By Thomas Glanville
Published June 8, 2018
On December 7, 2003, I married Lorraine, my fourth wife and we spent our honeymoon on the ship, Pride of America, cruising around the Hawaiian Islands. When we arrived back home, there was a letter from my son David waiting for us. Inside the envelope was a vinyl map of the world with an arrow lying on top. His message said that we were to tape the pointer to the map at a place in the world that we wanted to visit, and wherever that was; he would send us there. At first, we thought maybe Africa or England, but after we saw the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun”, we chose to go to Tuscany, Italy. We called David and told him our choice. He said, “Since we had to stop in Paris anyway, we should spend at least five days in Paris, and he would make all of the arrangements. He told each of us, “Only bring a backpack, a small carry on, black shoes, and dark clothes. Although you love America and T-Shirts, you don’t want to look like a tourist.”
David called back a couple of hours later and said, you’re booked into Paris with a four-hour layover in Detroit. Then, five days later you’re on a flight to Milan, Italy for ten days in a beautiful villa. We thanked him profusely. That evening I said to Loraine. “Maybe we could get my old friend John to meet us at the Hotel next to the Detroit airport and have a long lunch with us. I haven’t seen him and the kids in years.” Lorraine said, “Sure, that sounds like fun, call him.” I did, and John and Rose were excited to hear from me and couldn’t wait to see us. We agreed to meet at the Airport Hilton around three o’clock.
After a ten-hour, red-eye from Honolulu, we landed at Detroit-Metro and walked over to the Hilton. John and Rose were waiting for us in the lobby. We had lunch at the Hotel café and laughed and joked about old times when we used to work together.
I reminded him of the time he told me his house was getting too small for his growing family and he couldn’t afford to buy a bigger house. They had fifteen kids living at home, two-years-old through mid-twenties. I suggested that instead of looking for another house, he should put a second story on the house he has now. He agreed, and a couple of friends from work and I helped him on weekends and evenings. Two months later it was done.
He told the story about the time he invited me over to his parent’s house in a rough Detroit neighborhood. He wanted me to meet his mom and dad and experience a homemade Mexican dinner. We had a great time, they were wonderful people. When I left to go home, my pickup was up on blocks, and all four wheels were missing. We laughed about it this afternoon, but it sure wasn’t funny then. Two hours later, we said goodbye and returned to the airport.
We landed in Paris, got through customs, and were surprised to see David waiting for us at the airport. He had a taxi waiting to take us to a small hotel. Although we couldn’t check in, we could leave our baggage there, David called a taxi and we took off. I was surprised to see the Eiffel Tower just across the street from us. It looked like a series of steel lace tied together. I’d seen pictures of it, but never thought I’d be here staring at it. We took the elevator to the top of the Tower. Wow! What a view of Paris we had from there. We took the elevator down a few decks to a restaurant where we had lunch.
After a delicious lunch, David took us to a fancy chocolate shop in the neighborhood where he often shopped for paintings and all kinds of things. We bought a box of candy and munched on it during the subway ride to the famous Musee du Louvre. It was just across the street where we were staying. I held my camera high and took a picture of the Mona Lisa over the heads of a large group of tourists viewing her picture. The attendant yelled at me, “No photos are allowed!” We had a snack in the museum’s café and returned to our hotel.
David told us not to wear sneakers only black walking shoe and black clothes. Do not wear t-shirts or shorts that say “I Heart the USA”. Lorraine wore shoes she said looked like nun shoes. They were great for walking but she did not like them. The first nun she saw with shoes just like hers, they were off, and she bought some sexy red strapped shoes.
When we look in any store windows, we were not to lean or put our hands on the glass. The two things not to do was a sure sign you were a tourist. In France, I guess you do not want to look like a tourist. Just one look at me and you could sure tell I was a tourist.
David and Lorraine wanted to go to the bottom floor of the museum. Not me, I said. “I will just look around down here on the first floor.” Just people watching was fun. The bottom line for me; I did not like Paris very much.
After a five day stay in Paris, it was time to move on to Italy. We showed the customs officer our passports upon landing in the small Italian airport. He asked, “Where are the rest of your bags?”
