In 1998, I went to Italy with my friend Donna and her mom, Sue. We rented a car at the airport in Florence; Sue and Donna took turns at the wheel and I sat in the back seat, timid and amazed. We drove around Tuscany, staying here and there in small hotels and a bed and breakfast place, eventually making our way south to Rome and Naples. It was April, and it rained almost daily. (The Italians kept apologizing for the weather.) We got lost and confused a couple of times, and once Sue drove us up what were essentially stairs at the end of a narrow alleyway. We learned to read road signs and say mi dispiace.
In addition to exploring, Sue liked to shop, and she encouraged Donna and me to loosen up, spend some lire, partake of the banquet of worldly goods. I always needed to be talked into it, but in the course of our travels, I managed to purchase a burnout velvet blouse in an elegant silver-gray color, a pair of gold hoop earrings, and a few small hand-painted ceramic bowls carefully packaged in newspaper and bubble wrap. Donna’s key acquisition was a heavy stone statue of a little girl sitting, and I can still remember her carrying it in the pouring rain through the streets of Sienna. As for Sue, she bought all sorts of things, and although I can’t recall what they were, I remember her stamina for investigating shops, her enthusiasm for color and craft, her pleasure in discovery. She surprised us once with bouquets of fresh-cut lilacs, and the day was imbued with their fragrance.
Sue was a trooper, stomping around with the two of us, despite a problem knee. I have a clear memory of her walking through a grove of olive trees outside the town of Vinci. An elderly woman called out to us from the window of an old stucco farmhouse along a dirt road. She was selling homemade figs, and we bought a little bag and shared them. They had been dried in Italian sunshine and flavored with fennel seeds, and they were the best figs I ever had, before or since. But Sue was also sad sometimes, still newly into widowhood, and you could see it in her eyes now and then despite her easy smile. She had carried with her a little vial of her husband’s ashes, and occasionally she’d fling a pinch in places he would have liked. I saw her discreetly doing that once from a bridge on the River Arno, her bright scarf blowing in the breeze. She stood and watched the water for a moment or two, then turned and walked back into the vibrant parade of life.
And I can’t remember why, but I borrowed a pair of Sue’s pajamas during one of our hotel stays. They were wonderful loose-fitting silky pajamas, the color a cross between apricot and champagne, with a subtle pin stripe pattern, a 1940s look. I felt glamorous and indulged in them; I liked the way the sheen caught the light, the way they felt against my skin, the way they moved with me. I was Rita Hayworth in those pajamas.
Sue was pleased. The material world was here to be savored, she told me, in so many words, and I deserved nice things, and really, everyone should have a pair of silk pajamas. We stood in front of a window sipping red wine and watching the night. I was in my forties then, and I didn’t even realize how ridiculously young that was, but for a moment I was a starry-eyed girl in Italy wearing silk pajamas and letting myself dream.
Sue passed away last fall, leaving a house filled with treasures and memories that Donna had to sort through. And the other day, a package arrived in the mail from Donna, a birthday present. I opened the cardboard box, undid various wrappings, and caught a glimmer of apricot silk. They’re the very same ones, said Donna.
At night I close my eyes and think of sad things, and I still hold back from extravagance, but now I wear silky pajamas to bed, and I wear them while drinking my coffee, and the morning blinks at me in wonderment and reminds me to be present.