Nonfiction

Venice, courtesy of Viator

La riunione (The Reunion)

Escaping the chaos of Venice’s Marco Polo airport, I squeal when I see my sister, Monica, and launch into a tight embrace. The familiar floral notes of her Anais Anais perfume remind me how profoundly I have missed her. I feel her upper body tense, a momentary flinch, then a swift squeeze and extraction. I tamp the match-flare of rejection and remind myself she is not one for hugging.

Living in different countries now—she in our birth-country, England, and I in Canada—we have come together for our annual reunion, seven days into which we will try to cram a year of sisterhood. She has aged since the sudden death of her husband, Reg, nine months ago. Stooped shoulders and dark under-eye smudges are evidence of her ongoing grief.

“We need to hurry,” she says. “The taxi driver’s getting impatient.”

I grab the handle of my smart new suitcase and wait for her to show the way. My elder by seven years, she is an organizer and planner (née mild-mannered control freak), and I am happy to let her lead—especially on this trip. She now speaks fluent Italian after years of evening classes, a testament to her love affair with Italy. We are determined to explore the lesser-travelled pathways; she has mapped out our itinerary based on Venice’s six Sestieri (neighborhoods). We will visit one per day, plus a trip to the islands. It’s a compact solution for two seniors with mobility issues.

We exit the taxi at the train station for the final leg of our arrival. Monica checks the overhead signs and sets off with me in her wake. A turn of a corner reveals not trains but boats.

“You booked a James Bond boat,” I exclaim.

We had considered this option early in our planning. “It reminds me of a boat chase in Casino Royale,” I’d said, “but it’s too expensive for me.” The disappointment must have been evident in my voice.

The gleaming wooden hull of our designated boat hints at hours of elbow grease; the open roof reveals an opulent ivory leather interior. “My treat,” she says with an indulgent smile that transports me to my childhood.

As we speed across the laguna (lagoon) under overcast skies, the rush of cool air blows away my travel weariness—I’m too old for overnight flights—and ruins my carefully styled hair. In the Canal Grande, we cruise past time-worn tenements, ornate palazzos (palaces) and stately churches. A stout woman with crackled boot-leather skin sells vegetables from a moored boat. Two middle-aged men, shirt sleeves rolled up, hail each other from passing motorboats, wardrobe in one, boxes in another. Hints of garlic, fish, and freshly baked pizza drift in and out as we pass restaurants, cafes, and homes.

Dorsoduro

Our third-floor apartment in an aging terraced house in a quiet residential area of Venice overlooks a rio (side canal). Rendered shabby-chic by uneven red stone walls, small wrought iron balconies, and splashes of window-box color, it speaks to me of resilience and hope.

After heaving my luggage up the steep stone staircase (the young greeter’s indifference will be noted in his tip), I sniff at the interior. No unsavory rental smells, thankfully. Trailing my fingertips over the wood furniture upholstered in the style of a genteel yesteryear, I move to the high arched windows and watch as smartly dressed locals cross a miniature arch bridge with purposeful strides.

“It’s your turn for the master bedroom,” I say.

Her mouth contorts as she wrestles with the idea—she’s a giver, not a taker—but knows it is part of our childhood code—equal shares, taking turns. “OK, thanks,” she says with resignation.

As we stroll down the zattere (waterfront), a short distance from the apartment, I consider the picture we must present: two sixty-something women; my straight blond hair, her wavy brunette; slim and stout; blue-eyed and hazel. No one would guess we were sisters until we speak, revealing the same inflections and dry sense of humor. We both walk with canes, mine supporting legs weakened by multiple sclerosis, hers a temporary crutch for a heavily strapped sprained ankle. I take photographs of our surroundings, and she takes photographs of me taking photographs of our surroundings.

Cannaregio

The church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli is, indeed, a miracle. A luminescent interior of pale marble and quartz amplifies the sunlight as it bounces playfully from one surface to another.

“I’m going to light a candle,” Monica whispers.

Surprised, I wonder if her faith has grown in the last year. Members of her village church have enveloped her with kindness since Reg’s death, but it is as yet an uneasy alliance. We were never a family of churchgoers.

“I’m afraid of being alone,” she’d said a few months into her grief. “And afraid they won’t ask again if I say no.” Reg had been a bit of a recluse, and she had grown apart from her few girlfriends over the years. I was thousands of miles away.

