the chapel. Aldo held her hand in his. Both of them wore their wedding rings and matching hematomas. He helped her across the stone path to a set of wooden doors. As he opened them, light flooded the windowless chamber and revealed some 60 parishioners staring back at us. My grandmother let go of his hand immediately. He walked in to find her a chair, and we stood in the back as the town’s congregation tried to make sense of the family of strangers walking in late to Mass.
A devout Catholic, my grandmother has been trying to get the rest of the family to church for decades. “He’s very religious,” she said with a smile, as Aldo mumbled the Apostles’ Creed in Italian and she did the same in Portuguese. When it came time for the traditional peace offering, he held her hand again, but she pulled it away after a few seconds. She had been waiting for this moment for months, but the sudden audience made her nervous. Here she was, the other woman. What would this do to his reputation, my grandmother wondered.
After Mass, we lingered outside, reluctant to say goodbye. My grandmother handed him two gift bags. He opened one to reveal a new iPhone — his was old and always cutting out in the middle of their conversations. “And this one is for Beatrice,” she said, pointing to the second gift. He opened it to find a gray shawl. Aldo stared at my grandmother for a long time, tearing up and mouthing, “Thank you.”
We asked him out for lunch, but he said he had to go home and relieve the housekeeper who was watching his wife. So we went back to the hotel, and my grandmother sat in the living room, waiting to finally be alone with Aldo where they felt most comfortable: on the phone. And sure enough, as the sun was setting that evening, he called. My grandmother told him about her day, but it was as if an ocean still separated them.
By the time she hung up, she seemed to have finally grasped Aldo’s reality. They were both healthy, of sound mind and nearing the final years of their lives. Surely this was their last chance at romance. But while my grandmother was a free woman, with nothing binding her to Brazil, Aldo’s past still gripped him. His marriage, a forgettable detail while on the phone, was proving a more formidable obstacle in person. “Sixty-eight years is too long,” my grandmother concluded. “A whole life passed for him, and I didn’t even see it happen, because I was on the other side of the world.”
Aldo, who preferred writing his feelings to saying them out loud, sent her a message late that night reflecting on their encounter. “There we were, you and I, as if we had been good friends for 68 years, helping each other in sorrow and rejoicing together in joy,” he wrote. “I thank God for allowing me the chance to be with you, be it for a gust of wind.”
Over the next few days my grandmother and Aldo would meet for coffee daily, during the few hours he could get out of the house. My grandmother always made it a point not to text him first. When she did text him, she would run the messages by us to make sure they didn’t look too desperate.
Inevitably, though, Aldo would arrange a get-together. “This is inconvenient, having to ask you to drive me to see him,” my grandmother complained to my dad. “Marilena, how many times did you take me to the movies with your daughter?” he asked, referencing his teenage courtship with my mother. “Life takes turns.”
“Maybe I’ll just wait and see him in paradise,” she responded.
“You’re being optimistic,” my dad said.
But when they did get together, my grandmother refused to be alone with him. “What would people think if they saw us together?” she said. “It looks bad.” At first I laughed this off as an antiquated sense of modesty. But as the days went on, everywhere we went Aldo seemed to run into a different acquaintance.
“Aldo Sportelli!” a friend would shout from across the street, making my grandmother cringe. “Who are they?” waiters would ask, looking at us, as Aldo paid the bill. “Friends,” he would reply curtly.
On one of their chaperoned dates, he brought his daughter and grandson. I was worried about what they would think of my grandmother, but all anxiety disappeared when we saw them across the parking lot. Tall, tan and blond, with her father’s eyes, Sabrina, Aldo’s daughter, immediately pulled my grandmother into a tight hug. My grandmother had brought her a necklace, which she put on right away. “Give Grandma Marilena a hug,” Sabrina told Giorgio, her 12-year-old son. He did and tagged along as we went for coffee in a cafe on the outskirts of town, with photos of Bob Marley and Amy Winehouse on the walls.
They traded information about members of Sabrina’s family whom my grandmother knew in their youth but Sabrina had only met in their final years. They joked about Aldo’s mother’s famous marmalade pies. “It’s been a gift for Dad,” Sabrina said when I asked how she felt about their relationship later that day as she gave us a ride back to the hotel. “It’s a very happy thing. He’s a victim of Mother’s condition.”
“But now he has a distraction, he has company,” she told my grandmother. “You make him happy.”
“I feel as though we’ve been living next to each other this whole time, on two contiguous, parallel roads with a single breath, meeting each other at the end of our earthly passage,” Aldo wrote to me a few days into the trip. “Your grandma and I have pre-established paths. We have before us duties of responsibility. We cannot want things that will take us off track. But, you see, while we fulfill these duties, it is nice to hold the hand of those who are next to us on the path of life. And that hand can sometimes start a video chat.”