“There is nothing else!”
“You came from America, and that is all you have? Get outta here!”
The lady at the rental car place had our car and a map waiting for us when we cleared customs. She also gave us explicit directions on how to get to the village of Greve and Le Maurice street, where the two-hundred-year-old villa, Le Maurice, was located. Lorraine selected it because it seemed to have a fascinating history. It was also recommended by the young couple who owned a ‘Make Your Own Wine” store in Kailua. They had just returned from their honeymoon there.
When we arrived at the villa’s gate, I rang the bell, and the two brothers, Elio and Gian Piero, the owners, welcomed us. After petting their dogs and engaging in some welcoming chatter, we asked, “Can you show us our rooms.”It was located just off the patio on the ground floor. It had a large common area, bedroom, and bath, as well as a small kitchen. The furnishings were elegant, and there was a vase of beautiful flowers from their garden on the table. We unpacked and settled in and relaxed. A couple of hours later, refreshed, we went exploring. There were spring flowers in bloom everywhere and the trees were just starting to bud. There was a large vineyard down in the valley, which we planned to visit in a day or two. That evening we sat in the garden and watched a colorful sunset and went to bed tired from our journey.
The first night the old bed had some silk type of sheets on it. We had just gotten in bed and when we pulled the sheet and blanket up we heard a big rip. We looked and the top sheet had a large rip in it. In the morning Lorraine said she had to tell the guys we ripped their sheet. She took out the book with English an Italian words. When she got to the word that meant rip was on a word that meant broke. We went to breakfast on the first morning she gave the note to Elio He could not figure out what the note said. The French lady who was staying there said,”Let me look.” She looked it over said, “The newlyweds broke the sheet.” Everyone clapped. It took me awhile to get Lorraine out from under the table.
At five-thirty, the sun, which was just peeking over the hill, woke me up. After a few minutes, I got up, leaving Lorraine to sleep in late. I grabbed a banana, a bottle of water and left a note saying that I had gone for a walk. Outside it was bright and cold, around fifty degrees, with dew on the vegetation and a light mist hanging over the valley. I left the villa behind and walked up the road, which got steeper as I climbed.
There was a plethora of wildflowers, mostly poppies, on both sides of the narrow, winding road. If I stopped and peered up the occasional, long cobblestone driveways, I could see the tile roofs of a few homes here and there, which were set way back off the road. Several of the houses had ancient masonry religious shrines with a picture of some lady and a baby where the driveways met the street. I called these pictures “An Italian mama and baby.”, There were dusty artificial flowers in some of them.
About a half-mile up the road, there was what appeared to be, an abandoned driveway with a big mound of weed-covered dirt blocking its entrance. The weeds were almost as tall as me, but if I pushed them aside with a stick, I could make out a good sized, red adobe cross. It was mounted on top of some kind of a masonry structure, which I couldn’t make out. The cross was nearly four-foot-high, and it leaned severely to the right. I wondered, what it was a part of, and why was it in this empty field? I snapped a picture of it and moved on.
A short way farther up the road, there was an ancient stone building that turned out to be the local winery. Its stone walls were covered with flowering vines. There were a dozen stone steps, which were built into the wall, leading to the top of the wall. I’d seen enough for one morning and decided I had best get back to the villa, Lorraine would be up soon. As I passed the abandoned driveway where I discovered the cross, I decided to return the next day to investigate further. I wondered, What else of interest was behind all those weeds and debris?
After breakfast, Lorraine and I drove to the little village of Grave. It sported a good sized, town square, which featured a church at one end, several non-descript stores, a bakery and a sidewalk cafe at the other end of the square with two and three-story apartments flanking the square. We bought a large loaf of olive bread and a hunk of cheese at the bakery for supper that night and took off to discover what we could find in the area. We followed the road east for several miles, but there was little of interest except for vineyards and farmland.
The next morning, I was up again at the break of dawn. I left a note, grabbed something to munch on and walked up to the winery. When I reached the cross, I stopped and stared at it. I couldn’t figure out why it was there, and what it was mounted on. When I reached the winery, I turned around and headed back to the villa. When I got to the old driveway in front of the cross, I looked to see if anyone was coming. I was alone, so I walked around the pile of dirt and stepped over the chain blocking the driveway.
