I am going to Capri, Italy this summer in search of my deceased mother. Well, not my mother, exactly, but her presence, her happiness, her resilient spirit. My mother, my husband, and I embarked on a European cruise three years ago this September. It was magical. And Capri was the best of all our destinations. At the time, my mother was quite incapacitated with a fatal failing heart valve, but was intent on going on the cruise despite a very risky open heart surgery scheduled for the following month (oh, the Italian-American family dramas that ensued over that choice!). And so we went, and with no expectations of really seeing any sites, we saw far more than we anticipated. Because of my mother’s infirmity, we toured smaller parts of the cities and towns we passed through. And we did this far more leisurely than I have ever experienced a foreign locale before. It was an unsurpassed experience—long, savored lunches in cafes with lovely, local wine, enjoying each other’s company and our surroundings. There was no sight-seeing rush, no frenzied shopping to overspend on unnecessary souvenirs, and no cumbersome expectations to meet.
One of the places on the tour’s itinerary my mother most wanted to see was Capri, Italy– an island in Southern Italy. Once we arrived at Capri, we waited a long time amongst the unorganized, unregulated, and overwhelming crowds on the Pier to arrange transport to the Blue Grotto—something my mother had her heart set upon seeing. We eventually made it onto a tour boat and to the Grotto. The Blue Grotto is located in a sea cave with a relatively small opening. We waited what seemed like an eternity in that brilliant Mediterranean sun amongst the frenzied disorder of the Italian boating system to secure a rowboat passage into the Grotto. The drop from the tour boat to the rowboat was large and the rowboat was somewhat rickety. An Englishwoman aboard our tour boat was insistent that it was too much for my mother and sought to deter her from her foolish mission. My husband was equally resolute that if my mother wanted to go—she was going. It wasn’t until that moment that I learned how determined my mother was to go into the Grotto. She very much wanted to tell my father that she too had seen it, as he had regaled her of tales of this enchanted cave for their 60 years of marriage (which he had visited while in the service in the early 1950s). Our oarsman was small but mighty and was able to secure my mother’s passage with great strength and good humor. As all visitors must, we had to lay back in the boat to enter the low cave entrance into the Grotto. And once inside—magic. The ethereal light, a blue so dazzling that it stops your breath, lit from beneath and above from openings in the cave, is otherworldly and one of the great beauties of this realm. And then our oarsman serenaded my mother in Italian with a deep, honeyed baritone. As it echoed melodiously throughout the cave, she giggled like a young woman appreciating a handsome man’s attentions. She was elated for the rest of the day. Our time in Capri was simply wonderful. There were coffee and cakes in the Piazzetta and pasta and wine at a family restaurant along the pier—exquisite. She was worried that she was depriving us of seeing more sights because of her immobility. What she gave us was far greater. Far more. She shared her delight.
And so I’m going back this summer in search of my mother’s happiness. I am looking for it in the brilliant cerulean of the sky, amongst the craggy outcroppings of the rocky coast, seeking it in the cacophonous mayhem of the pier, in quest of it in a bottle of bright Italian white wine while basking in the sun. I will find it in the charismatic curve of a handsome Italian man’s smile. I will sit in the Piazetta and drink tea and discover her in the crisp crunch of my biscotti all the while I people watch.
So my question is, can joy be imprinted on a place? Do we leave trails of our ecstasy behind? Does it swirl around strangers like an invisible vapor for them to unknowingly ingest? Does it permeate the sand and sea? Can it shape the energy of a place so that when others breathe it in it changes their emotional states at a molecular level? I sincerely believe it is so.
I lost my mother that following summer—not to heart disease, but to the even more sinister robber of light—cancer. That was the last vacation of her life. I am forever blessed I was able to share it with her. I am even more grateful that we were able to appreciate the beauty of the experience as it happened. We were fully present to her and for her.
And though I may shed some tears in memory of her delight and the ever present missing of her—I hope to amplify her legacy of joy by bringing my own happiness to Capri. I will let my pleasure eddy with the tides, color the azure sky, echo in the cafes, linger on the terraces, and whisper along the dusky roads. I will match her bequest of pleasure with my own. I will spend the first anniversary of her death with her in spirit in the place where she is forever happy. And in doing so, I will leave my own traces of joy behind, perhaps for you to find one day.