My daughter and I tumbled out our front door onto the dark steep alley of Chiasso del Bargello, late as usual. Our apartment windows faced the piazza, but our door, at Number 7, opened on a side alley just wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Pigeons cooed above us. Their guano splashed our front door and had once hit me on the shoulder. I looked up to see a swath of bright blue sky.
We were in our second month of a five-month stint living on the main piazza of Siena, one of Tuscany’s medieval cities. My husband, nine-year-old daughter, and I had moved here to chaperone 25 students on a semester-abroad from the college where he teaches in Portland, Oregon.
"Hand!" my daughter yelled from our threshold. I grabbed her small, warm palm and she adjusted it in mine until she liked the way it felt: not too tight, not too loose.
As we hiked past Number 6, about twenty feet from our door, we glimpsed a caged skeleton hanging in the dark window of the “Museo della Tortura.” My daughter’s fingers squeezed mine tight. A torture museum? We walked faster.
Bright wool scarves and hats glowed from the windows of the next shop, Il Telaio, before we bumped into Via di Citta, a stone street lined with ancient castles and just wide enough for mini trucks to pass. Cars were prohibited in the old city except for taxis, delivery trucks, pint-size buses, and scooters.
Back in Oregon, my daughter hadn't held my hand since second grade. One morning on our walk down Southeast Rex Street to Duniway Elementary School she shook her hand free. Assuming she’d dropped it accidentally, I took it again, clasping it a little tighter. She shook harder.
I didn’t reach for it again. My empty hand hung at my side, the shock of cool air on my moist palm. A couple of times after that I offered my hand but she rejected it with a firm “No.” Without explanation, she was done holding my hand.
In Italy, on those morning walks to school, when the skeleton or the traffic scared her hand back into mine, I felt how much I had missed her hand. From the monkey grip of infancy to the gnawing on my knuckles as she teethed, to the firm grasp of her six-year-old self, I loved the feel of her small, warm palm pressed against mine.
On that half-mile walk to school, we passed Tabacchis, which sold cigarettes, candy, and postcards, a music school, the post office, an alcove of public telephones, a grocery store, fruit markets, a ceramics shop, a store specializing in everything Pinocchio, a butcher, baker, bookbinder, and windows of colored pasta, bottles of olive oil, and hairy pigs’ legs.
Sometimes I think, as a mother, I shouldn't enjoy her hand in mine. I don’t want to admit that mothering her makes me feel useful. And sometimes even invincible. Clasping her hand, I delivered her across busy streets and eased her over puddles. Our hands locked, I felt I could save her from anything.
Secretly, I thanked the loud scooter, the pushy truck drivers, and even the skeleton for scaring my daughter’s hand back into mine. And there was something else: Handholding seemed a pastime in Italy. It wasn’t something to grow out of. I watched fourth-grade boys hold hands as they walked down a school hallway and grown-up girlfriends and mothers and daughters stroll arm-in-arm down the street.
As we walked the stone roads of Siena, I always let my daughter decide if we would hold hands. As much as I longed for her hand, I knew it had to be up to her, this holding, this letting go. I knew once we were stateside, she wouldn’t reach for my hand anymore.
Our feet stomped mini-pies of pigeon guano and we dodged squished dog doo as we continued up Via di Citta our palms pressed together. Italian drivers aren’t afraid of pedestrians; they don’t mind pressing up next to you. If you hesitate for an instant, they squeeze in front of you. Clutching my daughter’s hand, I played chicken with them: If we go, they stop for us. If they go, we stop. When there was a crowd of us, the truck eased into the throng like a boat floating into reeds. Either we got out of the way, or we would be crushed. Sometimes we hid in doorways or stood pressed up against the stone castles as small vans skimmed my chest or threatened to crush the tips of my shoes.
Within a block of her school, my daughter wriggled her hand free. A policeman in a white hat that looked like an overturned flowerpot stopped traffic with outstretched arms.
"Buongiorno!" I said as we crossed in front of him, pleased that I could melt the sound of the B into the W sound of the U at the beginning of that word.
Two women who worked in the school office greeted children at the door. The rule was that parents dropped children at the door but my daughter liked an escort right to her classroom. We slithered past the women with a "Buongiorno" for each of them and they never stopped me. In Italy, everyone gets a greeting, even if you’re slithering past them.
If we arrived late, the policeman would be gone, the street deserted, and the three giant doors leading into the school locked tight. I pushed a high brass button and listened for a ring. Within a minute, a woman, sometimes kind, sometimes curt, opened the massive door. She snatched my daughter by the hand. I was definitely not invited in. They both disappeared.
I didn’t retrace my steps but walked away up Via Ettore Bastianini so I could gaze over the wall of the old city and onto miles of Tuscan landscape: gentle green hills, golden hues, almost purple sky. It was as beautiful as the movies, as paintings, as all the Tuscan calendars I'd ever seen. I felt both relief and longing. I was happy to have some time to myself and sad my daughter’s hand was no longer in mine.
At 4:30 p.m. I huddled with the other parents and grandparents at the three enormous doors of Saffi Elementary. I searched for my daughter’s face in the dirty school windows of the staircase and when I spotted her figure in that purple coat, I waved and she smiled. Four-hundred children attended Saffi, and none were released until each child’s teacher made eye contact with the parent or pre-approved escort.
Her teacher, Isabella, was a young, dark-eyed beauty with a row of perfect small white teeth and wavy dark hair. She grasped each child by the shoulders, put her face at their level, and scanned the crowd. When her eyes spotted the parent, she released her grip and the child flew away.
Finally, my daughter was in Isabella's clutch. Isabella scanned the crowd, locked eyes with me, nodded, and released her. My daughter, in her little sneakered feet, ran down the step toward me, happy to be free.
Our first stop was Bini, the bakery near the Piazza delle Due Porte in the same building where the famous artist Duccio painted during the Renaissance. We bought butter cookies cut in the shapes of leaves and dipped in chocolate.
Sometimes Mauro Bini, the son, or Mauro’s father, Enzo Bini, waited on us but today it was Mauro’s mother, an elderly woman with big, coiffed gray hair.
“Dica me,” she said, the polite form of “dimmi” my favorite Italian expression meaning “tell me.” I heard this word often as I passed people on the street in Siena. One person would say: “Ascolta.” Listen. And the friend’s answer would follow like an echo: “Dimmi tutti.” Tell me everything.
Even the words Italians spoke invited you to press up close.
Mauro’s mother wrapped our cookies in pink paper tied with a golden ribbon as if they were a birthday present. As we ate our treat, a noisy scooter rounded the bend. My daughter grabbed my hand and we walked the stone road home.
Photo by Michael Broide