Get in the car! We’ve got to pick up our passports before the post office closes at noon,” my husband shouted—over our teenage sons’ MP3 player.
Over the high-school spring break, our family was traveling to Italy on a trip chartered by the school. My husband and two boys looked forward to seeing the Parthenon in Rome. They anticipated imagining the wild and deadly combats of the gladiators in the Colosseum and wandering the streets of Florence where the Medicis once housed lions, elephants, and giraffes.
I didn’t want to go. Spring break is in mid-March, the optimal time to plant brassicas. Even if I protected the fledgling broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage starts from the strong winds with open-ended tin cans, what if we received no precipitation? No, I would have to delay planting until after our return, and then the plants might not mature before they suffered heavy insect infestation as late spring turned to early summer. Likewise, all the mulching would have to wait, giving the weeds a big head start.
“I really, really don’t want to go,” I admitted to my husband one night after dinner.
He hesitated, and then regarded me with his kind brown eyes. “Well, if you really feel that way, I guess you have to follow your heart,” he said.
Having lived through a number of previous spring breaks with me, he probably wasn’t surprised. He had left me home before when he and the boys skied in Colorado. Every day during their absence, I pulled on a pair of dirty, stained jeans and a ragged sweatshirt and headed out to our gardens, where I plowed and planted all day. Lunch was a banana, and I was not interrupted by cooking, dishes, boys, or anything at all. A week of pure ecstasy.
“The money won’t be wasted. My friend Monica would prob-ably love to fill my spot. She went to Italy last summer and didn’t want to come back,” I said. The clock ticked behind us.
“Well then, you’d better call tomorrow,” my husband said. The next morning I groped through some papers, searching for the travel company’s telephone number. The trip was only a week away. As I dialed it, I feared I had waited too long.
“No, I’m sorry,” the voice on the other end stated. “All the plane and hotel reservations have been made in your name. At this late notice, they are not transferable.” I put down the receiver. My sad fate was sealed. The redbuds would sport their sprightly fuchsia flowers in a few days, against the lime green backdrop of buds just beginning to line the bare gray branches—without me.
On the day of departure, I rolled my luggage to the car, stopped, and turned toward the perennial garden edging the driveway.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Lane called out.
I crouched over the rosette leaves of the columbine, just emerging from the ground. In another week they might be a foot high, and the first yellow and coral flowers would appear. I brushed away dry crackling leaves, thinking it might be too early, but—no—the first maroon shoots of peonies had come up, too.
“If ever I would leave you, how could it be in springtime, knowing how in spring I’m bewitched by you so? Oh, no, not in springtime, summer, winter or fall. No, never could I leave you at all.” My voice rang out in a high falsetto, as I followed along with the melody that had come unbidden into my head.
“Mom, what are you singing?” Tristan called from the car.
“Oh, my gosh, I’m singing that song from Camelot, about how Lancelot can never leave Guinevere.” I laughed out loud at the realization that I was singing a love song—to my garden! Still, as I backed toward the car, I never took my eyes off the nascent perennials that were heralding the promise of spring. As we drove out of the driveway, a chickadee called out in that familiar, plaintive song, the song that warmer air will soon be gusting through the trees, and the sunlight itself will seem brighter.
We arrived in Rome on a Sunday. Our tour guide, a young woman with permed brown hair named Lucia, held up a sign identifying herself. We dragged ourselves onto the bus, having spent the previous night on the plane. She marched up and down the aisle, counting us in Italian.
“Andiamo. Let’s go!” she stated, “Today we go to the Vatican to have an audience with the pope.”
“The pope?” my husband said. “Boys, he is a very, very important person, similar in status to our president. I can’t believe this.” Lane and Tristan, having stayed up all night watching plane movies, registered no emotion.
As we followed Lucia and the charter company flag she held aloft, I glanced from side to side for flowerbeds. I didn’t see any. Throngs of people headed toward the Vatican under a sunny sky. Some of them marched forward in a band. I spotted a dark brown bird I could not identify. It was the only one that I saw. Maybe there were no birds or flowers close to the Vatican.
As we headed north toward Florence and drove through some countryside, I wondered what I would see growing. On this particular route, there wasn’t much, because Italy was much more densely populated than I had realized, so there were no wide-open spaces like in Kansas. A few men in caps pruned the branches in small vineyards. Other fields contained rows of small trees. Lucia thought they might be cherry trees, or olives. I have several cherry trees that burst forth in pink blossoms in April.
As we stood under the balcony in Verona where Romeo allegedly courted Juliet, ate our fill of gelatos, and bustled along the streets, my mind wandered to our little plot in Kansas, home to our chickens, horses, and gardens. The history, the architecture, the cathedrals of Italy were breathtaking, but I wasn’t home—and there’s no place like home. (Wendell Berry, the poet/essayist/farmer from Kentucky, has spent his lifetime beseeching us to become connected to one particular place, to fall in love with its flora and fauna, and thus protect it—our home.)
During our final night in Italy, we sipped wine after our last entrée. I would miss the gelatos but was not looking forward to being jet-lagged from another transatlantic flight and, half asleep the next morning, dragging our luggage through customs.
Not long after we left the Kansas City International Airport, we spun down our driveway into our valley. My, how things had changed! The daffodils and hyacinths, just starting to peep out before our departure, were in full display. The irises, columbines, and weeds had grown much taller. Lavender henbit flowers covered the area where I would plant radishes, turnips, lettuce, spinach, mustard, kale, and collards. I had work to do.
“Andiamo. Let’s go!” I said out loud. ❖