I join her and say a silent, non-ecclesiastical prayer, not only for Reg but also for our long-dead parents, older brother Peter, and my good friend, Chris. Enough loss for a lifetime.

As I watch her explore, I check for signs of distress. Persistent tension, maybe? A bleakness in her eyes? She had not told me, 35 years ago, when she had been sucked into the vortex of clinical depression. There had been many clues, but they were impossible to navigate without context. Her innate cynicism had morphed into a sharp tongue and a resentful attitude. She cut into my account of a minor spat with a colleague, one day. “Everything can’t always be about you!” She might as well have slapped me. Self-aggrandizement was a cardinal sin in our family.

Over time, her bitterness had morphed into detachment and isolation. I longed for a tongue-lashing then; anything was better than the desolation of nothingness.

“The medication stopped the extreme lows,” she told me much later, “but it also eliminated the highs. I got tired of feeling nothing, so I just decided to stop taking it.” She quit, cold turkey, and told no one.

I hear distant echoes of my mother’s voice. “Don’t let others know your personal business.” “Don’t whine when things get tough.” Mum would have been proud of her. I was overwhelmed with sadness.

San Polo

As we weave through the crush of bodies in the famed Rialto fish market, we are silenced by the competing cries of fishmongers and the animated babble of locals. Assaulted by layers of acrid fish odor magnified by the 28°C temperature, my fingers rise instinctively to pinch my nose, and my sister gives me the look. The almost imperceptible shake of the head and a derisive half-smile that tells me I need to toughen up. I imagine she thinks I am being a princess.

She has always been the stronger one—more responsible, better able to contain her emotions. She absorbed the messages of our youth as if they were commandments. “Never show signs of weakness.” “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.”  In contrast, my response had been years of teenage rebellion. Forty years later, I still feel the weight of my family’s disappointment.

Filling our lungs upon exit, we stroll along the Canal Grande, then pause to admire the stunning Ca’ D’Oro (House of Gold) museum.  An extravagant collection of ornate arches, pillars, and stone fretting, it was originally a palazzo built for former Doges (leaders elected by nobility). I try to imagine it in its original glory—its gilt-covered façade shimmering in the sunlight—and am somehow unsurprised that Mother Nature would seek to diminish it over time.

“It’s breathtaking!” I say, and Monica’s face lights up. This is her third visit to Venice, and she wants me to share in her delight. 

Castello

As I was researching this trip, I discovered a live webcam in Campo Santa Maria. I have arranged to wave to my husband, Derek, at 2 pm Venice time, 9 am Atlantic Canada time.

The sleepy campo (square) is framed by storefronts displaying everything from bread to leather goods and punctuated by clusters of green café umbrellas. An unremarkable church (compared to other breath-taking specimens we’ve visited) sits on one side of the quadrangle. The five-story Hotel Campo Santa Maria Formosa sprawls listlessly on another as if fatigued by its years of service. It takes a while to locate the camera perched high on its easternmost corner.

“There! There it is!” I text Derek to let him know we’re here and start waving. Monica hangs back, embarrassed by my foolishness. When I receive his reply, I turn to her, grinning. “He sees us! Come wave to him.” And, despite her better judgement, she walks over, takes up the wave and laughs.

Santa Croce

We are lost again but unconcerned. Some of our favorite places have been discovered after taking wrong turns. Recessed in a narrow alleyway, a small courtyard sits in a patch of sunlight. Groups of grizzled old men in button-up shirts and dark sweaters occupy two of a cluster of tables. Their animated conversation pauses for a heartbeat as we approach.

Chunks of mortar are missing from the ancient façade of the featureless gray building to one side, but we are beckoned by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. “Buongiorno,” Monica says as we enter. The portly male owner acknowledges her with a silent nod. I guess they don’t see many tourists, and given the scene outdoors, maybe fewer women.

We carry our glistening almond pastries and our coffees—a double espresso for Monica (she is serious about her coffee) and a decaf low-fat cappuccino for me—to a table in the shade a little apart from the men. The temperature has been unseasonably hot for early October, and we have learned to escape the scorching sun whenever we can.

“Shall we take a selfie?”

“I’ve never taken a selfie before,” she replies churlishly (a lifetime struggle with weight has made her image-averse).

I raise my eyebrows and attempt a devilish grin. “Then we have to correct that right now.” I bend down to her level and place my arm around her. No tensing this time. I position the camera. “Say cheese!”

