I fell in love with Italy when I was barely two decades old. I spent a semester abroad cocooned within the walls of Siena, a Medieval city whose richness seeped into spaces in my life I hadn’t known existed. Life there felt concentrated, packed with flavor, just like the sun-kissed produce and mouth-watering ragù. I could feel centuries beneath my fingertips as I ran my hand over the smooth marble façade of the black and white striped Duomo. In the tinny ring of church bells I could hear the potency of tradition, as the chimes announced the hour for mundane tasks that had been undertaken at the same time, in the same way, for half a millennium. The flapping of laundry on sunny terraces, the clattering of plates in windows set high above the narrow cobblestone streets, the clacking of a grandmother’s heels as she walked back from the market with her bag of juicy apricots—all these sounds composed the soundtrack to a life I desperately wanted to call my own. Like any first love, Italy could do no wrong, and I was heartsick to leave her when the time came. I vowed to return.
And I did, many times, and for long enough to earn the Masters in Italian that would set me up as an Italian teacher for several years. But that was a lifetime ago. It belonged to the part of my life before kids, to a world of shiny firsts.
Now, I was returning to Italy once again, this time with my family, to celebrate my twentieth wedding anniversary. Our three children were finally old enough to navigate the hot, crowded, cobblestone streets on their own two feet, without strollers or sippy-cups or pull-ups; with nothing but the promise of a mid-day gelato (or two) to keep them going. This was a triumphant moment, and I wanted to be prepared.
I decided to hire a native Italian speaker to help me brush up on my Italian. After all, it had been years since I had regularly rolled my rsand stretched my mouth to accommodate the spatial demands of so many vowels.
I met with an Italian woman named Maria at her “language school,” which consisted of a single room housed in the ground floor of a nondescript office building. Unlike her blandly-furnished office, Maria was intense. Her large, dark eyes, outsized smile, and constantly tapping feet betrayed a nervous energy that rubbed up against my effort to remain calm. She opened a notebook, clicked her pen, and chirped: “Tell me something about yourself, Lisa!”
She nodded enthusiastically as I unraveled my rusty Italian, all the while jotting down notes in the margins of her wide-ruled page. After five minutes of rapid-fire questioning, Maria, as disarming as she was charming, threw down her notebook and offered me a job.
“Lisa, you don’t need conversazione, you need to teach, for me!” she exclaimed in Italian. It was not a suggestion, but a demand.
It had been fifteen years since I had taught Italian—before my doctorate, before children. Just six months earlier, I had finally thrown out a half dozen file boxes filled with Italian textbooks and lesson plans that had been quietly molding in my attic. We were moving, and I was trying to discard anything that didn’t “spark joy.”
As flattered as I was by Maria’s belief in me, I demurred. Teaching Italian would feel like going backwards. Even so, I left that meeting with a lightness in my step, as if a dormant part of me had been nudged back to life.
The following week, Maria continued to prod me about teaching: Lisa, why aren’t you using your italiano? Perché? We need to put your skills to work! Maria had determined that I needed a mentor (I didn’t), and decided that she was the perfect person for the job (she wasn’t).
I explained to Maria that I had expanded my horizons beyond Italian in order to pursue my doctorate in Linguistics. Having intimate knowledge of a single language had whet my appetite, I told her, but I had demanded more. I wanted a glimpse of the wizard behind the curtain, a peek at the structure that underlies all languages.
I didn’t admit to Maria that in the end, Linguistics had also fallen short of leading me to a deeper, more satisfying truth. Like Dante’s Virgil, Italian and Linguistics could only take me so far. It was my children who would become my enlightened guides, my best teachers, to whom I would dedicate the dissertation that was a decade in the making. It was because of them, not in spite of them, that I had been able to finish my doctorate.
I had earned my PhD five years ago, almost to the day, I told Maria. Her eyes widened at the news.
“Lisa!” she blurted out in a voice ripe with Romanesque theatrics, “A PhD! But I don’t understand—why have you abandoned your degree? Why would you throw it away—toss it out, just like garbage?” Perché lo butti via? In true Italian style, she flung her arms overhead in a dramatic imitation of me tossing out my degree.
I felt my cheeks burn, as if she had set my degree on fire and flung it directly in my face.
I hadn’t given up on Linguistics. I had left the door to a Linguistics career purposely—if tentatively—ajar these past five years. But with one brash utterance, Maria had slammed that door shut. I tried in vain to answer her question, but I couldn’t hear my own thoughts over the deafening sound of that closing door.
How could I explain to Maria that my passion was not confined to any one thing, but rather defined by a way of being? All my life I had yearned to connect the spiritual to the earthly, the ethereal to the mundane. Whether it was transforming an abstract line of thought into verse, translating Italian into English, or transposing theoretical syntax onto the spoken word, forging this connection is what had always driven me. And that, despite all the time I had spent in my head, my longing to bring the intangible down to earth had found its purest outlet outside of books, outside of the Ivory Tower of academia, in my role as a mother.
