From the first time my older sister made a penny magically disappear before my 5-year-old eyes, I have been a believer in all things unbelievable. My need to experience life as mysterious and magical, full of meaningful coincidences, is compulsive. No matter how many times reality falls below those expectations, I never lose hope. I believe my hope was rewarded tenfold last summer on what I now refer to as my and my husband’s “magical mystery tour.”
This story goes back several generations to the small village of Mercenasco in northern Italy, a short distance from Turin. When I was 14, long after my grandparents had passed away, my parents took me with them on their first trip to Italy. Looking back, I nearly tremble when imagining how my parents must have felt as they walked the streets of Mercenasco, the very streets their own parents had walked years before. It was as close as they would ever come on this earth to touching their parents again.
When we arrived in Turin, our jaws dropped at what seemed a great coincidence — the first hotel we encountered was called Grande Albergo Fiorina (the Grand Hotel Fiorina), and “Fiorina” was my mother’s maiden name. The hand of destiny was obviously guiding us to stay at the hotel, which was located on one of Turin’s gracious piazzas.
That trip was the first of several I would make over the years to the land of my heritage and my heart. Yet, for one reason or another, I never made it back to Mercenasco. Last summer my husband planned a surprise trip to Europe to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, and he included a visit to my family in Mercenasco for the first time in nearly 45 years. I couldn’t have imagined a gift I needed more at the time. In the preceding 18 months I’d lost not only my mother but my sister as well. Losing them, in addition to my father some years earlier, had left me feeling rootless. My way of coping was to immerse myself in nostalgia, spending hours poring over old photo albums, reliving old times again and again. I was thrown just the lifeline I needed.
I felt my spirit beginning to revive the minute our plane touched down in Turin. As our car made the last turn into Mercenasco, memories began flooding my senses. The smell of the fruit market where I went shopping with my aunt. The cool air in the church where we lit candles. My heart beat faster with each corner we rounded until we arrived at my cousin’s house. I got out of the car and, with shaking hands and my pulse thundering in my ears, I reached out to ring her bell.
Her front door swung open wide and my nervousness instantly evaporated as more than four decades collided at once. As if by magic, I was suddenly staring into faces I’d not seen in so long but had remained a part of my heart. What a wondrous gift to spend the entire day in the company of my delightful cousins and my beautiful 96-year-old great-aunt — my Famiglia Italiana, my roots. The afternoon passed quickly, as two and three conversations at a time, punctuated by laughter and tears, filled the air. I began to understand how my parents must have felt on their first visit.
We spent the rest of the week enjoying Turin, completely entranced by its charm and grace. My only disappointment was that we couldn’t revisit the Grande Albergo Fiorina, as it had closed some time ago. I had been feeling that seeing it again would be a way to reconnect with my mom, to feel as if she were with me on this trip. Maybe it was time to make new memories.
And that’s just what we did. We explored almost every inch of Turin, each day falling more in love with it. We were struck by an especially elegant restaurant just around the corner from our hotel, so on our last evening we had dinner there — a sumptuous feast — and it was a perfect ending to a perfect week.
When we returned home from our trip, I dragged out the old photo albums to copy a few pictures from the 1971 trip to send to my cousins. When I opened one of the albums, a small brown paper bag I’d never seen before fell out. Looking inside, I found two postcards. The first one was covered in my mother’s handwriting. It was a postcard she had sent me from Italy on another trip she and my dad had taken. The message said, “Everyone in Mercenasco wants to know when you are coming back to visit. I told them I knew you would make it back here someday. Love, Mommy.”
I looked at the other postcard and thought my heart would stop — it was an old full-color postcard of the Grande Albergo Fiorina. Too stunned to move, I suddenly had a flash of recognition. I grabbed the postcard, ran downstairs for the camera, and quickly scrolled through all the photos we’d taken until I found it. I was holding identical images in my hands — the postcard of the Grande Albergo Fiorina and a digital photo of that elegant restaurant where we dined the last night in Turin. The restaurant occupied the first floor of the building that used to be the hotel!
In that moment I realized my mother had been with me the whole time. I could do little more than cry — tears of being lost and the joyous tears of being found, tears of gratitude for ties that transcend time and space, and, finally, tears of wonder at the magical mystery tour that is life.
About the author: Lee Gaitan is the author of My Pineapples Went to Houston, a very funny but inspiring romp through her life. The subhead says it all: Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry. Connect with her at www.leegaitan.com and on Facebook.