When I flattened the tall grass, I could make out what looked like an old brick structure with this cross on top. I was curious, so I made my way over to it. It was like a shrine of some kind, about eight-foot-square, and ten-foot high.I looked in it and found a painting of an Italian mama, her baby and two angels on the back wall. The top half of the picture was in fair condition, but the bottom part was faded from the sun. There was an old mason jar laying in front of the painting or print; I couldn’t tell which. I wondered who built the shrine and why they would let this once beautiful structure fall into ruin like this? I cleaned up the interior of the shrine, tidied up the area around it, and piled all the trash up behind the bushes.
When I got back to the villa, I told Lorraine what I had found. She asked, “What was it that attracted you to it, and what motivated you to clean the place up?” I thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know.”
When I got up, I walked up to the winery as usual. When I got as far as the shrine, I entered the property and stood there looking at it for a long time before continuing on to the winery. On the way back, I picked some wildflowers and arranged them in the mason jar, which I had cleaned out, and filled from my water bottle. I also cleaned off the plastic cover protecting the painting from the elements. I thought, Why in the heck am I doing this? This is the first shrine I had ever seen. Loraine was right. Why am I attracted to it, returning again and again, cleaning it up, and even putting fresh flowers before the painting? I still didn’t have the answer to that. After breakfast, we took a long aimless drive. When we came to a road crossing, Loraine would say, “I wonder where that leads to?” I’d respond, “I don’t know, let’s find out. After a few miles, we ran into some horseback riders that waved us down. They ask where is so an so place. We told them “We don’t know, and furthermore, we don’t know where we are.”
A few miles further we came to what looked like an old castle. The roof had caved in and some of the stone stairs had fallen. There was a big cross that seemed like someone had put there after the castle had crumbled. We could see that the road continued on across the hills for miles. We hung around for a while then headed back to the villa. Before we left, I stood on top of the hill with my arms in the air just like in the Sound of Music.
On our fourth day in Tuscany, I woke up early and walked up to the winery as usual. On my return, I picked a handful of the many flowers of all kinds and colors that were everywhere. When I got to the shrine, I stopped and put the fresh flowers in the mason jar, and remained for a while, wondering why this shrine had me hooked. Was it because we were both old? When I returned to the road, I heard the sound of a motor scooter and stepped off to the side to allow an old man on a motorbike to pass me. I waved good morning to him, and he waved back. A few moments later, an old lady following him on her scooter rounded the curve. I waved at her also, but she gave me a dirty look and continued on.
That afternoon, we went to the market. When we entered the produce area, I saw a notice that stated we had to put on the gloves that were furnished before picking up any fruit or vegetables. I thought that was odd. A lady told us, “Whatever you pick up you can not put back down.” In other words, you touch it, you bought it. We bought lettuce and other things to make a salad and put them in bags. I walked around the aisles looking for salad dressing, and yelled at Lorraine, ”I wonder where the salad dressing is at?” Suddenly the store went silent, and a French lady said very loud “You can take the American out of America but can’t take the American out of them”.
We just smiled and put our purchases on the checkout counter. The clerk at the register started yelling at us in Italian. We didn’t know what he was all excited about until Someone in line behind us said we were supposed to have weighed the things we bought, selected the picture of the item on the screen, and applied the barcode sticker that popped up to the bag. He led us over to the produce scale babbling in Italian, then he asked in broken English, “Where you from?” Lorraine said, “Hawaii.” He smiled and said, “Oh, okay!” As we left the store, everyone clapped. It seemed we were the show for the day.
I slipped out of our room without waking Loraine and headed up the road. I heard the old man’s scooter coming, so I stopped and waited. When he came around the corner, I waved, and he waved back. The old lady was not too far back, I waved at her and just got the same dirty look. I thought if she came by tomorrow, I’d give her a Shaka, the Hawaiian sign for hello and thank you. I walked to the winery and again on the way back I picked some flowers for the shrine. On the way back to the villa I was thinking about the old lady and how I could make her wave or even smile. I wondered if the Shaka sign could possibly mean something dirty in Italy.
