Each year when I returned from Italy after completing our tours, I would visit my parents who were getting older. When I would speak to my mother about the trip, she would always ask me, “Did you visit Assisi?” to which I would reply, “No Ma, not this year.” You see, for Catholics Assisi is kind of a spiritual Ground Zero, the place of a great man who became a saint and worked for the people.
St. Francis came from a wealthy family. He could have had anything he wanted in life. Instead, he dedicated his life and vocation to helping others in his world that had little or nothing.
I didn’t quite understand the draw to Assisi, that Catholics, and all people, have had over the centuries, until the day I finally visited the town. It’s located about two hours south of Florence in the town we host our guests on our tours. In 2015, my girlfriend, Frannie, and I had planned to visit a friend who rents a villa in Tuscany each year. Their little town is located not far from Assisi, so Frannie suggested we visit the town of St. Francis, her namesake.
When we arrived, and found a parking spot in one of the large garages, I thought, “Wow! There must be quite a few people that come here considering the size of the garages cut into the rock.” They have built these large garages for visiting tourists with cars. Then, when we parked and started our adventure on foot, I realized just how many people come to see the town of St. Francis. We were well past Italy’s peak season in October, and yet there were thousands of people on that day doing just what we were doing.
We walked through the town and when we reached the cathedral a sensation came over us, similar to the feeling I had experienced when I first saw the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.
From the top of the hill from which we were standing, viewing the church, we could see a row of people in line waiting to enter the cathedral. Dozens of people sought the opportunity to touch the tomb of St. Francis. The tomb is located in the old church below the cathedral.
When it was our turn to enter the church, we stopped to visit one of the padres who was there taking requests for masses for loved ones. I thought of my mother. For many years, she had had this sense of hope for me to visit this beautiful place, which she had done many years ago. We made the arrangements and then continued on to the basement. With my hand holding Frannie’s, we both experienced a peaceful and tranquil feeling as we quietly stood in line for our turn.
The elusive visit to Assisi, the little town for years my mother had asked if I had visited, was one of my greatest experiences during my travels throughout Italy. As we walked back through town to find a little place for lunch, we were looking for just the right gift to bring home for my mother. There was an old man working his craft as a jeweler in a little studio no bigger than a walk-in closet. Without speaking any English, he invited us in. There, we gazed at a variety of rosaries he had crafted. In his tiny creative nest, we searched for a flawless rosary to bring Mom. Then, I found it: a perfect rosary. I hoped it would bring back that vibe both Frannie and I had received from this beautiful place.
That same year, one day while our Tuscan villa guests were out for the day doing their tour, I was back in the kitchen preparing for that night’s dinner. It was a beautiful time in the villa; so, quiet and peaceful. I enjoy so much being in the kitchen, preparing food for our guests. I thought it would be nice to FaceTime my parents and was able to connect with my mother. I propped my phone on the table and we talked for a while, as I continued to work. It was like she was with me, in Tuscany, together creating the day’s meal for our guests. The days of travel for my parents had long past. Oh, how much I would have loved to have them visit Italy with me, especially Sicily! But, today’s technology provided the next best thing: a loving conversation with my mother.
I remember how worried I was that year if something might’ve happened to my mom while I was in the middle of our tours. But, it was as if she waited for me to return home. In November, I visited my parents for a week. Although my mom clearly had seemed to decline since the last time I saw her early summer, she still sat at the dinner table where she had allowed me to prepare her meals, then she retired to bed early.
When I arrived later that year in November, one night before dinner, I gave Mom the rosary. She smiled and began to cry. I can’t help but believe she knew that she would leave this family on earth, and return to that peaceful place called Assisi.
I had arranged to visit again shortly after Thanksgiving Day. However, that early November visit proved that my mother’s condition had greatly deteriorated. So, I went right before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, those meals that I had prepared during my last visit would be the last time I would have cooked for my mother. For Thanksgiving, the family came to my parents’ home. I had orchestrated the full traditional meal. We had set up a makeshift dining room and the living room to be close to mom’s bedroom. We all took turns visiting her as she laid in her bed, too weak to come to the table, too weak to even eat. We didn’t know that we were saying goodbye.
The following day hospice visited, so we could learn what was next and how we could help our mother. That night, I dragged a little mattress into her room and slept on the floor beside her bed. I couldn’t sleep so I sang to her as she slept. I struggled to sleep that night and when I finally did a few hours later, I woke to hear the silence in the room. Mom had passed, no doubt hand-in-hand with St. Francis.
My sister, Frances, suggested I place that rosary in mom’s hands for her funeral. She then recommended I take it with me. When I returned to Tuscany the following year, I placed the rosary just above the light switch by the door. Although mom is no longer there for me to FaceTime with, she was there! Each morning when I reached for the light to make the morning coffee, and each night after the staff finished serving our guests, as I turned off the light and retired for the night, Mom was with me.
The connection I had with my mother’s cooking is what helped me heal from the loss. I will forever be thankful for my mom’s persistent to make sure I visited the little town where St. Francis lived.