It is Sebastian’s fifth birthday. I had wanted to make it one of those memorable birthdays. When my older son Jacob, now 18 years old, had turned 5, it was a special experience he still vividly remembers. We took him to an area in Maryland where wild horses still roam free. Being a young, horse-enthusiast whose favorite movie was The Man From Snowy River, and having read a story about these wild Maryland horses, he was elated to get to see them with his own eyes. Not only did he see some of these horses, but our journey took us to a seashore. Even though we had no beach gear with us, we let him play in the waves. He crashed into waves as they beat the shoreline for several hours. It’s as though he went into a different mental zone and lost all sense of time and space. He just let himself tumble in the waves over and over. It was an ethereal experience for him.
Thirteen years later, it is my second son’s fifth birthday. Now that we live in Italy, I asked Ron, “Where could we take Sebastian that would be equally memorable?” We considered traveling to Capri or the beach, but it is Fer Agosto and the beaches are packed with people—standing room only. Maybe a trip inland? It is so hot, and nothing is open or running. The whole country is on holiday. It seemed that the best we could do is to get him great presents, take the plunge and buy a grill, and have a party at home with our family.
Fortunately, I woke up in the morning a little before Sebastian. I got out cake ingredients for a European breakfast cake, the kind that are not too sweet and have powdered sugar on top. Still wearing his footie pajamas, he burst into the kitchen and greeted me, excited that I was already making him the first of his two cakes for the day; we’d make a traditional birthday cake later. Standing on a chair pushed up against the counter, he picked up a spatula and started “helping.” Our kitchen is so small that everything takes twice as long. Finally, the cake was in the oven. I had not yet successfully baked a cake in Italy. I looked at the dial and had to choose an icon marking a setting. The light bulb icon? The bracket on the bottom? The brackets on top and on bottom? The grill on top? I chose the one with the bracket on both the top and the bottom. That was a mistake and cooked the cake too fast. I pulled it out ten minutes early and still worried it was overcooked. Crumbly cake. That would be a pity.
Annie came up to tell me that her stomach was hurting. Foreign Italian germs are making their acquaintance, welcoming us to the Old World. We’ve had several rounds of stomach flus. I gave her some hot tea and told her to sit on the sofa a relax.
Our dog Charlie, meanwhile, is on his seventh day of antibiotics. A city dog, he has had to acclimate to his new bucolic surroundings. He managed to gash his leg, probably squirming through a neighbor’s wire fence. His cut got infected and he has been limping and sleeping for a week. Consequently, not wanting to upset his wound, we have taken a hiatus from brushing him down and bathing or rinsing him on the every-other-day basis that we usually do. As the cake baked in the oven, I saw Charlie stand up and sheets of dog hair fell to the ground. “Time to brush and bathe Charlie. Clare, you’re turn!” I began sweeping the floors. There is something just plain wrong with having whole dustpans full of dog hair. Then I pulled out our new Italian vacuum cleaner. It has the force of a child sucking on a soda straw. After a full two minutes of vacuuming one little throw rug, I squatted down to see how much dog hair remained. A lot. I turned the machine upside down, cleaned it out and tried again.
Leigh, my helpful middle-schooler, wrapped presents while I mopped the floors. Nine-year-old Annie was heaving over the toilet. I muttered, “Poor Annie” loud enough for her to hear me but kept mopping. I suggested Leigh call all the kids up for birthday breakfast. We put a candle in the shape of a “5” atop it, lit it and sang “Happy Birthday.”
As we ate not-too-sweet cake that was thankfully not overcooked, Jacob told us that he was invited by some local kids to a soccer tryout this afternoon. In a flurry of excitement, we heard all about these kids, the team from the town next door, Grotta Ferrata, and how serious this tryout would be. But now Jacob was also feeling ill. Too ill to go to the tryout?
We heard about Mary, Clare and Jacob’s night out on the town the night before, and how the high schoolers swarmed around these new “Americani.” Sebastian played with his new knights and soldiers, while we talked and cleaned crumbs off the table. Ants never fail to find any single crumb we leave. So, cleaning has become a fastidious business.
We went to Mass, and then came home to Annie throwing up and Jake resting. Clare and Mary were in their room discussing the previous night out, giggling in one, long, continuous stretch.
Then, the urge came upon me and I was finally ready. I undertook scrubbing the tubs and toilets. They all have water stains and whatever else kind of stains porcelain tubs and toilets take on over decades of use. You never can feel quite at home in a place with stains and muck from other people’s use. So, it was time. I put on old clothes and an apron, tied my hair back, and scrubbed the daylights out of that porcelain until it glistened. Do you ever feel like a new place will become yours if you just clean it enough? Then I gave the older kids a lesson in how to clean their bathroom.
Ron assembled the new grill and we had lunch. Sebastian kept playing with his new toys and each of the older kids rotated playing with him. He seemed to be having the time of his life and repeatedly hugged me saying, “I love you more than anything.” I marveled at him as he and Leigh played with little toy soldiers and swords. His skinny blue jeans and black Converse with bright white laces, his long, layered, blond hair that I sadly predict is about to get cut because no Italians wear their hair long like that. His voice melts my heart with its raspy “I wuv my sodiers” and “Wee, would you pway wif me?”
I don’t know how to hold on to this moment, this golden moment. Sebastian is about to grow out of those jeans and Converse. Soon, he’ll be a middle schooler who no longer cuddles in my lap or tells me he loves me more than anything, two times a day. He will find other loves, other interests. Annie is a dream daughter, clutching on to her Little House book in one hand and doll in the other. Leigh still helps with chores without being asked and still plays pretend games with Annie and Sebastian, even though she is five feet, six inches tall. Her childish innocence is in its final flicker—it’s like watching the remnant of today’s sun disappear behind the horizon. Mary and Clare are enthusiastic, hopeful, ready to conquer the world of high school and get it right this time. And in ten short months, Jacob will leave for college. Our family will never feel the same. He will come back, but as a visitor.
Today we did not go to a beach or a special destination. But it turns out that we spent the day in our special destination. The day may not be memorable for Sebastian as I had hoped, but it will be memorable for me as a mother. As Time ruthlessly presses on, I feel my pitiful loss against its force. In my defeat, I cling to this day, positively in love with my family and new life in Italy.