Jennifer Marra

My 25-year-old daughter Alexa and I stride through the cool night towards the Venice bus station. We keep to the main streets as we head further and further away from the city’s touristy parts. We’re on our way to meet Leah, two years younger, and her boyfriend, both traveling from the south of France. We’ll guide them back to our rented apartment where Alexa and I have dropped our things and stocked up on wine and other necessities.

My daughters have recently joined the workforce and live far from me and each other. I fret about how their newly established independence might alter our typically easy interactions full of silly jokes and laughter. We’re also being joined by Jeff, Leah’s boyfriend, which might affect our dynamic. I’m thrilled for this chance to get to know Jeff more, but change, even good, is unsettling.

We stop to cross a major artery and I notice a small head peeking out of Alexa’s windbreaker pocket. I gesture to it, eyebrows raised.

            “It’s Pellet. I found him at Dad’s when he packed up for the West Coast. He can be our trip mascot.”

            “Works for me.”

My concise reply belies my pleasure and amusement at this gesture. This particular Beanie Baby has a long history with us, and during this trip, I’m sure we’ll add to his story. I love a good running joke, and while my kids pretend to be merely tolerant of such things, I can tell they are amused most of the time. Which is as good as it gets with kids.  Alexa and I started the long walk across the city pretty high on our Day One accomplishments. We’ve taken a water taxi, grocery shopped, and my daughter’s been flirted with by handsome Italian men. We’re managing with some basic Italian I’ve learned for this trip and Alexa’s years of Spanish. Thirty minutes into our journey, however, we both start to flag, and our moods darken like the shops we walk past. The tension of navigating in a foreign city, a busy day, and the sleepless overnight flight has caught up with us. I’m certain we’ll find Leah and Jeff in similar shape. Due to a French rail strike, they’ve had to take a twelve-hour bus ride, which can’t be pleasant.

“Why don’t Jeff and Leah walk to the apartment on their own? We found it easily enough.”

I get her point, but the reality is we’re on our way, so we might as well continue. In response to her question, I shrug. Alexa lets it go, for which I’m grateful. It’s after midnight by now, and I don’t want to get into some long discussion, which will undoubtedly lead to Alexa pointing out how I favor her sister.

We make our final turn and scuttle down a narrow sidewalk along seemingly abandoned railroad tracks. The streetlights are spaced at such an interval to plunge us into darkness when we reach the midway point between them. I can sense my daughter’s discomfort ebb and flow in sync with the level of light.

My worries about this trip keep coming back like a friend’s unwelcome cat looking for a warm lap. Now isn’t the time for analysis, but I can’t help myself. I realize, not for the first time, I’m better one on one with my children. In that configuration, I can adapt to the style of the one I’m with. It helps to avoid conflict, which is my modus operandi in family matters.

As we approach the bus station, which isn’t a building at all but a loop in the road with a small sign, we don’t see anyone. If during the vacation I need to dump a body, I think I’ve found my spot. There are no benches, and the ground looks cool, damp, and uninviting. Finally, other people show up. They’re all young folks with backpacks and look as ragtag as we feel. The group of us circle the lone streetlight like moths.

A half-hour late, the bus comes, and with it, our weary travelers. Alexa and I take their day packs, and Jeff and Leah strap their larger luggage on their backs. We trudge back up the steep hill along the tracks. The girls start to compete about whose more tired. Just when the bickering is unbearable, all of two minutes, we come across a bar. Though it’s near closing time, they serve us wine, bread, and cheese. Leah goes to the restroom. When she returns, Pellet has his small paws wrapped around her wine glass. Everyone laughs, and my shoulders retreat from my ears.

Photo by Jennifer Marra

The year Alexa entered second grade and Leah started Kindergarten, their father and I separated. We’d failed to create a relationship that would survive the stress of two careers and young children. I moved out in search of a simpler life and consciously worked to create new routines for family life, which included play and laughter.

The girls had equal amounts of time with each parent, but the lifestyle at each home couldn’t have been more different.  Their Dad’s household included plenty of space, not to mention separate bedrooms for each child, filled with televisions, X-boxes, and computers. At the same time, my rented cottage had only a shared computer, books, and a dollhouse to occupy them. Inadequate doesn’t come close to describing how I felt.

My ex and I also established diametrically opposed routines and styles with the children, perhaps akin to same-sex twins looking to differentiate from their sibling.  When at his house, they stayed home more often than not, and he guided them through life with a quiet presence.  When at my house, we were out: doing errands, going to the library, and otherwise killing time while I kept a steady stream of chatter to avoid inevitable questions from the girls on why we were no longer an intact family.

