Death and Prayer in Positano
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Prior to my brother’s death I booked a ten-day cooking trip in Positano. Instead of meeting up with my husband somewhere on the continent I decided to extend it and take Muv to Europe for a month. I needed to put a pause in the family drama. I needed to separate my mother from the shock and humiliation of her son’s memorial service. I thought I could take her away from death and give her a vacation from grief. We spent ten days in Italy before driving up to Paris, then two days in London. It was time well spent together; our mother-daughter dynamic shifted and we became best of friends.
The first two weeks we stayed at a favorite hotel called Villa Franca hanging off a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean on the Amalfi Coast. Each morning I, along with eight fellow food enthusiasts, eagerly took notes at the home of our teacher, Diana Folonari. Her villa was within walking distance from the hotel. It also overlooked the sea and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. After two hours of cutting vegetables and learning the art of ‘Slow Food’ we drank white wine and proceeded to eat our morning lesson for lunch.
Then I headed down to the beach to find Muv. She was easy to locate because she often ate at the same place. I always found her enjoying her second or third cup of American black coffee while Italian waiters happily fawned over her. I doubt many tourists acted as grateful as Muv, indulging in a plate of pasta every day, sometimes both at lunch and dinner. After a lifetime of a relatively strict diet it was time to let it go. Everything was perfect and if it wasn’t, she didn’t complain because she rarely did.
We visited Pompeii and after our history lesson we silently concluded we’d had enough of death. Positano provided a kinder solution with heavy sun to give us cover. Our itinerary didn’t deviate much because we were content to roam aimlessly around town, checking out the art and life on display. We bought books from local artists and lit candles in the churches.
Italy felt like a balm and each time we entered a church we took back our own interpretation of religion. Muv never lit a candle; sometimes there were dozens already flickering. In public she wore her religion as lightly as Italians often do in private. She watched me light candles, then she’d study the interiors, imbibing the glamorous traditions, replacing everything the evangelicals had managed to scrape out of the experience. The smells along with all the elegant pomp and ceremony fell back in place. During Blaine’s illness I knew Muv often went to a large gothic Catholic Church on Capitol Hill.
Walking out of the dark ambiance into the bright Italian sun, Muv would casually say, “Maybe I should convert, they do it so well.”
The majority of our time was spent walking up and down steps and gawking at the view. Each day ended the same way: after dinner we came back to the hotel, our refuge, to loiter over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee at the bar. It was a pleasure to retire to our voluminous bedroom with its high ceilings and whimsical floor covered in blue and yellow ceramic times. There were two double twin beds and a charming spacious balcony overlooking the bluest sea we’d ever seen.
No matter where she was, whether in Seattle, San Francisco, or Positano, Muv woke up early to allow plenty of time to properly put on her face and get dressed. It was same process in reverse before getting into bed. She never deviated from this routine. When I was still small enough to sit on the bathroom counter with my feet in the sink, I found it hypnotic to watch her. We both studied her image in the mirror as she applied her make up. If her eyes caught mine they’d close slightly in her attempt to smile while putting on her lipstick. Even the small act of putting on lipstick seemed to have a purpose. I think her elaborate routine was a form of meditation in response to having five kids and multiple activities throughout the day. My parents spent a lifetime driving us from one event to the next. Once upon a time we must have been happy, of this I was convinced.
Never considered beautiful in the classical sense, my mother was handsome and took care to keep everything that way for as long as possible. The first task was her teeth. Flossing was followed by a tiny rubber tool used to massage in between each tooth. Seated on the edge of the bathtub, lost in thought, one hand resting on her lap until it was time for the final brush. She stood up in front of the mirror, her three fingers applying Pond’s Cold Cream with specific circular motions covering first her forehead as she pushed back her grey bangs, then face and neck. Sometimes her mouth would move as if repeating a piece of recent conversation. When she was satisfied with a personal edit she might say it out loud.
I felt like a kid again watching her swipe a tissue from the Kleenex box and glide by my bed onto the terrace. She stopped and surveyed the scene, each time like it was the first. Time was still on her side; I doubt she even knew how to waste it. My routine was a relatively quick affair and I was in bed, sitting up against the pillows reading a short story by David Sedaris out loud. The one about his brother who keeps sticking his tongue into the light socket in the classroom.
I have trouble finishing the story because I’m laughing so hard. “Can you believe that?” I gasp.
Muv responds straight away as if wanting to throw me the one thought on her mind. With a playful but direct gaze she emphasized each word, “Oh yes, you all had your own little quirks.”
I stopped laughing because she left a cloud of seriousness in her wake. She wanted lots of kids and got them. She enjoyed the noise, the activity, the distractions as long as she could carve out her own time, which she did. I closed the book and followed her out onto the terrace. The sun had set but there was plenty of light in the sky. I watched her figure motionless in front of the wrought iron balcony. Her hands on the railing, her palms relaxed, facing the sky, perhaps in prayer. My bed was next to the terrace, her profile in full view. I knew her thoughts were filled with her son. He’s young and alive, and we’re all full of quirks, and Muv is perfectly serene.