After breakfast, we went for a drive. We turned onto the road that meandered up towards the mountains and soon encountered a traffic sign indicating a one lane road ahead. When the light changed, we could continue up that section of road, but the cars coming down had to wait for us. About a half mile up the road, when we made a sharp turn to the left and then to the right, We notice there were people putting up tents in a church parking lot. We found a place to park and learned they were setting up for a big wine tasting event. We followed a brick driveway around to the back of the church where the local wineries were setting up tables in front of a long row of apartments. There were eleven tables holding bottles with signs describing the types of wines and the wineries they were from.
We walked over to the signup tent where some people were standing around. I paid the fee and they gave us two glasses with ribbons attached to put around our necks. The street was soon filled with happy people. Lorraine met a woman who spoke English, they talked for several minutes and decided to go around to the different tables together and sample the wine. That was fine with me and I said, “See you gals later.”
I walked around for a couple of hours and checked out the other tables on which were displayed local artwork and all kinds of things for sale. I needed a restroom, but I couldn’t find one anywhere close by. I entered a cafe on the corner and asked if I could use the restroom. The owner said, “No way, my friend, but if you make a reservation for lunch you can use it.” I made a lunch reservation and returned to where Loraine and her new friend were wine tasting. It was 12 o’clock, lunchtime when I found them sitting at a table sampling wine. If I had waited any longer I would have to pull them to the cafe in a wagon. Most folks smell the wine, swirl around in their mouths and spit it out. Their motto was if it goes in their mouth, it goes down, not out. We had a great lunch and headed back to the villa.
Our sixth morning here was misty and overcast. On the way back from the winery I picked some flowers and again stopped at the shrine. While I was there, something came over me, and I felt compelled to dismantle the shrine, and number the bricks so I could reassemble it on my return to Hawaii. When I returned to the road at the usual hour, I waited for the scooters to pass me. When I heard the sound of a motorbike coming down the hill, I smiled in anticipation. However, I was surprised when the old lady rounded the curve without the old man. I thought maybe he got up late or wasn’t working today. I gave her the shaka sign, and I was rewarded with a big toothy smile and a happy wave. It worked! When I got back to the villa, I told Lorraine I was thinking about bringing the shrine to Hawaii. She smiled and said, “You must be crazy! That would be a huge job. Have you figured out what the attraction is?” I told her, “Maybe part of it is, I just can’t let it fall into ruins, and it’s a shame that no one is taking care of it?”
Day seven, I went to the winery as usual. As I was about to turn around, I changed my mind and continued on to explore. The road had some big curves in it. The boys at the villa told me that walking through the narrow curves was dangerous. The cars and trucks drive way too fast. Although they toot their horns going into the curves, it can be hazardous.
Just then I heard honking. I stepped off the road, and a few seconds later a car came around the curve and passed me, at a fast speed. I could hear the sound of a big rig, blowing its air horn, as it entered the curve. I stepped onto the edge of the road to get out of the way. I looked down the steep bank at a grove of olive trees and grape vines in the valley below. As the truck approached me, it appeared that its oversize mirrors might clip me. I leaned hard against the cable guardrail, and the truck passed safely
With my weight against the old cable, it snapped, and I tumbled head first. I landed face down into a clump of tall weeds and thorns, which stopped my fall into the valley thirty feet below. At first, I was afraid to move, for fear of plummeting further into the valley below, but I knew I had to do something. As I wiggled and squirmed into the fetal position, the thorns dug into my head, arms, and shoulders. When I managed to roll over on my back, I spotted the end of the cable close by and grabbed it. I pulled myself out of the thorns and got my head pointed towards the edge of the road. I got up on my knees, and half dragged, half crawled back up to the side of the road.
I was so happy to be safe, I almost forgot that I had left a big red rose for Lorraine behind in the thorns. I said, “I picked that rose for Lorraine and I am not going back without it.” I grabbed the cable and slowly repelled off the hill to reclaim the rose. Back up on the road, I brushed off the leaves, twigs, and thorns and headed for the villa.
On the way back I picked some flowers to put in the jar in the Shrine.