While doing errands, which we called ‘adventures of the mundane,’ we used code names to add an element of fun and intrigue. Initially, the girls’ pseudonyms changed with each outing but eventually, they settled on Alexa being called Lulli and Leah becoming Kandikan. As time passed, their alter egos would gain histories, and our combined narrative would become increasingly complex. Lulli traveled a great deal, mostly to Asia, and Kandikan was a writer and would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize.

I was always Tania, a nod to Patty Hearst’s assumed name while in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). As a teen, I was fascinated by her story and scoured the newspaper daily for information on her kidnapping and involvement in crimes perpetrated by the SLA. The speculation that she’d developed Stockholm Syndrome, a condition where a victim starts to identify and support their captor’s cause, especially intrigued me. The reality of Patty Hearst’s existence was horrible. Still, I remember feeling a pang of cult envy for her new existence with well-defined beliefs, understood practices, and a clear path forward.

On our first full day together in Italy, the four of us establish a walking hierarchy where Alexa and I lag behind Leah and Jeff. They’re traveling in Europe for the summer following their college graduation and have been on the road for a few weeks when we converge in Venice. Their position in front speaks to their newly formed expertise in using cash machines, the rail system, and Google Translate. Bringing up the rear might imply lesser responsibilities, but my role as a mother trumps my team position. I’ll cover costs during our time together and sort out a wide variety of critical issues, from how to pay for produce at a grocery store to finding the closest bathroom. Really, no different than at home.

As we wind our way through twisty streets towards the Grand Canal, Alexa says, “Let’s pretend we’re being held prisoner. I’ve got Stockholm Syndrome, but you don’t.” This is something we do in our family; we make up scenarios in which we have leading roles. I agree, and we pick up the pace to keep our faux captors in sight.

Leah and Jeff stop at the top of a small bridge to photograph the gondolas. They sip water from the eco-friendly metal bottle Leah’s brought from California and is never without.

            “Hi, friends,” Alexa says when we catch up.

            “Well played,” I comment and laugh.

Alexa explains the joke to Jeff who shakes his head albeit smiling. Jeff and Alexa slather sunscreen onto freckled skin which accompanies their red hair. Leah coats her porcelain skin complimenting her dark hair and blue eyes. As for me, I put a dab of lotion on my nose; my olive skin is already deeply brown by June.

Photo by Jennifer Marra

Days later, our foursome is hiking in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. We pick our way along the narrow and rugged trails descending gently towards the Mediterranean, where we’ll swim and wash away the dust of the hike. We marvel at the pastel buildings nestled into the cliffs, the hidden coves where people sunbathe, and the outdoor restaurants serving the freshest fish and local wines. We’ve traveled by bus from our home base of Florence, where the art is beautiful, but the city’s buildings are heavy and oppressive. This day trip is reviving us and stretching our legs literally and figuratively. I’m happy to note my adult children, like me, are huffing and puffing a bit.

We reach the town of Riomaggiore; a quintessential Italian village tucked in the rugged hillside. Leah grabs Pellet and we take photos of and with him against the backdrop of an ornate fountain in the town’s center. After our long day, we return to the flat in Florence.

Alexa and I sit on the balcony and polish off a bottle of wine long after Leah and Jeff have retired for the night. Alexa lays the empty on its side next to a prone Pellet on the coffee table. A twist tie around his upper arm and nearby spoon complete the scene of his debauchery.

In the morning, Leah laments how far Pellet has fallen from sobriety. Leah undoes the makeshift tourniquet and gets supplies out of the frig for breakfast.
            “Remember when Pellet was protesting Barbie Air?”

Jeff looks up from his job assembling the metal percolator we’ve learned how to use for coffee.

“I don’t think I know this one,” he says.

Alexa, previously prone on the couch, hops to her feet.

  “Let me tell it. This was just before our parents separated. I’d gotten the Barbie jet for Christmas. It was all I wanted. It was bright pink and huge.” She spreads her hands about three feet apart for emphasis. “The top could open up, and my Barbies could sit in the seats.”

I can’t help but join in.

“The best part was the service cart. It came fully equipped with snacks and drinks.”

“Leah wanted Pellet to be a flight attendant,” Alexa continues. “But he was too big and kept knocking over the tiny sodas and food trays. The Barbie passengers weren’t happy, as you can imagine. I said Pellet couldn’t play.”