She mutters while I bring up the image and show it to her. “It’s good, right?”
“Humph,” she replies. Her barely suppressed smile tells me she’s secretly pleased.

“No posting on Facebook,” she commands.

She thinks Facebook is intrusive, an invasion of privacy, and I will respect her wishes, even though many will think I’ve come to Venice on my own.

“Last month, I attended a wellness workshop at the Church and we were asked to list the things that bring us joy.” It is an unexpected opening for her, but our conversation has taken many twists and turns over the past few days and I wait for more.

“I told them I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced joy. Not the way I understand it—you know, some blissful state beyond happiness.” Her casual tone seems forced.

“I think some use the term more liberally than us,” I say carefully. “I believe I’ve known it, but as fleeting sensations, not a long-term state.”

She ponders for a while. “Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m not wired that way.”

I wrestle with the conflicting heartache of sadness for her and disappointment for me; I had hoped our time together might have counted.

San Marco

On our penultimate day, we reluctantly join the hordes in an early morning tour of the Basilica di San Marco, a “must see,” according to guidebooks. Headsets in place, we follow a pompous young man up and down airless corridors, bypassing rooms of enticing artifacts, to stop while he pontificates at designated points. Bored with his dreary recital, I soon give up on the headset and resolve to absorb the experience my own way. Monica studiously ignores my rebellion.

I hang back from the group and watch as she moves dutifully from painting to sculpture. Her limp is more exaggerated now, the result of long days of walking, relieved only by short trips on the vaporetti (waterbus). At first, we were too proud to take the disabled seats, but now we collapse into them with synchronized groans. Despite her ankle injury (more serious than she admits, I suspect), she is determined I have a trip to remember.

I rejoin the group for the fanfare finale—the Pala D’Oro (Golden Cloth). A magnificent gold, silver, and enamel altarpiece encrusted with gemstones glints in the dappled light from nearby leaded windows. Sweat trickles down between my breasts, and I can think only of escaping the crush of bodies.

“I can’t handle any more crowds today. And my legs are aching. I need a rest. Preferably out of the sun,” I whine, after our release into the mid-morning heat.

She bites her lip in thought. “We’ll go over to San Giorgio Maggiore. The view from the top of the tower there is better than here anyway.” She gestures to the Campanile (bell tower). “And you’ll get a rest on the boat ride over.”

The wind on my face is a welcome relief as I lean out the ferry window, arms extended. Discomfort has trumped decorum. After cooling my body by several degrees, I plop down into my seat and grin at Monica. She shakes her head but smiles.

“How are you coping without Reg?” I ask, once settled.

“I miss him every day.” I sense there is more.

“I wasn’t in love with him when we married, you know,” she continues. “He was broken from his first marriage, and I thought I could fix him.” She turns her head away and looks out on the foaming wake of the boat. “But I did grow to love him, and we were comfortable together.”

Momentarily embarrassed by my own good fortune (I am still blessed with a husband whom I married for love, after all), I squeeze her hand.

Murano

  Rows of houses in a palette of pastels line the narrow canals and shimmer like a holograph in the 30°C sunshine. To escape the heat, we duck into a small store dedicated to famed Murano glass and are confronted with a carnival of color. It smells, oddly, of vanilla. I caress the smooth curves of bowls and vases, too expensive and fragile to take back to Canada, and settle my attention on the smaller items—jewelry, key fobs, wine-stoppers. An abstract glass disc the size of a toonie hangs on a braided black ribbon and catches my eye. I buy it as a keepsake. Monica buys gifts for others. “Better to be a giver than a taker,” Mum would say.

Sweaty and wistful for the air-conditioned stores of North America, we find refuge under a cobalt-blue umbrella overlooking the small marina, each boat moored there worth more than my house. I watch with amusement as Monica gives our lunch order and the handsome young waiter flirts a little, working for his tip.

A comfortable silence falls between us. She seems at peace, for which I am thankful. Fearful of breaking her mood, I tentatively ask the question that has gnawed at me since Reg’s death.

“Does the depression you had years ago ever trouble you now?”

Startled at first, she looks away, into the distance.

“It’s always with me to different degrees.” She pauses and chews the inside of her mouth.

“A few weeks after Reg died, I called the suicide hotline.”

Frozen in the moment, I feel the overwhelming responsibility of saying the right thing. Her vulnerability vibrates at a pitch to shatter glass.