When I got back to the villa, Lorraine exclaimed, “What happened to you? What a sight you are. You have grass in your hair, grass stains on your ripped shirt and trousers and thorns sticking to your clothes.” I gave her the rose and told her the story. She giggled and said, “You should look in the mirror before we go anywhere. I did and had shower and change clothes before going for a drive.
I got up at 5 a.m. grabbed a water bottle and a cookie and walked up to toward the winery. The old man and lady drove by on their scooter. I waved and they both waved back with a smile. I plucked some flowers and stopped at the shrine and cleaned up around and inside it. I knew we had only a couple of days left here. I considered taking just one brick if I couldn’t take them all. I searched the clearing, but none were lying about, nor were there any loose ones on the structure.
I returned to the villa, after breakfast we drove to one of the nearby walled cities. By the time we got there and parked, we were in need of a restroom. There was this odd-looking metal structure that looked like a spaceship in the center of the parking lot. As we approached it, a door opened, and an elderly couple stepped out. The door closed behind them, and we heard what sounded like a fan, and a pump turning on, followed by the sound of water. When the noise stopped, I could smell the sweet smell an air freshener.
The couple told us it was a restroom and you had to pay to use it. We followed the instructions and put in the coins. The door open and I said, “Ladies first.” The couple interrupted, and told me, “You can both go in together, it’s quite big inside. When we entered, the lights came on, and the door closed and locked. There was a stainless-steel toilet with no seat. I repeated, “Ladies first.” Loraine responded, “No, you go first.” When it was her turn, she sat on the toilet. and exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, it’s cold, and hey, where is the toilet paper?” I told her, “There’s a slot on the wall with a sign showing that you flip the lid up and the toilet paper is right there. I heard the toilet flush. When she got up, she asked, “Where do you wash your hands? “I said, “There are two handholes under the picture of a faucet. Put your hands in there.”
“Something just dropped on my hands, what is it?”
“It’s soapy water, wash your hands in it. The rinse water will come on shortly followed by an air dryer.” When we left the contraption, the self-cleaning racket started. We just smiled at the lady waiting outside and explained that the noise was the restroom cleaning itself. as if we knew it all the time.
When we only had two days left in Italy! I got up late, and had breakfast with my sweetheart, instead of walking up to the winery and shrine. When the conversation turned to the shrine, I asked, “What do you think I could take back with me as a remembrance of the shrine?”
“Let’s go to town and buy the perfect flower vase for your shrine. Then, you pick some particularly beautiful flowers to put in it and leave it there overnight. On our last day here, you retrieve the vase, and we’ll bring it back to Hawaii with us as a memory. That way every time you look at the vase, you’ll think of the shrine.”
On my morning walk, I spotted a bunch of red poppies with a single white one sticking up in the middle, a little higher than the rest. I picked a dozen of them, including the white one, and put them in the memory vase, and placed it at the foot of the painting of the Italian mama and her baby. I cleaned up in and around the shrine again and returned to the villa.
The villa owners invited us, and three other guest couples to share a late dinner with them in their large kitchen on our last night in Italy. I watched Gian make noodles, and Elio cook the main course. There were six bottles of homemade wine on the table, each one a little different, and produced by our hosts. There were several kinds of bread to choose from, and a simple salad dressed with olive oil of course. The other couples were from different countries, but we all seemed to understand each other well enough. It was a splendid dinner and a wonderful last evening in Italy. Later during the night, about three a.m., a thunderous clap of thunder shook the villa, lightning lit up the sky, and the rain poured down in buckets. It lasted at least an hour or so.
I got up at five am as usual. Grabbed a snack and some water and went off to walk to the winery for the last time. It was another misty morning after the storm, and everything smelled fresh and earthy. I said my goodbye to the winery and threw the old man and old lady a kiss as they zoomed by on their scooters.
When I got to the shrine, I was alarmed by the mess I found there. The vase had blown over but didn’t break. The white flower lay crushed, dirty and wilted. The picture was askew on the back wall, but not damaged. I cleaned up the mess and put the fresh roses in the mason jar. I knew this is the last time I would be here. I decided to remove the roses from the jar and lay them directly in front of the painting of my Italian Mama and her baby. I had grown close to but still didn’t know the significance of the art, or who painted the picture which I now thought was maybe Mary, Jesus, and the Angels.
