A Long Journey That Brought Four Lives Together Under an Italian Sun

Wetzel is a free-lance writer living in Palo Alto, Calif . She is the author of a children's book, "Onstage/Backstage" (Carolrhoda, 1987) .

The crowded bus squeezed through the city gates of Florence and jolted to a stop.

An elderly woman pushed her way inside. Her gray hair was pulled tightly into an uncompromising bun. A dark dress covered her matronly figure.

Because she looked about the same age as my mother, I stood up and gave her my seat. A gold tooth flashed as she smiled her thanks at me.

My mother also smiled as I lurched across the aisle of the crowded bus to stand beside her. Age was the only thing that she had in common with the Italian woman. Age and the perspiration that shone on everyone's face.

Mother's white hair was fashionably short, her knit shirt and golfing skirt as distinctly American as my blond pageboy and summer khakis. On a local Italian bus, we looked as out of place as we felt.

Drops of sweat itched new paths down my back as the bus curved around the dusty hills surrounding Florence. Through the windows, the unfamiliar landscape slipped by: small villages, farms, the occasional cemetery with exuberant statues marking the graves.

We didn't talk much.

Any visit to a relative's grave is hard. Even 45 years after the actual death, memories flood back.

It was easier for me. I never knew my father. But my mother was going to visit her husband's grave. She had avoided everything associated with death for as long as I could remember. At 13, she had buried her mother; at 23, her first husband. Weary of the pain of funeral rites, she had not been to a funeral or a grave since.

Neither had I. Yet when I planned to vacation in Europe, I knew I had to go to Italy to visit my father's grave. To my surprise, Mother wanted to come with me.

The American Battle Monuments Commission sent a brochure with directions to the cemetery. They were simple and clear on paper: "Florence Cemetery is located on the west side of Via Cassia, about 7 1/2 miles south of Florence . . . The SITA bus station provides frequent bus service. . . ."

It was easy to find the huge bus station in the center of Florence. But no one could tell us where to catch the bus we needed until a young woman at the tourist information window outside the station managed to locate a bus route to the Via Cassia.

The bus left from a square named Santa Maria Novella, blocks away. So map in hand, we set out to find it. We would have walked past it, if I hadn't remembered the patterned elegance of the church that gave the square its name from a slide I'd seen, long ago, in a college art history class.

Even though the windows of the bus were open, the heat kept rising as the sun drew nearer to the center of the sky. Mother's white hair was beginning to mat to her head.

I reached down and squeezed her shoulder; she patted my hand. I gave the desperate, silent prayer of the traveler who doesn't speak the language: "Please, God, let us be on the right bus."

We kept looking for the unmistakable symmetry of an American military cemetery.

"There is a bus stop conveniently located just outside the gate," the pamphlet had said. But what if the folds of the hills hid the cemetery from view? Where would we end up if we missed it?

We were empty-handed. We'd planned to buy flowers at one of the many flower stands by the bus station, but had been too confused to add another task to our journey.

Firenze . . . what the Italians call Florence, the city of flowers. Few flowers bloomed by the dusty roadside on this hot July day.

My father must have known these hills, this heat. In July of 1944, the U.S. Army had reached the outskirts of Florence as they fought their way north from Rome. He died on the 13th. I was not yet a year old; he was 23. But I had grown older and he had not.

The bus emptied as we drove farther and farther from Florence, but the elderly Italian woman still sat across the aisle in the seat I had given her. I envied her for the comfort of her routine. She knew where she was going.

Maybe she would also know where we were going.

" Cimitero Americano? " I asked her.

She frowned in puzzlement and shook her head with an apologetic smile. She couldn't understand my pronunciation, but our hotel clerk had written down our destination. I handed the paper to her. She read it and looked quickly from me to my mother, then, in a few gestures, indicated that she would tell us when to get off the bus.

There was, after all, little choice. The bus reached the small town at the end of the line and dropped the three of us, the last of its passengers, before it swung off the main road and turned to go back to Florence.

We stood together in the glare of the July sun. Pleasant stucco homes painted in soft pastels lined each side of the road. The woman pointed in the direction the bus had been traveling before it turned, moving her arms to show it was a long walk. She looked troubled.

"Taxi?" The word means the same thing in English and Italian.

So did her answer. " Solo Firenze " (only in Florence).

That was when I noticed Mother angrily wiping her eyes, furious with herself for losing control. With a fierce determination, she set off down the road in the noonday heat.

" Scusi, mio papa . . . " I didn't know enough Italian to say more than "Excuse us, my father . . . " But the woman understood, better than I could. She would have been in her teens or early 20s during World War II. She must have known many men who died too young.

I tried to thank her for her help but she wasn't ready to leave us. She caught up with my mother, motioned us across the street to a pale blue house, and urged us to enter. In that hot, foreign town, she had become our guardian angel. It was impossible not to follow her.

We entered a kitchen--cool, dark and high-ceilinged. A younger woman stood at the counter, fixing lunch. At her mother's quick explanation, she made us welcome.

The four of us--two mothers, two daughters--sat around the kitchen table. A kitchen table is a familiar place. I don't know who began to cry first, my mother or the elderly Italian woman. But as they sat and shared the unspoken pain of their memories, their daughters cried with them.

When the crying stopped, the responsibility for our journey had somehow shifted from us to the two Italian women. They began an urgent discussion that ended only when the daughter got up and left the house. We knew that she was arranging help, but we had no idea what form that help would take, until she returned five minutes later with the joyous sound of car keys jingling in her hand.

It was a short ride to the cemetery, less than 10 minutes by car. They let us out at the gate and my mother and the elderly Italian woman embraced.

They came from two different parts of the world. They could not speak the other's language. They would never see each other again. But they had everything in common. In their youth, they had shared the horrors of a world at war.

Inside the cemetery, everything became easy. Suddenly, we found ourselves on American soil, speaking in English. Everyone was solicitous. As next of kin, we would be driven back to Florence. If only we had called, we could have been picked up at our hotel. The proper grave site was identified and we were driven to it.

Row after row of graves lined the slope of a hillside. The cemetery was arranged with military precision, carefully organized by alphabetical section, neatly bordered with trees. Into each soldier's headstone was carved his name, rank, military unit, home state and the date of his death. The rows of crosses were broken occasionally by the Star of David or the crescent of Islam.

In Section F, Row 9, Grave 35, I met my father for the first time since I was a week old. He lay between a staff sergeant from New York and a Tec 5 from Oklahoma. What journeys they took to reach that spot, I'll never know.

After a few minutes, I walked over and sat down in the shade of one of the tall trees that bordered the graves. My mother needed private time with her memories. I didn't share them, as my father had never been able to share my life.

As I sat there, playing with a blade of grass, I decided to send flowers when I got back to the States. For Christmas and Easter and my father's birthday. I wanted to share them with him.

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