“I’m so sorry you felt that desperate.” I reach out my hand. “I wish you had…” I hesitate and her vibration hitches a pitch.

“I was about to say I wish you had reached out to me but then I realized that when I was at my lowest point, in the worst of my MS relapses, I didn’t tell you either.” We each looked into the other’s eyes, pools of compassion and longing.

“Let’s make a pact,” I urge. “I promise to reach out to you when I’m in trouble if you promise to reach out to me.”

She nods in assent, but I wonder if she will.

“It’s only taken sixty years,” I joke.

La partenza (The departure)

Three Covid-riddled years later, I sit at Monica’s hospice bedside rubbing the Murano glass disc between forefinger and thumb, an unconscious act repeated often, and conjure images of those iridescent days in Venice. Memories of light and laughter. The faint glow of a nightlight casts eerie shadows over Monica’s slack-jawed face, refracting the drainage tube taped to her nose. The hiss of a humidifier weaves its sibilant message of foreboding around and over us.   

It has been three short (and interminable) weeks since I arrived in England, and the call had come late this evening. “Monica’s agitated and asking for you. Can you come back?” I detected panic in the young nurse’s voice, and my wretched heart faltered. I wasn’t ready.

Now, holding her hand and resting my chin on her forearm, I whisper stories from our trip. “Remember when we found that beautiful little park.…” Tears, and, yes, snot, track seamlessly from my chin to her arm and I know she would scold me if she could. “No crying,” she had instructed all her visitors. I know, from the ever longer pauses between desperate breaths, her death is close, and I pray she’s oblivious, unafraid.

At her very last sigh, I am thankful that the unspeakable torture is over.

“I hope you find joy, Sis,” I murmur finally.

Old Stranger: Poems
by Joan Larkin
Poem after poem, Old Stranger unearths moments that shape a woman's life. The poet's eye is unflinching as she sees the past folded into the present. Her body is the ground of deep soul hunger. Her language is music.
“To discover the ‘old stranger’ is a knife, not quite, it’s an old piano. No, it’s a book about mortality and the debt of flesh, about love, rot, relationship, smiles that cut like knives through every seeing moment. It’s about painting. It’s a beaut. There’s so much masterpiece here. I mean, wow, this is why one is a poet all their life. To make this.” — Eileen Myles, author of a "Working Life"   “Joan Larkin’s much-awaited Old Stranger: Poems is a miracle of compression, mystery, and innuendo. Here is a poet for whom craft is an extension of wisdom. Whether revealing the archetype secreted within an object, or the elemental, persistent grief within a memory, Larkin expertly hones the edges of poems like a luthier shapes a violin.” — Diane Seuss, author of Modern Poetry   "Engaging with curiosity and often startled affection, this poet tells of how it feels to be both enamored and shaken with what connections reveal. Quiet and absorbed, one reads this most graceful of books until pow and one is alerted!" — Jody Stewart, author of This Momentary World: Selected Poems
    More about Joan Larkin: www.alicejamesbooks.org/bookstore/old-stranger Available from Alice James Books, Bookshop, and Amazon.

Bio

Pat Stafford lives in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, and works as a nonprofit leadership consultant. Inspired by nature, both environmental and human, she focuses primarily on life-writing in its many shape-shifting forms. Her work has been published in the Emerge 2021 anthology, and the personal essay published here won an award in the 2023 Writer’s Federation of New Brunswick Narrative Non-Fiction competition.

5 Comments

  1. Such a lovely piece which effectively takes me to Venice and drops me inside the workings of a sisterly relationship. While the two tour the sights, their desire to become closer is apparent, each wanting to tell the other about the things that need to be said. Yet, there always seems to be an emotional distance to cross. Though full of sadness and wanting, Pat ultimately shows the sisters’ relationship is as beautiful as the city of Venice.

  2. What a lovely, yet sad, story. Evokes the magic of Venice with remarkably few words. Braids the beautiful descriptions of setting with the power of sisterly feelings. Thank you, Pat.

  3. I enjoyed the weaving of the relationship between the two sisters and their exploration of Venice. The emotional stakes rise as the story progresses to a poignant ending. The setting descriptions were succint yet captivating.

  4. Such an emotionally charged story! Beautiful descriptions and sensory details. Great storytellers make the reader feel. Pat did this and then some in this story about an important reunion. Thanks for the wonderful read.

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