I said my goodbyes, gave my shrine a pat and returned to the villa with the vase in time for breakfast. When we were packed, we left our bags on the porch and made a quick trip to the town center to say Aloha to the shopkeepers we had befriended and polish off some fresh olive bread dipped in olive oil at the bakery. When we returned to the villa.
I told Lorraine, “Something tells me I need to return to the shrine once more.”
When I got there, the first thing I noticed was that someone had been here in my brief absence this morning and cut all of the high grass around the shrine and olive trees, revealing a low stone wall that was hidden before. I went over to the wall and sat down a few yards to the left of the shrine. When I gazed at the painting, I was startled to see a third angel painted into the painting that I had never seen before. It was below the mama and looking up at her. This angel was bright and clear unlike the faded painting surrounding it. When I got up and stood directly in front of the shrine, I could no longer see the third angle. I returned to where I was sitting, and there it was again. I did this several times with the same result. I returned to the villa and excitedly told Lorraine what I saw. She asked, “How could that be?” I said, “Come with me. You have to see this.”
We entered the recently cleared courtyard containing the shrine and stood directly in front of the painting. I asked, “How many angels do you see?”
I told her, “Follow me to the stonewall over there and tell me how many angels you see.” Without hesitation, she said, “There is a third angel near the bottom of the painting. Loraine walked back and forth a couple of times and confirmed what she saw. I asked her, Are you sure? You’re not just telling me what you think I want to hear are you?”
“Oh no. I saw it. No question about it. I think that your infatuation with this shrine, and now this, must be some kind of sign from God.”
We returned to the villa in silence thinking about what we just saw, yet not understanding it. It wasn’t just the third angel that baffled us, but it was the whole thing. It was the way I was drawn to the shrine, how my infatuation with it grew stronger every day to the point that I took temporary ownership of it and worked diligently to keep it presentable for the Blessed Mother and Jesus who were portrayed in the painting. Then there was the nasty thunderstorm early this morning that wreaked havoc on the shrine but did little damage other than knocking the painting askew and dumping my memorial vase over. I’m surprised the vase didn’t break, and I wonder why only the single white flower wilted and died? That was certainly strange. And who cleared the courtyard this morning. I haven’t seen any other evidence that anybody had been on the property the entire time we were here.
We loaded our baggage into the rental car and said goodbye to the boys and the dogs. We stopped for lunch in town and then headed for the airport and home. After we had checked in and got our boarding passes, we had a two-hour wait to board the plane. We looked around the gift shop, where Loraine picked up and thumbed through a coffee table book of famous Italian painters. She poked me and exclaimed, “I found it! Thom, I just found it!”
“What did you find?”
“Look at this picture on page nine-eight. This painting is the same one that hangs in your shrine. It says here that it’s a famous painting of the Madonna and child by Filippo Lippi. The original hangs in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence. Look here, “There are only two angels in the painting.”
It was a long flight back to Hawaii with two stops. When we finally got home and settled in, Lorraine picked up our mail at the post office. On the way home, she sorted through the mail and handed me a letter addressed to me. I recognized the address. It was John’s address, my old pal back in Michigan. I told Lorraine that something must have happened to brother John. They had never written us before.
When I opened the letter, it was from Rose. She wrote that John had passed away at nine a.m. on April twelfth. I knew they were very Catholic and had sent all of the kids to Catholic schools, so I decided it would be appropriate if I wrote her about my recent experience at the shrine. I wrote about everything that happened at the shrine in a long letter, leaving nothing out. I pointed out that the time of John’s death was three a.m. where we were in Tuscany, and that was the very hour of the horrendous thunderstorm.
She wrote back that my letter moved her deeply and made her feel better. She just knew that her John was in the arms of the Italian Mama. She added, “You might not believe what I’m about to write, but the day of the funeral I placed fifteen red roses, one for each child, and one white rose for John on his coffin. I am sure that Angel you saw in the painting was John, saying goodbye.”
Now it all seems to make sense why the shrine was calling me. God rest Brother John.
*** The End ***