From the moment I nursed my first baby, I knew this. Connecting the tiny human in my arms to something bigger than me, through me, felt nothing short of electrifying. And as my children grew, so did that feeling. When I rested my forehead against my toddler’s soft brow, I could feel a current of energy between us, as real and solid as bones beneath our skin. And as I explained the workings of the world to my ever-curious preschooler, I felt the words rush in from somewhere beyond me, from a place of truth that I had experienced before only in the solitude of writing. Even now as I shepherded my confident grade-schooler and my capable teen through the transition from little kid to big kid, from big kid to young adult, I remained a conduit between them and the world just beyond their grasp. Being a mother and writing about mothering had opened up a porthole to the divine, and I knew that my calling was to keep that porthole open.
I didn’t say any of this to Maria, because she was also a mother—a mother with a PhD that languished—and in her unsolicited advice I could hear the echoes of her own regrets. But my candor would not have made any difference. Maria had already decided what my story was. While I was fumbling with the past subjunctive, I could see Maria’s eyes focusing on a subtext that wasn’t there. Maria was busy painting the shadow side of my story, the underbelly of my life. Aha! Here is a mother who has sunk herself completely into her children for a decade, and is scared to leave the security of their affection, she told herself. To Maria, I was the worst kind of traitor.
On the surface, I bristled at Maria’s presumptions, but somewhere deep down, I recognized her perception of me. The version of my life that Maria was sketching in her mind was the one I sometimes told myself late at night as I lie awake in bed, or in the silence of a weekday afternoon when the kids were in school.
Perché lo butti via, Lisa?
Maria had demanded to know why I had opted for so much less than I was capable of, and I wasn’t sure I had an answer for her.
When the timer on my phone released me from Maria’s grasp, I politely thanked her and sprinted to my car in the rain. I sat behind the steering wheel, paralyzed, letting the windows steam up as I tried to make sense of what had just happened. How had I allowed a stranger to take control of my narrative?
It was true that I had always put my family first, without apology and without regret, I thought. But there was more to the story. I had felt it bubbling up from my subconscious when I was in Maria’s office, tugging on my sleeve like an impatient toddler. I kept trying to ignore it, to free myself from its insistent little fingers.
What that tiny voice kept saying was that I had demanded more of myself than Maria and the world had, not less. For years, I had tricked myself into thinking that capability was the same thing as a calling. Since performing well had been good enough for the world, I assumed it was good enough for me. And for a while, it was. In my quest to bridge the abstract and the concrete, Italian and Linguistics had landed me pretty close to the target. But once I had hit the bulls-eye, I was no longer content to remain on the periphery. Being a mother, being a writer—those hit the mark. In stepping away from Italian and Linguistics, I was walking towards the center of my life.
And yet, here came that old temptation again, in the guise of Maria—the temptation to inch myself back off the limb towards solid ground. She had given such good arguments for why I should do a measurable something rather than risk a potential nothing; arguments I had heard from countless well-intentioned people in my life—my professors, my colleagues, my friends, my parents—even, or maybe especially—myself.
Maria’s rhetoric had jolted me. But in the end, it was up to me to decide how to channel her intrusive energy. Would her electrifying words repel me forever from my former flame, or ignite the spark of new beginnings in me? I wasn’t sure yet. I needed to the feel Italian soil underneath my feet again to know for certain. Maybe, just maybe, the answer was well-enveloped in the rolling hills of Tuscany, waiting to be discovered.
We had just climbed the 400 steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia in Siena and my black dress clung to me in the mid-day heat. My heart still pounding, I drew my kids over to the ledge and showed them all of Siena stretching out below us—the horseshoe-shaped Piazza del Campo that in a few short days would be transformed into a racetrack for the famed Palio—the Duomo, the staggered red rooftops, and in the distance, right on the edge of town near Porta Romana, my old apartment. Turning my eyes away from the dizzying expanse of tiles, I focused on that piazza, that giant playground of red brick whose various corners defined my existence for a brief, but infinite moment in time.
I sighed, satisfied. I had been nervous to come back to Siena, worried that the city would have lost its hold on me. But despite the proliferation of selfie sticks, the strange heft of the Euro in my pocket, and the transformation of my favorite discoteque into a touristy wine bar, the essential magic of Siena still reached me. It felt good to be back.
My mind drifted for a moment, caught on the idea of return. You can never really go back, I thought—back to a place you love, back to work—at least not to how it was and how you were. You can only go forward, honoring and building on memories of the past, the way the Romans built their churches on top of pagan temples. The past was sacred ground, but in many cases its beauty survived only because someone understood how to transform it into something new.
As I took in the beauty of that Medieval city, I realized that I would teach Italian again. Not for Maria, and not because she had shamed me into it. I would teach Italian because I still found something true in it. Maria had thrust her spade into the rocky ground of my psyche, and it had felt violent, and cruel. But her probing had uncovered artifacts from my life that made me want to dig deeper. At the bottom, I had discovered the cornerstone of a magnificent structure. This monolith no longer held up my world, but I had fashioned it with my own two hands.
It was still beautiful, and it was worth preserving.
A version of this essay was originally published in Mothers Always Write: https://mothersalwayswrite.com/artifacts/