Chapter 1: Positano, Italy - Summer 2002
We must bear with ourselves with patience and without flattery. — Fenelon
I am sitting on the floor of a luxury hotel room, tossing potato chips across the parquet tiles to my 9-month-old nephew, Payne. My sister and her husband are out for an early dinner, and I have offered to babysit.
With a squeal of laughter, Payne scampers across the floor to fetch another chip, pausing as he passes by a tiny glass flask. I casually reach for it, tucking the airline sampler bottle behind me and throwing out another chip to redirect the toddler's attention back to the game. I can think of no better way to pass the time; besides, this activity seems to be a hit!
I take a hit from the little glass flask, having twisted off the aluminum top. C'est l'heure de l'apéro, I reason, calling to mind my husband, who is surely having a glass of wine at this hour. And my sister and her husband would have sat down by now at the dinner table, with glasses of champagne. Yes, it was cocktail hour for everyone including me. So no worries!
Looking out to the balcony, I watch the sun begin to set along the Amalfi Coast. To the right, the hillside is peppered with spicy-colored villas ranging from pepper red to saffron yellow. A true artist would call it a "pastiche", but what did I know? Inside of me the poet's flame had gone out long ago.
Out in the harbor, yachts are swaying, very much like my steps as I stand up and walk over toward my bed. The sea breeze filters in from the open French windows, and I reach out to shut them securely before returning to my cot. I'll just have a little rest. Pitching the last potato chip far over to the curtains, I buy another moment of shut-eye as Payne sets out to retrieve the salty prize.
* * *
Waking to the sound of laughter I see my brother-in-law, Doug, through the slits of my eyes. He is shaking his head.
"Doug!" my sister objects, silencing her husband. I watch as Heidi makes a beeline over to my bed.
"Well she is. She's smashed!" my brother-in-law points out. He's had a few drinks himself, and is ripe for an argument.
Heidi ignores him, kneeling down to have a closer look at me. Strings of pearls glimmer as the moon shines into the room reflecting off my sister. She looks so beautiful in a colorful silk dress. Her bright red lips are quizzing me.
Instead of answering, I'm shoulding: I should wear color, instead of black. I should buy some red lipstick! I should not have drunk those airline samplers!
The scent of Shalimar, our mother's favorite perfume, tickles the inside of my nose. I should buy a bottle of Mom's perfume, too! I think of our mother, who lives an ocean away, in Yelapa, Mexico. We haven't spoken for ages. There are no telephones in the jungle.
"Why are there potato chips on the floor?" Heidi's tone is part curiosity, part impatience. Her wheat-colored hair falls down her back, in waves. Doug tugs on a lock of it as he walks past to open the window.
"Smashed!" he declares.
A brisk stream of air rushes in to the hotel suite. A storm is brewing on the horizon and giant waves coming in from the sea are capped in white.
Suddenly the scent of my sister's perfume and the salty breeze sobers me. I sit up in bed as my eyes dart around the room searching for my 9-month-old nephew!
Payne's diaper is peeking out from the curtains, where he has finally managed to reach the last potato chip. My brother-in-law bends down, sweeping up the giggly baby. Plucking a few soggy morsels from Payne's lips, he offers his son a tender kiss followed by a mock scolding, "No more beer chips for you, Little Guy!"
"Not beer, it's vodka!" Heidi says, picking up an upended flask.
"Ah... Mother's Little Helper!" Doug chirps.
My brother-in-law's "drink teasing" always makes me wince. But it was true, after chasing children all day, I found it extremely relaxing at night to have a glass or two of wine--until I discovered vodka.
My stomach began to knot as I looked over at my sister. I hated to disappoint her and her husband, after they had generously offered me this retreat. And here I was tossing chips to an infant! It was so ironic, so out of character for me, the mother who insisted on nursing her own son for over a year. And to think, when friends so much as offered a fingerful of whipped cream to my own son, I freaked out. Only mother's milk would do for 12 month old child! But potato chips for my sweet nephew?
I heard my brother-in-law in the bathroom, changing Payne's diapers. His words echoed my thoughts:
"Mother's Helper! Your aunt had a little bit of Mother's helper tonight," he sang, tossing the diaper in the trash. Next he reached for a towel to begin cleaning the potato chips off the floor. He was more amused than angry. Payne was okay, he assured me. No harm done.
But what about my sister? What must she be thinking!
Looking me in the eyes Heidi shook her head and I felt my heart sink. That was it. I'd done it this time! I should have stayed home.
Heidi plucked up the bag of chips, reaching in, ever so gracefully, for the last one. Tasting it, she shook her head once again.
"Italian chips suck," she said, reaching over to ruffle my hair. "Couldn't you have at least bought American?"
* * *
Postnote: Ultimately, I decided not to go forward with the memoir. Here are two posts that hint at why:
1. L'Enjeu est Grand (The Stakes are High)
2. Le Piege (The Trap)
Chapters: click on the following links to read the other episodes
The opening quote, from the French 17th century thinker Fenelon, is from this book that gives me so much comfort and direction.
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