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Italy Roundtable: In Memoriam

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable touches on a sticky wicket of a topic, but will surely be well played by my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel,  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a cuppa, and join in on the conversation.

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Women in Italy

On May 5th, 2005 I came home from dinner at a pizzeria in Assisi to find two messages on my home answering machine (remember those?). The first was from my college roommate Susan, living in Asia at the time. “Hi! Listen, give me a call when you get in, okay?” she intoned. “Huh,” I thought happily, “She must be planning a visit. Strange she’d call rather than email, though.” The second message began and I heard the strained voice of my college roommate Pam coming through the line from New York. “Sweetie, call me.”

I didn’t call. I sat and stared at the phone for a good ten minutes, until my husband said, “Well, aren’t you going to call them back?” But I couldn’t pick up that phone–not yet–because there was only one reason that both Susie and Pam would call me. And that reason was our fourth roommate, my dear friend Nina. I knew that once I picked up the phone, once I dialed those numbers, once I heard what I already knew could be only terrible news, nothing would be the same again. So I froze time for those last moments of my girlhood, and then I dialed the phone and became a woman.

I was 22 years old when I moved to Italy, convinced of so many things—first among them my adulthood. I smile now with tender affection at that girl, little more than a child, playing at being a grown-up. So brash and brave and ready to conquer the world, so proud of her adolescent wounds and scars and heartache that she carried like medals of honor into battle, sure that she had weathered the worst and earned her stripes as a woman. So unaware that of all the accoutrements of adulthood—the jobs and marriages, the children and debt—it is, ultimately, loss that pushes us over the threshold.

Nina died at 34. She collapsed on her kitchen floor while making breakfast for her husband and two daughters from a blood clot in her lung. She was one of my closest friends—we lived together for most of college, stood up for each other in our respective weddings, one of her daughters’ middle names is Rebecca—and I would give anything to have her back, all gorgeous 6 feet of her, turning heads with her black hair and red shoes. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, spoke several languages (having majored in her first love, Italian), swore like a sailor, wrote the funniest letters in the history of the English language, gave a great manicure, and viscerally loathed cats, spiders, her brothers’ ex-girlfriends, dirty houses, superficiality, and pretence.

Her death has been both my life’s worst trauma and most precious gift. It marked the beginning of my life as an adult woman, because with it came grief, of course, but also a coming of age that only a loss of that measure can bring. Nina herself had told me this, having lost her mother in a tragic car accident shortly before her wedding in 1995. In one of our long talks during those hard first months, she said, “You know, Mom’s death has made me fearless. Once the worst has happened, you suddenly feel like you have the power to face anything. It’s like I’m a grown-up all of the sudden.”

With this adult awareness there comes both power and duty. I feel the responsibility every day to live my life with double the intensity and mindfulness. I try to savor each fairytale sunset twice as long, breathe in the scent of my sons’ hair twice as deep, laugh with my girlfriends twice as loud. I have–for some inscrutable and unjust reason–been granted a life where another’s has been taken, and so mine must count twice to make some sort of sense of the senselessness.

Last week marked eight years since Nina’s death–a moment and a lifetime—and in keeping with women in Italy it seemed fitting to pay homage to her, the friend whose life inspired me to move to Italy and the friend whose death pushed me to grow into a woman. On the 5th of May this year, like each of the past eight, I wore her favorite color (red) and choked down her favorite cocktail (Blue Hawaii, a drink I find so abhorrent that the bottle of Malibu I bought in her honor has lasted eight years) and renewed the pledge I made at her graveside all those years ago: to live my life fearlessly, like a grown-up. Like a woman. Like Nina.

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Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

3 Responses to “Italy Roundtable: In Memoriam”

  • Sweet and moving. Losing friends is horrible. A toast to Nina from us too. And a big big hug to you.

  • Jessica says:

    Rebecca, this is beautiful.

  • Anna says:

    Hmmm very true. Serious loss can catapult us into maturity, a state of being that understands and fiercely comes to appreciate the value of all that we have left. For me, it was the loss of my own physical abilities. But before that, it was having kids that gave me the deepest sense of what could potentially be the most devastating loss. Its strange that we have to suffer these losses to understand such a deep sense of beauty and love.

    Really appreciate your insights and the way you package them!

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