One morning, Aldo organized a boat to take us on a tour of the grottoes beneath the town. He had to stay back, since there was nobody to watch his wife, who was sleeping erratically and kept him up at night. Instead, Giorgio and Sabrina joined us. Giorgio sat at the front of the boat next to my grandmother, pointing out the sites.
A recent environmental law made it illegal for ships to tour the grottoes, but the boat captains were happy to dip in and out when the coast guard wasn’t looking. Giorgio joined us as we jumped into the chilly water, and Sabrina stayed aboard, joking with my parents in a mix of Portuguese and Italian.
When we weren’t with Aldo and his family, my grandmother wanted to explore Polignano. It was still a charming hamlet with narrow limestone streets leading to scenic outposts overlooking the sea. But much had changed since her last visit. Polignano was no longer a beautiful, bombed-out secret hidden among the tangled olive trees of southern Italy. Red Bull had chosen Polignano as the site for its annual cliff-diving competition, which brought the town international attention. It was now overrun with impatient tourists trying to fit its beauty into manicured Instagram shots.
In fact, evidence of globalization was everywhere. African migrants sold plastic hats made in China on street corners, and a marijuana smoke shop had opened next to the hotel where my grandmother had met Aldo. A sign in the town square read “Respect Our Town” in English.
For Aldo, Polignano had become a minefield of bitter memories. Twenty years ago, a financial dispute led his family to sell the hotel his mother had slaved over. He never stepped foot in there again. A giant crane now covered the hotel’s facade. It was undergoing renovations to accommodate the influx of tourists. But the restaurant in the cave was still operating, and my grandmother, who was allowed to watch guests dine there only from a distance at 15, wanted to see it up close.
On one of our lasts nights in Polignano, my grandmother descended the 60 steps into the cave for dinner. When we emerged onto the wooden deck, the view took my breath away. We were suspended some 30 feet above the sea, as waves thrashed against the rocks below, flooding the cave before gently retreating. The emerald water’s reflection danced against the limestone dome of the cave, painting everything green. Inside, a saxophonist’s mellow tunes rang off the dome’s walls.
It was the most romantic place I had ever seen. And my grandmother was there alone, as Aldo had refused to come. He told her on the phone before she arrived that he couldn’t go back there — the memories were too painful. She respected his decision and went without him.
My grandmother looked up at the marble balcony, where so many years ago she had watched, entranced by the men and women dancing on the deck where she now stood. “Isn’t it amazing?” she said, gazing out at the sea. “Only nature knows how many millions of years this has been here.”
The next day, at another coffee shop, my grandmother told Aldo, “Now I understand why you didn’t want to come to dinner yesterday.” It was their last date before we were set to leave. “I was filled with immense nostalgia for the hotel. When I looked back at the grotto, I felt something.” She placed her hand on her heart. “It’s a singular place.”
Aldo nodded sadly. “It’s beautiful.”
He pulled out a family photo from 1934, and my grandmother studied it. “I met every single one of them,” she said. “We’ve had this shared life together. Isn’t that crazy?” Aldo caught her up on the rest of the family members and what happened to each person in the photo, all of whom had died long ago.
“When do you leave?” he asked as he poured sugar into her coffee.
“Tomorrow,” she said. They both anxiously checked their watches. They still had 40 minutes before he had to head home. After chaperoning every moment they spent together, I got up and left my grandmother alone to enjoy the last moments of her last date.
On our final morning, our bags packed, my grandmother stood at the gate of the hotel, clutching her iPhone and sighing periodically, looking for signs of Aldo. Finally, Aldo, Sabrina and Giorgio pulled up the driveway. The conversation turned to politics, corruption in Italy and in Brazil, and my parents invited Giorgio to visit them in Miami. As my grandmother poured sugar packets into her coffee, Aldo warned: “Not too much.”
“Just two,” she said. They both laughed.
We thanked Aldo and his family for their hospitality and for making my grandmother so happy. “Our family will be an extension of yours,” my dad said.
We walked them out, and I was surprised to see tears running down Sabrina’s face. “Take care of him,” my grandmother said, hugging her. Sabrina nodded, sobbing. Aldo took my grandmother’s hand in his. “Now, I will do the hardest thing: Turn around and walk away,” he said. But my grandmother didn’t allow herself to indulge in the finality of the moment. She gave him one last hug, and, as we walked away, she held up her phone and said: “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Marina Lopes is The Washington Post’s Brazil correspondent. She lives in Sao Paulo.