I butt in again.

“I took Leah upstairs to avoid a battle, and we found a role for Pellet. We created a sign for him on an index card, stabbed it with a pencil, and taped the writing implement to his paw so it wouldn’t fall off when he picketed.”

“Really?” Jeff says looking to Leah for confirmation.

“Oh, yeah, really. You’ve got no idea what it was like. I was maybe five when this all happened. I got a quick education on nonviolent protests, and downstairs we went. Alexa had the airplane ready for takeoff pushing it along a pretend runway. Pellet marched back and forth in front of the jet, preventing it from making an on-time departure, chanting,… well, I chanted… ‘Barbie Air, no fair, Barbie Air, no fair.’ I can’t imagine that was what Mattel had in mind for how children would play with the toy airplane.” “We mostly went hiking,” Jeff says of his family.

Photo by Jennifer Marra

Early on during our time in Italy, I note a power struggle among us three women. Both girls are adults living on their own now, and I understand they want to show me how skilled they are at handling life. Recently taking a buy-out from work and getting to middle-age, I now understand what women mean when they say they’ve become invisible. These positions lead to one or more of us feeling disenfranchised at any time.

One night we’re having drinks, likely too many after not enough food and a day of walking ten miles or more. I feel like my opinions are being discarded as not thoughtful or progressive enough. Making matters worse all day I’ve felt ignored, except when requested to solve a difficult issue or pay for something, and I’m weary.

I really want to leave them to their own at the bar, but I sense they know they’ve been unkind and want me to stay. Finally, in frustration my eyes tear up, and they’re shocked at how personally I’ve taken the discussion. We all leave. Alexa and I take the lead, and I vent my general unhappiness and a particular annoyance. I tell her I’m happy to bankroll our trip, but after days of museums, food, and drink, I’ve noticed neither Jeff nor Leah has said ‘thank you.’

When we’re all back in the apartment, we retreat to our devices. Then Alexa takes Leah into the bedroom she shares with me. When I look in on my way to the bathroom, both girls are crying. Jeff and I watch Italian TV and make up ridiculous dialogue. Time passes. Finally, the girls return. Now Leah takes Jeff into their bedroom, and Alexa tells me she’s talked to Leah about gratitude and respect. Leah and Jeff return, apologize for not saying thank you and retire to bed. It’s clear to me no one feels better after all the discussion.

Alexa goes off to bed, and I try to read but am distracted. I lay on the couch and think about the events of the trip thus far. I reflect on Leah’s hellacious journey to reach us from France and her willingness to take time out from her trip with Jeff to spend these two weeks with family. I think about Alexa watching out for me when I felt unappreciated. I see the girls growing and trying on new roles as they mature and realize I need to make sure I’m evolving with them. I begin to feel it was me who was out of line and plan to apologize in the morning.

I drift off to sleep and wake up under a blanket with Pellet tucked into the crook of my arm. The kids emerge; Jeff works the percolator, and Leah makes an omelet. We’re back on track. 

On our final morning, Alexa insists on walking Leah and Jeff to the train station where they’ll depart for Rome. This means a longer schlep for us with our luggage, but I agree readily. 

As Alexa hugs her sister goodbye, I see her tuck Pellet into the outside pocket of Leah’s pack. I watch Leah and Jeff march off, marveling at their spirit and independence. I’m once again grateful to Leah for the chance to travel together.

Alexa and I head back across the city and catch a city bus. I watch her from a few rows back as she sits amid the local Venetians headed out of town. She gazes out the window, self-possessed and looking happy. I’m full of pride for this wonderful girl who taught me so much during this trip.

During the flight home, I reflect again on our time in Italy while Alexa sleeps. While I didn’t relish the conflict and confrontation, it was inevitable. Conflict rises from change, and while the sentiment might be clichéd, change is the only constant in life. It pleases me how we all reacted. My fears from earlier proved unfounded. Our ‘go-to’ coping mechanism of humor is intact, flourishing even. I continue to sort through my emotions as Alexa snoozes on; happy, grateful, proud. I think about what I’ll say to her when she wakes. It occurs to me I don’t need to tell her; she already knows. I pull her blanket up around her shoulders and lean my head back to join her in sleep.

BIO: Jennifer Marra is a lapsed electrical engineer. Her explorations in creative nonfiction are more fact-based than her previous project plans and budgets and certainly more fun to write and hopefully read. She lives with her husband and two cats following the defection of their grown children.

Main photo: Pixabay from Pexels

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