Up in the Air
I first stepped on an airplane in my late teens, when I flew from New York to Missouri for college. From then on, I flew all over the country to visit friends I’d made in that college: Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Spokane.
Then my friends began to expand their reach. Three of them flew to China to work for Xinhua, the government-supported news agency. One flew to Vietnam to ride a motorcycle with her boyfriend. Others flew to Venice and Vienna, Paris and Pamplona.
I worked, raised kids, and vacationed, every so often, in Martha’s Vineyard or the Jersey shore.
But I never once set a step off this continent. The ribbons of responsibility kept me here, in my homeland, yearning to see more.
I wanted to see where Caesar walked. I wanted to see where Michelangelo painted. I wanted to see where the hunchback of Notre Dame lived, even if he existed only in Victor Hugo’s imagination.
I wanted this for my children, and I wanted it for myself.
In sophomore year of high school, my daughter flew for two weeks to France for a school trip. My eldest son, four years later, flew to Moscow for a college semester abroad. My next son flew to Florence for a semester abroad. When it was over, he flew throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
I drove them to airports, hugged them before they piled onto planes, watched them race down the runway and float into the air, away from me. I went back home, back to work, back to the business of paying bills, never having enough to go anywhere but the grocery store. With four kids, even that was a financial risk.
I knew the days were passing; I knew my knees were getting achy. A person needs knees to travel.
One day I put my foot down, so to speak. When I turn 50, I said, I am going to Rome. The people I loved looked up from what they were doing – a son from his computer, my husband from the newspaper – and then looked down again. Sure, I heard them saying to themselves. Sure.
At 49, I began checking fares. I began reading the N.Y. Times Travel section, to figure out how to get the cheapest ones. I was only buying one ticket, after all.
At 49 and a half, I sat down one day at the breakfast table and said to my husband, I’ve researched fares and I’ve settled on this one. I’m buying it. Here are the dates I’m going.
This time he put down the paper. What? He said. You’re serious?
All of a sudden, wheels were moving. I, my husband, and two kids were now going. One day, we heard from a friend who was planning to be in Rome at the same time we were. Did we want to stay with him and his girlfriend and respective children at her villa in Umbria? Did we want to stay in his apartment in Florence while he visited Rome?
Was he kidding?
We flew to Italy. We ate and drank out every night. We turned into random churches – a Rafael there, a Michelangelo here, an Ecstasy of St. Teresa over there, how is this possible? – and touched the crumbling concrete of the Colosseum.
I wanted to go to the Vatican, I said. Not so much because I was raised Catholic. Not so much because I wanted a glimpse of the Pope. Not so much because the Vatican is this massive, famous building jam-packed with history and art and I wanted to be sure I breathed the air of it.
I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel.
To my two younger boys who accompanied us, the trip was a vacation. For my husband, it was a repeat of a world tour he had taken when he finished college. For me, though, traveling to distant lands was an opening into a new world – a world about which I had read for years in books, in newspapers, in National Geographic, a world that lived in photos and descriptions by others. Over the years, friends would say, ‘Don’t go here or there.’ And I would respond, ‘I want to be able to say that. I want to be able to say, oh, don’t go to Venice. It’s drowning.’ Or whatever.
We walked into the crowd of the Sistine Chapel, as jammed as a pre-pandemic Monday morning at Grand Central Station. I froze in place, breathless, ecstatic, enthralled. I envisioned the mystery of Michelangelo painting upside down. I gazed at the chapel ceiling and felt the weight of it; the extraordinariness; the majesty. I wondered who had to clean up all the paint he dropped on the floor.
Tears rolled down my cheeks.
My sons saw this and moved quickly away from me. Mothers can be so embarrassing. My husband was off in a corner, viewing a fresco. Other visitors glanced sideways, shrugged, moved on. I stood in the center of the room, eyes upward, weeping from years of wishing. Salt tears trickled down the sides of my face onto my white cotton sweater, where they left watery dots.
Through the entire Vatican, I cried into a tissue a sympathetic woman handed me in passing. And that was how I was the rest of the trip, a watery mush awash in tears, a weepy tribute to wanderlust unleashed. Escaped. Overflowing. Joyous.
As soon as I can get on a plane, I’m out of here.
Think about your first time on a plane, and what that experience was like: the sights, the sounds, the smells. If you could go anywhere safely, where would you go? Write about why you want to go there. Share your thoughts with someone; if you have been or are a participant in the Candlelight Writing Workshops, send your work to me. I’d like to read it.